On 20 October 1660, the diarist and naval administrator, Samuel Pepys, had a nasty surprise when he opened his cellar door and stepped into a “great heap of turds” which had overflowed from his neighbour’s privy. Pepys’ problem was not uncommon and London records show that sewage issues of one kind or another were the greatest cause of litigation and neighbourly disputes. Chamber pots were emptied into the streets or along guttering; cesspits and privies were placed too close to party-walls seeping through the brickwork and rotting timbers; pipes, ditches and streams were blocked with dung and filth.
Alice Wade was reprimanded in 1314 for casting “the filth of her privy into the common gutter” so that it became a “vile nuisance” to all of the neighbours beneath whose houses it passed.
In 1328, for instance, a certain William Sprot complained that the cesspit of his neighbours Adam and William Merre was too near his tenement and was so full of sewage that it had penetrated his stone wall and entered his house “and collects there, causing a great stench”, according to legal records. Most of the cases brought to the attention of the authorities were the result of overcrowding, building alterations and neglect, but occasionally people were indicted for deliberate acts of nuisance. One such was Alice Wade, who was reprimanded in 1314, for casting “the filth of her privy into the common gutter” so that it became a “vile nuisance” to all of the neighbours beneath whose houses it passed. In 1400, embroider Robert Asshecombe took action against his neighbours Gilbert and Mazera Accon, who had broken-down walls and openings to the latrines in their tenement in Woodstreet, exposing their “private business” and wafting “evil odours”. They had also made things worse by flinging their “filth and rubbish into his close”. Another case in 1613, resulted in the arrest of Jane and Charles Browne of Whitechapel “for emptying a great quantity of night-work into the common sewer to the general annoyance of all the inhabitants”. The couple were committed to the stocks in Artillery Lane for six hours.