Seven Unusual or Lost Occupations From History – The British Newspaper Archive Blog

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Seven Unusual or Lost Occupations From History

With the release of the 1921 Census of England and Wales on our sister site Findmypast last week, we were delighted to discover a range of unusual occupations returned within its pages, from knocker-ups to lamplighters, from rag and bone men to rat catchers.

A rag and bone man at work | The Tatler | 21 March 1904

And so, using our newspapers, we thought we’d shine a light on some of the past’s most unusual or indeed lost occupations, and try to understand what it was like to actually be a crossing sweeper, or a mudlark.

So read on to discover more about seven unusual or lost jobs from history and what they involved, as well as to meet some of the characters whose daily lives involved such labour.

Top tip: Find out more about occupations in the 1921 Census of England and Wales by visiting our sister site Findmypast here.

1. Lamplighters

We start our list with the extinct occupation of lamp lighting. It may seem like a fairly self-explanatory profession from its name, but what did the job of lamp lighting precisely entail? Newspapers from the past can give us a great sense of what a job consisted of through the advertisements that were placed for such roles, such as this ‘Public Notice‘ which appeared in the Beeston Gazette and Echo, July 1928:

Applications are invited for the post of Lamplighter for the ensuing Lighting period. The person appointed will be required to light, extinguish, and clean the lamps. Wages £2 per week.

Beeston Gazette and Echo | 21 July 1928

And so, as a lamplighter, you would be required to light lamps at dusk, extinguish them again, whilst also keeping them in good repair. This particular position, for the parish of Gedling in Nottinghamshire, would pay £2 a week, which is approximately £91 in today’s money.

Moreover, our newspapers are a fantastic resource in furnishing a more complete understanding of professions of the past, as local titles in particular often featured profiles of workers within the community. One such example is this article on John Maher, the ‘Lamplighter Who Walked 150,000 Miles,‘ which appeared in the Prescot Reporter, and St. Helens General AdvertiserJohn Maher is described as one of the ‘unsung heroes’ of St Helens, ‘whose presence in the community is taken for granted and whose necessity is rarely proclaimed.’

Prescot Reporter and St. Helens General Advertiser | 21 April 1939

For 43 years Maher has ‘been pounding the pavements of St Helens,’ during which it was estimated that he covered 150,000 miles, in all weathers. At the age of 64, the lamplighter had:

…worked every hour in the day. His day commenced just before dawn and ended after sundown. He also worked four hours during the interim period cleaning, and as the times of dawn and sunset are always changing, Mr. Maher has to change the times of his going to work accordingly.

Indeed, the life of a lamplighter was such a hard one that the remedy ‘Phoserfine‘ used the profession for an advertisement, which was featured in the Belper News, September 1911:

 I may say that as a lamp-lighter I am exposed to all weathers and have a lot of broken rest and excessive walking. Everybody notices the great improvement in me since I took Phosferine. I continue the remedy regularly twice a day, and I would not be without it on any account, as I consider it has given me a new lease of life.

Belper News | 1 September 1911

John Maher required no such aid, however, on his last ‘beat’ he was in charge of 105 lamps, and in a sign of the times, he ‘assisted in extinguishing lamps for the black-out,’ the Prescot Reporter wryly suggesting that the retired lamplighter take up walking as his new hobby.

Lamp lighting, however, was not just a job for men. The Dundee Evening Post in November 1901 reports on how ‘The inhabitants of Liff had found some difficulty in securing a person to light the newly-erected lamps there,’ but since one Miss Ross agreed to undertake the duties, ‘they have been performed to the entire satisfaction of the community.’ Meanwhile, over ten years later in Leeds, the Yorkshire Evening Post reports in December 1913 how ‘the women-folk are pluckily helping in the task of street-lighting.’

Dundee Evening Post | 25 November 1901

Although these women working in Leeds were not named, our newspapers are a wonderful resource when it comes to researching those whose daily lives differed from the norm, such as these women lamplighters who upset the expected gender roles, with great success.

Yorkshire Evening Post | 19 December 1913

After the Second World War, there was less of a need for lamplighters, as lamps were automated. But in the 1980s the Illustrated London News profiled Cliff Bulhmann, ‘London’s Last Lamplighter.’ Journalist Micky White relates how:

There are some 1,400 lamps left in London – 200 in Covent Garden and 400 around Buckingham Palace, St James’s and Westminster Bridge, for example – but only those at Inner and Middle Temple are lit by hand. Buhlmann arrives every day just before twilight to light the lamps, which takes him about one and a half hours. And he returns at dawn the following morning to extinguish them.

