London Sewer Hunters in the 1800s

London sewer hunters, often called toshers, were those people that ignored roguish odors to descend into London’s sewers and scavenge, pan, and retrieve “tosh,” which was the term for copper. During the 1800s the term tosher gained a much wider application than it does today. These long ago toshers also searched dumps, scavenged at the mouth of sewers, and worked the Thames shoreline.

Henry Mayhew, Author's Collection

Henry Mayhew. Author’s collection.

Amazing as it may sound, toshers thought of themselves as a step or two above mudlarks — people who scavenged the Thames for coal, wood, or rope — because toshers scavenged for money, silver, or gold. According to Henry Mayhew, author of the multi-volume London Labour and the London Poor, toshers made a good living, earning about 6 shillings a day, which places them among the top earners of London’s working class during the Victorian Era and was enough for the 1 shilling entrance fee at Madame Tussaud‘s wax exhibition on Baker Street in the 1840s and for the additional 6d. required for entrance into her Chamber of Horrors.

There were many dangers in the sewer for London sewer hunters. They had to circumvent crumbling brickwork and earth that often threatened to bury them alive if merely touched. Toshers, who nicknamed themselves shoremen or shoreworkers, could also get lost in the maze-like sewer systems if they wandered too far from the main branches. This was because sewer lines crossed and recrossed in unrecognizable fashion. Moreover, sometimes torrents of water were allowed to rush through the sewer system when sluices were lifted, and unaware they could be swept away or placed in extreme peril. Another danger that existed was large pockets of noxious fumes or “foul air.” When these fumes or foul air accumulated it could cause instant death if accidentally breathed. Additionally, toshers faced insatiable swarms of rats and for that reason they often scavenged in gangs of three or four people.

London Sewer Hunters: Sewer Hunter

Sewer hunter.  Public domain.

There were other problems for London sewer hunters. Numerous tales exist about London’s rats living there and supposedly when they were driven into corners, they would “fly at the intruder’s face and legs in hundreds.”[1] The lengths toshers went to when defending themselves against the vermin was a common theme. Richard Rowe published a story about a sewer hunter named Ole Pippin, and according to Rowe, Ole Pippin dealt with rats and claimed, “They’ve pulled men down and worried ’em, and picked their bones as clean as a washed plate.”[2] Mayhew interviewed one sewer hunter who maintained:

“I’ve often seen as many as a hundred rats at once, and they’re woppers [sic] in the sewers … they’d think nothink [sic] of tackling a man … Do you recollect hearing on the man as was found in the sewers about twelve year ago? … the rats eat every bit of him, and left nothink [sic] but his bones.”[3]

The same man also claimed wild hogs were as bad as the rats and that they inhabited the sewers “feeding on the offal and garbage washed into it continually … [and their] breed multiplied exceedingly, and have become almost as ferocious as they are numerous.”[4]

London sewer hunters disappeared into the treacherous slime of the London sewers from the river Thames at low tide. Before the 1840s, they disappeared in pre-dawn hours, and after the 1840s, they worked at night to avoid detection. That was because it became illegal to enter sewers without express permission.

To do their jobs, London sewer hunters used certain tools of the trade. Besides their easily recognizable dirty canvas trousers, they also used coats with large pockets and “old slops” for shoes. According to the London Star, another tool of the trade consisted of a seven or eight foot long pole with “a large iron hoe [attached to it], a bag carried on the back, a canvas apron-tied around them, and a dark lantern, similar to a policeman’s.”[5] The dark lantern was strapped to their right breast so that when they walked upright their light would shine straight ahead, but when stooping, it would shine at their feet.

As these subterranean scavengers traversed the filthy muck, they tested questionable surfaces with their long poles. If at any point a sewer hunter accidentally sunk into a quagmire, he used his handy pole by attaching the hoe to something solid. Then he pulled, climbed, or somehow extricated himself. Toshers also used their hoes to rake up rubbish and dig through mud or between crevices, “occasionally [finding] shillings and silver spoons,”[6] which the Star claimed found “a temporary resting place in the bag at their back or in their capacious coat pockets.”[7]

Building New London's Sewers, Author's Collection

Building new London’s sewers. Author’s collection.

One of the best spots to “find” things in the darkened sewers was near grates. However, London sewer hunters worried about being detected because after the 1840s, toshers could be fined large sums or jailed if they were caught in the sewers. This meant that the ordinary citizen was likely to inform on them because informers could receive substantial rewards. To avoid detection, toshers were careful with their shining bright lights and careful near grates. They would either extinguish or cover their lanterns and wait until they could slip past the grate unnoticed. “Otherwise,” according to the Star, “a crowd of people might collect at the grating, whose presence would put the police on … alert.”[8]

On good days, when toshers were lucky, they found many articles, such as plates, ladles, silver-handled utensils, mugs, and jewelry. It was supposedly near the grates that the greatest quantities of money were found, with copper money being plentiful. “Not infrequently shillings, half-crowns and sixpences, with an occasional sovereign of half-sovereign [were discovered].”[9] Sometimes their searches lead to the discovery of metal, bones, or ropes, which were then sold to other dealers, such as rag-and-bone men, and whatever profits were earned by the tosher were split between the gang members.

References:

  • [1] Kirwan, Daniel Joseph, Palace and Hovel, Or Phases of London Life, 1878, p. 332.
  • [2] Rowe, Richard, ‘Ole Pippin,’ on The Dictionary of V
  • [3] Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and the London Poor, Vol. 1, 1861, p. 154.
  • [4] Dale, Rodney, The Wordsworth Book of Urban Legend, p. 69.
  • [5] “London ‘Toshers,'” Star, Issue 5716, November 7, 1896, p. 7.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid.

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