Tosher’s, and Cesspool-Sewermen
If you wake up on a Monday morning cursing your job and moaning about your boss, spare a thought for the East Enders of Victorian times – and thank your lucky stars you don’t have to scrape a living as a tosher, a mudlark, a scavenger or a riverman.
There is no place in any era more evocative of soot, steam, gruel, and misery than Victorian London. It is one of the great landscapes of the imagination. This is probably because the mid-century London we know best is the literary London of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, a teeming metropolis plagued by poverty and grime and peopled by the likes of Tiny Tim and Laura Fairlie. This vision of the city—all squalor and desperation—seems almost melodramatic, as if ripped from the pages of a penny dreadful.
The alarming tone isn’t particularly surprising, given the actual state of London at the time. For Dickens’s fictions were very much rooted in reality: beggars, orphans, and scatter-rats crowded its filthy streets by day, eking out miserable livings (that is, when there were ekings to be had) to take back to mean quarters. Immigrants fleeing the potato famine in Ireland or the lack of work in rural counties came in great number hoping to find jobs, only to add further surplus to a labour pool that already outstripped demand. They came and they never left—there was nowhere else to go. People made do, but there is a reason that the time is remembered as the Hungry Forties. The streets were not a fertile soil.
Out of sight and all too often out of mind, the working people of the British capital nonetheless managed to conjure livings for themselves in extraordinary ways.
A guide to the enduring oddity of many mid-Victorian occupations is Henry Mayhew, whose monumental four-volume study of London Labour and the London Poor remains one of the classics of working-class history.
Toshers, or sewer hunters, would break into the London sewer system at low tide and hunt for anything they could find e.g. metal, bits of bone, cutlery and coins (if they were lucky). According to Mayhew there were about 200 Toshers scavenging in the sewers on any given day.
They would give each other nicknames like One-Eyed George and Short-Armed Jack. Remarkably the sewer hunters made quite a good living (6 shillings per day – around $50 in today’s money) but, being ankle deep in street sewage, made it hard and very unpleasant work.
The worst job of all was probably that of the tosher. Much of the bounty that ended up in the river was washed down there through the sewers.
The toshers decided to cut out the middle man and it was a common sight in 19th Century Wapping for whole families to whip off a manhole cover and go down into the sewers, where they would find rich pickings.
Unsurprisingly, the toshers were not popular with the neighbours. Many became rich, but carried a constant reek of the sewers. The word tosher was also used to describe the thieves who stripped valuable copper from the hulls of ships moored along the Thames.
One unexpected side-effect of the sewer work was that they built up a strong tolerance to typhus and the other diseases that swept the ghettos.
Mudlarks were mostly children who prowled exposed Thames mudflats at low tide looking for bounty that had been dropped or washed into the river. Coins and jewellery were the greatest prize, but even items of clothing or driftwood were worth collecting. Clothes could be cleaned up and sold on to the rag-and-bone men, or totters, driftwood could be dried and sold on as firewood.
But if the mudlarks had a messy and dangerous job – many were swept away by the tides or became marooned in the soft mud – the river men chose an even nastier way to scrape a living.
In those days, bodies floating down the Thames were not an uncommon sight. London was a more dangerous and violent place than it is now and it was not uncommon for cutpurses to murder their victims and toss them into the river. The bodies of sailors were often washed up, who had died after drunken fights in the docks or after falling over the side of the hundreds of ships moving up and down the waterway.
Rivermen would operate from the banks in flat-bottomed boats, hauling the corpses from the water with long boating hooks, rifling through their pockets, then tossing back the raided bodies.
And scavengers, as their name suggests, would rummage through the rubbish tips and markets of the East End searching for coins, rags and old pieces of rope which could be sold on for a pittance.
Meanwhile, many of the rag-and-bone men, the forerunners of Steptoe and Son, grew rich. The rags could be sold on to rope and garment makers, the bones to pet-food or fertiliser manufacturers who would grind them down for bone meal.
