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…
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.
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!
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…
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.
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