Filthy Footnote Redux

An earlier foray into the mash-up of popular culture and history came with my chapter in Twilight and History. I’m sharing some notes that didn’t make it into the final version of the chapter on Carlisle, patriarch of the ethical Cullen vampire clan. Be warned: this gets very dirty, very quickly: sewer dirt, but only of the virtual variety!

No Secrets in Open Sewers?

In Twilight, Edward, the hero, provided a brief narrative of his adoptive father Carlisle Cullen’s background, growing up in seventeenth-century London. The story is brief and hinges upon Carlisle’s taking up, with great reluctance, the witch-hunting schemes of his puritanical father. Carlisle is said to have stirred up more than he bargained for, an ancient group of vampires, hiding in the sewers of London.

Now, the modern sewer system of London is, like many other public works, an artifact of the Victorian era, some two hundred years after Carlisle’s day. Does this mean that Carlisle Cullen time-travelled in his witch hunts? No! There were sewers in Stuart London but they were a hodgepodge of above-ground and underground places that could really turn your stomach or put your life at risk, seeking to explore them.

Mind Your Step!

To get a perspective on the subject, I began with Emily Cockayne’s wonderful recent book Hubbub: filth, noise & stench in England 1600-1770 which focuses on the unpleasant, practical and very human history of early modern life. Refuse and excrement coursed through most cities in ditches, streams and rivers — literally open sewers. In more sophisticated parts of the cities, kennels (channels) flowed alongside the streets or lanes and occasionally roared with run-off water, flowing fast enough to drown the unwary!, as they carried away London’s filth with least risk to hem and health. While the Twilight vampires who reportedly lurked in the city of London, like the one that Carlisle spooked out, weren’t particularly prepossessing types, it’s unbelievable could have concealed their supernatural and sparkly nature in any of the city’s filth-choked open waterways.

Cesspits and Conduits

Open sewers weren’t the only way in which waste and water were carried through the city. In the basements and back gardens of residences, cesspits, cesspools and privies that sometimes connected to the open sewers were a primitive precursor to the more sophisticated sewers (shoars) built in English cities a century or more later. These weren’t failsafe systems as Samuel Pepys found to his dismay in 1660 when his neighbour’s cess discharged into his own cellar! When the nightcellar men came to take away the waste (their work wasn’t a public service as human waste was a valuable source of saltpeter for gunpowder manufacturing and also marketed in the countryside as fertilizer), the unpleasantness for the diarist grew as the workers had to remove the sewage through Pepys’ own house! (October 20, 1660 Diary of Samuel Pepys.)

London’s growing population strained the outdated systems of waste-management. Londoners complained about the situation, especially as waste contaminated the water used in households. “Rivers received a rich stew from the cities — from domestic and trade sources, particles of earth, soot, sand, turds and rainwater. Silty liquid arrived via streets, kennels and open ditches. A small but increasing amount arrived via subterranean sewers.” (Cockayne, 199) The first steps toward mandating a separation of waste and household water were articulated in the seventeenth and eighteenth century.

Roman Remains

Although a network of publicly-mandated and maintained sewers wasn’t in place by Carlisle Cullen’s days as a witch hunter, it’s plausible that he turned his attention to these cellars, cesspits, sewers and other shadowy areas where most other Londoners would have, like Pepys, assiduously avoided. But I suggest that there’s another part of London’s history where Carlisle’s nemesis, the ancient London vampire, lurked. A disused, antique sewer system, a legacy of Roman London, underlay parts of the old foundation of Roman Londinium and survived, partially intact, into the modern era. In the nineteenth century, John Hollingshead made a tour of Underground London with an informative guide he dubbed “Agrippa” in honour of the ancient remains of Roman sewers that were incorporated into the varied parts of the subterranean world he now explored. “Roman London means a small town, bounded on the East by Walbrook, and on the West by the Fleet. You cannot touch upon sewers without coming upon traces of the Romans; you cannot touch upon the Romans without meeting with traces of sewers.” (Hollingshead, 62-63)

Underground Rivers

Not just the remains of Roman-engineered sewers but other underground waterways lurked below the city’s streets and foundations. The Walbrook, the ancient river mentioned as one of the boundaries of Roman London in Hollingshead’s account, had been so buried by bridges and vaulting (as well as parts of the old London wall from which it took its name) that by 1598, John Stow could report that it had been entirely covered over. Entire buildings, such as St. Margaret’s church in Coleman Street ward, literally were built over the Walbrook’s course. (Stow, 222) The Walbrook and other small waterways were victims of London’s growth. By the 1660s, when Carlisle took over his father’s witch hunts, there would have been a wealth of locations in the literal underside of the city where those of stout heart and strong stomach could explore.

History in the Sewers

Today, we’re finding that old cesspits and the like are a valuable source for historians and archaeologists as we’ve recently been reminded with excavations underway in Stratford to explore William Shakespeare’s cesspit. But given the relative isolation of this cesspit, far removed from the old Roman sewers that London or York enjoyed, I expect the archaeologists will be safe from encounters with any of Stephenie Meyer’s vampires!


  • Cockayne, Emily. Hubbub: filth, noise & stench in England 1600-1770. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).

  • Hollingshead, John. Underground London. (London: Groombridge and Sons, 1862).

  • Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys. (1660-1669)

  • Stow, John. A survey of London. (London: John Wolfe, 1598). STC 23341.

(Note: an earlier version of this post was published on my blog in April, 2010 but since that couldn’t be saved, I’m updating it and reposting it here.)



Filed under history, pop culture

2 responses to “Filthy Footnote Redux

  1. CK

    Wow. And, just a little, ewwww.

  2. jliedl

    Definitely “ew”! After watching an episode of that TV series on dirty jobs that delved into sewers, I can’t say that this would have ever been fun work. But it’s definitely a fascinating part of the lived experience, isn’t it?