Mayhew 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 travelled 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.
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.”
Many wondrous tales were told among the people of men having lost their way in the sewers, and of having wandered among the filthy passages—their lights extinguished by the noisome vapours—till, faint and overpowered, they dropped down and died on the spot. Other stories are told of sewer hunters beset by myriads of enormous rats, and slaying thousands of them in their struggle for life, till at length the swarms of the savage things overpowered them, and in a few days afterwards their skeletons were discovered picked to the very bones.
Mayhew while describing the lives of London peddlers of this period–was a pioneering journalist who interviewed representatives of hundreds of eye-openingly odd trades, jotting down every detail of their lives in their own words to compile a vivid, panoramic overview of everyday life in the mid-Victorian city.
None of his subjects, though, aroused more fascination–or greater disgust–among his readers than the men who made it their living by forcing entry into London’s sewers at low tide and wandering through them, sometimes for miles, searching out and collecting the miscellaneous scraps washed down from the streets above: bones, fragments of rope, miscellaneous bits of metal, silver cutlery and–if they were lucky–coins dropped in the streets above and swept into the gutters.
Mayhew called them “sewer hunters” or “toshers,” and the latter term has come to define the breed, though it actually had a rather wider application in Victorian times–the toshers sometimes worked the shoreline of the Thames rather than the sewers, and also waited at rubbish dumps when the contents of damaged houses were being burned and then sifted through the ashes for any items of value. They were mostly celebrated, nonetheless, for the living that the sewers gave them, which was enough to support a tribe of around 200 men–each of them known only by his nickname: Lanky Bill, Long Tom, One-eyed George, Short-armed Jack. The toshers earned a decent living; according to Mayhew’s informants, an average of six shillings a day–an amount equivalent to about $50 today. It was sufficient to rank them among the aristocracy of the working class–and, as the astonished writer noted, “at this rate, the property recovered from the sewers of London would have amounted to no less than £20,000 per annum.”
The toshers’ work was dangerous, however, and–after 1840, when it was made illegal to enter the sewer network without express permission, and a £5 reward was offered to anyone who informed on them–it was also secretive, done mostly at night by lantern light. “They won’t let us in to work the shores,” one sewer-hunter complained, “as there’s a little danger. They fears as how we’ll get suffocated, but they don’t care if we get starved!”
Quite how the members of the profession kept their work a secret is something of a puzzle, for Mayhew makes it clear that their dress was highly distinctive.
The people who were in the habit of searching the sewers, called themselves “shore-men” or “shoreworkers.” They belong, in a certain degree, to the same class as the “mud-larks,” that is to say; they travel through the mud along shore in the neighbourhood of ship-building and ship-breaking yards, for the purpose of picking up copper nails, bolts, iron, and old rope. The shore-men, however, do not collect the lumps of coal and wood they meet with on their way, but leave them as the proper perquisites of the mud-larks. The sewer hunters were formerly, and indeed are still, called by the name of “Toshers,” the articles which they pick up in the course of their wanderings along shore being known among themselves by the general term “tosh,” a word more particularly applied by them to anything made of copper.
These “Toshers” would have been seen, 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, that may be fit only for wading through the mud. They carry a bag on their back, and in their hand a pole seven or eight feet long, on one end of which there is a large iron hoe. The uses of this instrument are various; with it they try the ground wherever it appears unsafe, before venturing on it, and, when assured of its safety, walk forward steadying their footsteps with the staff.
Should they, as often happens, even to the most experienced, sink in some quagmire, they immediately throw out the long pole armed with the hoe, which is always held uppermost for this purpose, and with it seizing hold of any object within their reach, are thereby enabled to draw themselves out; without the pole, however, their danger would be greater, for the more they struggled to extricate themselves from such places, the deeper they would sink; and even with it, they might perish, if there was nobody at hand to give assistance.
