‘Today if you found a dead cat, dog, or human floating along a river, you would probably contact your local authorities. But the Victorians didn’t mind dead things in their water because bones were valuable.’

To live in any large city during the 18th and 19th centuries, when the state provided little, was to witness poverty on a scale inconceivable to most people today. In London, the combination of low wages, appalling housing, a fast-rising population, and miserable health care resulted in the capital’s sharp division.

A wealthy faction of aristocrats and professionals lived comfortably in London’s good parts, pampered by servants and transported about in carriages. While the great majority struggled desperately for existence in stinking slums where no gentleman or lady ever trod, and which most of the privileged had no idea even existed. Out of sight and all too often out of mind, the British capital’s working people conjured livings for themselves in strange ways.

I’ve often wondered what would be the worst job anyone could have. One of the most interesting groups in this period was ‘Toshers’ who journeyed the tunnels’ length and breadth running under London.

A Tosher (sewer hunter) scavenged in the sewers, especially in London during the Victorian era. Tosher was also used to describe thieves who stripped valuable copper from the hulls of ships moored along the Thames. The related slang term ‘tosh’ referred to valuables thus collected.

Victorian London had a massive network of over-worked sewers under the city, washing away the crowded city’s effluence. The toshers ignored the nasty odours to descend into the dark sewers. They sieved the sewers, which would’ve included rotting flesh and faeces, for anything of value—ranging from bones, metal, coins, cutlery. A Tosher could earn as much as 6 shillings about £35 in today’s money on a good day. And the insult used widely today ‘tosser’ is a mispronunciation of the word ‘tosher’ and what a job that must have been.

It was hazardous work: Noxious fumes formed deadly pockets, the tunnels frequently crumbled, there were swarms of rats, and at any moment the sluices might be opened, and a tide of filthy water might wash the toshers away. The ferocious wild hogs were as bad as the rats, and inhabited the sewers, feeding on the offal and garbage washed into it continually. Because of these dangers, toshers worked in groups.

Instantly identifiable in their canvas trousers, aprons with large pockets, and lanterns strapped to their chests. Most toshers carried a long pole to investigate piles of human waste for treasures, or with which to steady themselves if they stumbled in the gloom. After 1840 it became illegal to enter the sewers without permission, and so toshers began working late at night or early in the morning to avoid detection. Despite the stinking and dangerous conditions, it was lucrative for the working classes, with many a coin or silver spoon sloshing about in the quagmire.

Many tales were told among the people of men having lost their way in the sewers and having wandered among the filthy passages until they dropped. The noxious smells formed deadly pockets of methane, and men died on the spot. Other stories are told of sewer-hunters beset by masses of gigantic rats, slaying thousands of them in their struggle for life, till the swarms of the savage things overpowered them. A few days afterwards, their skeletons were discovered picked to the very bones.

Today if you found a dead cat, dog, or human floating along a river, you would probably contact your local authorities. But the Victorians didn’t mind dead things in their water because bones were valuable. Bones were sold to the bone-boilers and used in everyday items — handles for toothbrushes, teething rings, knife handles, and cheap combs.

Most kids will stop wailing if you stick a finger bone in their mouths. Bones that could not be used were pulverised into fertilisers or boiled to make soaps. So yes, recycling the dead cleaned the living.

London Crime Thriller Books by Paul:

I share a special love for London, both new and old. If you like London crime books, you will love these gritty thrillers.


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