We all have an off day in the office but consider yourself lucky – you could have had one of these jobs common in Victorian London.
Bert, the chimney sweep in Mary Poppins may have been a jolly old fella but there was nothing jolly about being a chimney sweep.
Children as young as four (known as Climbing Boys) were sent up the chimneys to clean the soot. Being small, they could navigate the small spaces of the flues, often still hot, and suffered from scraped knees and elbows covered in calluses. Inhaling the dust and smoke from chimneys meant many chimney sweeps suffered irreversible lung damage, developing cancer in their late teens and early twenties.
Smaller sweeps were the most sought-after, so many were deliberately underfed to stunt their growth and most had outgrown the profession by the age of 10. Some 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 “encourage” them to find their way out at the top of the chimney.
Rats were everywhere in Victorian London and catching them was big business. They would be sold to publicans who operated rat pits where they would make rats and dogs fight. A terrier would be let loose upon them while onlookers made bets about how long it would take for the dog to kill them all.
Rat catchers caught rats by hand, attracting them by rubbing a mixture of sweet-smelling oils on their hands and rummaging around in haystacks. It was a dangerous business – not only did the vermin harbour 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 in 1851 when 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 start eating each other.
Leeches were a highly demanded commodity, with doctors and quacks using them to treat a range of illnesses from headaches to hysteria. Leech collectors, often poor country women, would use themselves as human bait, would wade into dirty ponds in the hope of attracting leeches.
Once they attached to the leech collector’s legs, they 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 severe lose of blood and exposure to infectious diseases and grisly parasites.
More enterprising collectors used horses not fit for hard work, standing them in ponds until they collapsed from blood loss. In the mid 19th century 30 million leeches were exported from Germany to America annually and imports from France topped 42 million.
Sounds nice doesn’t it? Despite the name a pure finder would collect dog poo from the streets of London to sell to tanners, who used it in the leather making process to “purify” the hides. A bucket of poo could fetch ten pennies and the dry white sort (because of the bones in the dog’s diet) was the most prized. Some pure finders would grind limestone to mix with the faeces to give it a white appearance.
Pity also the tanner who would mix the dog droppings with bird dung and massage it into the hides by hand.
Matchsticks were 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”. The first symptoms of this hideous disease were a toothache which was swiftly followed by swelling of the gums and jaw, abscesses and a foul discharge – essentially the victims jawbone began to slowly rot. In order to stop the spread of the necrosis the only option was to remove the jawbone entirely, at a time when there was no anaesthetic and little pain relief.
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.
Toshers were recognizable by their canvas trousers, aprons with many large pockets (in which to stash their gains), and lanterns strapped to their chests. After 1840 it became illegal to enter the sewers without permission and so toshers began working late at night or early in the morning to avoid being caught. 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.
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, and as a result many Victorians saw an opportunity to make some money by robbing recently dug graves.
William Burke and William Hare took their job and little too seriously and were thought to have bumped off 16 unfortunates between 1827 and 1828. The pair lured 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.