Life in Regency London was no evening ball, if you weren’t well off. Life as a prostitute, like Damon, is hard with no job security or even physical security, unless you’re a courtesan who marries richly (which did happen from time to time). Damon knows he’s pretty well off at Mother Dover’s, if only because he gets a roof over his head, time off during the day, protection against abusers, and even sometimes meat in his bowl.
But if you’re poor and a child, well, prostitution is just one potential horror. There’s some pretty horrendous jobs available.
So what are the worst jobs in Regency England?
1) Chimney Sweep
Not master sweep, mind, but the actual boys and girls between eight and twelve years sent up the chimney flues to sweep out soot and put out fires. The chimney flues weren’t just straight up and down (as I initially imagined them), but more like a maze of small flues connecting fireplaces throughout the house.
This was not the best apprenticeship to make it to adulthood. Soot is a carcinogen chimney sweeps wore for days, sometimes weeks on end, resulting in particular cancer called ‘Sooty Warts.’
You’ll also get burnt by the flue fires you were sent to extinguish, or suffocate in the build up of soot when trapped in tiny crawl spaces. If you refused to ascend, you’d be beaten by your master.
But if you survived, you too could become a master sweep and have your turn at shoving children up chimneys.
Let’s face it — mining has been one of the worst jobs throughout history. In the Regency era, you’d start in the coal mines at six or seven, opening and closing doors in the tunnels for approaching horses and miners while sitting in complete darkness for twelve hours a day.
Older children and women would drive carts of mines up, either by ponies carrying the carts, or by actually pulling it up on sleds (no carts for you). Pregnant women were not exempt (which is especially harsh, since the rope was wrapped around their bellies).
3) Factory or mill worker
Not only is factory and mill work back-breakingly difficult, you were likely to lose limbs on the machinery, or even grow up deformed. As one orphan recalled about his work in the mill, having to stand in one odd position all day, “I got deformed there; my knees began to bend in when I was fifteen.”
That same orphan, when giving evidence later in life on the employment of children in factories, said he’d rather have his children transported than work in the factory. And that’s really saying something. In the Regency era, criminals would rather had been executed than face transportation to Australia. While being transported, you might be killed or brutalised by fellow passengers or the crew, and locked below decks for weeks only to die along the way of typhus or scurvy. Captains often withheld prisoner’s supplies to sell at port, meaning you’d starve and smell.
4) Night-soil collectors
Respectable homes couldn’t just chuck their chamberpots out the windows (like less respectable homes), so the waste had to go somewhere. They tossed their chamberpots in their cesspits to be emptied at night by the night-soil collectors. No child abuse stories here (so far in my research), but still, not the kind of job you’d want to aim for.
But at the very least, you weren’t likely to be a slave — within Britain. As a child, you could still be abducted and sold abroad as a child slave or into child prostitution. Small favours, eh?
Now, I won’t say this is a comprehensive list, just what I’ve read so far. I might also add canal workers, but I’ve only seen references. Or maybe teeth collectors. Yeah, there’s enough in the Regency era to keep one’s self appreciative of what we have now.