As in the title, how did gong farmers of medieval(500-1500AD) England, France, etc. see when cleaning out cesspits when their job requires them to work at night with minimal light. Since cesspits are teeming with methane gas, which is highly flammable and explosive in higher concentrations, lanterns or other fire-based sources would be dangerous to use. Also, since fire requires oxygen to burn, there isn't a feasible way of isolating it from the air. Flashlights didn't exist during that period, only being invented around 1898-1899, so what did they use to light up their paths before then?

I have the same question about the sewers of London. How did Toshers see in there without causing a massive explosion? This Youtube video and article claim they carried a lantern, which doesn't explain how the fire (from the lantern) didn't cause an explosion due to the sewer gas.

Sources about the topic are scanty and do not detail the light source that the gong farmers/toshers use.

  • Methane is lighter than air, so I bet it escaped continually rather than building up to explosive concentrations. Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 5:36
  • I was considering that, too. However, cesspits and the London Sewer system were, like any sewer system or hole in the ground, highly enclosed (as they didn't want the awful smell to escape). So, wouldn't diffusion be limited within the confined space? Though, I'm sure some particles would still escape from the openings? Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 9:19
  • Even nowadays, methane buildup is far from the main concern in enclosed spaces. Lack of oxygen is a lot more important. hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg258.pdf Anecdotically, I can't recall being told several times (in safety courses or similar) about instances of asphyxia in several kinds of enclosed spaces, but the only fire related accident I can remember was due to filtration of gasoline into the enclosed space from a nearby leakage.
    – Pere
    Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 13:55
  • The PDF you linked includes a "fire and explosion" warning. Also, my guess as to why such a hazard isn't as emphasised today is because of the invention of the flashlight, whereby we do not rely on a flame for light anymore, circumventing the problem. Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 14:26
  • Possibly they would start by dropping something buring into the cesspit and let it burn up the methane there for a while before entering. And possibly sewer workers might have a small fire at the end of a long pole and keep that fire a few feet ahead of them as they entered the sewer. And maybe when the fire started getting brighter and bigger they would slow down or back off for a bit until the methane was burned off.. There may be a medium between existing in total darkness unable to see what you'e doing on one hand and exploding the methane on the other hand.
    – MAGolding
    Commented Apr 3, 2020 at 17:20

1 Answer 1


A book, London Labour and the London Poor (Vol. 2 of 4), by Henry Mayhew (1851) has detailed information on the process the nightmen went through. This was a little later than the medieval time frame specified, but there is no reason that these same techniques wouldn't have been in use at the earlier times. One passage, in fact, relates to the historical nature of the process (emphasis mine):

Nightwork is carried on—and has been so carried on, within the memory of the oldest men in the trade, who had never heard their predecessors speak of any other system—after this method:—A gang of four men (exclusive of those who have the care of the horses, and who drive the night-carts to and from the scenes of the men’s labours at the cesspools) are set to work. The labour of the gang is divided, though not with any individual or especial strictness, as follows:—

  1. The holeman, who goes into the cesspool and fills the tub.

  2. The ropeman, who raises the tub when filled.

  3. The tubmen (of whom there are two), who carry away the tub when raised, and empty it into the cart.

Note that only one individual actually enters the cesspit, when necessary. The next few lines describe a typical location where the nightmans work takes place:

The mode of work may be thus briefly described:—Within a foot, or even less sometimes, though often as much as three feet, below the surface of the ground (when the cesspool is away from the house) is what is called the “main hole.” This is the opening of the cesspool, and is covered with flag stones, removable, wholly or partially, by means of the pickaxe. If the cesspool be immediately under the privy, the flooring, &c., is displaced.

So we can see the usual location is often quite near the surface. Later a description discusses how lanterns were actually deployed at the work site:

On one occasion I went to see a gang of nightmen at work. Large horn lanterns (for the night was dark, though at intervals the stars shone brilliantly) were placed at the edges of the cesspool. Two poles also were temporarily fixed in the ground, to which lanterns were hung, but this is not always the case. The work went rapidly on, with little noise and no confusion.

The scene was peculiar enough. The artificial light, shining into the dark filthy-looking cavern or cesspool, threw the adjacent houses into a deep shade.

From this we can see that much of the work was done from a surface level, and though Lanterns were used, it was not necessary to enter the dangerous areas with the lanterns. The lanterns were placed nearby or suspended over the work area.

