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Friday, 19 December 2014

The trades that killed in Jane Austen’s time

The immediate thought of the gentle reader regarding risky professions must necessarily turn to those hard physical tasks and of course soldiering. I do not plan to look at the risks of military service in this post, as they are quite apparent and have been addressed ably elsewhere.  Instead I plan to focus on the obvious, and less obvious risks at work.  I’ll start with jobs employing children and work up.  Most of the jobs below, bar pinners and climbing boys, were of equal risk to adults as to children.

One of the jobs open to children as young as five years old; cave-ins happened, floods that came up too fast for the steam pumps, if there were any, and of course the perennial risk of fire-damp, impure methane gas, seeping from the fossil fuels within the earth.  The greatest risk of this was in coal mines.  There were two ways of dying from fire-damp; by suffocation, or by explosion, as methane in the presence of oxygen is explosive.  Not until the invention of Humphrey Davies’ safety lamp in 1815 was the danger of explosion reduced – always supposing the mine owner invested in the same.  Other gases lurked in mines, like carbon dioxide, and sulphur dioxide, and were equally deadly, though they did not explode.  The crippling effect to young bodies of the children employed pulling trucks of coal or ore in mines possibly killed as many in a more drawn out way as died in pit disasters, as did dust on the lungs.

Weaving factories
So much has been written about the danger of loss of limb or life to the children and women crawling under the ever-moving looms to clean them, and the terrible lung diseases engendered by the ever-present cotton dust in the air that there is no need to re-iterate them in detail here.

Chimney Cleaning
Although a patent chimney cleaning machine was invented by Joseph Glass, most sweeps preferred to use geese thrown down the chimney with their legs tied, or climbing boys sent up.  These boys were indentured servants, essentially slaves, as were some of the factory workers, bound to apprenticeship by parish foundling authorities.  They were at risk of sticking in small flues and dying of thirst and hunger, dying of soot inhalation, being suffocated more suddenly by soot falls, and as it was not uncommon for sweeps to drive pins into their bare feet or light fires under them, the chance of sepsis from wounds must have figured in some deaths.  Add to this Chimney-sweep’s Canker, or cancer of the testicles, and this was one of the more miserable lives to be led.  Campaigns to prevent the use of climbing boys were under way, including the publication The Chimney Sweep’s Friend and Climbing Boys Album, edited by the radical writer and poet James Montgomery, which included stories and pictures to raise awareness. Picture taken from here shows an impoverished mother apprenticing her young son to a sweep.  It took until 1840 to ban the practice, and even them was more seen in the breach than the observance.

Crossing sweeping. 
With the amount of debris from horses, sweeping a path for grand ladies with their delicate shoes and long skirts to cross the street, even assuming they were protected by wearing pattens, was a way of earning a vail, or tip as we should call it now, that was preferred by some boys over begging or stealing.  This might be a safer occupation if the drivers on the road had been likely to be prosecuted for causing death by dangerous driving; but the instance of injury or death to the lower orders was of little moment to many gentlemen drivers, and of no moment at all to the hackney cab drivers and delivery men whose jobs depended on getting their passengers or deliveries made at the best possible time.  Running over a crossing sweeper who failed to get out of the way in time would only occasion any interest to these careless drivers if they had damaged their coach, or paintwork, or upset the horses.  Horses will not, at least, generally trample on a human body if they can avoid it, unless trained to do so; but flailing iron-shod hooves when startled might kill without the horse being a conscious participant. 

Pin Making
Pins were still made in the same way as they had been for hundreds of years, one end ground to a point, and the other either coiled or covered in a blob of solder.  This was a job for children, whose fingers were nimble, working in poorly ventilated areas and breathing in the fumes of the lead solder and flux.  As some of the fluxes used from early times contained phosphorous, this was a problem.  Lead poisoning was probably going to kill them first, however, as abdominal pain, muscle weakness, memory loss, confusion and then kidney and liver failure set in.
Grinders of both pins and needles suffered from Grinder’s asthma too…

Moving on to jobs exclusively adult.

