In one of the cases from Agecroft Hall, we heard the story of Nicholas Birdsall, who was brought before the Leet because of the dunghills on his property. This might seem like a case of a man being uniquely irresponsible. But records show that in the nearby town of Prescot, the issue of disposing of dung was so prevalent that a traditional system based on statutory and common law developed in an effort to keep the town tidy and to be fair to all inhabitants.
In urban areas, disposing of both animal and human waste was difficult. Even though people at this time did not know about germ theory, they knew that manure caused illness because it smelled bad. Also, dunghills leaning near house could damage building and risked spilling into the street and blocking traffic. The regulation of dung heaps was seen as a local matter, as no one would be charged with a felony over this issue. In Prescot in 1580, the leet court issued an order that would allow “inhabitants to pile solid waste products in the street near their doors for up to a week”. There appears to have been some flexibility in this law, because in 1678 the leet court’s jury gave John Lyon a ten days to remove his cattle dung from the road. Furthermore, after this he could leave the dung in the road up to a month.
Prescot residents could also pay a fee or tax to put dunghills on the street side of their houses. This fee would then in turn go to street repairs. Even if you did not get permission to place the hills near the road, you could sometimes make the fee up later. This happened to Elizabeth Houghton, who was brought before the leet court in 1169 for an illegal pile (also called a midden). It turns out she paid the fee to the wrong local official, so the charges were dropped.
The regulation of dunghills might seem like a small issue, but looking into the cases shows us how important local courts were in England at this time. The court leet in particular existed to help the local inhabitants get along. As long as no one was taking advantage of the system, and everyone paid for the maintenance of the town’s infrastructure, even something as noxious as a dunghill could be lived with.
Image Courtesy of Plimoth Patuxet Museums and Agecroft Hall
How High is too High? Disposing of Dung in Seventeenth- Century Prescot. Walter King. The Sixteenth Century Journal.