Digging the dirt on dung

If life's getting too tense - with fuel prices soaring and the kids fretting over exams - just be glad you're not a baby koala. In search of light relief, Steven Russell discovers a quirky tome: on dung, of all thingsIMAGINE, if you will, living in 1574.

If life's getting too tense - with fuel prices soaring and the kids fretting over exams - just be glad you're not a baby koala. In search of light relief, Steven Russell discovers a quirky tome: on dung, of all things

IMAGINE, if you will, living in 1574. It's a wonderfully sunny morning as you step outside your humble East Anglian abode, stretch, and take the air.

Suddenly: phwoarr. You grimace and clout young Cedric about the head with a dwile for not washing his socks when you told him to. But it's not his fault - it's the whiff of all whiffs being carried on the air from Cambridge. The foulest of foul Fenland fragrances.

Who'd have thought this esteemed seat of learning could raise such a pong?

You may also want to watch:

Unfortunately, the streets of Cambridge are revolting, plague is rife, and the medieval King's Ditch that skirts the town (it won't be a city for more than 375 years) is little more than an open sewer.

The place has a bit of a reputation (although, to be fair, similar stenches could be sniffed, in other urban centres). In 1267 Henry III caught a whiff as he passed on his way to Ely. He ordered that Cambridge be kept clean of dung and filth, and that conduits be kept open so the filth could flow away.

Most Read

Hmmh, that worked. In the autumn of 1386 a parliamentary session was held in the town - with King Richard II sending word that Cambridge should be cleaned up before his court arrived. It was apparently open season in hygiene terms, with excrement and entrails to be found in the ditches and rivers, along with the bodies of dead animals. The air was said to be dreadful and the risk of disease a daily threat.

Academia and workaday Cambridge were apparently uncomfortable neighbours in Elizabethan times, but managed to call a truce in the 1570s to combat the smell and bring order.

An 11-step, 20-year plan was agreed upon. It included an instruction that all inhabitants, scholars and churchwardens were to sweep and cleanse the streets on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and have all the muck carted to the common dumps or into the fields. Innkeepers and horsekeepers were not allowed to dump manure in the street, except just before removal time.

There were other rules, with fines for transgressors.

Having a pig in the street, college precincts or churchyards would cost you 4d, unless they were accompanied by a drover. It was cheaper for those guilty of having ducks or geese in the streets - the fine was 2d - while runaway pigs would leave the drover 4d lighter in the pocket.

Throwing the carcass of a dead pig, cat, dog, rat, fowl, fish or vermin into the streets, lanes or churchyards was verboten - as was illegally disposing of it within a quarter-mile of Cambridge. Fine: 3s 4d. Instead, folk had to bury them in their own ground, or at least three feet down in the common dump.

Dead horses and oxen had to be taken to the common dunghill, or further out of town. No corpses were to be tossed into the river.

This intriguing stuff is to be found in an unlikely new book from the keyboard of garden historian, lecturer and author Caroline Holmes, who lives in rural splendour near Bury St Edmunds - out of reach of mains drainage and thus relying on a septic tank for hygienic deliverance.

She's known for projects such as designing six of the organic gardens at Yalding in Kent, and devising the poisons garden at Alnwick in Northumberland.

The EADT last met her during a whirlwind period two years ago, after she'd flown back to Britain following a 10-day working trip to America. She was just applying the finishing touches to the Glorious Gardens series she'd filmed with ITV Anglia and reflecting on two new books: A Zest for Herbs and New Shoots Old Tips, the latter based on her BBC Radio 4 series.

Her diary's been busy since: with speaking engagements “almost as far north as possible in the UK - Wick - and as far south - Jersey - in 2005; radio programmes on French and Spanish gardens, black plants, roses and dung”. All being well, another book should be out for Christmas 2007.

So how does a nice girl - a Suffolk churchwarden, no less - come to spend 15 months researching and penning The Not So Little Book of Dung?

“The publishers called me to a meeting to discuss ideas,” Caroline explains. “At the end, the commissioning editor said they thought I was just the right person to write a book on dung. I suppose they sensed that dung would appeal not just to the great British public but has a worldwide fascination - seven publishers fought for the rights in Korea!”

What did she think when the publishers broached the subject? - no doubt a great compliment to her research and writing skills. “For once I was lost for words; but I think it was the combination of knowledge and humour!”

