Finding employment today may seem like an arduous process that ends up with a job you don’t care for much, but in Victorian London, you took what you could get, and the jobs available were often less desirable than some of the positions we settle for today. Of course, time marches on, and some of the jobs that were once available ceased being necessary. Today, we’re familiar with some of these jobs from the literature of the era, though others seem wholly foreign to us. Enjoy a selection of Victorian London jobs that no longer exist.
You’ll be appreciative of what your plumber does and having a working sewer system after this. Nightmen, also known as Gong Farmers, represented a profession that had been around since the Tudor era. These were the men who went into London’s sewers and other places to empty the cesspools and keep human excrement from building up in the city’s sewer system. They got the name “Nightment” as, by law, their work could only be done after midnight. The “ropeman” would lower a tub to the waiting “holeman”, who would fill the tub which would then be hauled up and given to two “tubmen” to put into a cart for transportation to the city’s dust yard, laystalls, or manure wharves. As more modern waste disposal came into being, fewer cesspools needed to be emptied.
In the highly misogynistic and sexually repressed days of the Victorian era, a “difficult” woman was thought to be suffering from a catch-all malady known as “hysteria”. Hysteria doctors were entrusted to cure this fictional condition by using any number of machines and devices to administer the cure—an orgasm. Hydro therapy was another solution. In all cases, the doctor had to carefully monitor his patient to make sure she wasn’t enjoying herself too much. Naturally, as more modern attitudes developed about women, female sexuality, and medicine, these treatments were phased out, though they would later become more of a home remedy.
Pretty much did what it says on the tin, but the problem with the job of making matchsticks was that the phosphorous involved was incredibly toxic. In addition to a litany of health problems that one could develop from contact with the substance, factory workers could develop “phossy jaw”, which began with a toothache and then turned into swelling of the gums and jaw, abscesses, a fowl discharge, and then the slow rotting of the jaw altogether. Fortunately, technology was able to come up with less hazardous materials and construction methods that reduced these terrible effects on the workers.
Prior to the invention of the electric light and its prominence in keeping the city streets bright in the darkness, gas streetlights required lamplighters to go out before sunset with their ladders, wicks, and jars of whale blubber to light the lamps, then extinguish them at sunrise. Instead of a ladder, some lamplighters would use tall bicycles to help them get around faster. In many communities outside of London, the lamplighter was also a night watchman. An interesting side hobby that developed from their profession were the “bug cranks” who would follow the lamplighters around in the early mornings and collect any insects that had perished from the flames. Of course, with technology came the eventual phasing out of their jobs, though today, English Heritage keeps some employed in areas still lit by gas lamps as a means of honouring the past.
Today we might think of some young lad helping a little old lady cross the street, but in the Victorian period, Crossing Sweepers were often employed by aristocrats to sweep the streets in front of them as they walked. Sweepers didn’t necessarily follow the rich folks around. Instead, they had their own predetermined “areas” and would only sweep until the edge of their territory was reached, at which point, another sweeper would take over. As more lucrative jobs became available, the sweepers left for better employment, much to the chagrin of the upper classes.
Beginning during the Industrial Revolution and continuing well into the early 20th Century, the Victorian era required a more human means of waking up in the morning. While a farmer might awaken when the crowing of the cock, factory workers lacked such a natural means of getting up in time for work. The Knocker-Up in London and other industrial areas was tasked when knocking on doors and crying loudly to wake a home’s occupants. In the case of taller apartment and tenement buildings, the Knocker-Up would use a long rod to tap on a piece of slate near the window and would not leave until his clients had awoken. Upper classes didn’t take advantage of the service as they already had servants to do the job.
People collected some strange things in the Victorian era. While the “bug cranks” collected insects from the gas lamps, a pure collector was one who actually harvested dog feces from the streets. This wasn’t a hobby, though, as the pure collectors would then sell the poo to tanners as part of the process of making leather.
Jane C says
My great-grandfather was an Inspector of Nuisances (a forerunner to a Health Inspector) in Warwickshire in the late 1800s. I was always amused by his job title!
Phossy jaw was a terrible enough ailment without having a ‘fowl’ discharge. having chickens come out of your jaw would be really bad!
Geoffrey Winkler says
Would you publish the winners of your trips to the UK please. Otherwise it makes you wonder if it could a device for getting names & addresses.