Nobody really likes their job, not all the way. Ask around. Workers might enjoy the challenge, and they might find the work "fulfilling," but given the choice, pretty much everyone would take an early retirement if that option existed. (These days, even late retirement is going the way of the dodo, but that's another story.)
The next time you feel trapped and oppressed toiling for your daily bread, though, take comfort in the fact that it could have been worse. Much worse. You could have been born at the tail end of the 19th century.
For most of British history, the bulk of the populace scraped by doing jobs that were dirty, disgusting, dangerous, or just kind of dumb. A disproportionate number of them involved contact with human waste.
Read on to feel 100 times better about whatever job you currently hold, even if that job is at a call center.
1. Chimney Sweep's Apprentices
Banish all thoughts of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. Master chimney sweeps wouldn't be caught dead inside a chimney. They left that task to their apprentices, child laborers who they bought from struggling families or plucked straight out of the orphanage.
These lads and lasses, some as young as 4 years old, were tasked with climbing up chimneys to scrape off the soot and creosote that builds up on the walls of a chimney. An unswept chimney was a serious fire hazard. All that gunk on the walls could catch fire, sending the whole building up in smoke. Less disastrously, it could block airflow to the fireplace, rendering it ineffective.
Hazards included burns, scrapes, cuts, bruises, suffocation, and "chimney sweeps' cancer." (As it turns out, soot and creosote are carcinogenic.) These "climbing boys" sometimes got stuck in the chimney. Think about that for too long and you'll develop claustrophobia.
A series of bills and regulations throughout the 19th century chipped away at the practice of sending children up chimneys, but it was still pretty common until 1875.
2. Leech Gatherer
Up through the 19th century, doctors had a go-to solution for any malady: Stick a leech on it.
To be fair, they might have been onto something. Leech saliva does have anesthetic, vasodilatory, and anti-inflammatory properties. They probably won't help you balance your humors, though.
Anyway, all those leeches had to come from somewhere. Enter the leech gatherer (also known as leech collectors and leech finders). These folks would wade out into marshes and bogs with bare legs.
They'd hop out of the water with legs full of thick, lucrative leeches, which they would then take back to town and sell to the local doctor.
In the United Kingdom, leech gatherers were a bit too successful. They gathered themselves out of a job. By the turn of the 20th century, the medicinal leech was declared extinct in Britain.
Good news, though. The species has been making a comeback since 1970, and leeches are used in rare medical cases even today. Maybe there's a nice career in leech gathering waiting for you.
3. Rat Catchers
Hey, those rats aren't going to catch themselves.
Professional rat catchers prowled the dark corners of 19th-century London, catching and killing disease-spreading rats. They also caught, and were killed by, lots of rat-spread diseases. That was just a hazard of the job.
Rat catchers didn't run around grabbing rodents by hand, at least not all the time. They also pressed trusty terriers into service; some even set ferrets loose to do the dirty work.
The rat catchers would put out cages, or when they needed some exercise they'd go around bonking rats with a cudgel. These early pest-control agents were often paid by the rat, so they couldn't just toss the whole cage in the Thames and call it a day. They had to save the corpses.
Not every rat snagged by a catcher was killed outright. Some were sold to rat-fighting rings, and some were bred into "fancy rats," the domesticated rodent you might keep as a pet.
That title is a bit tongue in cheek. Resurrectionists didn't bring anyone back to life. They just dug up cadavers and sold them to anatomy schools for a pretty decent sum.
The medical field was making great strides at the dawn of the 19th century. British doctors realized that to really understand what was going on inside the human body, it'd be helpful to open up a corpse and take a look.
But the law only allowed doctors access to the bodies of criminals, and there weren't enough criminals to go around. Someone realized that you can find a body virtually everywhere there's a fresh grave, and that person became the world's first resurrectionist.
The whole dubious field collapsed in 1832, thanks to a law called the Anatomy Act. This legislation created a legal, lower-cost system of funneling cadavers into anatomy schools, eliminating the need to go to the graveyard and get all Frankenstein with it.
5. Night Soil Men
Night soil: It's got a pretty cool ring to it, doesn't it? It sounds like a fancy skincare product. In fact, night soil is just poop. Human poop. Do not put it on your skin.
In the epochs before modern plumbing, cities would collect human waste in cesspits, which are like what you see at the bottom of a Johnny on the Spot. Eventually those cesspits would fill up, and you'd need someone to come by and scoop them out.
Night soil men, or just nightmen, were the lucky ducks who got that job. They were also known as "gongfermours" or "gong farmers," since the cesspits were called gongs.
Nightmen could make money on both ends by selling their night soil to farmers. It was decent fertilizer, despite being full of pathogens. Farmers must have figured, "Hey, it's the olden days. People are always getting sick, anyway."
6. Spiritualist Mediums
At some point in the latter half of the 19th century, people got really into the idea of conversing with ghosts. The practice of "spiritualism" became a bit of a fad among the upper classes.
That created a job opening for anyone with a crystal ball and a little creativity. Well-heeled members of British high society would pay a pretty penny to sit in on a spiritualist seance.
The whole show got started in England around 1852, when an American medium named Maria B. Hayden took a trip to London. Hayden charged a guinea per person for a demonstration in which "spirits" tapped on the table and shared some messages—through Hayden, of course.
Even the royal family got into spiritualism. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were regulars at the best seances in London. The rise of scientific thought chipped away at spiritualism's popularity, and it's no longer a great way to make a living.
What do you do when your loved one has died without confessing all of his sins? Just hire a sin-eater, of course. These folks would stand over the unfortunate sinner and gobble bread or quaff a beverage.
The idea was that the departed's sins would then pass into the sin-eater's soul. The people who did this job were usually poor or even homeless, so they didn't mind trading a bit of sin for a free meal and a few coins.
The rest of the townsfolk usually steered clear of the local sin-eater. After all, the more sins you eat, the more evil you become, or so they believed.
The practice was most common in England in the mid-19th century, although it stuck around to one degree or another until 1906. That was when the last British sin-eater, Richard Munslow, carried his sins with him to the grave.
8. Toshers or Sewer-Hunters
During the Victorian era, Londoners resorted to all sorts of money-making schemes. As we've mentioned, a lot of them involved human waste. This is one of those.
Toshers hunted through the city's sewers hoping to find valuables among the muck. It was a dangerous job. Toshers sometimes got lost in the darkness, and then there were the rats to deal with.
Stories of huge, hungry, and mean rats attacking terrified toshers abounded back in the day. If the rats didn't get you, the sewer gasses probably would—don't even think about lighting a match down there.
The lucky tosher might come away with an old gold coin or an unburned lump of coal for their troubles. That's not much of a reward for fighting off teams of sewer rats.
The toshers and the rat catchers should have started a company together. It's not competition, folks—it's synergy. Anyway, let's just all be glad they didn't have reality television in Victorian England, because you know there'd be a show about these guys.