The dread and dead of night

At Day's Close
October 7, 2005

Before the Industrial Revolution, the world after sunset was the haunt of burglars, smugglers and night-soil men. Patrick Moore visits the dark side of life

To write an essay about night-time would be easy enough, but to produce a long book that is both entertaining and scholarly is a very different proposition. Yet this is what Roger Ekirch has attempted - with great success.

Ekirch is an American professor of history at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, but his book is concerned largely with events in Britain. He explains his intentions in his preface. "This book sets out to explore the history of nighttime in Western society before the advent of the Industrial Revolution. My chief interest lies in the way of life people fashioned after dark in the face of both real and supernatural perils."

We must remember that in those times the nights really were dark; gas lighting was a rarity before 1800, and it was not until after 1820 that the blackness of the night ceased to to be truly Stygian. Oil lamps were feeble, and most homes were lit by candlelight - if indeed they were lit at all. It was the Industrial Revolution, between about 1750 and 1830, that changed Britain from a mainly rural population into a town-centred society.

What we now call "light pollution" is a purely modern phenomenon; citizens of the 17th century were anxious to provide as much light as possible, whereas today we are trying to subdue it.

The first thing that strikes the reader is that At Day's Close has been meticulously researched - a task that must surely have taken the author several years. There are many quotes that bring the 16th and 17th centuries to life, and there are 80 pages of detailed references, plus an excellent index. The illustrations are well selected, and reproduced as well as old drawings can be; there is even a short section of colour plates.

The opening chapter, "In the shadow of death", emphasises the fear of darkness common to people from all walks of life. The Jacobean poet George Herbert wrote: "The night is more quiet than the day and yet we fear in it what we do not regard by day. A mouse running, a board creaking, a dog howling, an owl scratching, can often put us into a cold sweat." But the dangers were real, notably from housebreakers. Burglars operated in professional gangs, both in cities and in the country. Large houses were particularly tempting targets, and no less a person than Samuel Pepys complained that "my house is mighty dangerous, having so many ways to come in". During the hours of darkness all homes became fortresses, and in his book Hanging: Not Punishment Enough , published in 1701, Pepys affirmed that with regard to burglars "dread of them is greater than can well be expressed".

Fortified communities were common, and traces of the encircling structures can still be found at "Great Towns" such as Norwich, Exeter and York. The most common term in English for nightfall was "shutting in", when defences were put in place. Richard Gunn, who worked for a coach-maker, wrote: "My house is constantly locked up half an hour past 8, when I return from business, or I may be killed as well as another man." Many householders armed themselves with swords, pikes and, when possible, firearms. In the country, sickles and axes were the usual weapons. In 1694 an English inventor, whose name is not on record, devised a "night engine" to be "stationed at a convenient place in the house, to prevent thieves from breaking in". Just what this machine was remains unclear, but today it would certainly be illegal. The expression "a man's house is his castle" dates back to the 1500s, when there were no restrictions about using violence against intruders; a 16th-century Tony Martin would have been in no danger of being treated as a criminal because the law would have supported him.

Obviously the fear of evil spirits was greatest at night, and in 1693 the diarist Matthew Hale described them as "afflicting us with dreadful shape, abominable smells, loathsome tastes, with other operations of the evil angels". Witches, too, belonged to the night, and witch-hunts continued until a surprisingly late period. Moving around after dark was hazardous, both because of human attackers and because of the occult; the 18th-century folklorist Francis Ghose estimated that "the typical churchyard contained as many ghosts by night as the village has parishioners". To pass them at night was an achievement "not to be attempted by anyone in the parish, sextons excluded". And a Yorkshire diarist, William Howitt, wrote that the decayed ruins of a small chapel were a "perfect paradise for boys" by day, but "not to be approached by night, being haunted - by a variety of strange ghosts". Places such as this were often regarded as impassable, and all pedestrians took alternative routes.

Social life was very different from ours; travel was unsafe even by day, doubly so at night as there was no street lighting. During the night, roads leading to cities were particularly perilous. "Afraid of being robbed", physician and diarist Sylas Neville found it "very disagreeable to travel at night, especially so near London". Moreover, gibbets with human corpses littered the countryside. These were tall wooden posts with one or more arms from which hung the decomposing remains of executed felons. "It made me shudder with fright," wrote Felix Platter after nearly burying the corpses along the roadway. Many readers of this section may find it hard to credit that such a scene was regarded as normal only three centuries ago.

