Polite and Polluted? Nightmen and the Selling of Sanitary Services in London, 1600-1850

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By | Early Medicine, Events and Visits

The last seminar in the 2014-15 History of Pre-Modern Medicine academic seminar series, will take place on Tuesday 3 March.


Detail from Trade card of William Woodward, Nightman, Carman and Chimney-sweep. (Ambroise Heal, ‘London tradesmen’s cards of the XVIII century’, 1925)

Speaker: Dr Mark Jenner (University of York)

Polite and Polluted? Nightmen and the Selling of Sanitary Services in London c.1600-c.1850


The Italian physician, Bernardino Ramazzini, enjoined the readers of his book on the diseases of workers in 1700, it should not be ‘beneath the dignity of the philosopher to descend now and then from his contemplation of the sublime and survey grosser things’. Indeed, he explained, the inspiration for his study had been a discussion with a man employed cleaning out privies. It was time, Ramazzini argued, for doctors to leave the cinnamon-scented apothecary’s shop ‘and take a view of … Houses of Office’. This paper follows his advice.

It examines the work and work practices of London’s nightmen – the workers who emptied its cesspits – and pays close attention to their self-presentation, examining how the publicity for this most noxious of sanitary services challenges some of our assumptions about the cultures of commerce, politeness and the world of goods in the long eighteenth century.


Wellcome Library, 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE. Doors open at 18.00, seminar will start at 18.15.

The seminar series is focused on pre-modern medicine, which we take to cover European and non-European history before the 20th century (antiquity, medieval and early modern history, some elements of 19th-century medicine).

Further details on the seminar series are available in a previous post.

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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