Let us be honest here.

The Regency Era was not overly kind to those of lower birth.

One of the most basic human rights that most of us now take for granted, the right to work and earn the means to survive, wasn’t what it is today.

The common folk were forced to take all kinds of downright unpleasant jobs in order to survive, a perfect example of which would be sewer cleaning. Others, in their desperation, chose to follow a path of unlawfulness and desecration. Did you know that grave robbers were disturbingly common back then? While there was no official record declaring grave robbing an acceptable occupation, many a person chose to make a living out of it.

Needless to say, life in Regency London was no evening ball if you did not have deep pockets.

Or, you know, if you didn’t know good enough gossip to blackmail someone into being your personal benefactor!

That used to be a thing too, by the way!

Gotta be proud of some people’s resourcefulness and determination not to pick up grave robbing, right?

For those without the means or the right connections, the potential horrors were many and they did not make age or gender distinctions.

This is the part where you sit down and prepare your stomach, for I am about to walk you through the sewers of the Regency Era…literally…

Chimney Sweeps

Boys as young as four climbed hot flues that could be as narrow as 81 square inches. Work was dangerous and they could get jammed in the flue, suffocate or burn to death. As soot is carcinogenic, and as the boys slept under the soot sacks and were rarely washed, they were prone to chimney sweeps’ carcinoma.

The climbing boys, and sometimes girls, were technically called chimney sweeps’ apprentices, and were apprenticed to a master sweep, who, being an adult, was too large to fit into a chimney or flue. He would be paid by the parish to teach orphans or paupers the craft. They were totally reliant on him: they or their guardians had signed papers of indenture, in front of a magistrate, which bound them to him until they were adults. The master sweep had duties: to teach the craft and its mysteries, to provide the apprentice with a second suit of clothes, to have him cleaned once a week, allow him to attend church, and not send him up chimneys that were on fire.

It was generally agreed that six was a good age to train a boy.

Miners

Let’s face it—mining has been one of the worst jobs throughout history. In the Regency era, you’d start in the coal mines at six or seven, opening and closing doors in the tunnels for approaching horses and miners while sitting in complete darkness for twelve hours a day.

Older children and women would drive carts of mines up, either by ponies carrying the carts, or by actually pulling it up on sleds. No carts for you!

The worst thing?

Pregnant women were not exempt—which is especially harsh, since the rope was wrapped around their bellies!

-Lord Shaftesbury inspects the conditions endured by children working in a coalmine, Date: circa 1842, Source: unnamed artist in ‘The Black Country’

Sewer Cleaners

During the 18th and 19th centuries, squat latrines were especially common. Of course, they did not resemble their modern-day equivalent in no way, shape or form, and were simple holes dug in the soil.

Of course, these holes did not have plumbing and thus, someone had to do the dirty job or cleaning them and reading them for future use.

You can get your bearings together, I’ll wait.

Many nighttime workers were tasked with emptying them. Silent and somber—I’d be too, if I were doing their job—they arrived after dark to shovel the contents of those holes into big barrels that were then transported to a far-away location to be emptied and prepared for the next night.

Talk about the worst job in the history of ever…

Grave Robbers

In England, one morbid “occupation” was grave robbing.

And no, I do not mean Indiana Jones-style, with a cool hat and physics-defying, whip-wielding skills.

This disgusting trade became popular during a time when medical schools desperately needed human bodies for their anatomy classes. However, those bodies were hard to come by, as even convicted criminals were immediately buried after death.

Most grave robbers operated at night, digging through cemeteries for fresh bodies. The first case of grave robbing was reported in 1777, when a body was dug out and stolen from the cemetery of Bloomsbury.

Soil Collectors

Respectable homes couldn’t just chuck their chamberpots out the windows (like less respectable homes), so the waste had to go somewhere. They tossed their chamberpots in their cesspits to be emptied at night by the night-soil collectors.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, urine was used for the washing and whitening of wool. Once a week, owners of woolen mills would pass through towns and neighboring villages and buy the contents of peoples’ chamberpots.

