02/04/2013 06:58 BST | Updated 02/04/2013 07:11 BST

Toad Doctor, Leech Bait & Eater Of Mortal Sin: How Our Ancestors Earned A Living In The 18th - 19th Centuries

Think your job is terrible? Then spare a thought for our ancestors for whom working as a toad doctor and leech bait were legitimate ways to pay the rent.

Yes, lying in a pond waiting for leeches to latch onto your bare legs and then selling the bloodsuckers on to pharmacists was a popular career path in the early 1800s.

It was not without its hazards though. One Parisian supplier awoke to find himself “completely exhausted and covered in blood” after his collection of leeches got loose overnight, The Newcastle Guardian reported.

leech bait

Lying in a pond, waiting for leeches to latch onto your bare legs was one way to earn a crust in the early 1800s

Or if you were really strapped for cash in the 1900s, you could offer to “eat” the mortal sins of the recently deceased by dining off the body of a corpse.

John Pickard raised his pennies by becoming the official “dog whipper of Exeter Cathedral”, a role which saw him charged with keeping unruly pets away from Sunday services.

According to the Western Times in 1901, Pickard’s enthusiasm for his job meant he “did not confine himself to dogs alone”, and would pay “special attention” to dozing youths with “a crack on the head with the silver mitred end of his staff.”

Pickard’s unofficial role was somewhat similar to a job advert placed in the Illustrated Police News in 1886, which announced that prison commissioners in Scotland were seeking a “whipper of juvenile offenders.”

The position was not filled however, due to strong local opposition to the punishment.


A 'toad doctor' would treat ailments with, yes, toads

If leeches did not cure one’s ailments, the afflicted were also able to turn to the skills of the “toad doctor”. Treatment entailed simply applying toads to the affected areas, the Western Gazette revealed.

In 1903 The Evening Telegraph announced that a Royal rat catcher was wanted at Windsor because the royal farms were swarming with rats that would go "uninvited into the castle!" The role was a busy one, as demonstrated by former royal rat catcher, John Newton, who began rat catching in 1860 and could catch up to 340 rats in one night.

In the North, "knocking-up" was an institution created by the working class. A designated man or woman would tap on workers’ windows with a spindly wire attached to a lengthy bamboo stave to prevent them from oversleeping and losing earnings.

In the course of a life-time a "knocker-up" would be expected to cover thousands of miles for his or her thankless task – frequently in appalling and treacherous conditions. The occupation came with such a weight of duty to the slumbering workers, that failure to wake their clients would bring with it untold shame, non-payment and an instant dismissal.

These weird and gruesome ways to earn a living were unearthed by family history website Genes Reunited and sourced from the British Newspaper Archive.

Rhoda Breakell, Head of Genes Reunited, said: “With many traditional professions and trades dying out, it is fascinating to look further back and see some of the bizarre jobs available to our ancestors.

"It could be that in a hundred years time our descendants will find the notion of a chimney sweep as strange as we find the idea of a toad doctor."

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