In today’s Family Wise blog, we’re taking a closer look into some of the more unusual, forgotten and downright crazy jobs of yesteryear! This deep dive into some of the worlds obsolete occupations gives us great insight into the massive changes the world has undergone, even since the Victorian Era.
So without further ado, let’s get into The A-Z of Unusual and Obsolete Occupations of the Victorian Era!
Agisters in the United Kingdom were formerly the officers of the forest empowered to take in and feed livestock for payment. At one point, agisters were also called ‘marksmen’ which indicates a part of their purpose.
The name is medieval in origin. As Officers of the Crown they were required to gather grazing fees from ‘strangers’. Strangers were those who wished to depasture animals but had no right to do so. They collected the ‘marking fee’ and advised the Verderers of unmarked stock and impounded animals illegally depastured. They advised and assisted owners in the welfare of the animals and it was also their job to attend animal accidents with the Agister’s most unpleasant role being to put the animal out of its suffering.
Battledore Maker: The modern game of badminton developed from a game called battledore and shuttlecocks, as shown in this picture. The battledore maker or stringer made the racquets for the sport, though manufacturers of cane and wooden carpet beaters or paddles (to get rid of the dust) were also known as battledore makers. In 1830, the record for the amount of passes made by the Somerset family was apparently 2117 hits.
Caffler – A rag-and-bone man who collected unwanted home items and sold them to merchants. Traditionally, this was a task performed on foot, with the scavenged materials (which included rags, bones and various metals) slung over the shoulder in a bag. Some wealthier rag-and-bone men (like this Blackburn rag-and-bone man) used a cart, sometimes pulled by horse or pony.
19th-century rag-and-bone men typically lived in penury, surviving on the proceeds of what they collected a day. Conditions improved following the second war, but the trade declined during the second half of the 20th century.
Doffer – The word “doff” means to remove. In a textile mill, a spinning factory worker or doffer would need to remove the full bobbins of yarn from the mules or spinning frames and replace them.
A doffer’s duties often provided them with more time to play than to work, with many of the children playing games on company time. A doffer may be seven years old or younger, and had the potential to be promoted to spinner, a higher paying job that was often reserved for girls right away. Doffers sometimes also doubled as sweepers, a job that included sweeping up the cotton lint in between the doffing runs, but in larger factories, these were two separate jobs.
Ellis or Pratellis – The term given to the unskilled agricultural labourer who spent his time mowing lawns and meadows. Interestingly, this appears to be the origin of the word prat for a person who professes knowledge or status that he can never achieve.
Fly Man – a Fly Man was a scenery worker in the Victorian theatre who worked in the scenery loft or the ‘flies’, above the stage. The Victorian stage was inherited from the 18th century with an area above the stage where machines were placed and used with pulleys to lift the play’s characters giving the appearance of flying. All the equipment was managed by hand by fly men. At the lowest level of this area, scenery was slid on and off as required.
Galerius or Nob Thatcher was a wig maker, with galerius occasionally referring to the making of caps or bonnets. Wigs became fashionable for men during the 18th century. They were largely worn by tradesmen, clergy, military, merchants and ship captains, though only the upper classes of society could really afford wigs, so along with looking fashionable, wearers were also declaring their wealth. Towards the start of the 19th century, they became much less common amid the younger men and therefore the only people left wearing them were mainly conservatives.
Hokey Pokey Man – this is a rare surviving picture of customers at a hokey pokey barrow in London around 1900, selling ice cream in parks and on street corners. The brightly coloured carts were generally fitted with a decorated painted canvas cover to protect the salesman from sun and rain. Hokey pokey men were generally, but not always of Italian origin, and often sold fruit flowered water-ice rather than the traditional ice cream we are used to today. As their wealth grew, many of them bought horses and carts with which to ply their trade.
India Workers – rubber workers who extruded rubber (like toothpaste from a tube) before it was manufactured into goods by cutting to shape.
Jigger – Some occupations terms have a wide variety of means so it is hard to deduce from a word on a historical documentation what your ancestor did.
A quote from the Old Bailey proceedings against Cornelius Strong for deception and fraud in 1845 includes a statement from Mr Daniel Brown:
‘I am a labourer. On Wednesday, the 24th of Sept., the prisoner was at work with me, from eight o’clock till six—he was at work as a jigger —he might be occasionally going away to the water-closet, or such as that, but not for above a quarter of an hour—we had six men heaving up….’
In this instance, the occupation of jigger is a worker in a mine who cleaned and sorted ore in a wire or wooden sieve when it had been ‘heaved up’. The term can also be used to describe the owner of an illegal still of alcoholic spirits, a potter and a dancer, so if you ancestor was a jigger, good luck working out what they actually did!
Knock Nobbler – back in Victorian times, the wonderfully titled occupation was given to a churchwarden who was in charge of turning unruly dogs out of church! The term remains today with a book written by a gentleman within the West Midlands who was a high powered television director and, when made redundant, became a knock nobbler. However, nowadays, this is just a dog catcher instead of being specific to the church.
Lidster is one of many terms used in Victorian times for a dyer. Before 1856, all dyes came from natural sources but in that year, William Perkin discovered a method of factory mass production that gave rise to the synthetic dye industry. Women and children were employed in the industry and unskilled labour, particularly in the bleaching process, known as bleachers.