London’s ‘last lamplighter’ Cliff Bulhmann | Illustrated London News | 2 November 1985

It is wonderful to think how long this old profession lasted into the twentieth century, an atmospheric relic of former times.

2. Rag and Bone Men

We turn now to look at the rag and bone man, another profession from the past. In October 1913, the Yorkshire Evening Post published this vignette, which was entitled ‘Money in the Dust Heap:’

Poor old ‘Tatters.’ Regularly every morning, at half-past eight, his drawling call. ‘Ready money for rags and bones,’ delivered in a melancholy, querulous monotone, arouses me to the urgent necessity of quitting a hastily-prepared breakfast and rushing down for the daily round.

Calling ‘Rag and Bone’ | The Tatler | 2 March 1904

The rag and bone man would go from street to street, calling for the rags which he would buy from local residents, and hope to turn them into something like riches. And ‘Tatters,’ profiled by the Yorkshire Evening Poststated that he could earn £2 a week ‘tatting,’ or about £156 in today’s money. The article describes how:

Out he pours his collection of seeming garbage. Here some old garments which he has disdainfully turned over and haggled about with the housewife, finally offering her twopence with an assurance that very likely he will lose on the transaction, he disposes for probably a shilling.

Meanwhile, one rag and bone man interviewed by The Tatler in March 1904 describes how ‘Appraising the value of the goods is an effort entailing considerable mental strain,’ and how he might be lucky enough to ‘find hidden treasure in an old trouser pocket.’ ‘Tatters’ could expect to sell his ‘best quality’ rags for threepence a pound.

Searching for treasures in a trouser pocket | The Tatler | 2 March 1904

Overall, both ‘Tatters’ and the rag and bone man interviewed by The Tatler seem happy with their lots, the latter proclaiming how: ‘On the whole the profession is a healthy one. It keeps the lungs constantly in exercise.’

3. Rat Catchers

From rag and bone men to rat catchers now, which is not exactly an extinct occupation, but it is certainly an unusual one. An article in the Illustrated London News, November 1910, reflects on the historic origins of the ‘Professional Rat-Catcher of Other Days,’ and how:

…among other officers, His British Majesty has a rat-catcher, distinguished by a particular dress, scarlet, embroidered with yellow worsted, on which are figures of mice destroying wheat sheaves.

Illustrated London News | 19 November 1910

The newspaper publishes a wonderful illustration of one such rat catcher, which can be contrasted with the ‘up-to-date‘ rat catcher of March 1912, who was profiled by the Daily Mirror. Mr. E. Bunting, of Bromley, is described as an ‘Up-To-Date Rat Catcher Who Owns a Motor-Car,’ the vehicle allowing him to travel from place to place to undertake his work.

‘An up-to-date’ rat catcher | Daily Mirror | 22 March 1912

Meanwhile, the Daily Mirror in March 1939 took a look at an unusual method of rat-catching:

Ladies, here’s a use for your old silk stockings that’ll make you shudder, but it’s a dashed clever one all the same. Mr. Terry Williams, West Kensington (London), rat catcher, slips a not quite empty condensed milk tin inside, pegs the end over a rat hole…and makes a first-class rat trap. Attracted by the smell, the rat comes out and is trapped.

Trapping rats with silk stockings | Daily Mirror | 5 April 1939

And with the onset of the Second World War, women had the opportunity to undertake rat-catching work. Miss D.R. Allen, aged 20, had been catching rats for the Northamptonshire War Agricultural Committee for two years as a member of the Women’s Land Army, and in 1946 the Liverpool Echo reports how she was asked to be rat catcher to the London borough of Wandsworth.

4. Crossing Sweepers

In April 1908, a ‘well-dressed’ woman named Annie Biggs caused a scene whilst ‘sweeping a crossing at the junction of Pall Mall and Waterloo Place,’ as reported the Yorkshire Evening Post. Crossing sweepers were not an unusual sight in the towns and cities of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; with untarmacked roads and the debris caused by horses, they were employed to keep road crossings clean, and they were tipped for their labours by the grateful public.

A cartoon published in Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday in April 1889 demonstrates the necessity of tipping your crossing sweeper, the lady here neglecting to do so:

Crossing Sweeper: Warn’t yer gi’ us a copper? Ga on, yer padded image. I’ll make yer so as yer sweet’eart warn’t own yer when he metters yer! [Proceeds to bespatter her from head to foot with mud.]

Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday | 13 April 1889

But back to Annie Biggs, who was dressed in a ‘velvet jacket, smart bonnet, and white gloves,’ who was brought before a police court for causing an obstruction whilst sweeping a crossing. She addressed the court as follows:

Cannot a woman sweep a crossing as well as a man? What is a woman to do when she is out of employment? I am an organiser. I have re-organised the catering arrangements of some of the best restaurants and hotels in London, but I had a serious illness two years ago, and have been out of work since. When I show people my reference they say I am too good for them. I do not care what I do. I have offered to go to New Zealand as a domestic servant, but they would not have me.

Annie, in reduced circumstances, had turned to crossing sweeping as the last resort, and the spectacle of a genteel women performing such a menial occupation caused a scene. She promised that she would not do it again, proclaiming how ‘it is not a pleasant occupation.’

And indeed, the profile of a crossing-sweeper dubbed ‘Snowball’ by the Sheffield Weekly Telegraph in February 1887 illustrates just how much of a last resort crossing sweeping was.

‘Snowball’ the Sheffield crossing sweeper | Sheffield Weekly Telegraph | 12 February 1887

‘Snowball’ had previously been employed as a forgeman, but since being ‘attacked with bronchitis,’ he had worked as a crossing sweeper, becoming the longest serving in Sheffield on his pitch between Convent Walk and Glossop Road. The Sheffield Weekly Telegraph relates how:

His garments are thin, and he has a shiver and general miserable look in cold weather that would make a man’s fortune on the stage. When he was sweeping at the top of Northumberland road a kind-hearted lady noticed the shiver, and sent him a good warm suit of old clothes. Passing a day or two after she observed that he was still dressed in his old clothes and still shivered, and she asked him why he did not wear the suit she had sent him? He replied that he was keeping the best suit to go to church in on Sundays.

It was no surprise that ‘Snowball‘ kept his clothes for best; the article relates how he could only expect to earn three shillings a week, or approximately £12 today, and that was including his best day, which was a Saturday.

The Graphic | 6 November 1909

But as roads were tarmacked, and horses replaced cars, there was less of a need for the crossing sweeper. However, there was one still working in 1937 ‘at the junction of five streets near Stockwell, South London,’ as reports the Yorkshire Evening Post, who had been there for the ‘last 36 years.’ The article details how the old crossing sweeper:

…sells matches and laces now; the tarred road no longer needs attention. In the old days, he said, the road was often thick with mud, and people were glad to give him a copper for keeping the crossings clean. The most generous of his patrons, he added, were the theatrical folk, who were quite numerous round about.

And there was, according to him, one other crossing sweeper still in business in the city, Joe Pond, whose patch was at Euston Square, ‘But he only turns up on Sundays.’

5. Knocker-Ups

Another extinct profession is that of the knocker-up, a person who was employed to wake up workers in the days before alarms. They were particularly prevalent in the manufacturing centres of the north of England, where the factory workers were required to start early at their posts. The Bradford Weekly Telegraph, October 1912, perfectly illustrates the importance of the knocker-up in this skit:

Works Manager: ‘Well, Johnny, why are you so late this morning?’

Johnny: ‘Well, sir, it’s a case of this. Our knocker-up has a knocker-up to knock him up at four o’clock, and our knocker-up’s knocker-up didn’t knock our knocker-up, so our knocker-up didn’t come and knock us up.’

Bradford Weekly Telegraph | 18 October 1912

Indeed, the knocker-up would have to start early, with 6 o’clock being the usual hour that workers were expected to start at cotton mills across Britain’s cities. With this early hour in mind, the Halifax Evening Courier reports in September 1918 how the knocker-ups of Leigh were upping their fees: from 3d a week to 6d a week, which is a change of just over 30p today.

The writer of the article for the Halifax Evening Courier reflects on the unrelenting nature of the work, stating how:

To turn out in the small hours of a winter morning and rattle on the upper windows of whole streets of houses till the occupants are brought from the snug oblivion or the still more delightful consciousness of bed to the harsh facts of life is a peculiarly gloomy and misanthropic occupation.

Indeed, they are of the opinion that a ‘man becomes a knocker-up with something of…[a] vengeful feeling’ towards humanity, and although we are sure that this choice of career was motivated by a need to make ends meet, we also found plenty of examples of women knocker-ups.

