What were the dirtiest, most dangerous and difficult jobs in history?

Picture this: It’s a freezing winter night in Victorian London and you have to get up and head to the sewers. Your job requires you to dive straight into the sewers in search for valuable things that have mistakenly fallen into the sewers from people’s homes.

You ignore the fact that the job is heavily frowned upon by the law and commit yourself to being ankle deep in sewage just so you can eke out a living from the money you make by selling off those items you find. For many sewer hunters, also known as “Toshers”, in the Victorian era this was the horrific kind of job that life handed out to them.

Disgusting as the job of a sewer hunter was, it would interest you to know that there were far many other dreadful and quite frankly dangerous jobs throughout history. Just how dangerous, dirty and difficult were those jobs? And why were some people attracted to them in the first place?

World History Edu explores some of the worst jobs in history. The article looks at those jobs through the eyes of the downtrodden who had to perform them day in day out in order to make ends meet

Chimney Sweeps

Young boys who swept the chimneys

A portrait of four New York chimney boys, with brushes and scrapers

We start the list with the job of chimney sweeps. In the 18th and 19th centuries, chimney sweeps were typically young boys who were forced to climb up narrow and dirty chimneys to clean out soot and debris.

As chimneys were (and still are) vital ventilation structures in many homes and industrial complexes across Europe, the cleaning of chimney was one of those jobs that had to be done least the structure gets clogged up. What happens is that over time, large deposits and soot of carbonaceous chemicals (i.e. creosote) develop on the inner walls or flue liners of the chimneys that use wood as fuel. If the soot is left unremoved, they can easily become combustible and wreak havoc through chimney fires.

Young boys engaged as chimney sweeps would make their way into the chimney and clean up the creosote buildup. The soot was not the only things that chimney sweeps removed; in many cases, chimneys get blocked due to presence of debris, bird nests, or other obstructions. If those obstructions are not removed, the airflow can be restricted and then cause smoke and heat to back up into the chimney. This ultimately increases the risk of a fire burning not just the chimney but the entire building.

There were even some young boys that were trained to fix faulty or damaged chimney liners. Not fixing the inner tiles or flue of chimneys exposes the home or industrial complex to fires. So, why were young boys predominantly used as chimney sweeps in the past?

The job was usually done by young boys, especially in Britain, France and Italy, because they were the ones who could easily fit into the tight places of the chimneys in order to clear the soot. Starting around the time of the Tudors of England, a household could be fined about up to 3 shillings for a chimney fire. As a result, this made the cleaning of chimney very important.

And as the Industrial Age rolled by, the usage of chimneys among the population increased in Europe. Furthermore, the angle of the chimney flues got a bit more complex, with a lot of right angles and horizontal angled and vertical sections. The flues became even narrower in order to create a better draught. With flues reaching as narrow as 9 inches by 9 inches (i.e. 26 x 23 cm) in the Victorian era, the job of a chimney sweep became an even more daunting and downright dangerous.

With no protective gears, the lungs of those climbing boys were exposed to toxic fumes and carcinogenic substances. As a result, chimney sweeps often suffered from respiratory problems and physical injuries, which in turn shortened their lives drastically. For example, it was not uncommon for those young boys to get stuck as they climbed into the hot flues, causing them to suffocate and burn to death.

The few so-called lucky ones that didn’t perish in the chimney chutes ended up suffering from a kind of cancer termed as chimney sweeps’ carcinoma or soot wart. This was because their skins had been overexposed to the soot, a carcinogenic substance. Plus, they rarely took a shower as it was the 18th and 19th centuries when many people only bathed was once a year.

In the United States and the UK, the chimney sweep guilds, especially those that employed climbing boys, went to great length to protect their trade from mechanical sweepers that were invented by British inventor George Smart in 1803. In the US, for example, as the trade expanded, the low-paying and hazardous job became the preserve of young black boys from the South, including boys as young as five and six.

It was not until the middle part of the 19th century that lawmakers began to tighten regulations to protect the health of workers engaged in chimney sweeping. Prior to that, and as per the Chimney Sweepers Act 1788, the minimum working age for a chimney sweep was 8 years old.

In 1875, the use of climbing boys as chimney sweep was outlawed by an Act of Parliament (i.e. the Chimney Sweepers Act 1875) in the UK. This ban came kind courtesy of the tireless work and campaigns of the British social reformer and politician Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-1885).

