Vocational Options for Men

By Matt Krantz (appearing in BYU’s Pride and Prejudice as George Wickham)

A host of 19th century occupations have passed into oblivion, owing to changes in taste, scientific advances, social customs and the like. Naturally, the rich were not inclined to work as they had their incomes from land-ownership, grants from peers and their titles – there was very little need as it was not deemed respectable to earn a living in the upper class. Here’s a handful of the occupations taken up by the more “common” people:

Article clerks – these were young men who had been apprenticed or “articled” to practicing lawyers, generally for a period of five years, so they could learn the profession. Bouts were not articled to courtroom lawyers like barristers but rather to solicitors and other non-litigating practitioners.

Chandlers – Originally, a chandler was a dealer in candles. By the 19th century however, a chandler was the man who ran the neighbourhood store on the corner. He sold many of the basics needed by the poor such as cheese, bacon and other groceries.

Cheap-jacks – A familiar figure at fairs, the cheap-jack sold inexpensive metal objects and harward like watch chains, knives, and the like and was a “patterer” – his spiel was a key to his success.

Coal porters – The men who unloaded coal from ships at wharfside or from the lighters into which coal had been unloaded by coal whippers. Also delivered to residential customers.

Coal whippers – So called because they “whipped” the coal out of the colliers that brought it down the coast and into the Thames river and into the lighters and barges from which it was then unloaded by the coal porters.

Costermonger – In theory a fruit and vegetable seller, but he also sold fish, sometimes at a stall, sometimes walking on the street crying his wares. In London, costermongers brought their merchandise at Covent Gardon or Billingsgate, sometimes travelling ten miles a day on foot to hawk it.

Crossing sweeper – There was a crossing sweeper at every major street intersection in London. Dodging in and out of passing waggons and carriages they brushed away the mud and dust collected in the strets – they did their best business in wet weather – so that the genteel could cross the street without getting their feet dirty. It was not a well-paying job, seven shillings a week being a decent average wage, but with luck a sweeper who stayed at the same spot might know the “regulars” who might send him on small errands.

Dustman – Most city houses had dustbins into which dust – the refuse from the ashes and cinders of coal fires and similar household matter – was regularly dumped. The dustman would periodically come around to collect the dust, whence it would be hauled away to be used for bricks and manure after being carefully sifted for carelessly discarded valuables.

Mudlarks – Because the Thames is a tidal river, at low tide, it is possible to walk out into the mud and scrounge for anything that might have washed up to shore – small trinkets, rope – basically anything of salable value. Many of them were six-to-twelve year-olds and this “occupation” could garner thruppence a day – if you were lucky.

Packman – No, not a yellow, round computer character that eats ghosts. Packmen were travelling peddlers who carried their wares around in his pack. He usually sold small fineries for the ladies such as linens, silks (if lucky) and cotton.

Pieman – A pie seller of course! Fruit pies and meat pies – though it was debatable as to exactly what sort of meat found it’s way into the pies during winter… (meow?).

Ratcatcher – A very good occupation for a lower-class boy who had little education. Rats were all over, due to inadequate sewage, granaries and stables filled with oats for horses. The ratcatcher used poison or a ferret to chase the rats out of holes where upon his little terrier would pounce and kill the rodents. The going rate for de-ratting a house in London ranged from two shillings to a pound.

Sweeps – A good old chimney sweep! Not as romantic as the kindly one we find in Mary Poppins. Often young boys were sent to be “apprentices” to older chimney sweeps – many as young as four years old, and pushed up chimneys as small as 7 inches square to sweep out the huge deposits of soot deposited by the coal fires in residential homes. The boys were “encouraged” up the chimneys faster by cruel masters pressing pins into or holding a lit newspaper up to their feet – or they were beaten into obeying. Country children were often warned “the sweeps will get you!” to keep them from wandering and indeed, small children in very rural areas were often kidnapped for the trade.