How did she get to grips with dung, so to speak?

“I approached from a gardening point of view, looking through hundreds of years of dung use on the earth. This led me into agriculture, dovecotes, the sewers, the bible and generally everywhere.”

Her quest took her to the web, the University Library at Cambridge, the record office at Bury St Edmunds, and many places in between.

“People have been fascinated by it. The more I thought about it, and the more I read, the more I realised it was actually a fascinating subject. People sent me things, which sent me off on new trails. In the end, my agent said 'Just finish it!' - because I kept finding more and more.”

The subject of dung even popped up on The Archers the other week. Brookfield Farm herdsman Sam Batton came up with an idea for increasing the clover content in the pasture. By adding clover seed to the cattle feed, it will be spread in cowpats, which will also add ready-made fertiliser.

Caroline's book does what it says on the tin: the over bearing photos of a flightless dung beetle rolling a ball of you-know-what, an Indian girl carrying dried patties of cow dung on her head, a trainee land girl spreading manure at Freston in 1939, and an engraving of a dog doing what comes naturally.

Open a page at random and find a quirky nugget to delight or disgust. The book is written as readable prose, but here are a few bullet-points.

For example: After Prince Albert, Queen Victoria and their children suffered a series of sore throats in 1844, the efficient consort investigated and found Windsor Castle's inefficient commodes were feeding 53 overflowing cesspits. State-of-the-art water-closets and drains were installed immediately.

More than 827,000 visitors to the Great Exhibition of 1851 paid to use the public lavatories.

In Hamburg, in 1892, more than 8,605 people died during a cholera outbreak in a city one-seventh the size of London.

Pollen contained within the waste of hyenas in South Africa is an important indicator of climate change.

Gentlemen in the 18th Century kept chamber-pots in the dining-room so they did not need to leave the room. Sometimes there were several pots in a room - and private homes sometimes had a screen.

Baby elephants will eat their mother's dung, just the once, to inherit her immunities. Koalas' sole food is eucalyptus leaves, which happen to be packed with poisons and hard to digest. Happily, nature has also given the koala microbes that dwell in the gut and help the digestive process. These have to be passed from mother to baby, so the joey is weaned on portions of mum's droppings.

By the way, Caroline reckons animals are on the whole better organised than humans, “rarely soiling their homes and often creating an area dedicated to defecation”. Take the golden mole in southern Africa. “Easy prey for passing raptors and jackals, the moles have devised a series of subterranean chambers, one of which is well removed and dedicated to defecation.

“The removal of human waste by odourless means eluded many cultivated and sophisticated societies. Poorer medieval citizens were requested to squat a bow's shot away from any dwelling - from which practice derived the siting of the privy house.

“Today, as gardens diminish, houses are growing apace on modern developments, where en-suite facilities for every bedroom are regarded as a necessity.” A century ago, Edwin Lutyen's conversion of Lindisfarne Castle featured nine bedrooms but only one bathroom!

Excreta has also been used for inhumane purposes. The Ancient Persians employed a ghastly boat-based method to dispatch criminals. As the trapped miscreant lies in a growing pool of his own bodily waste, force-fed with milk and honey, the mess attracts more and more flies - and maggots. “His flesh and intestines rot in his own fly-blown excrement, as gradually, unremittingly, the body is eaten away.”


Fortunately, most of the book can either be described as entertainingly informative.

Caroline was astounded by the levels of methane gas given off by grazing cattle. In a section akin to a modern list of vehicle emissions, we learn that 1,000 cattle produce 815g of methane each day, apparently, and 1,000 goats at least 470g.

In comparison, because of the way wild animals break down cellulose during chewing, an equivalent number of giraffes produce only 100g a day, and wildebeest a tiny 12g.

She also admits to a hearty chuckle upon reading Samuel Pepys's diary entry for October 20, 1660, as his neighbour's sewerage problems intruded.

“Going down to my cellar . . . I put my feet into a great heap of turds, by which I find that Mr Turner's house or office is full and comes into my cellar.”

Caroline giggles. “I don't want to hear endless rude jokes, but I do have a terrible weakness for nursery humour.”

The Not So Little Book of Dung is published by Sutton Publishing at £14.99. ISBN 0-7509-4051-4

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter
Comments powered by Disqus