10 Worst Jobs in History

Bad conditions, bad pay and even worse prospects – if you think that describes your job, then see how it compares to these 10 jobs that will go down in history among the worst of the worst:

1. Leech collector – Until the late 19th century, leeches were in high demand for medicinal bloodletting – the withdrawal of very small amounts of blood from a patient as therapy. Despite the demand, leech-gatherers were poorly paid. Worse still, they often collected the leeches by letting them latch on to their own legs – a practice through which they could lose dangerous amounts of blood.

2. Snake milker – While we’re on dangerous jobs, here’s one that still exists today. Snakes have long been milked for their venom, which is then used to create antivenin to treat snake bites. One renowned milker, Bill Haast, survived 172 venomous snake bites during his long career and lived to 100.

3. Whipping boy – How does the role of ‘companion to a Renaissance prince’ strike your fancy? That may sound like a cushy number, but the prince’s playmate was also his whipping boy – the stand-in who’d take the physical punishment meted out whenever the prince was naughty.

4. Fuller – Fulling, a manufacturing process to cleanse and thicken woollen cloth, was a job so bad that it was left to slaves in Roman times. That’s because it involved wading in urine – a powerful cleaning fluid, thanks to its high levels of ammonia. The fuller’s lot was much improved in the Middle Ages when fuller’s earth replaced urine as the cleanser of choice.

5. Resurrectionist – This rather fancy name for ‘body snatcher’ did nothing to redeem the job. In order to supply corpses to medical schools, resurrectionists dragged them from the grave – and some even turned to murder to keep up with demand.

6. Tosher – In Victorian London, there was no shortage of bad jobs. The city’s toshers, for instance, stank of the sewers, because that’s where they spent their days scavenging for tradable treasures.

7. Mudlark – Another tribe of 19th-century scavengers, the mudlarks would pick over the debris on the banks of the Thames at low tide – back in the day when the river was foul with raw sewage, not to mention the odd dead body.

8. Chimney sweep – Children were still being sent up chimneys to clear out ash and dust in the late 1870s. They risked injury, accidental death and ‘Chimney Sweep’s Cancer’, too.

9. Sin eater – Through a contemporary lens, this bygone job doesn’t sound too bad: the sin-eater helped cleanse dying people’s souls by taking on their sins in rituals involving eating and drinking at their bedsides. Surely there’s high job satisfaction there, with a little ale and bread thrown in. But, in his day, the sin-eater was “abhorred by the superstitious villagers as a thing unclean”.

10. Gong farmer – The neighbours weren’t so keen on the gong farmer in Tudor times, either. These night-workers, who did the essential job of clearing human excrement from England’s cesspits and privies, were restricted to living in certain areas. The fumes were a known job hazard, too.


The fact that it’s hard to imagine many people would choose to pursue these careers, highlights an important difference between the job market in the past and today. Until very recently, limitations in information, travel and education meant that masses of people were forced into careers – some of which would be insecure, poorly rewarded and even dangerous – because they had no other choice.

As we frequently discuss in our posts, there are still many outside forces that influence our choice of jobs today. But we do have far greater power to shape our own career destinies, as compared with the majority of people throughout history.

So next time a colleague rubs you up the wrong way, your commute seems to take forever, or you’re being driven mad with deadline stress, spare a thought for the poor souls who’ve had to perform difficult or unpleasant jobs, often through no choice of their own, and without the possibility of change.

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