If you wake up on a Monday morning cursing your job and moaning about your boss, spare a thought for the East Enders of Victorian times – and thank your lucky stars you don’t have to scrape a living as a tosher, a mudlark, a scavenger or a riverman.
The Tower Hamlets of the 1800s was a byword for poverty and degradation, inspiring words and actions from some of the greatest world figures of the day.
William Booth was spurred by his work among the poor in the area to set up the Salvation Army, Karl Marx was inspired by his observations on the causes and solutions of poverty in east London to pen the Communist Manifesto. And itinerant Californian novelist Jack London was driven to write his best-selling novel about Docklands life after staying in Wapping. The title – People of the Abyss – says it all.
Between the day work on the docks and piecework in the sweatshops making garments, matches and the like, a whole raft of occupations grew up seeking to make some profit from the detritus of society.
The recent TV adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend paints a picture of the people who made a living from the Thames but the reality was, if anything, even worse.
Mudlarks were mostly children who prowled exposed Thames mudflats at low tide looking for bounty that had been dropped or washed into the river. Coins and jewellery were the greatest prize, but even items of clothing or driftwood were worth collecting. Clothes could be cleaned up and sold on to the rag-and-bone men, or totters, driftwood could be dried and sold on as firewood.
But if the mudlarks had a messy and dangerous job – many were swept away by the tides or became marooned in the soft mud – the rivermen chose an even nastier way to scrape a living.
In those days, bodies floating down the Thames were not an uncommon sight. London was a more dangerous and violent place than it is now and it was not uncommon for cutpurses to murder their victims and toss them into the river. The bodies of sailors were often washed up, who had died after drunken fights in the docks or after falling over the side of the hundreds of ships moving up and down the waterway.
Rivermen would operate from the banks in flat-bottomed boats, hauling the corpses from the water with long boating hooks, rifling through their pockets, then tossing back the raided bodies.
A load of rubbish
And scavengers, as their name suggests, would rummage through the rubbish tips and markets of the East End searching for coins, rags and old pieces of rope which could be sold on for a pittance.
Meanwhile, many of the rag-and-bone men, the forerunners of Steptoe and Son, grew rich. The rags could be sold on to rope and garment makers, the bones to pet-food or fertiliser manufacturers who would grind them down for bone meal.
But the worst job of all was probably that of the tosher. Much of the bounty that ended up in the river was washed down there through the sewers.
The toshers decided to cut out the middle man and it was a common sight in 19th Century Wapping for whole families to whip off a manhole cover and go down into the sewers, where they would find rich pickings.
Reek of the sewers
Unsurprisingly, the toshers were not popular with the neighbours. Many became rich, but carried a constant reek of the sewers. The word tosher was also used to describe the thieves who stripped valuable copper from the hulls of ships moored along the Thames.
One unexpected side-effect of the sewer work was that they built up a strong tolerance to typhus and the other diseases that swept the ghettos.
The word “tosh” for rubbish entered the language, though toshing – and the other dirty jobs of the era – have long since gone.
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