Penrith Pong old and new

Stepping off the bus in Penrith one day last summer, my first thought was: “Ewww!!”

And it wasn’t ‘just me’. A bill board outside the Spar near the bus station, bore the words ‘Penrith Pong’.

The ‘Penrith Pong’ is widely blamed on a nearby animal rendering plant. The plant says it sometimes wrongly gets the blame for ‘other odour sources in the area’.

You can read a Cumberland & Westmorland Herald, August 2023 story about it here.

Whatever the source, the Penrith Pong, on the days when it occurs, is a very unpleasant smell. And I speak as someone used all her life to countryside odours, from muck-spreading to rotting cabbages, to pig farms, to dogs rolling in fox poo.

I’m not going to rank these, er, rank smells, but the residents who have formed action groups over the Penrith Pong have my full sympathy. And it has been going on for years.

As the image I created above shows, an internet search for ‘Penrith Pong’ pulls up some questions the tourist trade could do without – as well as the possibility of illustrative photos.

With this in mind, a story from 1875 jumped out at me.

The 1875 Penrith Pong


In August 1875, farm servant James Atkinson was charged with:

having unlawfully conveyed night soil and other noxious and offensive matter through the streets of Penrith in a cart not properly covered, and that offensive smells issued therefrom to the annoyance of the residents.

James Atkinson was working for butcher, farmer and cattle dealer John Speak. The case was brought by Christopher Fairer, clerk to Penrith Board of Health. Mr H Richardson appeared for the defence.

I’m assuming this was my relative, Henry Richardson (1848-1916).

Mr Fairer  said the offence had caused ‘great complaint’ from the residents in the locality where the cart passed and where the matter was deposited. It was conveyed in a cart during hours prohibited by the relevant bye-laws.

‘Abominable stench’

Sergeant Fraser (I can’t trace his first name) told the court he’d seen James Atkinson on Front Street (ie Middlegate) at about 11am.

‘The stuff was dropping from the cart.’

Sgt Fraser must have been upwind, for it wasn’t till he had proceeded a little further that he experienced ‘a most abominable stench, of which everybody he met was complaining’.

No doubt wishing he’d stayed upwind, the valiant Sgt Fraser followed the trail back and found it led him to the premises of Mrs Collins, in Stricklandgate.

(1871 shows a Jonathan Collin, farmer and butcher, in Stricklandgate, wife Sarah).

He then followed it the other way, to a field belonging to Mr Speak, near Arthur Street. There, James Atkinson told him it wasn’t his fault, as

‘the oscillation (of the moving cart) had converted the manure into a liquid.’

Sgt Fraser said he found the offensive matter to be night soil mixed with blood.

Atkinson told him the matter had come from the slaughterhouse. 

Superintendent John Thomas Fowler then told the court there had been ‘particles of offensive matter’ in several streets, particularly in Hunter Lane and Stricklandgate.

And the police had received a LOT of complaints about it.

‘Injurious to health’

Dr Robertson – lucky him – gave evidence that he had examined the matter in the field and found it contained a large quantity of the intestines of animals. The smell was very offensive and ‘calculated to be injurious to health’.

The defence

The only defence seems to have been to say the matter didn’t include night soil (human waste), but rather manure from the premises of Mrs Collin and a Mrs Wilkinson.

(1871 shows a John Wilkinson, butcher, in Sandgate, wife Margaret. Or perhaps more likely, widowed Elizabeth Wilkinson ‘butcher – mistress’ in Middlegate).

It was ‘simply the manure heap in a midden’ that he had removed and no one had ever complained before.

It had been a hot, close day and ‘the effect was greatly increased by the heat of the sun’.

Manure heaps and middens were part of everyday life in those days, so again, for Penrith folk to be complaining shows just how dreadful the 1875 Penrith Pong must have been.

The magistrate

John Thompson, JP, didn’t hear the case – he gave his own evidence of ‘one of the most offensive smells he’d ever experienced’.  

He’d traced the offensive mattter along Hunter Lane, Meeting House Lane, and up to a field behind his residence (in Arthur Street). The pong had filled his house, and both he and one of the servant girls had been ill later that day.

He’d run into Mr Speak in the street subsequently. Mr Speak had told him:

‘the lion’s share of the blame ought not to fall on him, but upon the shoulders of the medical officers and inspector of nuisances in the town’.

Curiously, Mr Thompson entirely agreed on this.

The Penrith Pong verdict

His fellow JPs didn’t. They found the case proved, and issued a fine of £5 (the highest they could inflict), or two months’ imprisonment.

The fine was paid.