Graduate student contribution

Sewage and Waste Management

Diagram of a flushable toilet from Sir John Harington’s Metamorphosis Upon Ajax (1596), sig. L5r. Image courtesy of LUNA at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Diagram of a flushable toilet from Sir John Harington’s Metamorphosis Upon Ajax (1596), sig. L5r. Image courtesy of LUNA at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
From at least the mid-fourteenth century onward, the threat of improperly disposed waste was a serious—and persistent—concern to royal and civic officials. This concern was motivated by ideology as well as premodern medical theories of disease-transmission. For ideological reasons, civic officials strove to maintain the ideal, divinely ordained social and spatial order within their urban communities. Anyone or anything not in its proper place (whether this was a so-called masterless man or illegally disposed waste) therefore became a target for civic correction and attempted social reform (Jørgensen). In addition to this ideological basis for civic concern, prevalent miasmic and humoral theories also held that putrefying matter (including but certainly not limited to fecal waste of humans and animals) had the power to corrupt the surrounding air. Corrupted air, in turn, was held to be one of many causes of plague outbreaks (Ciecieznski). In fact, the series of waste-management reforms that Edward III initiated during the second half of the fourteenth century seems to have been motivated at least in part by the king’s desire to prevent any further plague outbreaks in the aftermath of the epidemic of 1348 (Sabine).
To assist in the practical implementation of city-cleaning efforts, the mayors and aldermen of English towns and cities instituted a number of localized administrative positions devoted to the cleansing of city streets and waterways. These lower-ranking positions emerged first in London, beginning in the fourteenth century, and had spread to other English towns by the sixteenth century (Sabine; Jørgenson). In London, the Sergeant of the Channels surveyed local streets and lanes to make sure they were kept free of rubbish; he also had the power to fine violators. Beadles, with the aid of Constables, also participated in city-cleaning efforts by urging citizens to adhere to public ordinances and collecting fines associated with failures to comply. Rakers and Scavengers, meanwhile, were charged with physically removing rubbish from streets and transporting it to designated areas beyond the city limits or to designated areas on the banks of Thames, whence the rubbish would be removed by dung-boats (Sabine 22-23). In addition to these public offices, annual wardmote juries were charged with hearing complaints brought by private citizens in matters of sanitation and public nuisances.
Waste-management regulations and city-cleaning efforts in early modern London and other English cities and towns continued regularly, if periodically, in a similar fashion until the seventeenth century, when the severity of punishments for transgressors against waste-management regulations notably increased (Sabine 318). Especially in London, this increased severity was clearly a consequence of the city’s phenomenal population growth and dramatically increased urban density, which placed a corresponding pressure on the urban ecological environment with respect to collective waste disposal. In fact, the modern, principally cloacal connotation of the word sewer actually emerges in the early years of the seventeenth century (Owen 275). The OED links this emergence to the 1605 parliamentary expansion of the Commission of the Sewers under James I to include all non-navigable waterways (ditches, channels, sewers, etc.) within a two-mile radius of the City of London (OED sewer, n.1.2.a). Sabine also notes that the use of cesspools—underground vaults for storing privy waste—increased throughout the seventeenth century in response to growing concern over the public health perils of improperly disposed channel waste (Sabine 318).
This growing public concern is also evident in popular literature from the late-Elizabethan and early-Jacobean periods. Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, which features a conspicuous recurrence of sewage and hazardous waste exposure, dates from the 1590s. According to James Harner, so does the anonymous ballad The Woful Lamentation of Jane Shore (Harner). So, too, does Sir John Harington’s Metamorphosis Upon Ajax, a treatise advocating the widespread use of his newly invented flushable toilet for the benefit of the City of London and other English towns (Jørgenson). Two well-known Jacobean satirists, Thomas Dekker and Ben Jonson, each described the attempted cleansing of early modern London’s principal ditches as a Herculean endeavor. In his 1609 The Gull’s Hornbook, Dekker compared the scowring of Moore-ditch to the cleansing of Augeaes stable (Dekker sig. B4r-B4v), while Jonson invokes Hercules (who undertook the cleansing of those Augean stables) as one of his muses in his On the Famous Voyage (Jonson l.2). Jonson’s poem, which invokes Harington as its other principal muse, depicts a mock-epic journey up the Fleet River/Fleet Ditch, a watercourse lined with privies that speak louder than the ox in Livy and sinks (i.e., open sewers) that pour out their rage against the intrepid travelers (Jonson ll.74-75).
Jonathan Swift’s Description of a City Shower, published nearly one hundred years after Jonson’s mock epic, suggests that the urban problem of excess sewage and improperly disposed waste continued to be a noxious nuisance to civic officials and city residents well into the eighteenth century (Swift). In fact, open sewers continued to be a primary, if also potentially hazardous, means of waste disposal until the mid-nineteenth century, when the Great Stink of 1858 finally prompted the implementation of London’s underground sewer system—the accomplishment of which was a Herculean effort in its own right.


Cite this page

MLA citation

Foley, Christopher. Sewage and Waste Management. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 6.6, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 30 Jun. 2021,

Chicago citation

Foley, Christopher. Sewage and Waste Management. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 6.6. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed June 30, 2021.

APA citation

Foley, C. 2021. Sewage and Waste Management. In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London (Edition 6.6). Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from

RIS file (for RefMan, RefWorks, EndNote etc.)

Provider: University of Victoria
Database: The Map of Early Modern London
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ED  - Jenstad, Janelle
T1  - Sewage and Waste Management
T2  - The Map of Early Modern London
ET  - 6.6
PY  - 2021
DA  - 2021/06/30
CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  -
UR  -
ER  - 

TEI citation

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