Moonlight was important, and night travellers depended on it. In northern England it was often called "through leet", and one writer in 1712 recorded it "obliging me with as much light as was necessary to discover a thousand pleasing objects". In the absence of the moon, a night's entertainment might be cancelled. "He would not dine with us on account of there being no moon," wrote Nancy Woodford in 1792 of a Norfolk neighbour.

Generally speaking, only doctors and midwives ventured out after nightfall at the time of the new moon - the exception was those people engaged in illegal activities, such as smuggling. With the imposition of import duties on such commodities as brandy, tea and tobacco, smuggling reached epidemic proportions in the British Isles during the 18th century, and goods were unloaded at night-time all along the coast. Joseph Jewell worked for an innkeeper whose house served as "a resort for smugglers", and who "followed smuggling on his own account". And the Rev. James Wordforde, in Kent, received regular supplies of gin at night, left on his doorstep by the village blacksmith, whose nickname was Moonshine. Smugglers were not feared by ordinary people, and it is recorded that, in 1792, burglars raiding the Suffolk town of Otford disguised themselves as smugglers so that "no notice was taken of them".

Many essential but unpleasant tasks had to be carried out at night, invariably by what were known as the "lower classes". Underground cesspools were emptied by "nightmen"; over each pit stood a privy, known as a jake, located in a cellar or garden. Wealthier folk depended on private latrines.

What was tactfully termed "night soil" was collected by professional night workers and loaded on to waiting carts.

It is not now easy to appreciate the lack of hygiene before the Industrial Revolution, and it may be thought that anyone who reached the age of 40 before succumbing to some disease had been remarkably lucky. Medical science was rudimentary, and it was - and is - true that sensitivity to pain increases at night. To relieve the discomfort of toothache, one man smeared his face with a mixture of cow manure and pig fat. "Despicable as it seems it gave him relief."

Another rather surprising social characteristic of the time was bed-sharing; it was customary for a host to share a bed with his guest, regardless of sex. However, "crowding the sick and the healthy together in one bed", wrote a Scottish rector, "was one reason for the prevalence of consumption" in his Highlands parish.

Night-time did have compensations for some people, mainly the wealthy.

Pepys records an evening spent in his garden with Sir William Penn, the Commissioner of the Navy: "He stayed talking and singing and drinking of great droughts of claret, and eating bread and butter till 12 at night, it being moonshine. And so to bed, very near fuddled." For servants, night-time meant a few hours' escape from their duties; hence the gleeful refrain in a 17th-century masque staged by the Grovers Company of London:

"We labour all day but we frolic at night, with smoking and joking, tricks of delight."

Sleep was often peaceful, sometimes not. Both Protestants and Catholics appealed for divine protection against harm during the night; the well-known verse, "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep", dates from the Middle Ages. Humbler folk preferred to invoke magic to prevent bedwetting and speed slumber. Inadequate bedding meant that poor families slept two, three or more to a mattress, with overnight visitors included.

The last section of the book, "Cock-crow", links the past with the present - and shows that the two are more different than is generally appreciated.

In industrial countries such as Britain, the nights are now transformed by glaring artificial lights, but in 1690 John Dryden asks of the night: "What art thou good for... but only for love and fornication?"

Today city dwellers see little of the night sky. "Only in remote spots can one still glimpse the grandeur of the Milky Way. Entire constellations have disappeared from sight replaced by a blank sky," writes Ekirch. He is right -the swamping of starlight is regretted not merely by astronomers (such as myself). Perhaps the trend can be reversed before dark nights belong exclusively to the past.

At Day's Close is a splendid book, and it is difficult to find anything in it to criticise. The author is to be congratulated - and so, too, is the publisher, for keeping the price of the book down to £20, very modest for a work of its length and stature. The book is great entertainment, and to social historians it will be of immense value.

Sir Patrick Moore is an astronomer whose next book will be Atlas of the Universe . He was an RAF navigator during the Second World War.

At Day's Close: A History of Nighttime

Author - A. Roger Ekirch
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Pages - 447
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 297 82992 0

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