Sewer hunters of Victorian London

In 1851, Henry Mayhew published the four volume London Labour and the London Poor, an influential work of sociology/journalism that documented the life of working class Victorians. He wrote of "bone grubbers," basically dumpster divers seeking food and bits of household detritus, individuals who spent their days seeking cigar-ends for reselling, and scores of others with strange, sad, dirty, and curious jobs. One of the most interesting groups were the "toshers," sewer hunters who traveled the tunnels and sieved the waste for bones, metal, coins, cutlery, or other valuable goods, all the while avoiding the supernatural "Queen Rat" and "race of wild hogs" (predating NYC's alligators!) that roamed the shafts, according to other historians. Apparently, toshers could earn as much as six shillings (approximately $50 today) for their work. Drawing from Mayhew's work and others, Smithsonian offers a fascinating description of what they call "quite likely the worst job ever":

 Wp-Content Uploads 2012 07 History Files 2012 06 Tosher Even after the tunnels deteriorated and they became increasingly dangerous, though, what a tosher feared more than anything else was not death by suffocation or explosion, but attacks by rats. The bite of a sewer rat was a serious business, as another of Mayhew's informants, Jack Black - the "Rat and Mole Destroyer to Her Majesty" - explained.

"When the bite is a bad one," Black said, "it festers and forms a hard core in the ulcer, which throbs very much indeed. This core is as big as a boiled fish's eye, and as hard as stone. I generally cuts the bite out clean with a lancet and squeezes… I've been bitten nearly everywhere, even where I can't name to you, sir."

"Quite Likely the Worst Job Ever"


  1. My favorite Victorian era job was “Pure Finding”. Basically you went around collecting dog shit to sell to leather tanneries. This job stuck around until 1935 but at 8 shillings a bucket it might make a comeback.

  2. Charles Palliser’s 1990 novel The Quincunx has a long and fascinating section with the hero living and working with the men who scrounged “the Shore” to survive.  It’s a grim, dickensian novel with incredible attention to detail.

  3. “To live in any large city during the 19th century, at a time when the state provided little in the way of a safety net, was to witness poverty and want on a scale unimaginable in most Western countries today.”

    We’re working on it! 

  4. Recommend everyone read “The Ghost Map” by Steven Johnson.  It’s about cholera in London, but it goes into the dirtier jobs of the period.  I think the teams emptying the ‘waste cisterns’ had to have had one of the messier jobs…

  5. As someone who has worked with rodents and been bitten by many rodents, I should remind everyone that rat bites seldom get infected because they tear out enough flesh that the wound bleeds itself clean. I think the infections were because the wound was getting random sewer goo rubbed in it.

    1. You would doubt a guy who is styled “Rat and Mole Destroyer to Her Majesty”?

    2. When you consider that walking around in a sewer means you are wading through human (and other) waste, it’s easy to see how rat bites could be a source of fatal infections, especially in a time before antibiotics.

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