You'll never complain about working nine to five again...
1. Matchstick maker
Matchstick making used to be one of the most hazardous jobs ever. Workers – usually young girls – often succumbed to ‘phossy jaw’, also known as phosphorus necrosis of the jaw, from working with highly toxic white phosphorus. Deposits of the substance built up in the jawbone, leading first to unbearable toothache and then to abscesses and extreme disfigurement of the jawbone as it rotted away and produced a putrid discharge. If left unchecked, the condition would lead to brain damage, organ failure and death – the only option was to remove the person’s entire jawbone. Eek!
2. Body snatcher
With the expansion of medical schools in Victorian times, medical students needed a supply of cadavers on which to learn. The only corpses allowed for anatomical studies were those of executed criminals – but with the number of crimes punishable by death in this period decreasing, demand was outstripping supply. Cue the body snatchers – also called resurrectionists. These men would dig up freshly buried (the fresher the better) bodies and sell them to medical schools. So common was body snatching that relatives often felt the need to watch over graves in the days after the burial. However, not all body snatchers preyed on the recently deceased – in 1827-8, two men named Burke and Hare began murdering people in order to supply fresh corpses to doctors…
A tanner processed animal hides into leather – but, despite offering a vital service to their fellow citizens, tanners were forced to live on the outskirts of settlements and town. Why? Due to the unbearable stench their tanneries produced! Creating leather from hides involved collecting the bloody, hairy animal skins from butchers, softening the hides in urine for weeks to remove any hair or nails – and kneading faeces into the skins for hours on end.
4. Whipping boy
Thanks to the Divine Right Of Kings (that monarchs are appointed to rule by God), in the 16th and 17th centuries it was accepted that no-one but the king could punish his son. And, since kings were often absent from their littl’uns’ lives for great swathes of time on official business, this made punishing a prince tricky. So, a young friend of the prince – usually a boy of noble birth who grew up alongside him – would be designated the whipping boy. Whenever the prince was naughty, his punishment – often a whipping or beating – was meted out on his young companion… the logic being that the prince would feel so bad for his mistreated pal that he wouldn’t misbehave again. Hmm…
5. Sin eater
Fancy being a hated, destitute outcast, doomed to eternal torment? Then you’d be a great sin eater. Sin eaters helped the souls of the suddenly deceased gain entry to Heaven by absorbing their unconfessed sins. They did this by passing a piece of bread over the corpse or by placing it on the chest. The bread would soak up any sins, which the sin eater then consumed via the bread in return for a meagre payment. It was believed that the more sins the sin eater devoured, the more depraved their souls became…
6. Gong farmer
This unusual sounding job was easily one of the worst you could be lumbered with. A gong farmer went about in the hours of darkness emptying human excrement from privies and cesspits. The waste collected – known rather charmingly as ‘night soil’ – then had to be taken beyond the city’s limits and dumped. Exiled to the edges of towns and cities themselves, due to their obvious odour issues, the gong farmer’s work was also backbreaking – and some died from the toxic fumes they were forced to inhale.
The job of executioner had to one of the worst jobs in history – unless, of course, you happen to be a particularly grizzly minded person. While more recent executioners would’ve overseen electrocutions and hangings (still very nasty) centuries ago the holder of this post may have been asked to oversee death by being boiled alive, hung, drawn and quartered or being burned at the stake. In London, traitors’ heads would’ve had to be boiled by the executioner before being stuck on a pike and displayed over London Bridge. Strong stomachs definitely required for this job!
8. Climbing boy
Also known as a chimney sweep’s apprentice. Sticking a few brushes up a chimney doesn’t sound too grim, right? Not if you were a small boy, just the right size to squeeze up a narrow, pitch-black flue. Worse than sooty eyes and bleeding elbows and knees was the fact that many children – some as young as 5 – would become so terrified while wriggling their way up the chimney that they froze in panic – so their masters lit fires beneath them to get them to move. After becoming stuck, some died of suffocation before they could be rescued. Those who survived had their bloodied elbows and knees hardened by their master by rubbing brine into the wounds beside a hot fire. And, in later years, the carcinogens in the soot led many to develop ‘chimney-sweep’s cancer’ – a cancer of the scrotum…