Tannery Workers

Leather tanners

Leather tanning in the past

Tanneries were known for their noxious odors and hazardous working conditions. Workers had to handle animal hides and use toxic chemicals, such as urine and feces, to treat the hides and turn them into leather. They were exposed to dangerous fumes and often suffered from skin diseases.

Tannery workers in the past were seen as the lowest of the lows in some societies. This is why in India, this very hazardous and low-paying job was reserved for the untouchables (also known as Dalits) – a caste deemed impure, unworthy, and less human than others right from birth.

In Europe, chemicals that tanners used in their work were considered so foul that they had to operate in the outskirts of town. Like the chemicals they used, the tanners were seen as outcasts of the society.

So, what was the everyday life like for a leather tanner?

After receiving the skins of the animals from the farmers, the tanner has to make sure that the chunks of flesh, fat and soil still attached to the bloody skin were removed. And how did they do this?

Tanners would soak the skins in water in order to make the removal easier. As a result, the skin ended up rotten and producing the foulest of smell ever imaginable. From there, the tanner would soak the skin in a pool of urine as the substance in the urine allowed for easier removal of hair on the animal skin.

The tanner would then let the skin hang for some time, causing the skin to have an even more rotten smell. The next process involved soaking the skin in feces (usually dog feces) for many hours. This was done in order to make the skin softer – a process called “bating”.

In some cases, instead of dung, the tanner used a solution of animal brains to soften the skin. When all that is done, the skin is laid out and allowed to dry in the sun for some time. The final product is then sold to be used in the manufacturing of clothes, armor, and bags, among others.

Plague Buriers

Plague buriers

Collecting the dead for burial during the Great Plague of London in the 17th century

During times of widespread disease outbreaks, individuals were employed to dispose of the bodies of plague victims. These workers faced significant health risks and had to handle diseased corpses without proper protection, leading to a high risk of contracting the infectious diseases themselves.

In London alone, the Great Plague of London claimed the lives almost 70,000 people in 1665. Plague buriers were tasked to go around and collect the corpses at night and then bury them appropriately, usually in mass graves.

The plague burier’s life was one of seclusion, often times living in the churchyards which housed the pits where the diseased corpses were buried.

Given that the bubonic plague was not fully understood at the time, plague buriers had just a simple rag over their nose to reduce their exposure to the foul-smelling corpses they carried.

Did you know…?

The history of tanning goes all the way back to 6th and 5th millennia BC, when it was carried out by the people who lived in Mehrgarh in what is today Pakistan. Also, historians state that the Sumerians, one of the earliest known civilizations, began leather production around the 3rd millennium BC. This was evident in the leather materials they used on chariots.

Leech Collector

In the past, bloodletting was kind of the go-to medical technique for curing a myriad of illnesses as it was believed that it helped restore balance of the “humours”, a chemical that regulated human behavior. This practice dated back to antiquity, where it was common among many civilizations, including Roman, Greek, and Egyptian. The bloodletting could either be done by the physician or by leeches. The latter was often the preferred option. And this is where the job of a leech collector comes in.

A leech gatherer was an individual who collected medicinal (i.e. the European medicinal leach or Hirudo medicinalis) leeches from their natural habitats for various purposes, including medical and scientific use. Leeches were used in traditional medicine for bloodletting and were also studied for their potential therapeutic properties.

How then did leech collectors lay their hands on leeches?

It is said that leech collectors would venture into natural habitats where leeches were abundant, such as ponds, bogs, swamps, and marshes. They would typically wade into the water, often barefoot or wearing specialized footwear, and use their hands or specific tools to collect the leeches.

Different methods were employed to gather leeches. These included attracting leeches with animal or human bait, using specific containers or traps, or manually searching for leeches on submerged vegetation or in the water.

Perhaps what takes the cake in terms of the dangers and daunting nature of leech collectors is the technique where collectors would rub their legs or feet with animal blood to attract leeches to specific areas.

Leech collecting was physically demanding and often carried risks. Collectors had to endure long hours in uncomfortable and unsanitary conditions, facing exposure to waterborne diseases and encounters with other creatures inhabiting the same habitats. Additionally, leeches have sharp teeth and can cause painful bites and loss of blood.

