10 of the Worst Jobs in the Victorian Era

Getty Images/Hulton Archive
Getty Images/Hulton Archive

Next time you complain about your boring desk job, think back to Victorian times—an era before the concept of occupational health and safety rules—and count yourself lucky. Back then, people were forced to think of some imaginative ways to earn a living, from seeking out treasure in the sewers to literally selling excrement.

1. LEECH COLLECTOR

Leeches were once a useful commodity, with both doctors and quacks using the blood-sucking creatures to treat a number of ailments, ranging from headaches to "hysteria." But pity the poor leech collector who had to use themselves as a human trap. The job usually fell to poor country women, who would wade into dirty ponds in the hope of attracting a host of leeches. Once the critters attached to the leech collector’s legs, the individual 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 excess blood loss and infectious diseases.

2. PURE FINDER

Despite the clean-sounding name, this job actually involved collecting dog feces from the streets of London to sell to tanners, who used it in the leather-making process. Dog poop was known as "pure" because it was used to purify the leather and make it more flexible [PDF]. Leather was in great demand in Victorian times, as it was used not only as tack for horses but for shoes, boots, bags, and in bookbinding. Pure collectors haunted the streets where stray dogs amassed, scooping up the poop and keeping it in a covered bucket before selling it on to the tanners. Some collectors wore a black glove to protect their scooping hand, but others considered it harder to keep a glove clean than a hand and eschewed the protection altogether.

3. TOSHER

A Victorian illustration of a tosher, or sewer collector
An 1851 illustration of a sewer-hunter or "tosher."
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Victorian London had a huge network of over-worked sewers under the city, washing away the effluence of the crowded metropolis. 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. As a result of these dangers, toshers generally worked in groups, instantly recognizable in their canvas trousers, aprons with many large pockets (in which to stash their booty), and lanterns strapped to their chests. Most toshers also carried a long pole with a hoe at the end to investigate piles of human waste for dropped treasures, or with which to steady themselves if they stumbled in the gloom. 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 detection. 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.

4. MATCHSTICK MAKERS

Matchsticks are 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”—whereby the jawbone becomes infected, leading to severe disfigurement.

5. MUDLARK

Like the toshers, these workers made their meagre money from dredging through the gloop looking for items of value to sell, although in this case they were plying their messy trade on the shores of the Thames instead of mostly in the sewers. Seen as a step down from a tosher, the mudlarks were usually children, who collected anything that could be sold, including rags (for making paper), driftwood (dried out for firewood) and any coins or treasure that might find its way into the river. Not only was it a filthy job, but it was also very dangerous, since the tidal nature of the Thames meant it was easy for children to be washed away or become stuck in the soft mud.

6. CHIMNEY SWEEP

A photograph of a very happy chimney sweep
iStock

Tiny children as young as four years old were employed as chimney sweeps, their small stature making them the perfect size to scale up the brick chimneys. All the climbing in the claustrophobic space of a chimney meant many sweeps’ elbows and knees were scraped raw, until repeated climbing covered them with calluses. Inhaling the dust and smoke from chimneys meant many chimney sweeps suffered irreversible lung damage. 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 poor 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 inspire the poor mite to find their way out at the top of the chimney. Fortunately, an 1840 law made it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to climb and clean a chimney, though some unscrupulous fellows still continued the practice.

7. FUNERAL MUTE

Anyone familiar with Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist will remember that one of the orphan’s hated early jobs was as a mute for undertaker Mr. Sowerberry. A component of the extremely complex (and lucrative) Victorian funeral practices, mutes were required to dress all in black with a sash (usually also black, but white for children), while carrying a long cloth-covered stick and standing mournfully and silently at the door of the deceased’s house before leading the coffin on its processional route to the graveyard.

8. RAT CATCHER

An illustration of a group of Victorian men watching rat-baiting.
Getty Images/Rischgitz

Rat catchers usually employed a small dog or ferret to search out the rats that infested the streets and houses of Victorian Britain. They frequently caught the rats alive, as they could sell the animal to “ratters,” who put the rats into a pit and set a terrier loose upon them while onlookers made bets about how long it would take for the dog to kill them all. Catching rats was a dangerous business—not only did the vermin harbor 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 for Henry Mayhew’s seminal tome on Britain’s working classes, London Labour and the London Poor (1851) in which 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 eating each other, ruining his spoils.