More information concerning the use and cleaning of cesspools in France, also from the 19th century, can be found in the book Mission and Method: The Early Nineteenth-Century French Public Health Movement By Ann Elizabeth Fowler La Berge. Though I find nothing concerning the use of lanterns, it does discuss that by the 1830s the need for ventilation to remove the noxious fumes was understood:

Before the 1830s, when the situation came to a head with the increased water supply, hygienists devoted their attention to improving the existing cesspool system. Hygienist and industrial chemist Joseph d'Arcet emphasized improved ventilation and developed a system of forced ventilation, whereby noxious gases would be blown off into the air above the house though a tall chimney

The same plumbing concept is still used today in modern construction, with each home plumbing system connecting to an external vent on the roof to allow the lighter gases to harmlessly dissipate overhead.

This gives us a hint that there should be no issue with lanterns when mucking out a cesspit. Logically any opening large enough to admit a person or bucket will allow any trapped gas to dissipate rapidly into the air above. Since most of these cleaning processes discussed involve first pumping out or bucketing away liquid wastes, there should typically be plenty of time for any built up gas to escape, or at least reach concentrations lower than the 5.4-17% concentration by volume required for flammability.

The first book also discusses the problems of gas in the sewers of London.

There are two modes of purifying the sewers; the one consists in removing the foul air, the other in removing the solid deposits. I shall deal first with that mode of purification which consists in the mechanical removal or chemical decomposition of the noxious gases engendered within the sewers.

This is what is termed the Ventilation of the Sewers, and forms a very important branch of the inquiry into the character and working of the underground refuse-channels, for it relates to the risk of explosions and the consequent risk of destruction to men’s lives; while, if the sewer be ill-ventilated, the surrounding atmosphere is often prejudicially affected by the escape of impure air from the subterranean channels.

The article discusses an experiment done to determine the probability of explosions from the use of lamps in these locations:

A survey as to the ventilation, &c., of the sewers was made by Mr. Hawkins, Assistant-Surveyor, and Mr. Jenkins, Clerk of the Works. Four examinations took place of sewers; of those in Bloomsbury; those from Tottenham-court-road to Norfolk-street, Strand; from the Guard-room in Buckingham Palace to the Horseferry-road, Millbank; and in Grosvenor-square and the streets adjacent. There were difficulties attending the experiment. From Castle-street to Museum-street there was a drop of 4 feet in the levels, so that the examiners had to advance on their hands and knees, and it was difficult to make observations. In some places in Westminster also the water and silt were knee deep, and the lamps (three were used) splashed all over. In Bloomsbury the sewers gave no token of the presence of any gas, but in the other places its presence was very perceptible, especially in a sewer on the west side of Grosvenor-square, a very low one, in which the gas was ignited within the wire shade of one of the lamps, but without producing any effect beyond that of immediately extinguishing the light. There was also during the route, in the neighbourhood of Sir Henry Meux’s brewery and of an adjoining distillery in Vine-street, a considerable quantity of steam in the sewer, but it had no material effect upon the light.

The examiners came to the conclusion that where there was any liability to an explosion from the presence of carburetted hydrogen, or other causes, the **Improved Davy Lamp afforded an almost certain protection.**

The Davy Lamp is described as :

The Davy lamp is a safety lamp for use in flammable atmospheres, invented in 1815 by Sir Humphry Davy.1 It consists of a wick lamp with the flame enclosed inside a mesh screen. It was created for use in coal mines, to reduce the danger of explosions due to the presence of methane and other flammable gases, called firedamp or minedamp.

So, if a lamp was required in such situations there was, at least in the 19th century, a safer alternative to a typical open flame.

  • The Davy Lamp answers the question regarding the Sewers of London since the time period adds up. However, before its invention, what of the cesspits that were deeper and darker and rendered surface-level lamps less effective? On the assumption that they were constructed all over the world, wouldn't they have variations? Or is there evidence that shows that all cesspits across all civilisations were only constructed at surface-level to avoid the danger of flammable gas? Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 14:43
  • I can't address every situation across all civilisations. That is what we call too broad here. Typical construction is to do the minimum required. You dont dig 10 feet deep when 4 feet will suffice. I remember seeing sewer 'tanks' from the 60's and 70's that were 55 gallon drums buried just below the surface. (as a teen I worked as a laborer for an excavator that installed septic systems).All I can do is present the documentation I can find.
    – justCal
    Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 14:50
  • I see. Though digging a shallower cesspit seems obvious enough, I was wondering if there were other innovations done by other civilisations to circumvent the problem (i.e France, China, Malaya, etc). Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 15:05
  • Well, perhaps someone will fill in the info for those regions in another answer, or you may want to try a different question concerning the sanitation developments in those specific areas. This question was focused on the use of lamps, perhaps a better question would be were there vents or other measures taken in early systems to reduce the possible danger.
    – justCal
    Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 15:27
  • Updated with some info on French use of cesspools.
    – justCal
    Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 16:33

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