Updated: Sep 21, 2020
The row of houses on the north-east end of St Clement’s Street today looks rather genteel. With their classic architecture and pastel-coloured frontages, they conjure up a world of professional Victorian gentlemen – lawyers, perhaps, or doctors, going about their daily work before returning to their parlours full of trinkets and ferns, side tables and family portraits.
In 1881, though, one of these houses was home to Charles Herbert, the night soil man. He collected people’s poo, in short – turning it into manure. Charles described himself not only as a ‘nightman’, but also as a night soil manure manufacturer; the excreted matter he collected made excellent fertiliser. Charles sold it on to others, ensuring that the waste didn’t go to, um, waste!
Charles was a farmer’s son from Berkshire, one of at least eight surviving children. Born in 1825, by his mid-teens he was living away from home and working, as so many rural boys did, as an agricultural labourer. By 1851 he had relocated to Oxford, where he had become one of the university’s policemen. The university had established its own private police force back in 1829; these men patrolled both the university grounds and any area of the city within four miles of a university building. As a night soil man, Charles never made the headlines of the local press. As a university policeman, however, he did: appearing as a witness in various cases that ranged from thefts of undergraduates’ belongings to performances of plays in unlicensed premises.
He also worked as a university proctor’s assistant and as a faggot maker, making bunches of twigs for kindling. Charles Herbert was a man who would take on a variety of work to make a living, but his last job would be as a night soil man - an occupation that caused much debate in the second half of the 19th century. In the late 1860s, the Oxford Local Board’s Nuisances Removal Committee had reported on the removal of night soil in the city, noting that there was a tendency for it to be disposed of in ‘improper places’ such as along the Banbury Road. At the time, there were five iron night soil carts being used to empty Oxford’s cesspools and soil pits, and it cost 1 pound and 10 shillings to empty each cesspool. However, at this time, it was optional for residents to use the night soil removal facilities offered by the Oxford Local Board; they could alternatively employ ‘anyone who they thought proper’ to remove it.
The job could be dangerous; 19th century accounts survive of individuals falling into cesspits and night soil ‘vaults’. A young man named Syer fell into one such vault on his way home from a pub one evening and nearly died. One night soil collector came across the body of a ten-month-old baby boy when emptying a soil pit in Nottingham; another found a newborn baby girl dead in a pit in Bradford. On the brighter side, it was accepted practice that the night soil man could go round the local community at Christmas time and ask those who used his services for a Christmas box, providing him with extra goods or money once a year.
The collection of night soil had a family history in the Herbert family. Charles’ younger brother, Edward, also worked as a night soil man in the city. Given that Edward had been working as a nightman for some time, it is likely that he suggested his brother similarly move into this field – perhaps because it was a reliable source of income. However, we cannot get an accurate picture of how much he earned, or how he was perceived, by looking at his residence in 1881. His neighbours at this time suggest that St Clement’s Street was rather mixed: they included a grocer’s porter, an unemployed ironmonger and a carver and gilder. It was therefore more of an area where artisans and those who had a skill (but not necessarily a lot of income) lived, despite what the rather grand facades of the houses suggest today.
Yet, as Charles’ job description suggested, although the collection of night soil may have caused some to sniff (and not just because of the smell), it provided the opportunity to work for oneself, and to work at night with your horse-drawn cart, seeing the city in a very different way. A night soil man at the start of the 1880s was said to earn three shillings a day, and have ‘plenty of work’ - but at the same time, those with outside privies were being encouraged to turn them into ‘ash closets’, which were claimed to ‘deodorise’ waste, and to reduce them to a state where they could be taken away free of charge by scavengers. This, one sanitary authority claimed, would ‘entirely supersede the unpleasant occupation of the night soil man’. So although Charles had chosen a job that seemed to offer security and plentiful work, it was also an occupation that was seen as necessary but unenviable: one that others wanted to see become obsolete.
Charles Herbert died in 1883, aged 58. His mother, who had once been described in the census as a farmer’s wife, but who, in 1881, had become ‘nightman’s mother’, outlived him by two years, and was buried at St Clement’s. By 1891 Charles’s widow, Martha, had left Oxford for her home village in Berkshire, in order to move in with her brother, George; she died the next year. The Herberts were described in 1881 in terms of Charles’ occupation: they were the night soil family, and even more so given that Charles’ brother worked in the same job. They were just one of many whose lives at one point or another were focussed on poo - and how to get rid of it.
By Dr. Nell Darby