9. CROSSING SWEEPER

The “job” of crossing sweeper reveals the entrepreneurial spirit of the Victorian poor. These children would claim an area of the street as their patch, and when a rich man or woman wished to exit their carriage and walk across the filth-strewn street, the sweeper would walk before them clearing the detritus from their path, ensuring their patron’s clothes and shoes stayed clean. Crossing sweepers were regarded as just a step up from beggars, and worked in the hopes of receiving a tip. Their services were no doubt sometimes appreciated: The streets during this period were mud-soaked and piled with horse manure. The poor sweepers not only had to endure the dismal conditions whatever the weather, but were also constantly dodging speeding horse-drawn cabs and omnibuses.

10. RESURRECTIONISTS

An 1840 drawing of a group of resurrectionists at work
Getty Images/Hulton Archive

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 wily Victorians saw an opportunity to make some money by robbing recently dug graves. The problem became so severe that family members took to guarding the graves of the recently deceased to prevent the resurrectionists sneaking in and unearthing their dearly departed.

The "profession" was taken to an extreme by William Burke and William Hare who were thought to have murdered 16 unfortunates between 1827 and 1828. The pair enticed 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. After the crimes of Burke and Hare were discovered, the Anatomy Act of 1832 finally helped bring an end to the grisly resurrectionist trade by giving doctors and anatomists greater access to cadavers and allowing people to leave their bodies to medical science.

The ChopBox Smart Cutting Board Has a Food Scale, Timer, and Knife Sharper Built Right Into It

ChopBox
ChopBox

When it comes to furnishing your kitchen with all of the appliances necessary to cook night in and night out, you’ll probably find yourself running out of counter space in a hurry. The ChopBox, which is available on Indiegogo and dubs itself “The World’s First Smart Cutting Board,” looks to fix that by cramming a bunch of kitchen necessities right into one cutting board.

In addition to giving you a knife-resistant bamboo surface to slice and dice on, the ChopBox features a built-in digital scale that weighs up to 6.6 pounds of food, a nine-hour kitchen timer, and two knife sharpeners. It also sports a groove on its surface to catch any liquid runoff that may be produced by the food and has a second pull-out cutting board that doubles as a serving tray.

There’s a 254nm UVC light featured on the board, which the company says “is guaranteed to kill 99.99% of germs and bacteria" after a minute of exposure. If you’re more of a traditionalist when it comes to cleanliness, the ChopBox is completely waterproof (but not dishwasher-safe) so you can wash and scrub to your heart’s content without worry. 

According to the company, a single one-hour charge will give you 30 days of battery life, and can be recharged through a Micro USB port.

The ChopBox reached its $10,000 crowdfunding goal just 10 minutes after launching its campaign, but you can still contribute at different tiers. Once it’s officially released, the ChopBox will retail for $200, but you can get one for $100 if you pledge now. You can purchase the ChopBox on Indiegogo here.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

12 Smart and Simple Kitchen Hacks

Merlas/iStock via Getty Images Plus
Merlas/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Use these quick and simple tricks to save time in the kitchen and make cooking easier—and safer.

1. Put a damp paper towel under your cutting board.

Take a paper towel, wet it, wring it out, and place it under your cutting board. This will keep the board from slipping all over your counter and allow you to cut more safely. You can put a damp paper towel under mixing bowls to keep them from sliding around, too.

2. Use cooking spray on your cheese grater.

A person using a cheese grater
Whichever way you have your grater positioned, a little cooking spray will make the job easier.
vinicef/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Before you start grating cheese, lay your grater down on its side, which keeps it from moving around and catches all of your cheese in once place. Then spray the surface with the cooking spray of your choice. The oil lubricates the surface and makes grating easier, especially for sticky cheeses.

3. Put felt glides under countertop appliances.

Not only will this save your countertops from getting scratched, but it also makes oft-used appliances easier to move when you need them.