Canal builders
Later, railway builders were subject to similar risks, but at the time, the building of canals was the way rapid transport was being taken across the country.  Though stretches of river were used, where new sections were dug, there was always the risk of sections of canal wall falling in, suffocating or crushing anyone beneath them; and when working near rivers, drowning was a real possibility for a population very few of whom could swim.  Sudden deluges were not entirely unknown either. 

Whether driving the Mailcoach, or a stage coach or a hired hack, or a private coachman, the high perch of a coachman to give him a good view also placed him at risk if anything should overturn the coach; and there was plenty that might.  Though the roads had improved out of all recognition since the introduction of the Toll Roads, there were still plenty of ruts and pot holes; and human error, in taking a corner too fast, also played its part.  The thoughtless driving of rich maniacs with their souped-up sports cars – read, high-perch phaeton and four – added to the danger, as such sporting gentlemen wanted to go faster than hire coaches or a sedate squire’s equipage, and expected other traffic to move to the side of the road for them to pass.  Naturally, the side of the road encountered the most extreme camber, and more ruts from farm carts, and increased the possibility of being overturned into the ditch.  And this without the ‘sport’ of ‘hunting the squirrel’ where feckless brats of the road tried deliberately to put slower traffic into a ditch by catching a wheel with their own, relying on their own speed to avoid any damage.  Wheel clips could happen by accident as well, leading to more or less mayhem caused to both parties.
Naturally, being thrown from a seat so high above the road, a driver risked broken bones or a broken neck.  Sitting for long hours in the cold in winter, earache, a cold in the head  and almost inevitably chilblains were his lot, any one of which might also impair his driving judgement.  There might also be floods and snowdrifts, with their attendant dangers, and lightning to contend with, a higher risk then than now.   Add to this the possibility of highwaymen, admittedly less by the Regency than in the 18th century, but still a possibility…
See also my post on the dangers of travel HERE

The phrase ‘as mad as a hatter’ originates in the particular dangers that beset those men who made men’s hats.  It is the response to prolonged exposure to mercury vapour, used in the process of felting animal furs that were used to make men’s hats [even if the popular ‘beaver’ were an inferior and less water-resistant article made of rabbit].  The shyness and neurological problems, headaches, general pain, irregular heartbeat and the shakes were not enough to kill immediately but as pathologic shyness and depression can be symptoms too, suicide and death through lack of self care cannot be ruled out as causes of death as well as mercury poisoning, and tuberculosis caused by the damp conditions in which they often had to work.

Ormolu gilders
Like hatters, ormolu gilders worked with mercury vapour and few survived past the age of 40. France was first to outlaw its use in 1830.  The original ormolu, popularised in the 18th century, was a means of binding powdered, high-carat gold in a mercury amalgam to bronze.   Silver-gilt was produced in the same way. 


  1. Excellent post, Sarah! I didn't know that a hatter's job was dangerous, but mercury vapour ... that's very bad, indeed.
    I read that the job of the printers wasn't very healthy either. Printers often suffered from pulmonary disease. Then, they also worked by the light of a candle, and the open fire plus the stored paper, oil and turpentine was a dangerous matter.

  2. Thanks, Anna, and thanks for the addition! I've missed many, I'm sure.... embroideresses and tailors had spinal problems and eyesight problems, it was a harsh age.

  3. Tailors also has pulmonary problems with lint. According to Dickens it was worse for them than for printers because the tailors spent long hours every day cooped up in a poorly-ventilated shop.

  4. That's a very good point... thanks Charles!

  5. Thanks so much for this; I always enjoy your posts.
    I didn't know about the dangers of ormolu gilding; I'll have to read up!

  6. Thanks, Brenda! glad you enjoy! yes, the ormolu gilders suffered in the same way as the hatters, but there were presumably more hatters for the phrase 'mad as a hatter' to become proverbial. France was relatively enlightened in terms of health and safety - real health and safety, not the irritants we suffer under nowadays....