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Tuesday, March 3, 2020

The Most Dangerous Jobs for Adults in the 19th Century


The Most Dangerous Jobs for Adults in the 19th Century

C. A. Asbrey
Ratters betting on the killing of rats

Following on from my previous post about the most dangerous jobs for children in the 19th century, it's time to have a look at what was available for those poor unfortunates if they survived into adulthood. In a world where the poor were given only the most basic education, and where social mobility was almost unknown, people had few options and often took the only work available, or followed their family profession.

You may think that being in the military was one of the most dangerous careers, but for many young men it was a route out of grinding poverty, and was seen by many as preferable to civilian life. Not only did it give food, lodgings, and clothes, but it also gave an opportunity for education, training, and advancement. On retirement, a pension was provided, and it gave young men a chance to be respected instead of being at the bottom of the social pile. On top of all that there was a chance for travel and adventure. In fact, the life was seen as far safer than many other forms of employment, and had a lower mortality rate than the jobs we're about to look at here.

Rat Catcher

A rat catcher was a very necessary role, but fraught with the risk of bites, infection, and a horrible death through the diseases they transmitted. It could be a profitable business though. They could sell the live rats to a ratter - who'd put the rats in a pit for men to gamble on how long it would take a dog to kill them all. Jack Black, Queen Victoria's rat catcher was recorded as keeping over 1,000 live rates in cages to sell on. If he forgot to feed them, they'd turn on one another, and eat the other rats, ruining his profits.

'Room and pillar' mining
Mining in the United States, specifically during the late 1890s to early 1900s, employed the 'room and pillar' method, which used coal pillars and timber to hold up roofs. In Europe the mine tended to be deeper, and were alo very dangerous, too, but the mortality rates in Room and Pillar mines were far higher. Miners worked in separate rooms, leading to limited supervision, and regular blasting was necessary to bring down coal. Often, the pillars would fail and there'd be a cave-in, trapping and crushing the miners. Their pay was based on their output, meaning that poor people took more risks to earn more. Lack of regulations meant that mine owners didn't invest in the safety equipment and procedures which were being introduced in other parts of the world. Death and injury were common, leading crippled miners to scratch a living doing whatever they could to survive.

Jobs didn't come much more disgusting than the poor old tosher. These people descended into the Victorian sewers and sifted through raw sewage to find any valuables which were dropped or washed down the drains. In an age before protective clothing, these people risked disease, rat bite, pockets of noxious gas, and tides of water which washed them away, and sometimes drowned them.

They often worked in groups and were recognizable by the long hoe they carried, and the canvas trousers and aprons covered in pockets. The work could be profitable, with coins and even jewelry turning up in the mire.

Pure Finder 

An almost equally disgusting role, but not quite, was that of the pure finder. The pure finder collected dog feces from the streets of
cities and sold them on to tanners, who used them in the tanning process in the leather they produced. In the days before synthetic fabrics leather was in great demand for furniture. tack, bags, boots,
bookbinding and even rudimentary protective clothing.

The pure finder sometimes wore one glove to protect the scooping hand. Others found the glove difficult to keep clean and went without the glove entirely.

Leech Collector

Leeches were in great demand by the medical profession, and somebody had to collect them. Those poor souls risked a myriad of infections as they ventured into dirty water to attract the blood-suckers to their own bodies, before transferring them to jars for selling on.

The work was often done by women, who would hoist up their skirts and wad into the water to become a human trap. Leeches can survive for  up to a year without feeding, so they could be stored in pharmacies until required. Quite apart from the risk of infection, the successful leech collector also tended to suffer from anaemia.

Railroad Worker

Often seen as an exciting and modern career for young men, the railroads were also an incredibly dangerous place to work. In 1889, the US railway's averaged a fatality rate of 8.52 deaths out of every thousand workers a year.

The workers were required to go between moving freight trains to couple and uncouple cars, resulting in many crush injuries. Over and above that there was the danger of explosion and  crashes. The workers were also required to ride cars to test brakes on moving trains. 


Logging has always been a dangerous undertaking. Even today it's considered a risky profession. The death rate at the moment is 8.43 deaths per 100,000 worker, but in the past it was even higher. There were no regulations and men keen to up their pay made the profession a bit of a free-for-all. Lumber was in demand everywhere, especially as building material as people pushed the frontier further west. 

In a September 1894 account in Munsey's Magazine, a lumberjack speaks:

Lumber camp life is by no means a desirable existence. Not only is it a dull routine of toil, but oftentimes it involves great hardship, while its pleasures are few and far between. A lake captain, who in his younger days spent several years in the woods, one day remarked that if he had his choice between spending three months in a lumber camp and the same amount of time in jail, he would unhesitatingly choose the latter...

[It is] a life fraught with many dangers. Falling trees and rolling logs have caused a long list of deaths; and it is on this account that the woodsman's outer garments are of the brightest colors, blue, green, red, and yellow being the more prominent. The men are thereby able to see one another more distinctly through the thick underbrush, and by a timely warning to avert a great many dangers.

In an environment where masculinity and strength was valued, there was a culture of recklessness,  and aggression was encouraged. Throw in a few hatchets, band saws, and chainsaws into that world, and it's surprising the casualties weren't higher. 

