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Aether Salon notes on Sewers and Horrible Jobs

Here’s my notes from today’s Aether Salon, for what its worth. It was an enjoyable evening with Dr. Google.


Some people say that the great enigma of mathematics is whether it is created or discovered. I suppose you could say the same thing about steampunk. Are we creating it, or are we explorers in a new world?

 Couple weeks ago I was on the way to a
steampunk convention, and my driving buddy was while you see some really
fantastic costumes and upper class characters at those do’s, you don’t really
see many working class characters. And we talked about that for about 40 or 100
miles or so. Because that’s what you do when you’re in the car.

 But that’s one of the things that always
attracted my to New Babbage. When you came here, not everyone was gussied up in
top hats and big bustles. You got to meet some scruffier avatars.

 So when the Baron told me last night that his
speaker was still not returned from his trip to Falun,

 I thought the working class might have been
less than well represented by the salon too.

 There were some strange professions back in our

 If you couldn’t afford a reliable alarm clock,
which were very expensive, you might have hired a Knocker-up so you could get
to work on time.

Knocker-up was a profession in England and Ireland that started during and
lasted well into the Industrial Revolution.

 The knocker-up often used a long and light stick
(often bamboo) to reach windows on higher floors.

 In return, the knocker-up would be paid a few
pence a week for this job. The knocker-up would not leave a client’s window
until they were assured the client had been awoken.

As you walked to work, you would have
encountered crossing sweepers, often children,

 Who kept the street crossings well swept to
save your shoes and trousers from the filth of the street.

 They should be tipped, of course.


 Trashcans had not been invented then, so the
maid threw all the rubbish into a large brick or wooden box inside the house,
near the back, that could hold three or four weeks of rubbish.

And the ashes from the household fireplaces and
stovers were collected in the ash pit, basically a hole dug in the ground.

 The dustmen would come around about every three
weeks, you’d listen for the dustman’s bell and call them in to come empty your

 and if you were wise, you’d tip them well,

 or that last load would end up all over your
front hall, or they would not take care not to brush against your nice clean

 In fact, when the sanitary dust bin was
introduced for weekly disposal, as we do in modern times, the dustmen had to be
bribed to come around. The old bins may have been unhygienic, but at least they
did not fill up between servicings.


 If you followed the dustmen back to the dust yard, which were run by the
barons of garbage, the Dust Contractor.

You’d also see armies of ghostly grey women and children, called Dust
Sifters, often the families of Dustmen, were allowed to work in the yard to
sort the debris into what could be sold.

The ash was sold to brickyards to make bricks. Very important work.

You can never have enough bricks.


There were also freelance pickers working the streets.

There were Bone Grubbers, who collected bones to sell to the bone

The Rag and Bone man who looked for anything of any value.

They would work on foot. Or with a horse or pony cart if he was better

Nearly everything recyclable value back then.

If you weren’t making quite enough from rags and bones, you might try
your hand at Pure Finding.

Pure, being….

Anyone know?

… “Pure” from its cleansing and purifying properties.

It seemed to do the trick for processing the fine thin leathers. So
there was quite a demand for it.

That brings us to the tanners, who would spread the pure on the skin he
was dressing.




I don’t want to think about that any more. Let’s go down to the river so
we can wash our hands of it.

Now we see some folks with large baskets on their backs poking around
with poles in the mud.

These are Mudlarks. Sort of a littoral picker, they worked the
riverbanks collecting what they could find in the flotsam and debris of the

And back then, in London, before the great sewer system of today, there
were tunnels in the riverbanks, which were the old sewer system that dumped
right into the River Thames.

Toshers entered the underground from the river exits and became quite
adept at finding coins and other things that were dropped by people on the

Toshers worked alone or in crews, and, like fishermen, guarded their
most profitable secret spots.

It was a secret trade, as entering the sewers without a permit had
become illegal after 1840. Quite how the members of the profession kept their
work a secret is something of a puzzle, for their dress was highly distinctive.