Leech gatherers

Once collected using that technique, the collector had to wait until the leeches have sucked enough of their blood to their fill. They would then delicately detach the leeches while making sure that no damage occurs to the leeches or the teeth of the leeches. They then had to suffer a wound that could bleed for many hours.

Collectors would then keep the leeches alive so they could be transported to their destinations. They were typically stored in containers with moist vegetation or water, ensuring their survival during transportation. This is because leeches require a suitable environment to maintain their viability and feeding capabilities.

Generally speaking, leech collectors, like many of the jobs on this list, received meagre pay despite bloodletting being a big medical fad in the ancient times. As a matter of fact, in the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth’s poem “Resolution and Independence”, the plight of leech gatherers is mentioned in the fifteenth stanza.

Gong Farmers

Gong farmers

Gong farmers were also known as nightmen

Coming in at number 5 on our list of the worst jobs in history is the work of a gong farmer. Also known as night soil men or nightmen, the gong famer worked in the sanitation industry during medieval times and beyond. Their job primarily involved the collection and disposal of human waste, including human excrement, from latrines, cesspits, and chamber pots. While not an exclusive term to any specific location, gong farmers were particularly prevalent in Europe.

Literally a human waste collector, the Gong farmers were responsible for manually emptying and removing human waste from different types of receptacles, such as cesspits (underground storage for waste) and chamber pots (portable containers). They would often use buckets, shovels, or similar tools to perform their duties.

They were called nightmen because they typically operated during the night, as the unpleasant odor and nature of their work made it socially undesirable to perform during daylight hours.

After collecting the waste, gong farmers would transport it to designated locations for disposal. This waste was often used as fertilizer for agricultural purposes or dumped in designated areas outside of populated areas. They were paid per ton.

Quite obviously, the job of a gong farmer was extremely hazardous and disgusting to say the least. They were exposed to unsanitary conditions and the risk of contracting diseases present in human waste, such as cholera, typhoid, and dysentery. As it was the Middle Ages, proper sanitation practices were not well-established, which in turn exacerbated the risks. In addition to the diseases, it was not uncommon for some gong farmers to collapse and die due to exhaustion or suffocation.

As we have noticed the common trend among these unpleasant and very difficult jobs in history, the social stigma associated with being a gong farmer was very high. The nature of their work meant that they were often stigmatized and regarded as part of the lower social classes – the lowest of the lows. Their occupation was considered unclean and undesirable, leading to discrimination and social ostracization.

It’s important to note that with the advancement of modern sanitation systems and technologies, the role of gong farmers has significantly diminished or been eliminated in many parts of the world. Luckily our modern era, no individual has to go through the humiliating and hazardous job of being a gong farmer as waste management and sewage treatment are typically carried out by specialized sanitation workers and modern infrastructure.

Whipping Boy

A whipping boy was a young male companion or servant who was assigned to a prince or young nobleman during the Tudor and Stuart eras in England. The concept of a whipping boy was based on the belief that corporal punishment should not be inflicted directly on the royal or noble child. This was because it was only the prince’s father, i.e. the king or lord, who had the right to punish the incorrigible prince. And since the kings or lords were predominantly absent from the prince’s life, a different method of punishing the prince was devised.

Another child would be subjected to the physical punishment in their place. And since the whipping boy was raised as a close companion of the prince, inflicting punishment on the whipping boy was bound to elicit a lot of discomfort from the prince or princess.

Whipping boys were typically of lower social status compared to the royal or noble children they served. They were often chosen from families of lesser nobility or even from the common population. They would live within the household of the prince and would be educated alongside the young nobleman.

Whipping Boys

Young boys that served as whipping boys often formed close relationships with the princes they served. Since they spent considerable time together, they could develop friendships and companionships. However, despite this connection, the primary purpose of their presence was to serve as a substitute for punishment – often times whipping or beatings. The severity of the punishment could vary, but the intention was to make it unpleasant enough for the prince to learn from the experience without directly harming him.

So, the question that begs to be answered is: what if the prince or young nobleman was a real sociopath who had no sympathy whatsoever? Well, in that case, it’s anyone’s guess as to extent of suffering the whipping boy would endure.

Some scholars have pointed that the use of whipping boys had a symbolic significance rather than being an effective means of discipline. It aimed to teach the royal or noble child about consequences and responsibility by proxy.

Almost similar to the Groom of the Stool job, the whipping boy was a somewhat desirable role because they became close confidants of the prince later on in life.

