“There was zero visibility in the slums of Leicester. Gas lamps flickered light so weak that it struggled to cast shadows in the thick heavy smog of the town. Their horse drawn carts were hidden within the smog and could only be heard. The sound of metal rims and horse shoes hitting the filth covered cobbles below thundered around the streets”
Switch out your light, come kiss me goodnight, the nine o’clock horses are taking flight.
History behind the 9 o’clock horses.
Whilst most towns and cities around the UK use the tales of the bogeyman to frighten good behavior out of their children. The parents of Leicester use the tale of the nine o’clock horses. The amazing thing about the story is that the nine o’clock horses actually existed.
Over 150 years ago, Leicester had a local by-law that household rubbish, which included human and animal waste, could not be collected until after nine o’clock at night.
Waste problems in Leicester.
150 years ago in Leicester, all domestic waste was either thrown into ditches or gutters, stock piled in back yards (if you were lucky enough to have one), or placed in communal neighbourhood yards. Human waste was treated just like any other ordinary domestic waste and usually joined the same piles and awaited collection.
As a result of this “stock piling”, along with local industry and businesses doing the same, local ditches became blocked and the River Soar that flows through the city became the main sewer outlet.
Disease and death was rife in the Leicester due to these conditions.
What happened to the waste?
Human and animal waste was collected by local farmers for use as manure, for spreading on the land.
In the night, farm labourers would come into a city to collect waste products to use as manure on the surrounding farmland. These were called the “Night Soil Men”.
Due to the town’s by-laws, the “Night Soil Men” could not come into the City to collect the waste until after nine o’clock at night. They would travel from the countryside into Leicester on horse-drawn carts. Scavenging the streets looking for animal and human waste.
Sometimes they paid for the waste, but this had to be the best quality, well-rotted down and ready to be used immediately.
The reason for the tale being told was not only the fear from the sounds and sights of these men and their horses but the rumor that they took children wandering the streets after nine and took them back as cheap labour for the farm.
There could be truth in this. At the time people were moving out of the countryside into the city to earn their fortune. Farm labour was scarce and child labour was cheap. Any child caught wandering the streets of the city could be collected and taken back to farms as a labourer. The pay for child farm labourers was just basic food and accommodation.
Here is a story (how true it is I will leave you to judge) about a couple of Night Soil Men collecting the waste one night.
“It was a warm night and one of the men had taken his coat off and placed it on the cart’s driving seat. Loading was proceeding well and they had a full cart load of good quality manure. There was still more to be had so they decide to load the cart some more. All of a sudden the horses were startled. The man’s coat fell off his seat and into the back of the cart. Without hesitation the man climbed into the back of the cart to retrieve his coat. His mate then asked “Surely you are not going to wear that again.” To which he replied “No, But my sandwiches are in the pocket”.”