No dunghill in all the city

That was William Smith's admiring comment on Elizabethan Bristol. The city was remarkable for its cleanliness.

William Smith, bird's-eye view of Bristol 1568Smith drew this bird's-eye view of Bristol in 1568. It was one of England's largest cities at the time, yet it was only a fraction of its present size. Bristol was well-defended. It was ringed by walls and almost surrounded by rivers. The only land approach to the city was protected by a towering castle. Yet its two greatest churches were beyond its walls. On the south west you see the magnificent church of St Mary Redcliffe. To the north west Smith shows the former abbey church of St Augustine, which Henry VIII had converted into a cathedral for Bristol.

Stinking rubbish heaps were a common hazard of towns in Smith's day. Authorities did what they could, but public hygiene was largely in private hands. Each Bristol householder was expected to keep the pavement clean in front of his house. Picture the scene. Medieval streets were regularly spattered with dung. Animals provided the only form of transport. The gentry had their horses. Carts or sleds pulled by oxen would heft country produce into town. So rain could be a blessing. The streets sloped down to an open gutter running down the centre. A storm would wash mud and dung into the drain, along the street and eventually out into the river. The city scavenger or raker would cart off what wasn't washed away. Bristol's raker was paid by householders until 1543, when the Council decided to pay him 1s 6d a week.

Many are the tales of London chamber pots being emptied into the street with cries of "Gardez l'eau" to warn passers by. It meant "Watch out for the water!", but water was the least of your worries if you happened to be standing underneath.

Not all town-dwellers were so inconsiderate. Most town houses had a long, narrow garden behind them. There the householder could dig a deep pit. A simple latrine was built over the hole. Kitchen slops and the contents of chamber pots could be tipped into it too. A shovel-full of earth at intervals would keep down the smell. When it was full it would be closed up and a fresh one dug. The latrine would have to be easily taken down and rebuilt.

But if there was running water to hand, that could be put to use. Some Bristolians in Redcliffe Street had privies over the ditches that ran between their gardens and down to the Avon. Monasteries generally placed their latrine blocks over a watercourse. That meant that the building could be permanent, without having to keep cleaning out a cesspit beneath. The advantages were just as apparent to town councils, when they got around to providing public conveniences.

There were several public latrines in Bristol by 1480, when William Worcester jotted down detailed notes on his native town. He commented that the one in Pithay was for both men and women, so we can guess that the rest were for men only. The latrine that he recorded beside the south west end of Bristol Bridge was discovered in an excavation by Bristol Archaeological Services. It was a stone-built structure beside the river.

Another feature of Bristol that impressed William Smith was its drains. Instead of waste water being channelled from houses into the street, it was conveyed underground. Archaeologists find stone-lined drains everywhere in central Bristol. One between two houses in Redcliffe Street ran out under the pavement and eventually into the Avon.

So the river would have been too polluted to be safe for drinking. Where did Bristol get its drinking water? Some came from wells. William Worcester described a large and deep well in Pithay "neatly roofed over with tiles, to protect the people drawing water from rain or stormy weather."

St John's Conduit in Nelson StreetSome water was piped from springs on nearby hills to public conduits dotted about the city. St John's Conduit was built beside St John's Church. Its position was changed in Victorian times, but water still gushes there from a mossy lion's mouth. But was the water always pure? In 1574 the Council had to remove three dead cats from the pipe supplying the conduit house on the Quay.

As the population grew in the peace and plenty of Elizabeth's reign, it seems that Bristol's rubbish began to pile up. In 1630 the Council decided that "for the prevention of further complaints and for the avoiding of noisome smells and to preserve the health of the inhabitants" the raker should provide more carts and servants. Bristol could never rest in the battle with dirt and disease.

Until other cities caught up with Bristol in the Victorian period, its conduits and drains remained a wonder to visitors. In the 1790s The Universal British Directory declared them "a provision for cleanliness, not so universal in any city in the world."

Thanks to Bruce Williams, Director of Bristol and Region Archaeological Services, for archaeological information.

Further reading:
Linda Hall, Down the Garden Path: Privies in and around Bristol and Bath (2001)
Elizabeth Ralph, The Streets of Bristol (Bristol Branch of the Historical Association 1981).