Why Was Straw Laid in the Streets?

© Cheryl Bolen

Recently as I was reading some letters written by Sarah, the 1st Duchess of Marlborough, she wrote (pre Regency) that she was  going to have straw laid in her street:

The place [Scarborough] was so very dirty and so noisy I am going to lay straw in the street to hinder the intolerable noise of the horses that go by my window.

I hadn’t heard of that practice since a long, long ago reading of Thackeray’s classic 1848 novel Vanity Fair, when I first became acquainted with the practice of laying straw in the streets to muffle sound. Here’s how Thackeray used it:

She had the street laid knee deep with straw; and the knocker put by with Mr. Bowl’s plate. She insisted the Doctor should call twice a day; and a deluged her patient with draughts every two hours. When anybody entered the room, she uttered shshshsh so sibilent and ominous that it frightened the poor old lady [Mrs. Crawley] in her bed.

Apparently laying straw in the streets was a common occurrence in England’s cities.

Here’s what nineteenth century novelist Ellen Wood wrote on the subject in her serialized novel, The Shadow of Ashlydyat, that was published between 1861 and 1863:

For some distance on either side; ankle-deep down Crosse Street as far as you could see, lay masses of straw. As carriages came up to traverse it, their drivers checked their horses and drove them at a foot-pace, raising their own heads to look up at the windows of the dwelling; for they knew that one was lying there hovering between life and death.

The solemnity spread through the town, and Wood later wrote:

Knockers were muffled; bells were tied up; straw, as you hear, was laid in the streets; people passed in and out [of the bank], even at the swing doors, when they went to transact business, with a softened tread … and asked the clerks in a whisper whether Mr. George was yet alive.

Later, in 1889, English poet Amy Levy also used straw in the streets to impart imminent death in her poem, “Straw in the Street,” in her collection, A London Plane-Tree and Other Verse:

Straw in the street where I pass to-day

Dulls the sound of the wheels and feet.

’Tis for a failing life they lay

Straw in the street.

Here, where the pulses of London beat,

Someone strives with the Presence grey;

Ah, is it victory or defeat?

The hurrying people go their way,

Pause and jostle and pass and greet;

For life, for death, are they treading, say,

Straw in the street?

 

From what I gather, wealthy people regularly exercised such a practice during run-of-the-mill illnesses, not just for those terminally ill.  One assumes the practice came to a halt with the advent of . . . the rubber tire! 

Many thanks to English doctoral student Chloé Holland for her research on Wood and Levy. – Cheryl Bolen, whose final book in the Lords of Eton series, Last Duke Standing, can now be ordered, prior to its Jan. 15 release.

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