Arts & Culture

6 dreadful jobs in Victorian London

How often do you complain about your desk job? Long hours, lost weekends, boredom, and stress can take their toll.

But before you think your career is so bad, you should take a moment to think about how the working-class labourers of Victorian London used to make a living.

From the disgusting to the downright dangerous, here are some of the worst jobs you might have had if you were born just over a century ago. Don’t worry; we won’t make you try them out on any of our London tours!

Pure Finder

Source: UCSC

Walk your dog in the streets of Victorian London, and you’ll be expected to pick up its mess. Going back to the Victorian era, though, you could’ve made some money in the process.

Pure finders used to meander the dirty streets of 19th-century London, scooping up dog poo to sell to leather tanners. It might not have been the most hygienic way to survive, but living is a living!


If picking up dog mess all day makes you feel squeamish, you’re probably not going to like the sound of this career. Toshers earned a living by sifting through raw sewage for valuable items in London’s sewer network.

The job was just as dangerous as it was disgusting – rats, noxious fumes, crumbling tunnels and sudden tides of filthy water were all threats to toshers.

Leech Collector

Source: Wellcome Collection

Leeches were a useful commodity for doctors in Victorian London. Our quacks used leeches to treat ailments ranging from ‘hysteria’ to headaches. Useful or not, the leeches had to be collected by somebody, and the job usually fell to poor countrywomen.

These poor souls would wade through dirty ponds hoping that the critters would latch onto their legs. Then, the lucky employees would prise them off and store them in a pot. Infectious diseases and excess blood loss were serious dangers to leech collectors.

Matchstick Makers

You can probably hazard a guess at what a matchstick maker did. It’s how they did it that made the job truly terrible. Matchstick makers were usually teenage girls.

They cut the wood into thin sticks and dip the ends into highly toxic phosphorous. If ingested, phosphorous can lead to an awful condition called ‘phossy jaw’, which eventually causes the jawbone to rot away.

Many of these girls worked 12 to 16 hours daily with few breaks. How do you feel about your 40-hour work week now?

Chimney Sweep

Source: Wikipedia

Chimney sweeping was usually reserved for small children to climb up the chimneys of London. Some workers were ten years old, but many were as young as four. The poor children often developed calluses on their elbows and knees. Some suffered from irreversible lung damage after inhaling dust and smoke.

Rumour has it that some cruel bosses would force unwilling kids up chimneys by lighting a fire underneath them. Think about that the next time you’re getting a grilling at work.

Hysteria Doctor

The UK changed dramatically during the Victorian era. Unfortunately, the equal rights movement was still nowhere in sight.

‘Difficult’ women were often diagnosed with ‘hysteria,’ which isn’t a real ailment. In many cases, doctors used lurid machines and devices to ‘cure’ hysterical women while ensuring they didn’t enjoy themselves too much.

Join us on one of our fascinating London tours to learn more fascinating and bizarre facts about London’s history. Our expert guides will tell you all about the weird and wonderful world of London through the ages.