Ok, so we all know that for a lot of people life in the Victorian era was grim to say the least… a quick flick through any Dickens novel will surely convince you of that. But for some, life was particularly ghastly, not least because of the wide range of truly awful career options which were open to the average working class person.
It wasn’t half as much fun as Dick Van Dyke made it look, especially if you happened to be a child chimney sweep, also known as a climbing boy. Climbing boys were children as young as four who were sent up chimney flues (often while they were still hot) to clear soot from the inside of the structure. It was a near unimaginably dangerous job, with the risk that they could get stuck, slip and break their neck, suffocate, or even burn to death. That’s not to mention the unspeakably filthy nature of the job and toxic carcinogens present in the soot that meant many climbing boys/ chimney sweeps succumbed to “chimney sweeps’ cancer” in their late teens and early twenties…
As the name suggests, this is someone who collected leeches for their use in medical treatment, however the Leech Collector didn’t have a nifty “leech collecting gadget”… oh no all they had was their own blood. That’s right, a Victorian leech collector used themselves as bait to lure the leeches onto their skin. Aside from being a downright repulsive occupation with a meagre salary, the role often caused severe blood loss as well as exposure to all manner of grisly parasites and infections.
Certainly the most macabre “job” on our list, resurrectionists (a fancy term for body-snatchers) earned their living through the gruesome practice of stealing human remains from graveyards under contract of some of the Victorian era’s most celebrated physicians. Until 1832, the only supply of bodies available was those who had been executed, however physicians were fascinated with human dissection and as a result there was a constant demand for fresh specimens which led to the heyday of the body snatchers… at least the salaries were quite good…
Whilst this job may not sound particularly gruesome, what we have here is a classic example of good old fashioned Victorian euphemistic thinking. A pure collector actually collected dog faeces from the streets and sold it on to tanners for use in the leather making process. Dog feces was a major component in the leather making process, but we will get to that in a moment…
Was a person who scoured the putrid sewers of Victorian London in search of anything which may have some value. I’m sure I do not need to narrate the unpleasantness of wading waist deep through a tunnel of raw sewage… needless to say it was an unpleasant task and carried the risk of contacting all manner of abhorrent diseases.
This was surely one of the worst jobs ever to have existed… not because the work was hard, dirty or unpleasant (which it was) but because of the atrocious illnesses that the chemicals involved almost invariably caused. The match-making process involved the use of white phosphorous which is highly poisonous and caused a condition amongst match-stick factory workers known as “phossy jaw”. The first symptoms of this hideous disease were a toothache which was swiftly followed by swelling of the gums and jaw, abscesses and a foul discharge- essentially the victims jawbone began to slowly rot. In order to stop the spread of the necrosis the only option was to remove the jawbone entirely… which at a time of no anaesthetic and little pain relief was just barely the lesser of two evils.
A tanner is someone who processes animal hides into leather and in Victorian times this process was so gruesome and unspeakably filthy that it was possibly the least desirable role available at the time. The process is much too long to describe at every stage, however it included; collecting blood drenched animal hides from the butchers, placing the hides in lime pits to allow them to rot and ‘soften’ for several weeks and soaking them in a festering cocktail of dog feces and water… enough said!
So the next time you find yourself lamenting over the unpleasant tasks of your job, take a moment and give thanks that you are not a tanner, resurrectionist or matchstick-maker.