4. Put a spoon on top of boiling pasta water.

A person holding a spoon with penne pasta over a pot of boiling water.
Foam be gone!
Andrii Pohranychnyi/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Does the foam of your starchy pasta water boil right up out of the pot? There’s a simple fix: Lay a metal or wooden spoon over the top of the pot. According to Gizmodo, this method works because the foam is “thermodynamically unstable," so when the foam’s bubbles reach the spoon, they burst, "breaking the layer of foam and sending all the bubbles collapsing down again.” If you opt for metal, though, make sure to use oven mitts to remove it from the top of the pot—it will be hot.

5. Keep dental floss handy.

You can use it to cut soft cheeses. “If the cheese is small, you can hold it in one hand while your other pulls the floss taught and does the cutting,” cheesemonger Nora Singley writes at The Kitchn. “For larger situations, place cheese on a surface, shimmy the floss beneath it, and simply slice up, holding both ends of the floss and crossing the two ends to complete the cut. Then repeat in equal intervals.”

You can also use non-minty dental floss to cut cookie dough, burritos, and hard-boiled eggs; slice melons and layers of cake; to tie things together; and get food unstuck from baking sheets.

6. Preheat your baking sheet.

A baking sheet in the oven.
Pre-heating your baking sheet saves time.
allanswart/iStock via Getty Images Plus

If you’re making something like French fries or roasted veggies and your baking sheet is hot right from the get-go, you won’t have to go through the process of flipping your food later. Plus, both side of your food will be evenly browned and cook faster.

7. Save burnt pans with a dryer sheet.

Have you charred a pan so badly that the food you're trying to cook essentially became a part of the pan? Before you throw the pan out, try tossing in a dryer sheet, adding warm water, and letting it soak for 15 to 20 minutes. Then wash with soap and water as usual, and the burned bits will come right off. Karen Lo at Food52 writes that “It feels like an absolute miracle—because it is. But, according to lifestyle reporter Anna De Souza, it’s also ‘likely the conditioning properties of the dryer sheet’ that do the trick.” If the burn is really bad, Lo says you can use two dryer sheets and hot water for severe cases if you’d like, and let it soak overnight—use your judgment.

8. Leave the root end on your onion when cutting it.

A person holding an onion by the root end and dicing an onion with a knife.
Leaving the root end of your onion on gives you something to hold onto while you're dicing.
andreygonchar/iStock via Getty Images Plus

This method is a game changer: It allows you to dice your onions safely and quickly. First, according to Real Simple, you should cut the top off of the onion; then lay the onion on the now-flat top and cut the vegetable in half through the root. Next, peel off the skin, being careful to leave the root attached. Take half of the onion and lay it, flat side down, on the cutting board. Holding on to the root end, slice the onion vertically in strips of your desired size, without cutting through to the root. Then slice in the opposite direction to dice. When you’re done, save the root end of the onion to make stock.

9. Use a Bundt pan when cutting corn.

When you’re cutting corn on a flat surface, the kernels tend to fly everywhere messily. But if you hold the ear of corn—pointy end down—on the center of a Bundt cake pan, then rotate as you cut, the kernels will fall neatly into the pan.

10. Put away your potato peeler and use this method instead.

A pot of boiling water with potatoes.
dashtik/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Peeling potatoes is time-consuming and wastes delicious potato. Instead, use this potato peeling hack from Foody Tube: Make a small cut into the skin around the circumference of the potato, then boil it. Once the potato is cooked, peel the skin off. It’s that easy.

11. Keep your plastic wrap in the fridge.

When it’s cold, plastic wrap is easier to handle and less likely to get stuck to itself.

If getting plastic wrap to stick is the issue, wet the rim of whatever you’re trying to cover before putting on the plastic. The water will help it cling to the surface.

12. Use magnets to hold down parchment paper.

Two rolls of parchment paper on a white surface.
Keep parchment paper from rolling up on your baking sheet with this clever trick.
Viktoriia Oleinichenko/iStock via Getty Images Plus

To keep parchment paper from rolling up on baking sheets—and therefore making it incredibly difficult actually to put anything on the sheet to cook—Le Cordon Bleu-educated pastry chef Amy Dieschbourg uses magnets to hold the paper in place. Once everything is on the paper, remove the magnets and get cooking.