10 Odd Jobs of Yesteryear



These are some of the more obscure—and decidedly unglamorous—professions listed in old English censuses and other records.

1. Knocker-up

Back in the days before alarm clocks, people needed to be sure they didn’t miss the start of their shift at the mill or factory. Either the workers or sometimes the mill owner would hire a knocker-up (also called a knocker-upper), whose duty was to ensure people woke up. Usually armed with a large pole (though at least one used a pea shooter), he or she would rap repeatedly on the person’s bedroom window at the allotted time, not leaving until certain that the person was awake. In some areas, the knocker-up remained a common sight into the 1930s.

2. Bang-Beggar

Wikimedia Commons

Before Poor Laws were updated and the workhouse system instituted, some communities searched for ways of dealing with unwanted transients. Enter the bang-beggar. A form of constable or beadle, the bang beggar wore a rather fancy livery and carried a large mace, which he used to threaten and chase away any undesirables who might try to interrupt church services or otherwise disturb the good gentlefolk of the parish.

3. Link-boy

With no street lights, moving from place to place after dark could prove challenging—unless you decided to hire a link-boy. For a few pennies, he would carry a lamp or torch and guide you to your destination.

4. Pimpmaker

It’s not what you think! A pimp was a bundle of firewood, a regional term, used mostly in London and the surrounding Southern counties. Hence the pimpmaker—someone who was employed to gather the necessary wood and prepare the bundles for sale. Also known as bavin makers, you could expect to find many of these in heavily wooded areas.

5. Saggar Maker’s Bottom Knocker

Lee Haywood, Flickr

This mouthful of a job title was specific to the potteries of Staffordshire. A saggar is a container used to hold multiple pieces of pottery during the firing process. Although making the saggar required a certain level of expertise, making the base of the saggar was a much simpler task, often done by an apprentice or a young boy. Known as the saggar maker’s bottom knocker, his job was to shape a lump of fireclay into a metal ring.

6. Tosher

Wikimedia Commons

A must to be included in any list of jobs we’re so glad we don’t have to do now, a tosher made their living by scavenging through London’s Victorian sewers in search of items that could be cleaned up and sold. Suddenly dumpster diving doesn’t sound so bad!

7. Slubber Doffer

The title of slubber doffer was not restricted to the UK; you could also find them in the textile mills of New England. The job was actually quite simple: They would walk around the mills and change the bobbins as needed. Any imperfections in the spun yarn were called slubs, hence the doffer being responsible for moving empty bobbins or fixing broken threads of yarn.

8. Pug Mill Operator

Nick Nguyen, Flickr

Before you call PETA, the pug mill operator is not some form of cruel dog breeder. A pug mill was (and still is) a machine used for mixing clay that could then be used in either potteries or construction work.

9. Night Soil man or Jakes-Farmer

Public Domain // via Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays, we're used to the luxury of flushable toilets—and, if we happen to have a septic tank, we can hire a truck to come and pump out the contents. In days gone by, we would have hired either a night soil man or a jakes-farmer. Both had the charming task of emptying cesspits and privies (toilets). You might not want to shake their hand.

10. Purefinder

If the previous job wasn’t horrible enough for you, spare a thought for the purefinders. Although we may well think otherwise, dog feces were also known as pure, apparently full of cleansing and purifying properties. Tanners valued the poo and applied it by hand to animal skins in order to remove moisture and (perhaps inexplicably) unpleasant smells. But where to find such an important commodity? Luckily, it littered the streets of Victorian Britain, and women and men roamed the streets gathering fresh feces for the tanners.

More strange jobs of yesteryear can be found here.