Here, Robin Longbottom examines an unenviable occupation that fortunately has now been consigned to history

A NOW long-forgotten occupation was that of the scavenger, or night soil-man.

He had the rather unsavoury task of emptying cesspits and middens, once the accepted repository of human waste.

Until the 19th century, when the earth closet – or privy – came into general use, toilets as we know them today were almost non-existent.

The privy was a small external building which housed the toilet facility. It consisted of a seat with a tub below it, or a rudimentary drain. Occasionally privvies provided seating for up to three people, including a child, making the call of nature a more sociable experience.

If the privy drained into a cesspit it had to be emptied periodically. The scavenger achieved this with the aid of a rope and bucket, or by using a long-handled ladle. Where the contents of tubs were dumped in middens they were dug out by hand. The waste was removed by cart and as it was a rich source of nitrogen, it was sold to farmers who spread it on the land.

The work was traditionally done at night but it became a daytime job as the populations of towns and villages increased during the 19th century.

In 1855 the Keighley Local Board of Health was established to oversee the public water supply, drainage, street cleaning and the removal of sewage.

When an Inspector of Nuisances was appointed in 1856, letters complaining about nuisance poured in: “Sirs, a Shop front that Mr Steel ocupies in Low Street…he as a grate fild up wich aught to be opned as he has a water Closet in the house on the ground floor and not being opned (emptied) he is smelled out with is own stink….”

The Board of Health extended to outlying villages and in 1879 an inspector visited Sutton-in-Craven and reported that the village had no sewerage system at all. “The privy midden is the only means of disposal of excrement. Where cesspits are used these are of the most primitive type, being only holes in the ground. There is no public system of scavenging.”

Something had to be done to improve the situation and therefore a network of new sewerage pipes and treatment works were introduced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, despite these improvements, some households remained on earth closets.

After the creation of the Keighley Borough Council in 1882 the new corporation set-up the Keighley Cleansing Department to take over the duties of the scavenger.

This new body heralded the arrival of the corporation dustmen and dust carts. In the 1930s households were issued with heavy rolled-steel dustbins to put refuse in and carts were replaced by motorised wagons.

In the summer of 1970, Keighley Cleansing Department employed two students to record the properties that still relied on earth closets.

The majority were in the Oxenhope and Laycock areas and both villages had their own special refuse wagon. These wagons were smaller than the usual ones and had a bow top with side sliding doors through which the refuse could be tipped. Between the refuse section and the cab was a large tank to accommodate the contents of the tubs from privvies.

At the end of each week the contents of the tank were emptied into the main sewer in Station Road in Oakworth. The manhole cover was lifted by special keys and the tank was drained through a leather hose.

There were 36 households still on tubs in Oxenhope and 33 in Laycock.

For their unsavoury work the refuse men were paid the additional sum of one penny per tub.

By the end of the decade earth closets were finally phased out and the last vestiges of the scavenger, or night soil-man, finally came to a end.