Henry Mayhew wrote:

“These toshers may be seen, especially on the Surrey side of the
Thames, habited in long greasy velveteen coats, furnished with pockets of vast
capacity, and their nether limbs encased in dirty canvas trousers, and any old
slops of shoes… [They] provide themselves, in addition, with a canvas apron,
which they tie round them, and a dark lantern similar to a policeman’s; this
they strap before them on the right breast, in such a manner that on removing the
shade, the bull’s eye throws the light straight forward when they are in an
erect position… but when they stoop, it throws the light directly under them so
that they can distinctly see any object at their feet. They carry a bag on
their back, and in their left hand a pole about seven or eight feet long, one
end of which there is a large iron hoe.”

A tosher’s main tool was a poled hoe, which he could use to save his
life if he lost his footing in a sudden current

or was attacked by rats.

A rat bite in this environment could easily be fatal.

Ratcatchers had been around since medieval times, of course,

but it also became one of the underground trades

The rat catchers provided a valuable public health service as sewers
improved after the cholera epidemics of the early 1850’s.


Cholera epidemics?

Oh, right. I suppose I need to back up a little and talk about the night

This job doesn’t really exist any more, at least not in the first world,
due to the invention of the flush toilet.

Before then we used the privy

Which was fell into the cesspit

Which was under the house.


The house.

Imagine that, for a minute.

Imagine that in August.

Your house, sitting likes a bell jar over your personal cesspit.

This isn’t quite as bad as you might think, as it does dry out and pack
down. It could take a long time to fill a cesspit up.

Wait, England is a rather damp and wet country. Maybe it was that bad.

So you called the night soil men to come dig it out and haul it away,

Which was a very expensive process, costing 2 to 3 pounds.

If your landlord was a miser, he might let it go,

And you and your building mates might take it on yourselves to try and
bury the contents of the pit in the yard.

The Night Men worked at night, of course.

The stench of a pit being excavated could wake the neighborhood, even on
a winter night.

The Night Men, like the manure collectors, sold their work to the Night
Yard, which contracted others to haul it out to the countryside for farm

And it would return again as produce

And the mountains of fodder in the hay markets that were required to
feed the city horses.

Now in the 1850s, flushing toilets had become all the rage.

The first popularized public water closets were exhibited in 1851 at The Crystal Palace and these became the
first public toilets.

 They had attendants dressed in white and customers were charged a penny for use.

 This is supposedly the origin of the phrase “To spend a penny, ” although that did not appear in print until the 1940s.

 By the end of the 1850s building
codes suggest most new middle-class homes in British cities were equipped with a water closet.

 The chamber pot and privy quickly became unfashionable.

 But the water closet was still draining into the basement cesspit,

 Which had never been designed to handle the volume of water that was going out with
the remains of last night’s dinner.

 The cesspits would overflow,

 And run out into the streets

 There were attempts in new housing constructions to connect the pits to
existing sewers, of various and competing designs,

But these clogged easily and could back up entire neighborhoods.

The “common” sewers were narrow, tapered at the bottom, tall enough for
a man to stand  in

Some were vented through grates in the streets, which added to the miasa

These were not a networked city system. Each district emptied directly
out into the Thames River.

Where we met those Mudlarks and Toshers.


The Thames was also used for drinking water.


Cholera became rife, and one of the worst epidemics killed over 10,000 Londoners in 1853.

I found a few charactures of “Father Thames’ from political
cartoons of the time.

See there, it was too dirty for chimney sweeps to bathe in it.

This was the era of “The Great Stink.”

Engineers, inventors, doctors, and politicians scrambled for solutions

In this period the dry earth closet was developed, known today as the
composting toilet.

During the summer of 1858 it became so unbearable that parliament (which sits on the bank of the Thames River) had to close down.

 The London sewage problem was finally addressed by the introduction of an extensive sewage system overseen by the engineer Joseph Bazalgette.

 He and his team built 82 miles of intercepting sewers parallel to the River Thames, and 1,100 miles of street sewers at a cost of £4.2 million.

Needless to say, Parliament quickly passed legislation, which gave Bazalgette the go-ahead to build a combined sewer system under the city, which still functions to this day. 

 Work started on this ambitious enterprise in 1859 and was virtually
complete by 1868, a major achievement for its time.

Bazalgette drove himself to the limits in realizing his subterranean

The job was made harder by having to work alongside the developing
underground railway system and emerging above ground railway systems.

