Nobody really likes their job—not all the way. Ask around. Workers might enjoy the challenge, and they might even 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 in the England of old.
For huge portions 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.
Of course, there were kings and queens, too, but if you lived during this time period, you probably had a less desirable occupation. For instance, you might have been a…
1. Chimney Sweep’s Apprentice
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 can 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” also occasionally 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 into 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—but not before they’d let the leech suck their blood for twenty minutes to make them easier to dislodge, according to Ripley’s Believe It or Not!.
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 was rediscovered in 1970, and leeches are used in rare medical cases even today. Yet there might not be a career in leech gathering in your future—”The small number of leeches used today … are farmed, rather than collected,” wrote Ripley’s Believe It or Not!.
3. Rat Catcher
Hey, those rats aren’t going to catch themselves.
Professional rat catchers prowled the dark corners of 19th-century London, hunting and capturing the vicious rodents. It was a lot less glamorous than it sounds.
In the 1890s, rat catcher Ike Matthews wrote about the profession in Full Revelations of a Professional Rat-Catcher, after 25 Years’ Experience. Some of his words of wisdom:
“In the first place my advice is—never poison Rats in any enclosed buildings whatever. Why? Simply because the Rats that you poison are Drain Rats, or what you call Black Rats, and you can depend upon it that the Rats that you poison will not get back into the drains, but die under the floor between the laths and plaster, and the consequence is that in a few days the stench that will arise will be most obnoxious. And there is nothing more injurious than the smell of a decomposed Rat.”
We’d like to note that that’s how Matthews started his essay on rat catching. No fluff, no forward from a well-respected exterminator, just bam: decomposing rats.
Rat catchers didn’t run around grabbing rodents by hand—at least not all the time. They also pressed trusty terriers into service, and some even set ferrets loose to do the dirty work, according to Matthews.
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 them. If customers refused to pay the bill, Matthews recommended threatening to let the rats back loose—”Most people will pay the price you send in rather than have the rats turned loose again,” he wrote.
Not every rat snagged by a catcher was offed outright. According to the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association, some were sold to rat pits, a disturbing Victorian practice which pitted multiple rats and one dog in mortal combat, and some were sold as pets.
4. Resurrectionist (or Body Snatcher)
That title isn’t quite accurate. 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 executed 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—or body snatcher, depending on who you asked. Before it was formally outlawed, the profession “the practice was considered morally and religiously reprehensible, as was dissection itself,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
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 Man (or Gong Farmer)
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 were the lucky ducks who got that job. They were also known as “gong farmers,” since the cesspits were called gongs. Armed with a bucket, a shovel, and a candle, 16th-century gong farmers would brave the sewer systems and scoop the backlogged waste for a decent paycheck back on the surface, according to British television show The Worst Jobs in History.
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.”
Or maybe not—the profession existed in the United States, as well.
What do you do if your loved passes away 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. In case you’re wondering, the practice wasn’t officially sanctioned by a major church, but vicars often turned a blind eye.
So, why was this such a bad gig? The rest of the townsfolk usually steered clear of the local sin-eater—”being a sin eater meant you were homeless and a social pariah,” according to Atlas Obscura. 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, according to the BBC.
In 2010, villagers restored Munslow’s grave as a sign of respect, although the local vicar noted that he has “no desire to reinstate the ritual that went with [Munslow].”
7. Tosher (or Sewer Hunter)
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 gases probably would.
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.
Come to think of it, we wouldn’t mind seeing that show.
We know what you’re thinking: Dentists have the sweetest gig (pardon the pun) on this list. For the most part, you’re right.
In fact, in medieval times, dentists performed many the same services as their modern counterparts…but they worked with much filthier mouths. They also worked with far less precise tools, relying on herbal remedies and bloodletting to cure toothaches.
“[It was] more likely that people would have picked their teeth to remove food, but [they were] less likely to brush them,” Rachel Bairsto, head of museum services at the British Dental Association Museum, tells Urbo.
Eventually, dentistry progressed, but you still wouldn’t want to be a dentist in the 18th or 19th century. Dentists also had to get, ahem, creative when sourcing materials for dentures.
“Human teeth were in high demand, so mortuaries, grave robbing, workhouses, etc. were all potential sources,” she says. “Dentists would not advertise where their teeth came [from], but patients knew they were wearing human teeth.”
Sure, dentists were respected in their communities, but given that their patients had questionable hygiene (at best) and they had to spend at least part of their days sourcing teeth from actual human bodies, we’d probably pass on this occupation.