Gong Farmer: The Unsung Heroes of Medieval England’s Sanitation System

Gong farmers were only allowed to work at night, thus they were also known as night-men. The waste they collected, known as night soil, had to be taken outside the city or town bou
Gong farmers were only allowed to work at night, thus they were also known as night-men. The waste they collected, known as night soil, had to be taken outside the city or town boundaries.


The term “gong farmer” derives from the Old English word “gang,” meaning “to go,” which will be later associated with dung or filth, as in “to go to the privy”, and “farmer,” signifying the individual’s occupation. Gong farmers were alternatively known as “night soil men” or “rakers.”

In medieval England, the gong farmer played a crucial role in maintaining the sanitation system of cities and towns. Often overlooked and shrouded in secrecy, these brave individuals performed the necessary task of removing and managing human waste, ensuring public health and hygiene.

Duties and Responsibilities

During the Middle Ages, cities and towns in England lacked the sophisticated sewer systems we have today. Waste management was a significant challenge, with human waste accumulating in privies, cesspools, and ditches, posing severe health risks. Gong farmers emerged as a response to this problem, taking on the waste collectors’ role and disposal.

Gong farmers were responsible for several crucial tasks, including:

Privy Cleaning

Gong farmers would enter homes and public latrines to remove accumulated human waste from privies, which were essentially pits or containers beneath the toilets. They used shovels, buckets, and other simple tools to extract the waste.

Cesspool Maintenance

Gong farmers maintained and emptied cesspools, which were larger underground chambers designed to hold waste. They used wooden poles to stir the contents and break up solid waste, making it easier to remove.

Waste Transportation

Once the waste was collected, gong farmers transferred it to specially designed carts or barrels. They navigated the streets, usually during the night, to minimize public exposure to the unpleasant odour and sights.

Waste Disposal

Gong farmers transported the waste to designated areas outside the city or town, often fields or farmland. The waste, known as “night soil,” was utilized as fertilizer due to its nutrient-rich content.

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Tools and Equipment

Gong farmers relied on basic tools and equipment, including:

  • Shovels: Used for scooping and removing waste from privies and cesspools.
  • Buckets: Essential for transferring waste from one location to another.
  • Wooden Poles: Used to stir and agitate the waste in cesspools, facilitating its removal.
  • Carts and Barrels: Transported the waste to disposal sites.

Working Conditions and Challenges

The life of a gong farmer was physically demanding and hazardous. They faced numerous challenges, including:

  • Stench and Filth: Gong farmers were constantly exposed to foul odours and unsanitary conditions, posing risks to their health.
  • Disease and Infection: Handling human waste made gong farmers susceptible to diseases such as dysentery, cholera, and typhoid. They lacked proper protective gear and sanitary practices.
  • Social Stigma: Due to the nature of their work, gong farmers were often stigmatized and viewed as social outcasts.

Contrary to the challenging nature of their work, gong farmers in medieval England enjoyed relatively high pay, often earning in a single day what other workers would make in an entire week. However, they had an additional opportunity to boost their income. Occasionally, individuals who were not careful with their belongings would accidentally drop valuable rings or coins into the cesspits. Resourceful gong farmers would courageously sift through the filth with their bare hands, hoping to find these hidden treasures and capitalize on the unexpected windfall.

To ensure public health and sanitation, local authorities regulated the work of gong farmers. They issued licenses, set standards for waste disposal, and imposed penalties for non-compliance. Gong farmers were required to adhere to strict guidelines to prevent the spread of disease and maintain cleanliness.

Gong Farmer
Gong Farmer

As urban areas developed, advancements in sanitation technology and infrastructure gradually replaced the need for gong farmers. The introduction of sewer systems and the use of water closets in the 19th century rendered their role obsolete. Gong farming as a profession ceased to exist, and the industry faded into history.


The gong farmer played a crucial role in medieval England’s sanitation system, undertaking the challenging and vital task of waste removal and management. These unsung heroes, although often overlooked, contributed immensely to public health and hygiene. Understanding their work helps us appreciate the advancements in sanitation and infrastructure that have shaped our modern society. The legacy of the gong farmer reminds us of the essential nature of proper waste management and the continuous pursuit of a clean and healthy environment.

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