10 Disgusting Victorian Jobs That Will Make You Appreciate Yours
In case you thought your boss gave you crap
Mudlark, Henry Mayhew, London labor and the London Poor | Public Domain
Open any Dickensian novel, and you can travel back in time to a world of overflowing sewers, belching coal smoke, and cloudy opium dens. In many tragic tales, someone is dying of cholera or dysentery. There’s a reason for that.
By 1841, London’s population had exploded, and so had its cesspits. Sewers fermented with filth and drained into the river Thames. Streets stunk of horse manure, dead dogs, and urine. On the south bank of the Thames, skins and hides were tanned with horrible smelling urine and dog turds. Victorian London assaulted your nose.
By 1857, the water closet (toilet) became fashionable, and people no longer threw the contents of their chamber pots into the streets. But sanitation still had some snafus. These water closets emptied into the Thames, resulting in what became known as the Great Stink of 1858.
Something had to be done. Unfortunately, Victorians did not have trash collectors or landfills, so they had to get creative.
Here are a few dirty jobs that might make you appreciate your turd-less work responsibilities.
The Sewer-hunter or ‘Tosher,’ 1851 | Public Domain
If you awoke early enough in Victorian London and went for a stroll down the River Thames, then you might catch a few bent over figures wading along the river’s edge.
Called toshers or sewer-hunters, these men and women tied lanterns to their chests to cut through the early morning fog and wore long coats to shield themselves from wind and rain. In their hands, they carried a pole to poke through excrement and debris, searching for treasures.
The treasures they sought were not gold, but the tiny pieces of copper found scattered along the water’s edge. Copper (as it is today) was very valuable. Other treasures included jewelry, cutlery, coal, iron, and coins.
The country toshers were the lucky ones. The city toshers worked in the underground sewers with ferocious rats and fetid water. The noxious smells formed deadly pockets of methane gas that could go BOOM with one wrong poke. And then your lifeless body was buried in a mountain of…
So, the next time your boss buries you in paperwork, remember you could be buried in something far worse.
There was a hierarchy to waste collecting and at the bottom of the food chain were mudlarks. Mudlarks (shown in the intro image) were usually poor children in tattered clothes that offered little protection. They rummaged through debris and waste hoping to find anything the toshers left behind — lumps of coal, scraps of wood, old rope, or anything that most people wouldn’t dare touch.
The job was also dangerous. If you cut your foot on a piece of glass, you could get septicemia, and then it was bye-bye leg. (Or worse…death.)
Today if you found a dead cat, dog, or human floating along a river, you would probably contact your local authorities. But the Victorians didn’t mind dead things in their water because bones were valuable.
Bones were sold to the bone-boilers and used in everyday items — handles for toothbrushes, teething rings, knife handles, and cheap combs. Most kids will stop wailing if you stick a fingerbone in their mouths. (So not a personal reference…maybe.)
Bones that could not be used were pulverized into fertilizers or boiled to make soaps. So yes…recycling the dead cleaned the living.
Night soil man, Mayhew, Henry, 1812–1887 | Public Domain
When it comes to waste removal, humans often take the approach of “let’s make it someone else’s problem.” Such was the case with the human excrement that emptied into the Thames from water closets. But realizing that London’s smells were killing tourism, officials employed night-soil men to remove the waste from under people’s homes.
Just like it sounds, the night-soil men worked between midnight and 5 AM. These men lowered a ladder into the hold beneath a building and filled a tub with “night soil” (human waste), which was then pulled up and dumped into carts to be carried off.
The excrement was sold to farmers outside the city to be used as fertilizer. Eventually, they learned how to extract nitrogen from excrement and use it to make gunpowder. (I am resisting bad puns right now…)
Think your job is backbreaking? Imagine being bent over all day in the cold, rain, and wind, filling a bucket with stones. Still not thankful? Ok, then imagine there’s a scary man behind you with a big whip ready to give you a beat down if you didn’t pick up stones fast enough.
Most stone pickers worked in a marshy region in eastern England known as the Fenlands or the Fens. These stone pickers (usually children) got ‘Fen Ague’ — malaria from the mosquitoes that hovered over the marshes.
The only silver lining was that most kids were so drugged with opium that they didn’t care. So there was that.
A child working as a chimney sweep, 1828 | Public Domain
They make it look so fun in Mary Poppins. Sure, the guy gets a little sooty, but he has a cool broom and gets to dance with the pretty lady. “He’s lucky as lucky can be.” Right?
Yeah, the real chimney sweepers didn’t have the catchy tune. Chimney sweeps were almost always children because you had to be small to crawl up the narrow chimney and clean out the soot. They scraped their knees and elbows climbing and destroyed their lungs when they inhaled the ashes. Worst of all, kids often got stuck, and no one could get them out.
Most chimney sweepers were orphans who were apprenticed to a master sweep. The master sweep would care and feed them until they got too big to stuff their tiny bodies into a crawl space. Oh, and they weren’t fed much because you know…a fat kid in a tight space never ends well.
Today you can get in trouble if you don’t pick up after your dog. Not so in Victorian London. The pure-finders really preferred that you let Fido poop where he wanted because they made a pretty good living off collecting dog dung (called “pure”) by the bucket load.
Why was dog doo so valuable? A dog’s feces are high in alkaline content, so it could be used in tanneries to get rid of hair and the dead smell off of animal skins. (Think of the scent of bleach.) There was a science in dog poop. “Dry and limey” were top-notch because they contained the highest alkaline content.
Jack Black, 1851 | Public Domain
Wherever you find dirt and disease… you will find rats. In Victorian London, everyone needed a rat catcher, so this was one job that made a decent living…if you were good.
The most famous was Jack Black (shown here), who worked for Queen Victoria. He attracted rats by rubbing thyme and aniseed oil on his clothing. Jack Black was sort of the Donald Trump of rat catchers. Wherever he went rats followed.
You might be thinking, why not poison the buggers? Some did but rats are highly intelligent, and when one eats poison, he goes and warns all his rat buddies not to eat the funny cheese. Thus, the most efficient rat catcher caught them by hand with help from their rat-catching dog or ferret.
This job was dangerous because rats bite, and that meant disease. Jack Black almost died from one particular vicious rat bite.
The ragman walked throughout London with a greasy bag full of rags. The most lucrative areas were Petticoat Lane and Mayfair, where Jewish cloth merchants threw out piles of rags.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and such was the case with rags. Rags were in such high demand because before wood pulp was invented, paper was made from cloth.
If you ever find a Victorian novel made from rags, you will notice something strange — its pristine condition. Paper is acidic and eventually deteriorates, but rags do not. So if you ever wondered why some old books preserve better, you can thank the ragman.
The dustman, Mayhew, Henry, 1812–1887 | Public Domain
If you think we rely too much on fossil fuel, you should have seen how coal crazy everyone in Victorian England was. Londoners consumed almost three and a half tons per year. And all that coal left behind a mess of ash and cinders.
It was the dustman’s job to clean it up and recycle it. The finer dust was sold as fertilizer, while the coarser dust was used in brickmaking.
The dustman would travel to Victorian homes and scream out, “Dust-oy-eh.” Then someone would come out (usually the maid) and fill his bucket with dust. The dustman would then transport his dust to the dust-yard and throw it in a heap.
Unlike other Victorian jobs, there was prestige to this job. They made decent money and didn’t blow up or have to fight off rats.
I hope these dirty and dangerous jobs make you appreciate your own. Or at the very least…make you appreciate scientific progress. Not much has changed though. Science is often left to clean up everyone’s “crap.”