Our Century

The night-soil men cometh

Lilian Smith, Walsall Born 1914

Lilian Smith

"I was born in August 1914, so it must have been me that started the First World War!

"We lived in Wolverhampton Street, Bilston and there was this great big row of flats at the bottom of the garden. I used to hear the men coming at night to take away something. They made a heck of a racket, all shouting out at each other and everything.

"I was brought up in Scotland so when someone talked about the "night silers," I hadn't a clue what they meant. I figured out later that it was the Black Country pronunciation of 'night soil,' the mixture of excrement and earth from the earth closets.

"I write quite a bit of poetry, usually under the name of Granny Smith. I wrote this poem about that memory all those years ago when I was young:

Late Friday nights it would always be
A battering and clattering down our entry.
I'd waken with a start and ask our mum,
Whatever that noise was - somebody's drum?
'Now, I've told you before, get back into bed,
'It won't take very long, don't worry your head.
'It's the 'night silers' you hear, and that's their dogs,
'Their horse and cart's outside, and they're emptying the bogs."

"I have an older friend who told me that when they were emptying the closets near her home the men found the body of a new-born baby.

"It happened but it was the sort of thing nobody ever talked about in those days.