Ah, the glory of the good old days!

It seems like no matter how deep you dig (ha-ha, see what I did there?) there’s always something new to discover. You never know where you might end up!

And this time, this little walk of ours down memory lane, surely took us somewhere different!

It must have been so difficult to choose a career path back then. And oh, my! What an array of delectable choices!

(I’m sorry, my sarcasm is taking over, I promise to behave!)

So…anybody interested in bringing any of these occupations back to life? 

 

Written by Hanna Hamilton

30 COMMENTS

  1. Uh, no…just, no…. So many reasons to be happy and feel blessed for being born in modern life. I, too, am glad to have been a teacher and administrator. I would NOT have chosen that career during regency years. Women, regardless of “career”, were treated abominably. I would not have fared well…too independent and strong willed!

  2. The above also added to our descrptive vocabulary with collection of urine or rather its sale by those who were” piss poor” and those who were too poor to do even that by ” not having a pot to piss in “

  3. I’d heard of the practice of tossing the contents of chamber lots out of Windows with the warning cry of looks loo. I had not heard about the squat holes.
    I can honestly say I don’t want any of the jobs you described!

  4. Did they have a use for The vast quantities of horse manure? I have 16 horses and I have to give truckloads away twice a year. Plus collect and pile it. It gets hot in the pile, especially if it gets rained on.

  5. Well….a living simply had to be had then & these particular occupations were really appalling in every aspect. I feel really saddened at the ultimate end for the little chimney sweeps; all that climbing in & out of soot as well as lying in/on the soot to succumb to cancer before much of their little lives were lived. The Master Sweep often had no empathy & treated these children quite poorly. I guess little Oliver Twist had it much better by comparison!!
    I really am very glad that such exploitation does not go on these days, however, we do have sweat shops in the 3rd world countries where many, many women slave away sewing clothing for the big Western World’s big retailers!! So… if you are poor, have nothing then you easily become a victim. Here in Australia we have had the scandal of underpayment of wages to staff by a very big retailer, Woolworths, & this goes on in many occupations where the basic wage is not paid so these people have no other course but to pursue justice via the Courts & their Unions. This often takes much time as the perpetrators aren’t so quick to address the wrongs they’ve inflicted upon unsuspecting workers.

  6. I have to say that tomorrow I am a young at heart 66, my late Grandad god rest his soul was almost 90 when he passed.
    I live in a town where mining for coal was the predominant trade.

    My Grandad started work at a very young age down a pit, although a very hard and dirty job he came to love the work he did, why I shall never know, as he grew older his wife used to cut him sandwiches and a flask of tea she said goodby in the early hours and said hello again as he arrived safely home after a long hard day.

    I remember when I was just a young lad the hooters going off in the middle of the night proclaiming yet another disaster at our local pit, the worry and heartache for the women and children who knew not if husband or dad was going to come back through the door the next day, most did some as I recall were not so lucky —-I could go on but enough for now at least.

  7. People say about the good old days I don’t think so I am 82 year old now but I am great full that things have changed in my life time.women and children did not have a choice in regency days a great deal of the wealthy did not know how the poor lived. some did not care .

  8. Yeah, I daydream about living in those times….of course my daydreams also involve being upper class! I sometimes wish I’d lived in those more romantic times, but then, after learning something involving the REAL world of the times, I realize if I had lived in that era I’d have been a pauper!

  9. Thanks again for sharing another interesting and informative article about life during the Regency era. My maternal grandfather worked from the time he was a young boy, until he retired in his early 60′ due to his health problems no doubt in large part because of his work in the coal mines. He narrowly escaped being killed in the Christmas day mine explosion back in the 1930s; and that was only due to the insistence of my Grandmother that he stay home that day because a prophetic dream she kept having…But that’s a tale for another time.

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