Question of the Week: What’s the worst job/occupation you’ve found in your research?

+25 votes


I know that most of my ancestors were farmers, as I'm sure many of yours were, too. Occasionally, I'll run across something different -- I've seen a milliner and a tailor. Nothing too bad, though. 

Have you found anyone working a job that made you glad you weren't in their shoes?

There are some really interesting jobs listed in the Professions category. Our ancestors were everything from Academics to Yeoman!

in The Tree House by Julie Ricketts G2G6 Pilot (383k points)
Sir Henry Norris was Groom of the stool to King Henry the eighth. Had to clean out the chamber pot, wipe the royal backside, examine and pull apart samples, and examine stool and urine, to check on the King's health.

Was beheaded after being acused of being intimate with Anne Boleyn along with Anne and her posse. Probably just an excuse to remarry, and remove all Anne's supporters and Anne, all at the same time.

And Henry was a huge man with many illnesses and stank from flesh rot in his leg, according to several records.
According to the census, my GG Grandfather George Sterkel was a Scavenger. According to family he made liqour....
My GMother and GGMother raised me until I was almost 13. My Great Grand Mother told me she used to pick over coal slag heaps with her siblings for years (Around 1900 to 1910). They would bag scraps of coal to trade for coins for food, or take home to keep warm. Not such a bad job really, but she told me she started from the age of 4.
I found a woman in a whorehouse in Copenhagen. 15 women were listed in the census...

Chris,that had to be just the worst and the pension plan? JEEZ and I thought my job was tough!

lol James. I don't even like using the toilet brush.
The flesh rot in his leg was most likely gangreen from diabetes. Henry had an extremely rich diet
When I first started trying to trace my ancestor's, I made the rookie mistake of being to gullible. I thought My 9th Great Grandfather Richard Rich was descended from the Richard Rich of Henry 8 fame. I learned all I could about Henry yet I never even thought about diabetes being the cause of his unhealed wounds. I had wondered about them and i believe you could be right its the only thing that makes sense to me.I am sure you know,but I wonder how many others reading realize that even though Sir Henry Norris job was nasty by today's standards he was from the Nobel class himself and his job was much desired as a result of the one on one time he had with the King.
Chris Norris, I agree. I find myself holding my breath though there is very little oder.

24 Answers

+27 votes
John Percy Wadsworth worked in saw mill, not a particularly unique occupation until seeing it on his death certificate with cause of death:

"Death from injury - cut in two by a saw".

Puts the job in a whole new perspective.
by JT Strong G2G6 Mach 7 (73.0k points)
My 2x GG Herbert Butcher worked in a sawmill, he was crushed to death by falling logs. Clearly a more dangerous profession than we imagined!!!!
My jaw dropped when I read this.  Wowsers!
I have a first cousin three times removed who died from a steam powered sawblade cutting into his head.
Yikes! My 2nd Great Grandfather lost an arm in a cotton mill accident. :/ Thanks to well made clothes unlike what's made today.
Still the most dangerous occupation you can be in, along with the people who collect rubbish and get sucked up with it sometimes and mangled into little pieces.

TJ talk about a cut in pay.

+11 votes
There was a TV series

Gross-out stuff.  But of course they had different ideas of what was gross, because they knew nothing about germs or hygiene.
by Anonymous Horace G2G6 Pilot (567k points)
+18 votes
My grandfather was, amongst other jobs, stronttonnen ophaler.

That is, he collected the barrels that were used by people for defecating, before there was indoor plumbing. Not a pleasant job I imagine.
by Joke van Veenendaal G2G6 Mach 3 (35.1k points)
My g-g-grandfather did a lot of odd jobs and one of the was "vidangeur", - pumper. Of cesspits, of course.
In the 1960/70s they were still collecting **** from outside toilets in Australia it was a very well paid job and people were on a waiting list to be employed, a bonus from the job was nice shiny coins that had dropped out of men's pockets into the can.

For those of us that live in rural area's and still have a septic tank a call to the man that drives the "Honey Wagon" is still necessary.

