Amid the current turbulent period of job losses and upheaval, some occupations are inevitably consigned to the scrapheap; usually through some form of progress. This article looks at professions which used to exist in London, but are now thankfully a distant memory.
Crossing Sweepers: The Crossing Sweeper's main function was cleaning muck from the streets and pavements. 100,000 horses plied the streets of London in the 19th century, offloading 1,000 tons of manure daily, so there was plenty or work to go around. The Crossing Sweeper would attempt to keep a path clear for ladies with long skirts and delicate slippers and gentlemen in their finest garments. The job was all-hands-to-the-pump during wet and miserable weather, and usually undertaken by young children. During mild, dry and warm weather they might switch their attention to hailing cabs and opening their doors instead, for a small tip. It was an incredibly strenuous job, and would often mean 'trench building' through the muck which was up to a foot deep.
Climbing Boy: to be a good Climbing Boy, you had to be small and thin, which usually meant 'very young'. Hazardous in the extreme, even most poor families who were otherwise interested in selling their children into labour, would baulk at the Chimney Sweep profession. As a result, most were recruited from orphanages. The Climbing Boy would climb up each chimney (there was usually a flue and fireplace in every room of a large house), hand sweeping the soot from the sides as he went. He would not receive money, just a floor to sleep on and some bread and beer as payment. Plus of course, regular beatings to keep him motivated and light on his toes. If he got stuck, the master (Chimney Sweep) would often light a fire to 'encourage' him to escape by climbing higher. Life expectancy for a Climbing Boy hovered just below double digits.
Gong Farmer: Before sewage systems, the Gong Farmer was a person who emptied privies and cesspits. They generally worked at night (after 9pm by law) and had to transport the excrement outside the city boundaries. It was not uncommon for cesspits to be located in the cellars of houses, with the contents transported there by means of crude wooden chutes, which were flushed with rainwater (when it rained). Every two years or so, the cesspit was emptied by a Gong Farmer at the rate of 2 shillings per ton (in the 15th century). It's unimaginable what the interiors of houses would have smelt like during this period, especially during a hot summer with little rainfall. Dying of asphyxiation from the fumes was a fairly common hazard for the upwardly mobile Gong Farmer.
Rat Catcher: Although it was steady work, with waves of lethal plague ceaselessly radiating from mainland Europe during the Middle Ages, it was also dangerous and highly unpleasant. By using a combination of ferrets to flush the rats out and terriers to dispatch them, the rat catcher was an oiled, vermin-killing machine. Despite these tools at his disposal, he would often kill them by hand and the risk of being bitten was high - as was the chance of catching something disturbing from the rat's saliva. It was also common for Rat Catchers to breed their own rats and slaughter them to 'up' the headcount of their labours. Rat Catching was a profession with few 'old hands'.
Sin Eater: Not as dangerous as it sounds. The Sin Eater was usually a beggar, who was brought in to consume a drink and a piece of bread or biscuit, over the corpse of a recently deceased person. It was thought that by doing so, the corpse would be absolved of sin, which would be passed directly to the Sin Eater. For the god-fearing, this was an appalling mantle for a stranger to assume - taking on someone else's lifelong sins. But for the beggar it was probably regarded as 'easy money'.
Knocker Up: Was a profession which existed until well into the 20th century, before alarm clocks became cheap or reliable enough for general use. It was their job to wake factory and market workers at an ungodly hour, initially by using a wooden stick and hammering on their door, or a long bamboo cane to tap on their window. They would receive a nominal sum, but usually had an extensive client list and would not leave one stop until the person came to the window. It was a job which was often taken by the elderly and in the later Victorian period in London where the tenements could be 5-6 stories, it was popular to use a 'pea shooter' (small blowpipe and dried peas) which would give a sharp rap on the window without breaking it.
Pure Collector: If ever there was a job title which masked the unpleasant reality being offered, it's this one (or maybe the contemporary 'Telesales Executive'). The Pure Collector would collect animal excrement (generally of the dog or pigeon variety) for use in the tanning industry. It was a job usually set aside for young girls and old women and it's easy to understand why it was a less-than-pleasant way to pass the day. However, you might spare a thought for the hapless Tanner's Apprentice, who would receive the 'Pure'. It was his job to combine it with a slurry of pureed animal brain and urine. The apprentice would then pound and knead the hides (using his bare feet) for several hours in this odoriferous bath. Obviously we know now that if he had any kind of cut or abrasion on his feet or legs, infection would set in and anthrax would likely follow. Back then of course, he would have been blissfully unaware pottering around his lethal cauldron. On the bright side, you might just survive anthrax (unlikely), thus making you immune and worth an extra groat or two to your master. Every cloud with its silver lining, etc.
Saggar Maker's Bottom Knocker: Not especially dangerous, but here for the unusual job title. Saggars were clay containers used to hold pottery-ware, especially crockery when it was fired in a kiln. Making Saggars was a skilled job, but the bottom part was created by knocking some clay through an iron hoop template and was an unskilled job, usually set aside for boys of 9-10 years old. Hence they were known as Saggar Maker's Bottom Knockers. Which may or may not come up in the tie-breaker section of your local pub quiz. So try to remember it.