The practice of having whipping boys declined over time and eventually faded away. It was not a widespread or universal practice, and its existence was limited to certain royal or noble households during specific historical periods.


Believe it or not, there was a time in history when people believed that passing a food over deceased person’s body and then eating that food would allow the sins from dead person to be transferred to the person eating the food. And there were people whose job was so to speak to absorb the sins of the dead. They were called sin-eaters. These sin-eaters were paid to take away the sins of the dead person so that the deceased became sin-free, allowing them to make their way into heaven.

Having spiritually absorbed the sins of the sinner, the sin-eater was seen as an individual filled with a lot of sins. Aside from the social stigma attached to the job, the fact that food and drink were passed over the body of the deceased person made the occupation somewhat a revolting one.

As a result, many sin-eaters were seen as social outcasts. But then again, there was always the possibility simply putting aside enough money so that when they died, their sins could be absorbed by another sin-eater.

Sin-eating was most commonly associated with Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Also English counties bordering Wales practiced the ritual.

According to the BBC, the practice of sin-eating went died out around the 19th century as it was heavily kicked against by the church.

Sin-eaters in the past

Wool Fuller

Wool Fuller

Scotswomen fulling woolen cloth, singing a waulking song, 1772 (engraving made by Thomas Pennant on one of his tours).

A wool fuller, also known as a tucker or walker, was a skilled craftsman who worked in the textile industry, specifically in the processing of woolen cloth. The process of fulling involved cleansing, thickening, and softening the woven wool fabric to improve its quality and durability. In the past, fullers would stamp the wool which had been soaked in urine with their feet. In some cases, they used a wooden mallet.

Fulling is an important stage in the making of woolen clothes. It involves the removal of oils, dirt and other debris from the woven cloth. Basically, a fuller’s job is to cleans the wool. It sounds all nice and simple until you realize what kinds of substance fullers in the ancient times had to use to cleans the wool.

Predominantly performed by women, fullers in the past used ammonium to get the wool clean. And since our ancestors did not have the luxury of making ammonium in a factory like we do today, they had to use urine. Yes, that’s right! Urine was the go-to material in the past whenever ammonium was needed.

We saw how it was used by leather tanners. In the same vein, fullers would immerse the wool in a puddle of urine and then proceed to stomp the material (with their feet) for several hours. This was done in order to remove the oils, dirt and other impurities from the cloth. The fulling process also made the cloth more compact and denser.

And if urine wasn’t used, the fulling was done at fulling mils that used very toxic chemicals, which were not the slightest bit safer and less poignant than urine.

Basically, the job of a fuller was absolutely crucial in the process of converting raw woven wool into finished, high-quality fabric which in turn were used to make garments.

Pure Finder

Today, picking up dog poop is seen as a slight inconvenience that dog lovers have to endure whenever they take their four-legged companions to the park. However, in the past, dog poop a valuable item to the leather tanning industry.

We have already explained in detail the dreadful conditions leather tanners had to endure in the job. It so happened that the slurry of feces that they used to get the animal skin softer was primarily made of dog poop.

The gathering of dog poop was the job of the pure finder. It’s safe to assume that the pure finders were compensated for their sweat per ton or kilos, almost like the gong farmers we saw above.

Groom of the Stool

The groom of the stool was a job instituted properly during the reign of Tudor monarch Henry VII (reign: 1485-1509). As a matter of fact, the job came to be held by some notable figures of the kingdom, including the Middlesex aristocrat Hugh Denys (c. 1440-1511).

The job of the groom of the stool was to help the English monarch in all his toileting needs. It placed the holder of the job at a very physically intimate position with the king. It was formally styled as Groom of the King’s Close Stool, with close stool referring to the portable toilet that was shaped like a cabinet with an opening on the top and an earthenware chamberpot at the bottom.

Once the king was through with his ‘business’, the Groom of the Stool would proceed to clean the king’s bottom. This point has however been a matter of debate. What we do know for certainty is that the male servants that served as the Groom of the Stool handled everything related to the king’s close stool, including providing wiping materials, water and towels.

The Groom of the Stool helped the king undress and re-dress. And one might think that for what possible reason does the king need someone to undress and re-dress him? Well, it’s important to note that monarchs back then wore a really elaborate and thick set of clothing with a lot of complex fastenings and jewelries.

