In new five-part series Queen Victoria's Slum, a group of modern-day people move into a recreated Victorian-era “slum” and attempt to make enough money to keep a roof over their heads and stave off starvation. To do so, the slum-dwellers try their hands at various dull, repetitive, dirty jobs with varying levels of success. But they’re living the dream! Many Victorian-era jobs were downright dangerous. Here are five of the worst...
In the series, 59-year-old Graham Potter puts his back out at a bell foundry after a long, gruelling day (which is, sadly, devoid of gruel or any other food). So it’s up to the kids to go out into the streets to sell watercress, which they amazingly manage to do despite the fact watercress is essentially pond weed.
But that's a relatively safe job compared to Victorian-era “mudlarking”, where children would wade into the filthy Thames to retrieve anything from old cigar butts to dog droppings to sell (to different markets, but mix-ups probably occurred…). If they couldn’t find anything to sell above ground, there was always…
…searching for stuff to sell in the sewers! Toshers would go into the sewage tunnels with fishing nets, looking for coins or nails, but more often they’d find dead rats, brown paper and… other stuff generally found in sewers. In a time when typhoid and cholera were rife, and hand-washing wasn’t considered a high priority, this was a job that could kill you. Although, on the plus side, no-one would want to get close enough to you to catch anything infectious.
In the Victorian slums, sometimes the only thing worse than not having a job was having a job. There were many many, many jobs that could kill you – jobs that seemed, in fact, practically designed to kill you. The factories especially appeared to be places specifically designed to kill people and occasionally produce cotton cloth or porcelain, for instance. Children were often maimed or killed by machinery. In cotton factories, dust and fibres got into people’s lungs and all the moving machinery could take people’s fingers, hands or scalps. But even worse than that was…
And not the fun, millionaire kind. Of all the awful, horrendous, life-threatening jobs you could do in Victorian England, perhaps the worst was one the Potter/Oldfield women come closest to: matchmaking. But on the show they only have to assemble boxes in their own home.
In reality, matchmaking factories were so bad that in 1888, the “Match Girls” went on strike over long hours, low wages, being hit (and hit on) by the boss and, oh yes, “Phossy Jaw”, which disappointingly was not a Victorian-era stage performer who showed off her bloomers when she danced. Phossy Jaw was a hideously disfiguring disease caused by working with phosphorous without the usual safeguards found in no Victorian-era factory ever.
The strike was a PR disaster of epic proportions – think Kendall Jenner and Pepsi – and the company was forced to back down and give in to the women’s demands. Then, it only took 20 years for the government to ban the use of white phosphorous in matches, which would have been great news for the Match Girls if so many of them weren’t dead.
5. The workhouse
In the series, the Howarths do well enough with their tailoring business that they’re eventually able to achieve the Victorian dream of opening a sweatshop of their very own. But sewing by candlelight could be hard on the eyes and, without a family to support you, you could end up like the 70-year-old seamstress with failing eyesight who was turned away from the workhouse (where unskilled labourers were given jobs and housing) because she was “young enough to work”.
As horrible as that sounds, they might have been doing her a favour, because ending up at a Victorian workhouse was about as low as you could go. If you were desperate and poor enough to turn up there, the aim of the game seemed to be to punish you for being desperate and poor with hard labour, starvation wages, actual starvation and living conditions that provided little shelter from the elements. If you didn’t die from the lack of food, the lack of shelter or the lack of hygiene, chances are you’d die from sheer misery.
Watch Queen Victoria’s Slum to see who survives Tuesdays at 7:30pm on SBS.
Missed the last episode? Watch it at SBS On Demand: