Gong farmer (also gongfermor, gongfermour, gong-fayer, gong-fower or gong scourer) was a term that entered use in Tudor England to describe someone who dug out and removed human excrement from privies and cesspits; the word "gong" was used for both a privy and its contents. Gong farmers were only allowed to work at night, hence they were sometimes known as nightmen. The waste they collected, known as night soil, had to be taken outside the city or town boundary or to official dumps for disposal, from where it might be taken to be spread as fertiliser on fields or market gardens.
As more modern sewage disposal systems such as pail closets and water closets became increasingly widespread in 19th-century England, fewer and fewer cesspits needed to be dug out. The job of emptying cesspits today is usually carried out mechanically using suction, by specialised tankers.
Early sewage arrangements
"Gong" is derived from the Old English gang, which means "to go", and since the 11th century has been used to refer to a privy or its contents. Towns usually provided public latrines, known as houses of easement, but in London towards the end of the 14th century, for instance, there were only 16 for a population of 30,000. Local regulations were introduced to control the placement of private latrines, and how they should be constructed. Cesspits were often placed under cellar floors, or in the yard of a house, some of which had wooden chutes to carry the excrement from the upper floors into the cesspit, sometimes flushed by rainwater. Cesspits were not watertight, allowing the liquid waste to drain away and leaving only the solids to be collected.
The foul odour from cesspits was a continual problem, and the accumulation of solid waste meant that they had to be cleaned out every two years or so. It was the job of the gong farmers to dig them out and remove the excrement, for which in the late 15th century they charged two shillings per ton of waste removed.
Despite being well-rewarded, the gong farmer's job was considered by historians on The Worst Jobs in History television series to be one of the worst of the Tudor period. Those employed at Hampton Court during the time of Queen Elizabeth I, for instance, were paid sixpence a day, a good living for the period, but the working life of a gong farmer was "spent up to his knees, waist, even neck in human ordure". They were only allowed to work between 9 pm and 5 am,[nb 1] were permitted to live only in certain areas, and because of the noxious fumes produced by human excrement, were sometimes overcome by asphyxiation. Gong farmers usually employed a couple of young boys to lift the full buckets of ordure out of the pit and to work in confined spaces.
After being dug out, the solid waste was removed in large barrels or pipes, which were loaded onto a horse-drawn cart. As privies spread to the residences of ordinary citizens they were often built-in backyards with rear access or alleyways, to avoid the need to carry barrels of waste through the house to the street. Much of what is known about London's privies during the 17 and 18th centuries comes from witness statements describing what had been discovered among the human excrement, such as the corpses of unwanted infants.
All of the effluent had to be removed from the town or city where it was collected, either by spreading it on common land or by transporting it to laystalls, which were usually on the edges of town. In the case of London much of it was taken to dumps on the banks of the River Thames such as the appropriately named Dung Wharf, later the site of the Mermaid Theatre, from where it was transported by barge to be used as fertiliser on fields or market gardens. Some of the dumps became quite massive; the ironically named Mount Pleasant in present-day Clerkenwell, London, occupied an area of 7.5 acres (3.0 ha) by 1780.
The penalties for not disposing of waste in the approved manner could be harsh. One London gong farmer who poured effluent down a drain was put in one of his own pipes, which was filled up to his neck with filth before being publicly displayed in Golden Lane with a sign detailing his crime.
From the early 17th century onwards the larger towns and cities began to employ scavengers as they became known, to remove waste and ordure from the streets, much of which came from over-full privies and dunghills, or the contents of chamber pots thrown into the streets from upstairs windows. By 1615 the town of Manchester was employing nineteen under-scavengers or rakers, managed by two scavengers.
Raconteur and demolition expert Blaster Bates included a humorous account of using explosives to clear out a cesspit on a Cheshire farm on his 1967 recording Laughter With a Bang, entitled "The Shower of Shit Over Cheshire". More usually though the job is now carried out mechanically using suction, by specialised tankers.
- A text of 1562 states that "no Goungfermour shall carry any Ordure till after nine of the Clocke in the night."
- gang, n.1 ((SUBSCRIPTION OR UK PUBLIC LIBRARY MEMBERSHIP REQUIRED)), Oxford English Dictionary (2 ed.), Oxford University Press, 1989, retrieved 30 December 2009
- gong, n.1 ((SUBSCRIPTION OR UK PUBLIC LIBRARY MEMBERSHIP REQUIRED)), Oxford English Dictionary (2 ed.), Oxford University Press, 1989, retrieved 30 December 2009
- Cockayne 2007, p. 143
- Galloway 2003, p. 78
- Hanawalt 1995, pp. 28–29
- "The Worst Jobs in History". Series One. Channel 4.
- Robinson 2004, p. 88
- Cockayne 2007, p. 184
- Cockayne 2007, p. 190
- Cockayne 2007, p. 191
- Robinson 2004, pp. 89–90
- Cockayne, Emily (2007), Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England 1600-1770., Yale University Press, ISBN 978-0-300-13756-9
- Galloway, Priscilla (2003), Archers, Alchemists, and 98 Other Medieval Jobs You Might Have Loved or Loathed (Jobs in History), Annick Press, ISBN 978-1-55037-810-8
- Hanawalt, Barbara A. (1995), Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in History, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-509384-1
- Robinson, Tony (2004), The Worst Jobs in History, Channel 4, ISBN 0-7522-1533-7