Malkin – a term used for a female kitchen worker back in the 19th century. This Victorian kitchen built 200 years ago with original fixtures and fittings has recently been discovered almost untouched in a mansion in Cefn Park, near Wrexham.
Night-soil Man – In the 19th-century, before modern sewage systems snaked beneath our streets, sewage went into deep, open pits. Privies, consisting of a small hut with no door, a seat with a circular hole in the middle, led down into a cesspit to hold the excrement. One privy could be shared by a whole street. Excrement was collected by a “night-soil man” who was paid by landlords to get rid of their tenants waste. Some landlords didn’t want to pay to have this important job taken care of and so cesspits were allowed to overflow onto the streets, which then caused diseases like cholera with many people dying simply because of the poor sanitary conditions in the 19th century. Night-soil men would go into the pits, carry up buckets of body waste, and take it to farms to be used as manure.
Ostler – which I am sure, will be a term familiar to some of you….. An ostler was someone employed in a stable or farm to look after the horses, especially at an inn. At the start of the 19th century, the most popular mode of transportation was the horse and carriage. It wasn’t until the last part of the century that railways changed people’s way of living. But even after the advent of the railway, remote areas still relied on the horse and cart for local transport.
Pancratist – to me sounds like something medical, but no! It is a term used when referring to gymnasts of the Victorian age. Although gymnastics has its roots in Ancient Greece, Johann Friedrich GutsMuth and Friedrich Ludwig Jahn brought back the art of gymnastics in the 19th century. Around this time, they made use of several pieces of equipment for teaching gymnastics. Equipment such as horizontal bar, parallel bars, side horse with pommels, balance beam, ladder, and vaulting horse were introduced by Jahn.
Quarrel maker – Is an arrow maker, as in early times, a quarrel was an arrow with a square shaft. Later the term has been used for a manufacturer of small diamond-shape glass panes, also called quarrels.
Rapper which, for sure, does not have the same meaning as today! Back in Victorian time, a rapper was someone in industrial areas who had the job of waking shift workers by knocking on their doors.
Sinecure – someone who received a salary for a high position which involved no actual work! An occupation I feel sure many of us would very much like to have held in the 19th century.
Tapping Table Worker – a worker in the chocolate industry who would tap the full moulds to release bubbles of air. I am not sure that working in the chocolate industry would do much for my waistline though!
Urinator – for the sheer comedy value, this was an opportunity that could not be missed. A urinator is a professional diver! Diving became popular in Sweden and Germany within the 18th and 19th centuries. It was primarily practised by gymnasts who performed tumbling routines into the water. A group of Swedish divers visited Great Britain in the 19th century. They held diving shows that were very popular and led to the formation of the first-ever diving organisation, the Amateur Diving Association, in 1901. Diving was included in the Olympic Games for the first time just after the end of the Victorian era at the 1904 Games in St Louis. The springboard and platform events are still being held to this day and have been since the 1908 Olympic Games.
Votarist or Votaress – the difference only being votarist is used for man and votaress for a lady……. Someone who is bound by solemn religious vows, generally in Victorian times, used to describe a monk or a nun. The term has been used in the 20th century in a slightly different way, for someone devoted or addicted to a subject or pursuit, e.g. a votary of jazz.
Wonkey-scooper – again, such a wonderfully titled occupation, it could not be left without comment in the A-Z! As we have already discussed earlier on, horses took on many roles in the 19th century and they carried out much of the farm work before mechanisation. A wonkey-scooper was a person who operated a kind of scoop contraption with a horse. These two images show horse-drawn dirt scoops from the Victorian era and would have been used on farms to quite literally ‘scoop the dirt’.
Xylographer – A technique in printmaking where a depiction is carved into the surface of a block of wood, with the printing parts remaining level with the surface while the non-printing parts are removed. The areas that are supposed to be ‘white’ are cut away with a knife, leaving the image to show in ‘black’ at the first surface level. The block is cut along the grain of the wood (unlike wood engraving where the block is cut within the end-grain). In Europe beechwood was most ordinarily used; in Japan, a special type of cherry wood was used.
The surface is roofed with ink by rolling over the surface with an ink-covered roller (brayer), leaving ink upon the flat surface but not within the non-printing areas.
Yowler – a thatcher’s assistant who held the yowls of straw and passed them to the thatcher. Straw was the predominant thatching material in use in this country up until the 19th Century – either longstraw or combed wheat reed. Norfolk Reed was first used in East Anglia and other wetland areas. A diversity of styles had developed over time and hence distinct regional characteristics became apparent. The wheat reed roofs of the West Country for instance, are shallow pitched and ‘pudding basin’ compared with the steeply pitched longstraw roofs of East Anglia.
Zigarius – a 19th century term for a gypsy. On historical documentation, you will rarely find reference to families being gypsies, whether they state their occupation as zigarius or otherwise. Terms such as traveller, hawker and basket maker, may give a clue to gypsy ancestry, but not every person with these occupations were gypsies. By gathering a series of documentary references to an individual or a family, it may be possible to establish a Gypsy connection using a combination of typical occupations, forenames, surnames, and other data.