William III of England's close-stool.

William III of England‘s close-stool. Hampton Court collection

In some cases, they had to monitor the king’s diet and food intake in order to ensure that the monarch had no hiccups on the toilet. This means that they collaborated with the monarch’s chief physician a lot of times.

This was obviously an unpleasant job; however, the level of physical intimacy that was reached allowed the holder to gain a bit of influence in the kingdom.

First of all, the job holder became someone whom the king could trust, feel relaxed around with, and even share things about the kingdom’s affairs. In such a highly intimate space, the groom of the stool could also offer his take on the affairs of the kingdom, thereby influencing some of the decisions of the king. As a result, the Groom of the Stool became one of the most trusted and powerful advisers in the royal court. It’s said that the Groom of the Stool often had the king’s ear.

In the case of Hugh Denys, Groom of the Stool to Henry VII, the royal courtier became so influential that he started serving as an influential Gentleman and administrator of the Privy Chamber during the reign of Henry VIII. It is said that the Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber sometimes had more influence of the king than the king’s wife.

They rose to even greater influence during the old age of the English monarchs when the needed even more physical assistance than when they were younger. Unpleasant and menial as it may sound today, the position was certainly seen as an honorable one.

During the reigns of Mary I (aka “Bloody Mary”) and Elizabeth I, the title of Groom of the Stool came to be First Lady of the Bedchamber. From then onward, the title underwent a number changes, including being called the First Gentleman of the Bedchamber and Groom of the Stole.

It was not until the ascension of King Edward VII in 1901 that the office of the Groom of the Stool was discontinued.

Other dishonorable mentions

Here are some more examples of jobs that are widely considered to be among the worst in history:

Coal Miners

Coal mining has historically been a hazardous occupation. Miners faced the constant risk of cave-ins, explosions, and black lung disease from prolonged exposure to coal dust. The job often involved long hours, low pay, and backbreaking labor in cramped and poorly ventilated underground mines. In the past, cool miners carried out their job with very little to no occupational safety and health whatsoever.

Matchstick Dippers

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, matchstick production involved dipping sticks into a dangerous mixture of white phosphorus and other chemicals. The workers, primarily young girls, suffered from a condition known as “phossy jaw,” which caused severe jaw bone degeneration and chronic pain.


In the 19th century, before the introduction of modern sewer systems, workers known as muckrakers had to manually clean and clear out human waste and debris from urban streets and open drains. The job exposed them to unsanitary conditions and a high risk of contracting diseases.

Factory Workers during the Industrial Revolution

No list of worst jobs in history would be complete without mentioning the countless backbreaking jobs performed by people in the early years of the Industrial Revolution.

It is somewhat documented that during the early days of industrialization, factory workers, including women and children, often faced long work hours, low wages, and dangerous working conditions. They were exposed to harmful chemicals, heavy machinery, and lacked basic safety regulations.

Most certainly, much of the benefits we enjoy in the modern era came on the backs of the sheer amount of hazardous and difficult jobs performed by people during the Industrial Revolution. It is therefore important we acknowledge them.

Worst jobs in history


The hardworking individuals who found themselves in the above dreadful occupations in history undoubtedly deserve all the admiration and respect. At the end of the day, it was these workers who kept the society thriving. They took on jobs that most people, even in that time, would outrightly avoid. This explains why whenever those jobs are discussed today, the typical response is shock, horror, disbelief, and wonder.

It is important to acknowledge that the perception of these jobs may vary across different time periods and cultures. What might have been considered the worst job in one era may differ from another, as societal norms and working conditions have evolved over time.


Andrew Bennett (2015). William Wordsworth in Context. Cambridge University Press.

Druchunas Felting. (2005). Vogue Knitting, The Basics, Sixth & Spring Books, NY.

Durrant, Geoffrey. William Wordsworth. Cambridge University Press

Emma Mason. (2010). The Cambridge Introduction to William Wordsworth (Cambridge University Press

Gustavson, K.H. (1956). The Chemistry of Tanning Processes. Academic Press Inc., New York.

Possehl, Gregory L. (1996). Mehrgarh in Oxford Companion to Archaeology, edited by Brian Fagan. Oxford University Press.

Wilson, J.A. The Chemistry of Leather Manufacture. (1923). The Chemical Catalog Company, Inc. New York.

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