The Crazy Profession Of Sewer Hunting

“London! the needy villain’s general home, / The common sewer of Paris and of Rome!” —Samuel Johnson, London

In A Nutshell

Most people don’t usually associate Victorian-era London with wonderful employment opportunities. One of the most disgusting jobs of the period was sewer hunting, a career that involved exploring the London sewer system and scavenging for lost goods. What’s even more shocking is that the practice still continues today in countries like Bangladesh.

The Whole Bushel

Imagine you’re in 1840s Victorian London. Now take a big imaginary whiff of not-so-fresh air. That putrid odor you’re smelling is human waste coursing beneath your feet in the city’s labyrinthine sewer system. It’s only going to get worse, eventually culminating with the infamous Great Stink of 1858. Now, can you imagine what it would be like to wade through that filth every day? Who would risk their health or nasal orifices to wander through those horrible sewers? As it turns out, a surprising number of men made a rather profitable living by venturing into London below and digging through all that muck.

Sewer hunters, or “toshers” as they were affectionately known, spent their days searching for valuables that might’ve wound up beneath the city streets. Toshers found all sorts of goods in the sewers, ranging from silverware to bits of rope to actual coins people dropped in the gutters. The men usually scavenged in groups, and each party was led by a vet who knew where to find all the nooks and crannies, perfect for catching hold of pricey knickknacks. These were also the guys who knew their way around the thousand miles of accessible tunnels, many of which were less than 1.2 meters (4 ft) tall. In other words, this was not a job for claustrophobes.

While these men were the very definition of “self-employed,” they all sported similar uniforms made up of long coats, canvas aprons, and plenty of pockets. Each man wore a lantern on his chest, and they all carried 2.5-meter-long (8 ft) poles equipped with hoes. They were useful for digging around in excrement, and they came in handy when toshers fell into quicksand pits of filth. They just used their hoes to hook onto something solid and hauled their way out.

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Obviously, sewer hunting was a pretty dangerous job. In fact, it was so risky that the government banned anyone from entering the sewers without permission in the 1840s. Toshers could run into all sorts of hazards in their search for a day’s wages, from walls caving in to explosive fumes like sulfurated hydrogen. However, the two biggest threats were flooding and rats. Twice a day, sluices were opened to let water rush into the tunnels. Quite a few unlucky men were carried away and drowned by these raging underground rivers. Those who survived the flood had to keep an eye out for rodents. A single bite coupled with who-knows-what-kind-of-bacteria could lead to an ugly death. And that’s assuming the rats didn’t attack you in massive, writhing hordes.

So why did the toshers spend their day shifting through animal carcasses, moldy vegetables, and things best left to the imagination? Well, sewer hunting paid surprisingly well. A tosher could make six shillings a day. In the Victorian era, that was quite the princely sum and definitely worth battling rats, floods, and the worst smells known to man. But what’s truly shocking is the practice of sewer hunting carries on today, although not in London. To find the modern-day tosher, you have to jump in a plane and fly to Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Dhaka is home to a famous gold bazaar, a collection of streets that hosts several hundred gold shops and factories. Before each shop opens, janitors sweep up the stores, pushing dirt, junk, and the occasional speck of gold into the open sewers. Folks willing to brave the foul stench of the Bangladeshi sewers arm themselves with gold pans and start swishing around the water Forty-Niner-style. On a good day, a Dhaka sewer hunter can earn up to $12 . . . which causes one to pause and think for a moment. It’s the 21st century, and human beings are crawling around in open sewers, earning less than their Victorian counterparts. We really are living in a mad world.

Show Me The Proof

Smithsonian: Quite Likely the Worst Job Ever
BBC News: Living off the sewers of gold