Finally, they make use of this pole to rake about the mud when searching for iron, copper, rope, and bones. They would have exhibited great skill in discovering these things in unlikely places, and have knowledge of the various sets of the tide, calculated to carry articles to particular points, almost equal to the dredgermen themselves. They are were able to make what they called a fair living, and cauld afford to look down with a species of aristocratic contempt on the puny efforts of their less fortunate brethren the “mudlarks.”
This hoe was the vital tool of the sewer hunters’ trade. On the river, it sometimes saved their lives, for “should they, as often happens, even to the most experienced, sink in some quagmire, they immediately throw out the long pole armed with the hoe, and with it seizing hold of any object within reach, are thereby enabled to draw themselves out.” In the sewers, the hoe was invaluable for digging into the accumulated muck in search of the buried scraps that could be cleaned and sold.
Knowing where to find the most valuable pieces of detritus was vital, and most toshers worked in gangs of three or four, led by a veteran who was frequently somewhere between 60 and 80 years old. These men knew the secret locations of the cracks that lay submerged beneath the surface of the sewer-waters, and it was there that cash frequently lodged. “Sometimes,” Mayhew wrote, “they dive their arm down to the elbow in the mud and filth and bring up shillings, sixpences, half-crowns, and occasionally half-sovereigns and sovereigns. They always find these the coins standing edge uppermost between the bricks in the bottom, where the mortar has been worn away.”
Life beneath London’s streets might have been surprisingly lucrative for the experienced sewer-hunter, but the city authorities had a point: It was also tough, and survival required detailed knowledge of its many hazards. There were, for example, sluices that were raised at low tide, releasing a tidal wave of effluent-filled water into the lower sewers, enough to drown or dash to pieces the unwary. Conversely, toshers who wandered too far into the endless maze of passages risked being trapped by a rising tide, which poured in through outlets along the shoreline and filled the main sewers to the roof twice daily.
Yet the work was not was unhealthy, or so the sewer-hunters themselves believed. The men that Mayhew met were strong, robust and even florid in complexion, often surprisingly long-lived–thanks, perhaps, to immune systems that grew used to working flat out–and adamantly convinced that the stench that they encountered in the tunnels “contributes in a variety of ways to their general health.” They were more likely, the writer thought, to catch some disease in the slums they lived in, the largest and most overcrowded of which was off Rosemary Lane, on the poorer south side of the river.
Among Mayhew’s more memorable meetings were encounters with the “bone grubber,” the “Hindoo tract seller and the “pure finder,” whose surprisingly sought-after job was picking up dog mess and selling it to tanners, who then used it to cure leather.
Although Mayhew interviewed the innocent and scoundrels alike—although he depicted scenes that highlighted the dignity as much as the pathos of poverty—stories of high heartbreak elicited the greatest reactions. One of his most famous accounts was of an eight-year-old flower seller, a watercress girl, who “although the weather was severe, was dressed in a thin cotton gown, with a threadbare shawl wrapped round her shoulders”:
I go about the streets with water-creases, crying, ‘Four bunches a penny, water-creases.’ I am just eight years old—that’s all, and I’ve a big sister, and a brother and a sister younger than I am. On and off, I’ve been very near twelvemonth in the streets. Before that, I had to take care of a baby for my aunt. . . .
The creases is so bad now, that I haven’t been out with ’em for three days. They’re so cold, people won’t buy ’em; for when I goes up to them, they say, ‘They’ll freeze our bellies.’ Besides, in the market, they won’t sell a ha’penny handful now—they’re ris to a penny and tuppence. In summer there’s lots, and ‘most as cheap as dirt; but I have to be down at Farringdon-market between four and five, or else I can’t get any creases, because everyone almost—especially the Irish—is selling them, and they’re picked up so quick. . . . We children never play down there, ’cos we’re thinking of our living. No; people never pities me in the street—excepting one gentleman, and he says, says he, ‘What do you do out so soon in the morning?’ but he gave me nothink —he only walked away.
It’s very cold before winter comes on reg’lar—specially getting up of a morning. I gets up in the dark by the light of the lamp in the court. When the snow is on the ground, there’s no creases. I bears the cold—you must; so I puts my hands under my shawl, though it hurts ’em to take hold of the creases, especially when we takes ’em to the pump to wash ’em. No; I never see any children crying—it’s no use.
Sometimes I make a great deal of money.
Henry Mayhew was a man of many talents – a journalist, author, playwright and co-founder of the famous satirical magazine Punch. He was also a leading social reformer, responsible for shining a light on the lives and living conditions of those at the margins of society.
Like a number of fellow Victorian reformers, Mayhew was influenced by the deadly impact of cholera on London. Following the deaths of some 13,000 Londoners during the second major outbreak in 1849, Mayhew wrote an article detailing the effects of the disease on Bermondsey, an impoverished area of London. This led to his involvement in a broader survey of the condition of the poorer classes that produced a series of almost daily newspaper articles published later that year and well into 1850. While criticised by the right-wing press, these articles were praised by socialists, radicals and fellow reformers.
The collected articles were first published in 1851 as London Labour and the London Poor, a book that remains a landmark work of social journalism. For the first time, the realities of days spent struggling to make a living – not always legally – on the streets of London followed by nights spent crashed out in its cheapest, dirtiest boarding houses were set out in great detail. In exposing such desperate people, blighted by disease, homelessness and unemployment, Mayhew provided real-life counterparts to the characters and stories of Charles Dickens, one of his great admirers
The son of a middle-class lawyer, Mayhew proved a disappointment to his domineering father by not following him to the bar. Although he excelled at his public school, Westminster, he never completed a formal education, opting instead for the bohemian life of a hack writer. Articles, one-shot theatricals, novels—he took whatever paid. For a short while, he fancied himself a chemist and spent some years learning the science in a lab he built at his brother Alfred’s house (he later put some of this knowledge to use in a biography of Humphry Davy aimed at schoolboys). Mayhew was always short of cash, and was briefly bankrupt following the failure of the Iron Times, his paper devoted entirely to railway news. His most notable success was the co-founding of the satirical weekly Punch in 1841, but his tenure as editor lasted just one year, due to erratic work habits. (He was, however, kept on as “suggester-in-chief” for a few years more.)
What’s even more shocking is that the practice of sewer hunting, and scavenging still continues today in countries like Bangladesh. The sewers of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s overcrowded and polluted capital city, are as unpleasant as you could imagine.
But they are also an incredible source of income for a small group of men who do not mind getting their hands dirty. They earn their living by finding tiny specks of gold that are accidentally brushed into the open sewers that run alongside the narrow streets of Dhaka’s historic gold bazaar. With the price of gold hitting record highs an ounce these specks are worth more than ever before.
The men pan for gold in the drains in exactly the same way as the treasure-seekers of the legendary Californian gold rush of the 1850s. They swirl their pan around, full of dirty black water, stones, sand and other matter. Then, they gently isolate bits while getting closer look using their orange-brown stained fingers. From one days work, a group of men who all work together as a team, found about $50 worth of gold, as well as some small bits of silver and even a tiny red jewel.
It is no fortune, but it is enough for the three men to feed their families for several days.
Further along the street, an older man with white hair, was working alone. He crouched low over the stinking drain, and with one hand scooped out mud in a small metal bowl, and with the other took rapid puffs on a cigarette. “I earn about $12 a day looking for gold like this, and if I’m lucky I’ll also find some ear-rings or something else that people have dropped down here.”
As he worked, a pipe carrying waste from somebody’s bathroom emptied into the sewer and upstream a man urinated.
Meanwhile, over the road, boys in white caps gathered at the door of their religious school, men walked past with baskets of pineapples on their heads, and Hindu shopkeepers lit incense and muttered prayers.