Bazalgette used 318 million bricks to create the underground system and
dug up more than 2.5 million cubic meters of earth.

Originally built to serve two and a half million people, the sewers were
already serving four million by their completion.

Since London is not far from the sea, the idea was to create a system that bypassed the river and dumped directly into the ocean.

 So,they dug three main arteries, which flowed downhill to the eastern end, where it was held until high tide,

 At which time it was released to be carried out to sea.

 It needed help now and then, from flushing crews.

 In the bad old days, they’d take a board and dam up a section above the blockage, there were grooves in the walls at various places so they could do this. Then
stand back and pull the board out and the water would (hopefully) flush things out.  

 Lives were lost that way as you could easily loose your footing and be carried out by the torrent.

 These same sewers now serve a population of over 8 million.

 And there’s still flushing crews for when its feeling a bit constipated.

 The sewers became a many-leveled beast.

A gigantic gravity operated machine.

 Have you ever seen such voluptuous brickwork?

 Like the being in the bowels of a dragon.

 Some of it goes 40 m down.

 There were legends among the Toshers. Of black pigs, born of a sow that had fallen in
and given birth,

 And due to some penchant of pigs to always go upstream, they never found their way
back out.

 There was the mysterious Queen Rat, who would appear as a desirable woman and grant
luck to him who could satisfy her,

 although that luck would turn if he suspected her true nature.

 And others, I’m sure, that were never recorded

 Just like there are stories in our underground.

 Like the minions of the Mole King, who came to steal a bride .

 Or the Rats Of Unusual Size.

 Hidden warehouses owned by secret societies,

 Or the bones that are ritually missing from the catacombs of our own dead.

 Of our own Mr. Biggins,

 Or of Martian princesses,

 And the abominable children of the Dunsany Institution.

 Or that other thing you haven’t told me about yet.

 While the limitations of our world won’t let us build these places in prim and model,

 We can build them in letters and words. And avatars.

 As a mathematician I leaned to the path of the explorer rather than that of the magician,

 so I will say to you

 That there are lots more stories still down there.

 They’re real.


 Right under our feet.


Tell them to me.



For further reading, I highly HIGHLY recommend Dust, Mud,
Soot, & Soil: The Worst Jobs in Victorian London
, available on Kindle. It
is a short collection of essays you can read in one sitting. It is the most
fascinating thing I have read all year.

 For a collection of editorial humor on the condition of the Thames

 For more on Henry Mayhew and the Toshers,

 And the Pure Finders

found some beautiful images of “crossing sweepers” on google image search,
which are well worth perusing.

 And for an excellent video history documentary, Dr. Fabre
has collected all the youTube pieces of The Worst Jobs of the Victorian Age at
the Steampunk Tribune

for some really stunning exploration reports and photography of the London
sewers, .
Also do a Flickr search for London Sewers.






Spread the love


  1. Garnet Psaltery Garnet Psaltery May 20, 2013

    The best of the season, I’d say. 

  2. Kristos Sonnerstein Kristos Sonnerstein May 21, 2013

    I would have loved to have caught that. Very nice ending to it too. Sometimes it seems like New Babbage is losing a bit of the down and dirty in some places and particularly in regular rp. Hopefully some can pick up a bit of inspiration again, even if it’s just as a filler character glimpsed on the street.

  3. Myrtil Igaly Myrtil Igaly May 22, 2013

    I knew there was a good reason why we shouldn’t fall into the canals!

    ((Sorry I missed this, but thank you for the notes, that’s really really interesting))

  4. Tepic Harlequin Tepic Harlequin May 22, 2013

    Great talk, don’t ask how some of us urchins knew what pure was….. And if you are lookingfor dirty, disreputable, down but not outs, remember the urchins! hehe Also, have a look down Wheatstone, and the Warrens area. :-)

    Tepic heads off whistling “Consider yourself…..”

  5. Avariel Falcon Avariel Falcon May 22, 2013

    Some of the dirty jobs are quietly carried out by hard working clockwork.

    *watches a gutter cleaning bunny run by* “Yay!”

    Yes, and some of the hard working clockwork really enjoy their dirty jobs. *nods*

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