Craziest Victorian-Era Occupations
Queen Victoria ruled England from 1837 to 1876, presiding over an era of unprecedented technological and social change, as well as an era of unrelenting horrors and human cruelty.
Sure, your hipsters and your steampunks may love cribbing Victorian style, choosing to remember the pennyfarthings and top hats that look so fun on a Pinterest page, but let's face it: in those days if you weren't a member of the aristocracy, your life was probably unremittingly awful from start to all-too-brief finish. Disease, filth, and poverty were the norm, with people turning to whatever means of support that they could find - even if those means ended up being totally nasty. Victorian occupations usually tended to involve doing something that no human should have to do, for unreasonable hours, until it killed you.
Everyone likes to think that they'd be in the landed gentry, but let's face it, there were a lot fewer Mr. Darcys out there than Oliver Twists, and those orphans didn't end up saved in the end. They mostly just ended up in a coal mine somewhere. But those musical numbers wouldn't be quite as fun. Here then is a list of just a few of the weird jobs in the Victorian era that you could have had, just to help you better appreciate the times you live in today.
- Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
Cause: Too much blood.
Cause: Also too much blood.
Treatment: More leeches.
Cause: Too much darn blood!
Treatment: So many leeches!
Wow! What a handy treatment these leeches were! Why on earth don't we hear that much about them today? Well, mostly it's because leeches don't actually help with any of those symptoms, "too much blood" isn't a thing, and apparently no one told the Victorians that leeches were not medicine but instead vile parasitic nightmare fodder.
But that doesn't mean they weren't big business. Who cares that they didn't actually do any of the things that they claimed; there was a period of time where belief in their powers was so strong that demand for leeches actually outstripped the supply. This required the advent of a new occupation: leech collector.
Collectors, usually women, would ride in boats with their feet in the water or just wade bare-ankled into a leech-filled lake, using themselves as bait for the bloodsuckers. Drawn to the warm, fresh food source the leeches would attach themselves to the collectors who would then pluck them off and sell them to local doctors.
Unsurprisingly, this method came with some... complications. First off, people actually have a finite amount of blood, and most doctors these days agree that it's best left inside of their bodies. Leech collectors often suffered from being chronically low on blood, on account of it being constantly being sucked out of them. Doctors will also tell you that it's not smart to go wading into stagnant waters with open sores all over your legs, but leechers did that too. This resulted in frequent infections and often attracted other parasites far worse than the leeches.
Unfortunately for leech collectors, they eventually over-farmed the hirudo medicinalis, thought to be the top leech for medical purposes, causing the species (and the profession) to all but go extinct. Collectors had to move on to other, probably still equally horrific, occupations, and doctors had to move on to other, probably far more effective, treatments.
- Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
Any time you find yourself at work cursing your miserable job, just take a moment to stop and think about the toshers, and you'll almost certainly feel better about your situation.
Even lower than the bone-grubbers and the mudlarks (both literally and societally), toshers were sewer-scavengers that hunted through cities', um, run-off for valuables that got flushed the toilet down with the rest of the grossness. Metal, cutlery, and bones all had resale value, and there was actually a fair amount of stray currency that somehow managed to find its way into the sewer. Despite the less than ideal working conditions, toshers managed to make a relatively decent living. They raked in what would today be about 20,000 pounds per year, enough to put them amongst the upper echelons of Victorian England's working class. Just think: all you had to put up with to get to the poverty line was a job that stunk to high heavens, was societally stigmatized, and carried with it an exceptionally high risk of illness and infection. Now that's crappy.
- Photo: Harper's Weekly / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
As everyone with a good Christian education knows, when someone dies, all of their sins can be absorbed by a living person if that individual simply eats a meal off of the chest of the recently deceased. Since that's a given, it obviously falls to the family and friends of the deceased to find someone to "eat" their loved one's sins and ensure their swift passage into heaven.
The job of sin-eater usually went to someone so poor and hopeless that they were in no position to turn down a meal, potential damnation be damned. Sin Eaters were stigmatized as evil, with the thinking being that the longer they did their work, the more sins they carried on their soul. The church never officially sanctioned the practice, which eventually died out as people started to catch on that it might be just a little silly.
- Photo: The Graphic / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
What? Matchstick maker? Why is that a crazy job? We have matches today, someone makes them, what's the big deal?
Well, let's just say that the job has changed a bit since Queen Victoria's day. While these days matches are safely manufactured inside big factories that adhere to governmental safety regulations, they used to be made by hand with zero oversight of any kind because the English motto at the time was, "People? Frankly, we've got too many as it is."
The cramped, inhumane working conditions in the matchstick factories seem bad enough, but 16-hour work days and a sub-living wage were hardly the worst of matchstick makers' problems. The thing about matches is that in order to get them to catch fire on command, they need to be made out of some highly volatile chemicals like yellow phosphorous that shouldn't be handled or inhaled by humans.
Prolonged exposure to phosphorous can lead to phosphorous necrosis of the jaw, a condition known colloquially as "Phossy jaw," the truly horrific list of symptoms of which include extreme pain, tooth loss, bone decay, facial abscesses, a rotting stench, and eventually the total removal of the jaw. The mixers, dippers, and boxers of the factory - usually women and children as young as eight years old - worked constantly in poorly ventilated conditions with the deadly yellow phosphorous. They breathed it in; it got on their hands, in their eyes, on their mouths, and even in their food because they often weren't even allowed to take their meager breaks to eat outside of the factory walls. These and other factors led to the London Matchgirls Strike of 1888, which resulted in somewhat better conditions, such as switching to the less deadly red phosphorous that's used today.
- Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / Flickr / Public domain
So in a world without cell phones, alarm clocks, or wakeup calls from the front desk, how do you make sure you get up in time to go to your miserable job that will probably kill you?
The answer to this historical conundrum is you pay a knocker-up, an enterprising gentleman with a metal-tipped pole that he would use to bang on slates hung outside of customers' windows in order to rouse them. The person in need of waking would write whatever time they needed to be up on the slate, and good knockers would bang until the person opened their windows. Tradespeople like doctors, shopkeeps, and drivers frequently used knockers, and factories would sometimes employ knocker-ups to go drag their workers out of bed. This meant that the knocker's poles would have to be long enough that they could reach the higher windows of the row house apartment buildings that the factory workers lived in.
All this leads tho the ultimate question, though: who knockers-up the knocker-up?
- Photo: Lewis Hine / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
Just in case you were worried that there was only one way for Victorian-era children to die of respiratory damage, never fear - plenty of kids also got sent down into coal mines to blacken up those lungs. While coal mining is still kicking around as an occupation, reforms in the industry sadly mean that children can no longer be conscripted into subterranean service. This lead to the elimination of some jobs that were traditionally held open for the more impressionable, coercible youths, like nipping. While today a nipper is basically just a trainee, back then these entry-level miners (read: 9-10 year olds) had a very specific task...
One of the many, many, many dangers of working in a mine are the occasional noxious gasses that go swirling around killing miners and small birds. To prevent the spread of these gasses, airlocks were built with massive, sealing doors, and nippers were the little guys whose job it was to open those doors for the carts and horses. Lights were low, and shifts were long, so accidents would happen. In addition to the usual falls, fires, and cave-ins that could beset any miner, because of their specific duties, nippers were all too frequently crushed by horses, gates, carts, and, of course, the gigantic doors themselves.
So just remember: the next time you tousle your nephew's hair and call him a li'l nipper, you're basically wishing that he'd be kept in a dark, dangerous cave for 14 hours a day (and who knows, maybe that's exactly what you mean to say).