If you’ve had a bad day at work, this might help draw some of the sting. There have been some truly dreadful occupations throughout history, from the gross to the downright dangerous.
The phrase ‘it’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it’ is fitting for many of these, and some show just how far people have had to go in the past to be able to feed themselves and their families.
Here are 10 contenders for the dubious title of ‘the worst job in history’.
1. Groom of the stool
Implemented during the reign of Henry VII and only abolished in 1901 by Edward VII, the role of ‘groom of the stool’ required the holder to take the monarch to the toilet, check whatever went on in there and clean the regal bottom afterwards.
Despite the obvious unpleasantness, the job was considered one of the most prestigious posts in the kingdom. The one-on-one time and unique access to the royal ear meant the groom was perfectly positioned to influence the royal mind on any topic. So, it wasn’t all bad.
2. Whipping boy
There is doubt about whether this was a real thing or not, but some stories tell of boys who were educated with princes or child kings and received the punishments earned by their betters. Reputedly the sons of noblemen, a whipping boy would be beaten because a tutor could not hit a prince or monarch.
Like the groom of the stool, the role of ‘whipping boy’ was considered desirable (presumably by parents rather than boys in line for beatings) because it fostered closeness to royalty.
‘Tosh’ as a slang term for junk or rubbish derives from the word ‘toshers’. Present in Victorian London, they made a living trawling through sewers in search of anything valuable that had been lost.
Being a tosher was illegal, and involved spending all day ankle deep in sewage, but some made a reasonable living that made the unpleasantness bearable. ‘Grubbers’ could be found doing something similar in drains.
4. Pure finder
In the 18th and 19th centuries, tanneries sought the best way to dry leather for book bindings. Their solution spawned a whole new career path. The ‘pure’ that tanneries sought was dog faeces, so a pure finder’s job was to collect as much as possible. Once people realised there was gold in this, competition became fierce for dog mess. I’ll never sniff an old book cover again…
5. Wool fuller
During the middle ages, wool became the centre of England’s economy. By 1300, there were probably 15 million sheep in England, outnumbering humans three to one. After its initial loose weave, the wool needed to be cleaned and stripped of grease. That was where the fuller came in.
The job of a wool fuller required marching on the spot in a vat all day. That was boring and tiring, but the perfect liquid to remove dirt and grease, and whiten the wool, was stale human urine. So added to the tramping all day, your feet were soaked in old wee: that was the cost of the finest cloth in Europe.
The practice of sin-eating was most common in Wales and the Welsh border region of England, though there are similar traditions across Europe. It usually involved eating a piece of bread placed on the chest of a recently deceased person. Gross, but not that bad.
However, in doing so, the sin-eater took on the sins of the departed. It eased the deceased’s soul, but some sin-eaters risked arriving at the pearly gates weighed down by the sins of hundreds of others.
7. Plague bearer
In 1665, the plague caused 69,000 deaths in London. Government directives required night-time collection and burial of victims. Parishes hired plague bearers, who toured the streets at night collecting the dead and depositing them in mass graves in churchyards.
They spent their nights around plague victims and rotting corpses, risking their lives. And their days were spent in the churchyard, surrounded by those same bodies, because they were required to live there to avoid infecting others.
8. Lime burners
Lime has many uses. Crushed and heated to about 800 degrees for several days, it produced quicklime, used by tanners and dyers. Soaking quicklime in water created slaked lime, which was useful in mortar and whitewash.
Besides the heat, a lime burner’s job was terrifyingly dangerous. Quicklime is caustic, highly unstable and reacts violently to water. It can spit, steam and even explode. It was so dangerous it was sometimes used as a weapon, thrown at an enemy to cause painful burning in the eyes, mouth, or anywhere it came into contact with sweat.
The word petard is derived from the French péter, meaning to fart. Petards were often bell-shaped metal devices filled with gunpowder and fixed to a wooden base. The base was attached to the wall or gate of a besieged castle, and the explosion focussed to cause maximum damage.
Petardiers operated these hugely dangerous and unstable devices. They were as likely to kill themselves as to damage the enemy’s castle. The phrase ‘hoist by your own petard’, meaning to be foiled by your own plan, comes from the prevalence of petardiers being blown up by their own bombs.
10. Gong farmer
Before modern drainage, the bodily waste of increasing urban populations was a problem. London, like many cities, provided houses of easement – public toilets – but in the late 14th century, there were sixteen for a population of around 30,000. Germ theory may not have been around, but the smell certainly was. Enter the gong farmer.
Only permitted to work at night, gong farmers, also called nightmen, were tasked with digging out and taking away all of the human waste in cesspits. Paid per ton, they spent all night in deep holes up to their waist, or neck, in human excrement. Some died of disease or suffocated. For those who lived, it was hardly a dream job. Presumably, they struggled to get a handshake, never mind a hug.