Let me introduce you to group of men. Lanky Bill, Long Tom, One-eyed George, Short-armed Jack, Titch and Round Bob. A finer bunch of men you could not wish to meet, but if you were to be introduced to them you’d literally get wind of them before clapping eyes on them, as these men were all Toshers.
A Tosher was the term given in the Victorian era to people who entered the London sewer network to search for anything of value that they could sell to make a living. The reason that we know about the likes of Lanky Bill and his compatriots who worked mainly unseen by the general public is thanks to a man called Henry Mayhew.
Mayhew was a journalist, playwright, and advocate of reform. He is also known for his work as a social researcher, publishing an extensive series of newspaper articles in the Morning Chronicle that was later compiled into the book series London Labour and the London Poor in1851, a groundbreaking and influential survey of the city’s poor.
Mayhew informed and probably astonished his readers of the many ways that the poorer classes managed to scrape a living. There was the bone grubber, the rag picker and the watercress seller. None of these jobs aroused fascination and disgust among his readers more than the men who made a living by getting into London’s sewers. Some men walked for miles, searching out and collecting the detritus washed down from the streets above: bones, bits of rope, scraps of metal, even silver cutlery and if their luck was really in, coins dropped in the streets above and swept into the gutters.
Mayhew made it plain to all his readers that these articles were not just laying around waiting to be picked up, they had to be foraged for. The Toshers usually worked in gangs of three or four under the control of a Guv’nor, an older man with years of experience of the sewers. These men knew the best places to forage, areas of tunnels where the current was sufficiently sluggish to let the heavier material sink to the bottom. They would scoop up the fetid sludge from the tunnel and sieve it by hand to reveal whatever lay within. Apparently this process worked for most of the finds, but not in the case of coins. Mayhew recounts that due to some phenomena the coinage was always found within cracks in the brickwork floor and mostly in the deeper streams of effluent. The older Toshers would know where these cracks were and kept the locations a guarded secret. To hunt for the coins the Tosher would plunge his arm sometimes well past his elbow into the mire and feel around for a coin which apparently were always found standing on end.
According to Mayhew the Toshers earned a decent living, an average of around six shillings a day an amount equivalent to about £40 today. It was sufficient to rank them among the aristocracy of the working class. It had been made illegal from 1840 for anyone other than the authorities to enter the sewers, so the Toshers work was clandestine undertaken mainly at night with only a small oil lamp to guide them. It was Also dangerous, flash flooding, rising tides and deadly gasses all contributed to regular fatalities.
Despite the conditions and hazards the work was not unhealthy, or so the sewer-hunters believed. The gangs that Mayhew interviewed were strong and robust and often surprisingly, possibly due to immune systems that grew strong from early exposure to the conditions.