Matchstick Makers

There were many dangers in being a matchstick maker. They were frequently very young, very poor, often female, and generally the most powerless members of society. They earned a pittance, despite shareholders winning huge dividends, and worked sixteen hour days five days a week. They risked baldness from carrying stacks of boxes on their heads, handled cutting machinery which lost them fingers, and were frequently beaten if they under-performed. They had to buy their own equipment, and were fined for leaving their post, even to go to the toilet.

Worst of all, they handled highly-toxic yellow phosphorus, and as they were unable to leave their workstations, they also ate where they worked. This led to them consuming traces of the phosphorous when they ate their lunches while they worked. Over time, numerous people contracted necrosis of the jaw, which they colloquially called 'phossy jaw', and the phosphorous poisoning was the cause of the foul cancer eating away their jaw bones. In 1888, there was a strike,which fought for better pay and conditions, as well as a switch to less toxic red phosphorous.

The strike emboldened the Trade Union movement, and other workers followed their lead to fight for better working conditions. This wasn't the end of dangerous jobs though. The early twentieth century saw the scandal of the radium girls, who suffered from cancer caused by the radium they worked with. Asbestosis, deafness, hand vibration syndrome, and even latex allergies still impact on people today. We have made huge strides, but there are still cases which need attention to protect people.   


A wobble on the mattress jolted Sewell out of the arms of his dream-woman. He grunted and shifted under the covers, moving onto his other side. He suddenly felt a dead weight on top of him, an immobilizing, ponderous pressure which left him paralyzed and unable to move. Sewell gasped, sucking in a breath of a sweet, sickly miasma which filled his lungs as he took short pants of fear. His eyelids opened snapped open as the horror of his immobility climbed. He was pinned beneath his bedclothes, unable to move a limb, except for the feet which flailed and floundered beneath the tangling sheets.

He tried to cry out but found his impotent screams lost in the fabric jamming his mouth. He lay, pinned to the bed, rigid and immobilized as his eyes became accustomed to the darkness and a figure loomed into view. Sewell’s heart stilled at the sight of a hideous crone looming over him, her wild white hair standing straight out from her head in a tangled mass in every direction. Her lips curled back in disdain around a mouth which appeared to be laughing, but not a sound was to be heard. The hag’s eyes were in shadow, lending her the appearance of a screaming skull floating above him. She sat on his chest, rendering him unable to scream, or even move as the smell filled his nostrils. It felt like powerful arms and legs kept him pinned down. What kind of nightmare was this?

The gorgon pressed close, so close he could feel the heat of her breath on his face. All he could do was blink and tremble, too stupefied to move. It seemed like the longest time before the blackness crept in, and his eyelids dropped closed once more. The nightmare didn’t leave, it took him; engulfing him entirely until he felt nothing.

Dawn crept in by inches, the dark transitioning from black to gray, until the low morning sunshine added a warming brightness to the scene. The shadows were as long as the sunbeams were cleansing, chasing down the retreating darkness to a mere frown until the morning smiled on another new day. The sun’s confidence grew, climbing higher in the sky, proud of the majestic light which gave life and succor to the whole planet—well, not all of it. Sewell Josephson never saw another day. That day saw him though, swinging gently by the creaking rope fixed to the newel post at the turn of the staircase on the top landing. The ligature bit into the neck below the engorged face from which a purple tongue protruded from his dead gaping mouth.

The only life in the house stared at the figure with unblinking black eyes and a twitching tail. The cat turned her head at the sound of a key in the back door. A human at last. Maybe the cook would know what do to?

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  1. Sifting through sewage for valuables was about as disgusting as it gets. The whole rat catcher thing was terrible from catching the critters to how the critters ended up for the sake of entertainment. Pitiful!
    All the best to you Christine. I wish you MANY happy sales with :Innocent Minds."

    1. Thank you so much. Yes, I don't think I'd like to do a lot of these jobs even WITH protective clothing!

  2. Wow they did a whole lot of disguisting things just to make it back then so sad that they was called entertainement. Thank you so so much C.A. Asbrey for the info and wish you the best with your innocent Minds!

    1. Thanks, they use used to "where there's muck, there's brass." It meant that money could be made out of the dirtiest jobs. We seem to have forgotten how to get the fullest use out of everything.

  3. oops that should of posted by peggy clayton so sorry

  4. Just bloody awful what these poor souls had to do to make a few coins to survive. We read about it but can we really wrap our heads around the misery and poverty that impelled them to do this kind of labor? A grim, heart wrenching look into their lives. Your excerpt was equally riveting, Christine, so visual.

    1. Thanks so much. Yes, they must have been very desperate. Such sad lives, shortened by what they had to do to survive.

  5. So sad, yet it was a way to make money, even if you didn't live long enough to spend it. We romanticize the past, yet its reality is so much different. Thak you for continuing to add to the history. Doris

    1. Absolutely! History definitely does repeat, but I'm extremely glad that we move on from some of it.

  6. The saying 'it's a dirty job, but someone has to do it' certainly applies to these jobs. Holy Moly. Such hard lives people lived.

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