Paperback: Hubbub, by Emily Cockayne

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Provided the reader is in robust good health and not about to eat a meal, this account of "filth, noise and stench" in 17th and 18th-century England makes an entertaining, even amusing read. Cockayne draws us into a world where snickleways (narrow, often noisome passages) might be contaminated by fallen axunge (pig fat used to grease axles) or the overflow from a "house of easement". Butchers, dogs, fleas and gin play leading roles in this account of history's backside. We learn that umbrellas were black "so that the sooty rain did not stain them", while London's Mount Pleasant was "a tongue-in-cheek name" for an 8-acre soil dump. Like Dung Wharf adjoining Puddle Dock, it was literally a shit-heap. The pollution could be aural as well as physical. Described as "unpleasing and tuneless", street musicians provoked the proverb: "Give the piper a penny to play and twopence to leave off", but laws were passed to limit nocturnal racket, like the 1598 statute that "no man shall after the hour of nine at night beat his wife". Cockayne concludes by observing that, though urban dwellers were subject to stink, itch, racket, filth, overcrowding and murk, at least they were not stranded in the countryside among rustics castigated by one Londoner as "clownish, ignorant, rude, slovenly, absurd, boisterous and blustering".