Watermen – The name was applied to two different kinds of London workers. First, to the men who rowed people across the Thames – this required seven years apprenticeship. The second was the name given to the men who watered the horses at cab stands.

 Life in the Church

collinsWork in the church led towards a safe life within the church of England though required a certain degree of social esteem as well as education to achieve such paths. Those clergy who were educated at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge are listed in Joseph Foster, Alumni Oxonienses 1500-1886. Entries show the student’s age at entrance and the degrees obtained. The father’s name, place of residence and status generally appears but is lacking in many early instances and, at some Cambridge colleges, even in the 19th century. They may also provide the name of the school attended and some outline of the subsequent career of the student, where this has been identified with reasonable certainty. From the late 18th century the date and diocese of ordination of those students entering the Church is usually included. The volumes for Cambridge are in general much more detailed than those for Oxford. Where the register of the college attended has been published this may give additional detail.

 As time wore on the need for college education seemed to dwindle in the 18th century and, for the clergy at least, did not greatly improve until the mid-19th century. Many university students, whose future incomes from family benefices were guaranteed, were targeted by moneylenders and the debts they then incurred were a frequent problem to them in later life. The general overstocking of the profession continued. Non-graduate clergy from humbler backgrounds suffered the most, finding secure benefices, a regular income and advancement difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

The situation was made worse when non-university training became possible with the foundation of the first theological colleges at Lampeter in Cardiganshire (1822), St Aidan’s at Birkenhead, and St Bees in Cumberland (1817). The products of these institutions found temporary places as curates to absentees and pluralists and then, perhaps more permanently but still as curates, in the large industrial parishes of northern England and south Wales and in the colonies. By 1890 a quarter of the clergy had been educated at such colleges. The north/south divide remained. In 1865 some eighty percent of new clergy in the south had been to university; in the north the figure was only forty per cent.

Albeit a sought after position, life within the church did not support the same style of life as the upper-class. Although the position slowly improved, it was found in 1833 that 47% of the parishes in England and Wales could not provide a reasonable standard of living of about £200 a year. Many were worth less than £100. The pluralism of earlier days remained a problem, the more desirable parishes often being held jointly with other offices by those with the best connections. Following the appointment of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in 1835, however, a series of reforms attempted a more equal distribution of endowments. These Commissioners were united with Queen Anne’s Bounty in 1948 to form the present Church Commissioners.

Life in the Military

Wickham costumeAnother main option for men was in the military. The United Kingdom’s struggle with France during the Napoleonic wars required the British Army to expand rapidly. Ordinary recruiting methods failed to supply the number of men required to fill the Army ranks. The main methods used for recruiting were: private individuals were recruited for their own interests; volunteers from the militia and, placing obligations on communities to enlist. Generals called for conscription for the first time in British History, although this was never enacted for the regular army. During this period Great Britain was at a disadvantage to her enemy, as due to the Industrial Revolution potential recruits were instead drawn to the cities to earn more money in the many factories now being built in the country, while France was still largely an agrarian society.

Competition from civilian occupations was intense and highlighted in the disparity in pay; where a private could earn 7s per week in 1806, a dockworker could expect to earn 28s. However soldiers would expect to supplement this meagre income with promotion and loot on campaign. During the early phases of the war joining the Army could still mean effectively joining for life, which was frequently brutally cut short. For instance a posting to the Caribbean in 1790 was seen as a near death sentence, as thousands of men died or were disabled by disease there. The Army still struggled to raise the troops required to replace the discharged, wounded and dead as the war against France continued. As early as 1794, 18,596 soldiers died on active service and another 40,639 men were discharged. This would remain a constant theme during the Napoleonic wars, and the British Army also used foreign volunteers, such as French Royalists, Germans, Greeks and Corsicans to supplement its forces. In 1813 one fifth of the army, 52,000 men, were such volunteers. The British Army in 1813 contained over 250,000 men, though this was much larger in comparison to the army at the beginning of the war, the all volunteer British army was still much smaller than that of France, which with conscription had an army over 2.6 million.


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