ID: DJG_NSL / Douglas J. Gurton

TitleNight Soil Collection
AbstractWe are very apt to take things for granted these days - I refer to the public utilities, water supplies, lighting, refuse collection, and by no means least of all, the disposal of sewage. In the mid-eighties there was no sewer in Tollesbury in Essex and the population in excess of 1,000 had no piped water supply, having to rely on three public hand operated pumps, situated at Mell Road near Nos. 5 and 97 (present day numbering) and at High Street where Elysian Gardens now enters. There was also one pump at D'Arcy Road near the present Cemetery. Most of the houses had brick-lined wells in the gardens, also tanks and water-butts which received their supplies from roofs rain water. The water supply was in no way satisfactory, entailing in many cases long treks to the nearest pump with pails and the arduous task of pumping, and carrying home the filled buckets or pails. There was a tendency to use well water, and this gave concern to the medical profession, as tests carried out proved that in many cases the water was impure, and surrounding ground sewage sodden. Due to the efforts of the local and district doctors, a scheme was prepared in 1907 for the supply of piped water, but this did not come until 1915.In the mid-eighties the village was contained between North Lane and The Mount, with the exception of isolated old dwellings at West Street, Hunts Lane (Station Road), The Green (The Square) and Mill Lane (Mell Road). There was no sewer, but unlike some villages, where the residents had to bury or destroy their own waste, Tollesbury had an efficient sewage collection system. This most necessary and unpleasant task was carried out by one man, in a most meticulous manner at night-time when all law abiding villagers were home or in bed.

To carry out his task the sanitation operator for want of a better title, was equipped with a "tank" cart, a half-cylindrical galvanized steel tank, suspended between two large cart-wheels in gimballs, and by means of a combination of cog wheels, sprockets and chain, operated by a ship-like wheel, the contents could be capsized into a pit, when the operation had been completed. The cart was drawn by a patient old horse, which knew every stop on the route through the village. As a small boy at school I was told that the job was a well paid one, which I doubt, and that the man was supplied with an ounce of tobacco a day, which I am sure he had to purchase himself. Lying in bed on a hot summer night, one could sense the life of the village coming to the end of the day. The doors of the public-houses would be slammed shut, the bolts thrown home into their sockets, and the last farewells shouted out as the patrons made their various ways home. Barely had the sounds died away, when one could hear the rumble of the "chariot" and the jingle-jangle of the horse's harness, as it proceeded on its way through the village. One night I could not contain my curiosity any longer. I placed a chest-of-drawers under the high dormer window in my attic bedroom, climbed out onto the ledge outside and looked down. Yes, the man, a most kind and gentle man to us children, was smoking a pipe, and illuminated by a hurricane lamp. He was dressed in an oilskin smock: or coat, and most surprising to me, he had a yoke, similar to a milkman's, across his shoulders, from which were suspended two large shining galvanized pails. The smell emanating from the tank was not pleasant, and I quickly climbed back into my bedroom and closed the window. At no time in my young life did I hear one word of complaint from an elder regarding this nightly operation, which was carried out so efficiently in very often complete darkness, except for the light given by an oil lamp.

By 1891 most of the village was sewered, although there was still no piped water supply, and plans were afoot for sewering the remainder, but most of the older properties had latrines in the gardens, always situated some distance from the dwellings. These latrines or "privvies" were small match-boarded or weather boarded huts with sloping corrugated or felt covered board roofs, locally made, with one door, a box like structure inside, with one or two elliptical type holes in the top, covered by lids to exclude flies, etc. In the box, which served as a seat, were one or two large buckets, and in the majority of cases there were wooden flaps at the rear of the huts, in order that the sanitation operator could extract the bucket without entering the huts.

In spite of absolute cleanliness, daily scrubbing, liberal use of carbolic powder in the buckets, they were not very pleasant places to sojourn in, and as a, small boy who was subjected to alternate bouts of constipation and diarrhoea, I was very relieved to be able to use a flush toilet even though it entailed drawing water from the well and flushing.

Sometime prior to 1891 a sewer and filter bed had been constructed at Woodrope Green (now the Car Park), and soon after the Great War 1914-18 most of the houses with flush toilets had piped water supply connected, which simplified matters very much indeed. However, the more primitive toilets prevailed for sometime afterwards, and it was not until 1958 that new sewage works were completed at Woodrolfe, solving the problen of disposal. Some of the little huts survive, utilised as garden implement sheds, but their construction and primitive means of ventilation, "sharks teeth" or "diamonds" cut into the doors discloses their original uses.

We should feel very thankful for what has been done for us over the years.

AuthorDouglas J. Gurton
Published18 March 1978
SourceMersea Museum