Next time you complain about your boring desk job, think back to Victorian times—an era before the concept of occupational health and safety rules—and count yourself lucky. Back then, people were forced to think of some imaginative ways to earn a living, from seeking out treasure in the sewers to literally selling excrement.
1. Leech Collector
Leeches were once a useful commodity, with both doctors and quacks using the blood-sucking creatures to treat a number of ailments, ranging from headaches to “hysteria.” But pity the poor leech collector who had to use themselves as a human trap. The job usually fell to poor country women, who would wade into dirty ponds in the hope of attracting a host of leeches. Once the critters attached to the leech collector’s legs, the individual would prise them off and collect them in a box or pot. Leeches can survive for up to a year with no food, so they could be stored at the pharmacy to be dished out as required. Unsurprisingly, leech collectors were in danger of suffering from excess blood loss and infectious diseases.
2. Pure finder
Despite the clean-sounding name, this job actually involved collecting dog feces from the streets of London to sell to tanners, who used it in the leather-making process. Dog poop was known as “pure” because it was used to purify the leather and make it more flexible [PDF]. Leather was in great demand in Victorian times, as it was used not only as tack for horses but for shoes, boots, bags, and in bookbinding. Pure collectors haunted the streets where stray dogs amassed, scooping up the poop and keeping it in a covered bucket before selling it on to the tanners. Some collectors wore a black glove to protect their scooping hand, but others considered it harder to keep a glove clean than a hand and eschewed the protection altogether.
Victorian London had a huge network of over-worked sewers under the city, washing away the effluence of the crowded metropolis. Toshers made their living down in the dark sewers, sifting through raw sewage to find any valuables that had fallen down the drain. It was extremely dangerous work: Noxious fumes formed deadly pockets, the tunnels frequently crumbled, there were swarms of rats, and at any moment the sluices might be opened and a tide of filthy water might wash the toshers away. As a result of these dangers, toshers generally worked in groups, instantly recognizable in their canvas trousers, aprons with many large pockets (in which to stash their booty), and lanterns strapped to their chests. Most toshers also carried a long pole with a hoe at the end to investigate piles of human waste for dropped treasures, or with which to steady themselves if they stumbled in the gloom. After 1840, it became illegal to enter the sewers without permission. Rather than abandon the trade, toshers began working late at night or early in the morning to avoid detection. Despite the stinking and dangerous conditions, it was a lucrative business for the working classes, with many a coin or silver spoon sloshing about in the quagmire.
4. Matchstick makers
Matchsticks are made by cutting wood into thin sticks and then dipping the ends into white phosphorus—a highly toxic chemical. In the Victorian era, this work was mainly performed by teenage girls who worked in terrible conditions, often for between 12 and 16 hours a day with few breaks. The girls were forced to eat at their work stations, meaning the toxic phosphorus got into their food, leading to some developing the dreadful condition known as “phossy jaw”—whereby the jawbone becomes infected, leading to severe disfigurement.
Like the toshers, these workers made their meagre money from dredging through the gloop looking for items of value to sell, although in this case they were plying their messy trade on the shores of the Thames instead of mostly in the sewers. Seen as a step down from a tosher, the mudlarks were usually children, who collected anything that could be sold, including rags (for making paper), driftwood (dried out for firewood) and any coins or treasure that might find its way into the river. Not only was it a filthy job, but it was also very dangerous, since the tidal nature of the Thames meant it was easy for children to be washed away or become stuck in the soft mud.
6. Chimney sweep
Tiny children as young as four years old were employed as chimney sweeps, their small stature making them the perfect size to scale up the brick chimneys. All the climbing in the claustrophobic space of a chimney meant many sweeps’ elbows and knees were scraped raw, until repeated climbing covered them with calluses. Inhaling the dust and smoke from chimneys meant many chimney sweeps suffered irreversible lung damage. Smaller sweeps were the most sought-after, so many were deliberately underfed to stunt their growth. Most had outgrown the profession by the age of 10. Some poor children became stuck in the chimneys or were unwilling to make the climb, and anecdotal evidence suggests their bosses might light a fire underneath to inspire the poor mite to find their way out at the top of the chimney. Fortunately, an 1840 law made it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to climb and clean a chimney, though some unscrupulous fellows still continued the practice.
7. Funeral Mute
Anyone familiar with Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist will remember that one of the orphan’s hated early jobs was as a mute for undertaker Mr. Sowerberry. A component of the extremely complex (and lucrative) Victorian funeral practices, mutes were required to dress all in black with a sash (usually also black, but white for children), while carrying a long cloth-covered stick and standing mournfully and silently at the door of the deceased’s house before leading the coffin on its processional route to the graveyard.
8. Rat catcher
Rat catchers usually employed a small dog or ferret to search out the rats that infested the streets and houses of Victorian Britain. They frequently caught the rats alive, as they could sell the animal to “ratters,” who put the rats into a pit and set a terrier loose upon them while onlookers made bets about how long it would take for the dog to kill them all. Catching rats was a dangerous business—not only did the vermin harbor disease, but their bites could cause terrible infections. One of the most famous Victorian rat catchers was Jack Black, who worked for Queen Victoria herself. Black was interviewed for Henry Mayhew’s seminal tome on Britain’s working classes, London Labour and the London Poor (1851) in which he revealed that he used a cage which could store up to 1000 live rats at a time. The rats could be stored like this for days as long as Black fed them—if he forgot, the rats would begin fighting and eating each other, ruining his spoils.
9. Crossing Sweeper
The “job” of crossing sweeper reveals the entrepreneurial spirit of the Victorian poor. These children would claim an area of the street as their patch, and when a rich man or woman wished to exit their carriage and walk across the filth-strewn street, the sweeper would walk before them clearing the detritus from their path, ensuring their patron’s clothes and shoes stayed clean. Crossing sweepers were regarded as just a step up from beggars, and worked in the hopes of receiving a tip. Their services were no doubt sometimes appreciated: The streets during this period were mud-soaked and piled with horse manure. The poor sweepers not only had to endure the dismal conditions whatever the weather, but were also constantly dodging speeding horse-drawn cabs and omnibuses.
In the early 19th century, the only cadavers available to medical schools and anatomists were those of criminals who had been sentenced to death, leading to a severe shortage of bodies to dissect. Medical schools paid a handsome fee to those delivering a body in good condition. As a result, many wily Victorians saw an opportunity to make some money by robbing recently dug graves. The problem became so severe that family members took to guarding the graves of the recently deceased to prevent the resurrectionists sneaking in and unearthing their dearly departed.
The “profession” was taken to an extreme by William Burke and William Hare who were thought to have murdered 16 unfortunates between 1827 and 1828. The pair enticed victims to their boarding house, plied them with alcohol and then suffocated them, ensuring the body stayed in good enough condition to earn the fee paid by Edinburgh University medical school for corpses. After the crimes of Burke and Hare were discovered, the Anatomy Act of 1832 finally helped bring an end to the grisly resurrectionist trade by giving doctors and anatomists greater access to cadavers and allowing people to leave their bodies to medical science.