+14 votes
I have added a fair number of Hawaiian sugar plantation workers. The ones that are labeled mechanics (or engineers) have an alarming propensity for partial or missing digits when they fill out their WWI Draft Registration.
by Ron Moore G2G6 Mach 2 (21.3k points)
+12 votes
I have quite a few where the occupation is listed as "pauper"

And this one, Henry Daniel, is listed in the 1911 census as "Attendant Lavatory Ilford Urban Council ".  He is listed earlier as a farmer of 50+ acres, but then made a steady decline.
by Janet Gunn G2G6 Mach 9 (93.7k points)
+12 votes
Probably boiling down whale oil in giant iron pots. This was usually done on a beach with the carcases of dead whales also on the beach. Strips of blubber were cut off the carcases and rendered down. The stench must have been appalling. Sailors would be left on the beach with some supplies and the ship would sail off with the promise of returning in six months or a year. Sometimes they didn't come back. Can you imagine being isolated on some god forsaken shore with this revolting task to do every day? Such was the lot of the whaler.
by A. T. G2G6 Mach 3 (37.9k points)
+10 votes
A majority of my direct ancestors were Farmers, indeed. Not something I'd really want to do but not too uncommon.

While going through my Lapish One Name Study research, I've come across some interesting ones that I also probably wouldn't want to partake in.

- Street Sweeper in 1901 (Would hate to think what they had to clean up!)

- Leather Dyer/Currier (I believe dyers and curriers had to use foul smelling stuff to curry and/or dye the leather, even potentially urine if I remember right.)

- Worsted/Fabric factory workers in 1800s (These were children, mind - ages 10-16. One of them died while doing this, but don't think I'm morbid enough to pay the 9 pounds to get the certificate to check. I know from other sources they could get their hair caught in the machinery and be literally scalped. Would definitely not want!)

- "Stuffed Crabber" (I have no idea, but it sounded unappealing.)

- Superintendant of the Lamps in 1851 (Guessing he tended the oil lamps in the town. Still sounds fairly dull work.)

- Toll Farmer/Tollbooth Operator (Might also be pretty dull - 1800s version of a tollbooth operator, but they made enough money to be pretty well-off for the time!)
by Kristen Louca G2G6 Mach 2 (29.0k points)
+10 votes
My ancestor's job wasn't "gross" , but dangerous - in my view.

Justus Hickok born near Hartford, CT 1798 moved to Barryville, NY in 1820. He was in the lumber business and rafted the timber to the tide water of the Delaware River.  Later in life he was a farmer:-).
by Randy Williamson G2G3 (3.0k points)
One of my Swedish ancestors did this, too. It sounded like a fairly dangerous job.
Common in many areas, many deaths of ' tie hackers' reported in Wyoming newspapers the early 1900's.  Horrible way to go
+11 votes
I don't know if it would be called a profession, but on a 1930 federal census my paternal grandfather was listed as an inmate in in the Illinois State Prison in Joliet.  Have no idea why.
by Nancy Sluder G2G6 (6.4k points)
Nancy, I also had a relative at Joliet Prison. It is closed now, but you can write for your grandfather’s prison records. The records are at the Illinois State Archives.
thanks for the info
+10 votes
mole catcher
+11 votes
lol  I worked as an ASSISTANT to an INDUSTRIAL DIVER, and that job has got to be the worst.

      You have to be top fit to be a diver in the first place.  But Industrial Divers, where do they dive?  Yeah, on dams and reservoirs, and on bridge pilings and canal works.  That alone is extremely dangerous, as due to the laws of physics and increased gas pressure of gases in the blood caused by diving to depths where great pressure is found, one has to have an exact knowledge of how long one can stay down at a  time for each depth that one dives, and an absolutely precise knowledge of the correct procedure to surface does not just head straight for the surface without stopping, or these laws of physics will bring you an extremely painful and maybe fatal case of "the bends."  Or one can lose his orientation while diving, as underwater visibility often is quite poor, and one has no reference points for even concepts like "up" or "down" or "left" or "right".

But it only gets worse.  Other places where industrial divers dive are in chemical factories, sewerage works, and bio-gas facilities, and even nuclear power plants.  One can only imagine what it is like to dive amidst sewerage or bio-gas facilities;  even topside, the stench is atrocious and a neoprene diving suit is required to do these things.  After each dive, an extremely caustic disinfections substance must be applied to the gear which went down in these places.  It is easy to die from infections without doing so.  The chemical plants were the same, sometimes involving diving into vats where Ebola and other viruses were burned, at very high temperatures, to maintain these facilities.  The facilities themselves are dangerous; one hears of bio-gas facilities that blew up because someone stupid lit a cigarette in the presence of explosive methane fumes, or even just stupidly peered inside an opening into the biogas tank, breathed in poisonous fumes, and died on the spot. Or the chemicals in the vats themselves were extremely caustic.   I don't think I need remind anyone of how dangerous it might be to dive in a place like Fukushima, the nuclear power plant that blew up in Japan.  And in any of these places, one has to work "blind", by feel, as there is zero visibility there.

