A rag and bone man pushes his cart past empty houses in Redeness Street, Layerthorpe, February 12, 1962. Photo: Yorkshire Evening Press (Picture: NewsQuest)
York’s hidden history: David Wilson looks back at the jobs that disappeared over the years
THE son of a friend of mine works as an electric car technician. Another friend’s nephew is a cybersecurity engineer. These are 21st century jobs that did not exist 20 years ago. But jobs have always changed over time. Who remembers the ragpicker? Or the top knocker? A few years ago, the Channel 4 series The Worst Jobs in History featured gong farmers. In the days before flushing toilets, gong farmers, sometimes known as night floor men, were night laborers employed to remove what needed to be removed from cesspools . I must add that they were paid handsomely for this.
On a recent trip to the York Reference Library, I had the good fortune to read two volumes of the York Directory of Trades and Occupations, one from 1781 and the other from 1830. In both volumes you can read York’s names, addresses and occupations. residents. Certain professions are still among us, such as gardener, mason and carpenter, surveyor or bank manager. But even these professions have changed over time with new technologies and work practices.
Other jobs have largely disappeared. In the 1781 directory, Thomas Turner, who worked and possibly lived at 40 Goodramgate, lists his occupation as a tallow merchant, an important job in the days before electricity, when candles were widely used for lighting. These days, although some are handmade, many candles are mass-produced in factories. But the Worshipful Company of Tallow Chandlers still exists in the City of London and is engaged in charity work.
Glassworks was part of York’s economy until the Redfearn site was demolished in the 1980s
No one today would need the services of a saloon president or that of coachbuilder Jonathan Cartwright of Blake Street. Sarah Jackson, whose address is given at 83 Walmgate, was a staymaker. The staymakers made stays for the underwear. These were fully boned lace bodices widely worn by women until the end of the 18th century. Several gave their profession as blacksmiths like James Haxby of 23 Trinity Lane. Blacksmiths were metal workers who sold pewter, light metals and white enamel products. Ralf Dodsworth of Skeldergate was a rap dealer or second-hand goods dealer
Many people had more than one job. It’s becoming more and more common these days, but it was completely normal in a bygone era without social security, where family survival and a precarious working world could mean starvation and homelessness if you didn’t. couldn’t offer a skill or sell your products or services. Some of the directory entries show people with multiple occupations such as John Spanton at 3 St Helen’s Square, whose business included that of bookseller, stationer, printer, and seller of patent medicines.
Some entries in both York directories give the profession of gentleman. Now, I’ve always considered a gentleman to be someone with certain qualities of character. But in Victorian England, the word gentleman had several meanings. It could mean that you belong to the gentry, a social level just below that of the nobility. But it could also mean that you were a member of one of the so-called learned professions such as medicine, law, the church, or that you were an officer in the army. In the York business directories I have consulted, this use of the term is unlikely since clergy, surgeons and barristers were all listed as such. But whatever you did as a gentleman, you certainly didn’t have to get your hands dirty.
Gentleman may have suggested that the person did not need to work for a living, but was what was called “a person of independent means”. In other words, he lived off rents from land he owned or from investments, which was much easier to do in the late 18th and early 19th centuries than it is today.
By the way, I did not meet the gentlewoman occupation, but there were certainly women of independent means. What was sadly true was that working women, with one or two notable exceptions such as nursing aide, would not have been listed in the Occupational Directories of the time. Women workers were at the bottom of the list and barely mentioned by name in official documents.
There has always been a connection between profession and social status, and of course there still is. But in Georgian and Victorian times, it was particularly rigid. A gentleman, including a member of the learned professions, was held in higher esteem than a “merchant”. A significant number of people worked “in service”.
Inside the composition room of the Yorkshire Evening Press in Coney Street – these jobs no longer exist as the newspapers are digitally produced
On its Jobs in Victorian York website, the Clements Hall Local History Group presents the results of its research into poverty in the mid-19th century in the parish of St Mary Bishophill Junior. This survey covered Dale Street, Dove Street and Swann Street from 1839 to 1841. In addition to occupations such as gas lighter, ostler and livery stable keeper, they noted at least one male servant.
Upper-class households had a whole host of servants ranging from butler and valet to housekeeper in a strict hierarchy. You only have to watch a few episodes of Downton Abbey to get the flavor of this world. And until well into the 20th century, upper-middle-class households employed at least one or two housekeepers.
These days, as automation spreads and new technologies permeate many professions, I imagine our great-great-grandchildren will gawk at some of the jobs we currently do and ask the same question: exactly did this work entail?
David Wilson is a community writer for The Press