Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: We’ve got troubles, but the olde days were smelly and loutish

A bit of shenanigans… The Tavern Scene from William Hogarth’s 18th Century series of paintings A Rak

A bit of shenanigans The Tavern Scene from William Hogarths 18th Century series of paintings A Rakes Progress - Credit: Archant

Bored and faintly appalled lately by reports of murder and mayhem on our streets, I turn once again to the past, burying myself in a book, writes Martin Newell.

This time it is English Night Life by Thomas Burke. First published in late 1941, English Night Life – from Norman Curfew to the Present Blackout is a historical account of how we have behaved or misbehaved nocturnally, despite all attempts by State and Church to put a stop to it.

For a wartime edition, the book is amply illustrated with old prints and is a riveting read.

Partly because I have terrible reading habits, partly because of a personal fascination, I turn straight to the accounts of the 18th century, a period from which I sometimes cannot draw myself away. The 18th century is a compelling cocktail of filth, architectural grandeur, sex, violence, sartorial elegance, silliness and venality.

If there is one really puzzling thing about English history, however, it is this. From Elizabethan times to the Victorian era the clothes of the wealthy are decadently extravagant and ornate. The buildings, too, are often beautiful: baroque edifices, replete with pinnacles, turrets, crenellations, mullions and leaded lights. And yet, in almost all cases, the sanitary provisions of these ingenious people seem not to have advanced much beyond chamber pots and human dung hills.

I recall reading one account of Samuel Pepys, the 17th century diarist, senior naval administrator and one-time MP for Harwich.

He’d received an urgent message while at work, that Lady So-and-so had dropped into his town house unannounced.

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Rushing home in order to greet this eminent personage, he was stopped at the door by a maid who informed him the lady had needed a house-of-easement.

The maid had dutifully handed her a chamber pot and despatched her to an upstairs drawing room.

This story illustrates that despite Pepys’ important job and high standing, his well-appointed London townhouse did not possess a loo befitting a great lady. All that money and not even a decent gurgler in the house.

The paucity of our ancestors’ sanitation arrangements is a subject which crops up in history repeatedly. London, especially, must have been incredibly stinky. It’s the late-17th century: the post-Plague churchyards are over-subscribed, the cesspits are overflowing and many people still empty their chamber pots out of the upstairs windows.

The River Thames is poisonous with human and industrial effluvium, while dead cats and other horrors regularly clog the central street drain (then called “the kennel”) as well as the notorious Fleet Ditch. The situation reaches its horrid zenith with the Great Stink of 1858.

Here, in high summer, the frightful miasma of inadequate sanitation forces Parliament to close off certain of its chambers.

Four years earlier an outbreak of cholera in Soho had killed over 10,000 people in the space of a few weeks. What an embarrassment it must have been that, at the point of “Peak Empire” and for all England’s pomp and glory, its great capital honked like a midden.

Back in the 18th century, meanwhile, the violence and general drunken excess would make our spate of recent metropolitan murders look like a drive-by fruiting at Snape Maltings.

Your thugs and vandals back then, however, would be as likely to spring from the upper class as from the bootless and unflanneled.

In a club in Pall Mall, Lord Byron, grandfather of the poet, got in a bit of unpleasantness with his neighbour Mr Chaworth over who owned the most land. Byron stabbed Chaworth with a sword, mortally wounding him. Byron was arrested and spent three months in the Tower. He was found not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter. His Lordship pleaded Benefit of Clergy and got off.

Further along in the 18th century, I learned that Lord Barrymore liked nothing better after a night on the pop than to drive furiously into Surrey in his Phaeton, which was unusually high.

Passing through darkened hamlets during the small hours he would slash at the houses left and right with his whip, cracking their window panes.

Another of his hobbies was to go down to Vauxhall and start a riot. Who needs cocaine hoodies when you have well-bred yahoos?

As is usual, therefore, I return from my old books to the present day, having put recent bad news into some sort of proportion.

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