      In addition to these problems, one has to lug around tons of gear from one job site to another, and often a new job would come with each new day.  Divers also had to worry about their air lines getting tangled  in objects like trees underwater, and equipment failure of the air delivery systems operating on the surface.  The gear one wears simply to dive itself weighs hundreds of kilograms.

        Oh, and you can drown, too...or suffer a circulatory collapse from staying in near freezing water or a chemical vat filled with hot chemicals for too long.

     As an assistant, I just did the "menial" stuff, like set up the heavy diving gear, let out the heavy air hose and pulled it back in, or did the disinfection work.  My boss, who is one of the very best Industrial Divers in all of Europe, has done all of the things above worldwide, and has every diving certificate known to man.  But still, I have seen him being airlifted by helicopter to a diving chamber, and one time I saved his life  when an air compressor failed while he was at the bottom of an 18 meter biogas tank.  But we operated 99.9% of the time in any kind of weather, from 98°F. to -5°F., often for hours at a time, and sometimes during heavy rain- hail- or snowfall, day or night.

       Industrial Diving is nearly always ranked at the bottom, or near the bottom, of any survey of "Worst Jobs."  And I can vouch for that completely.
by Dan Sparkman G2G6 Mach 2 (21.7k points)
edited by Dan Sparkman
Dan, you should have become a writer.
+11 votes
Pope Alvey was the official executioner for the Colony of Maryland. He had been condemned to death twice and been let off both times, once for murdering a servant girl, once for theft of a coow. I guess they figured he had no conscience and therefore would make a good executioner.
+10 votes

The ones that strike me the most are the children. The youngest I have found was a Poultry Boy, age 10 (servant on a large estate). Older teens held more glamorious jobs such as Bottle Washer and Mole Catcher. But the one I feel the most sorry for is the British Home Child, emigrated at age 13 and sent to a farm in Quebec, Canada. Since he escaped from the farm as soon as he was able and kept his history a secret his whole life, this must have been a pretty terrible situation. See the project:

by Darcie Light G2G6 Mach 2 (20.7k points)
+10 votes
The worst job I found was  of a "manure collector" which is shown on one census form.  When this chap came to Canada he died here as an Engineer so it was a big step upwards??  This man was my great great Grandfather William Duncan Herd-262 known as HIrd in Canada.
by E. Lauraine Syrnick G2G6 Pilot (105k points)
+11 votes
My Paternal Grandfather, Eric Dossel was a splitter of sheep heads to get their brains out.  If he worked hard and got more than a quart bucket full of sheeps brains, he got to take the left over home, which his mother sometimes would sell for exchange for other food neccessities.  He was only a boy when he got this job.
by Sarah Powell G2G1 (1.2k points)
+12 votes
Pretty tame compared to some here, but one of my ancestors was described as a "farmer, and drunken preacher".
by Phillip Thompson G2G6 Mach 2 (25.2k points)
+9 votes
I am very tempted to say anyone who was enlisted in the various military over the centuries - especially if they were hit (yes Horatio Nelson comes to mind)
by Richard Shelley G2G6 Pilot (210k points)
While researching my Revolutionary War ancestors, I discovered a terrible job that was done by necessity by many patriots - gunpowder mill operator.

The colonists did not have the experienced mill operators that the British had, and powder for their guns was in critical supply. Their gunpowder mills blew up with alarming frequency.
+6 votes
I think the worst jobs I've seen were anything related to coal mining. So not unusual, but just seems awful in every way and they started as kids. plus when you see a father who is a coal miner, it's followed by all his sons being one and just goes on forever. They did finally get out - they ended up at factories in Niagara Falls which was not necessarily a healthy occupation (there were many chemical factories) but at least it wasn't underground.
by Amanda Dunker G2G6 Mach 1 (13.0k points)
+6 votes
Not my own family, but on the same page on an old newspaper there was an article about a fellow who worked in the dump dying because a large trash heap fell and suffocated him.
by Angela Smulders G2G Crew (680 points)
+6 votes
Yes, most of my ancestors were indeed farmers; there were also several clergy (and some of them were bi-vocational, farmer & clergy).  But one unique occupation was held by a maternal great-grandfather:  he worked in a crematorium.

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