Mount Pleasant is a most curiously named part of London for being neither a mount, nor frankly particularly pleasant.
Dominated today by mediocre offices and mass-accommodation hotels for tourists, its most striking occupant is the huge Royal Mail sorting depot. Curiously though, the name for the area arrived after it was occupied by an even less desirable tenant.
Between roughly the 16th to 19th centuries, the site was occupied by a Laystall — a vast eight and a half acre site devoted to the dumping of human waste.
Contrary to popular belief, it was not a common practice in Tudor London (or Tudor anywhere frankly) to simply dump your human waste in the streets outside. Tudor folk were quite aware that it smelt, and while unaware of a the details, knew that leaving rubbish and excrement around lead to diseases.
Most homes would have had, or had access to, some form of cesspit into which human ordure could be consigned. Slowly drying out, these cesspits would be emptied usually yearly by the Gong Farmers — people who worked at night shoveling dried shit from cesspits into barrels for disposal of elsewhere.
A lowly job that was looked down upon by most, it however paid very well to those who were able to stomach the work.
But what to do with cart loads of human manure? Dump it somewhere else seemed to be the primary answer — and so in the early hours of each morning, carts could be seen leaving the city walls for dumping grounds, and the largest at the time was just to the North of the city near Clerkenwell.
Mount Pleasant in fact — a growing vast mound of ashes and waste from the City of London. Never quite a mount, it was certainly an elevated space, likely to have been maybe 20-30 feet high at its peak.
It wasn’t the only such dumping ground — as others existed around the City at Mile End, Dowgate Dock, Puddle Dock and White Friars Dock.
In 1794 the rubbish heap at Mount Pleasant was cleared and the Cold Bath Fields Prison built on the site. I’m sure it amused some to think that a prison was built on top of land that had for several hundred years been built up by vast quantities of human shit.
That prison though was in turn removed in 1889 and the Post Office’s new sorting office built there instead. It is itself soon to be redeveloped again, with new housing, and at last the subterranean Post Office Railway will be opened to the public.
Although the railway is far below ground, the depot, and some of the facilities would lie within the upper soil layer that mixed in with not inconsiderable quantities of human waste.
Ponder that on your visit!
The history of the place lives on in Laystall Street, and there are people living in Laystall Court. I wonder how many realise they are living in a building named after an early sewage dump?