Mrs. Catherine Jowett | 16 October 1925

There was, for example, Mrs. Catherine Jowett, of Bradford. At 85, as reports the Leeds Mercury in October 1925, she had been a ‘knocker up for nearly forty years,’ and continued to enact her duties with the ‘rapper and lantern with which she started.’

And then there was Mrs. Ellen Morris, of Burnley, who originally hailed from Wigan. The Burnley Express in May 1940 reported on her death at the age of 93, and how she had continued to work as a knocker-up at the age of 73, having previously worked ‘at a pit brow.’

Mrs. Ellen Morris | 4 May 1904
6. Mudlarks

And whilst the knocker-up is now an extinction profession, that of mudlarking has become something of a hobby. Mudlarking, or the scavenging of the river mud for items of value, was principally undertaken in London, along the river Thames, by young boys from the 1700s to the early 1900s.

Now, people go mudlarking along the Thames as a leisure activity, but for the young mudlarks of the past, it was a way of making ends meet.

A Thames ‘river comber’ | Britannia and Eve | 1 May 1939

In March 1904 author Dorothy Menpes wrote about London’s mudlarks, her work published in the Batley Reporter and Guardian:

Among London children are the mud-larks, the small scavengers of the Thames, generally clothed in scanty jackets, sunshine, and mud, wriggling unceasingly in and out of chains and anchors, and curling round the figureheads of the barges, never for one moment still, slippery and elusive as eels. They are very mischievous sprites, these children, always appearing where you least expect them, always ferreting about with those terribly keen black eyes of theirs, and frequently swooping down like seagulls upon some hidden treasure embedded in the mud; and their chief anxiety seems to consist in evading the Thames police.

The ‘Mudlark’ | Penny Illustrated Paper | 25 June 1870

The mudlarks of the Thames were a unique community, with a ‘language of their own,’ as Menpes details:

…it is a special mud-lark patois, and appears to be a mixture of the swear-words of sailors and the slang of landsmen. There are generally fights going on among these urchins for the possession of some treasure; and their constant enemies are the bargees, whom they delight to cheat and annoy by clinging to ropes and chains, thereby getting a ride gratis, as a street boy does on a Putney bus.

But a mudlark would eventually have to grow up, and what would happen then? Menpes states that mudlarks had no taste for a nautical life, aspiring indeed to own a donkey and to drive a ‘coster-cart.’ They desired to be costermongers, who would sell goods like groceries from a cart, another old and unusual occupation.

A ‘coster seller’ and his cart | The Tatler | 9 March 1904
7. Children as Chimney Sweeps

Perhaps the most notorious of all professions undertaken by children in the past was that of chimney sweeping. In December 1909, Canadian publication the Toronto Saturday Night published an interview with James Seaward, a former chimney sweep from Wokingham who had just been named alderman of the town’s Borough Council.

Seaward had been a chimney sweep for 58 years, starting when he was just six. He relates how:

I was only six years old when I went up my first chimney. I was an orphan and I fell into the hands of a chimney sweep, and a cruel master he was. I have known what it was to have straw lighted under me and pins stuck into the soles of my feet to force me up a chimney; and I have known, too, what it was to come down covered with blood and soot after climbing with my knees and elbows.

He goes on to describe the further unimaginable horrors to which he was subjected:

No one knows the terrible cruelty inflicted on boys in those days. They used to be steeped in strong brine to harden their flesh. In my own case soda was used. Sometimes I used to have to stay up a difficult chimney five or six hours at a stretch.

Tom the Sweep is ‘ill-used by his master’ in The Garrick’s production of ‘The Water Babies’ | 3 October 1903

Seaward, remarkably, had managed to survive, and to prosper, and it was generally thought that he was the inspiration for the character of the young chimney sweep Tom in the Charles Kingsley children’s tale The Water-Babies. Seaward used to sweep the chimneys at Everlsey Rectory, where Charles Kingsley lived, and the author was told the story of the boy’s ‘wrongs…by a lady who befriended the boy.’

And although such cruelty was outlawed during the nineteenth century, with laws introduced regarding child labour, children as young as eleven (and perhaps even younger) continued to labour in the country’s factories, which you can read about here.

These are just seven of the past’s more unusual and lost occupations – what discoveries can you make? Register with us today to begin your journey into the stories of the past, and don’t forget to let us know about the discoveries you have made.

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