The Jobs That Have Disappeared

Rat catchers and knocker-uppers—many a job that used to be prevalent in the UK has since disappeared.

As one of the lead firms featured on the hit TV series Heir Hunters, we’re used to our fair share of weird and wonderful jobs as we work to explore the past histories of people who have died without leaving a valid will.

Our research takes us back to the family trees of the cases we work on and there we often find jobs that have since disappeared. As such, a recent series of fascinating photos online caught our eye—and perhaps the term knocker upper triggered sniggers at the back.

C’mon, we all giggled a little at that, surely?!

Waking up factory workers

Anyway, for those who are interested, a knocker-upper would wake up factory workers by tapping on bedroom windows with a long stick. The job existed until the 1950s, probably useful in the days when people didn’t necessarily own their own alarm clock. And well ahead of the modern-day alarm—a mobile phone.

Chimney sweeps are not really needed any more as few homes these days have fireplaces. But once upon a time, the chimney sweep was a necessary workman clearing the ash and soot from chimneys in houses all over the UK to prevent blockages and fire hazard.

The role had some notoriety in the first half of the 19th century when boys as young as four were often used to climb the chimneys and sweep them out—thanks to their small size. The boys often got jammed in the chimneys and suffocated or burned to death. As the boys often slept under soot sacks, they inhaled soot continuously—another health hazard as it’s carcinogenic.

The practise of using boys was eventually stopped in 1875.

Candle and gas lighting

Another now obsolete job was that of the lamp lighter, whose task it was to light the street lights in an area using a wick on a long pole. These were first candles and later gas lights. Once electricity came in, the job wasn’t needed.

Anyone who has watched Mad Men will remember the lift operators in use at the beginning of the programme and how they disappeared as the 1960s progressed. Lift operators were needed to control manual elevators, using a large lever. They also needed to regulate the speed, which needed a good sense of timing, so the lift stopped parallel with the floor.

The job died out with the advent of automatic lifts although fancy-schmancy buildings still tend to use them. Many top-end hotels still include a lift operator, so you needn’t tire yourself out leaning over to press the button for your floor.

Rat catchers

While rats are well and truly still with us, rat catching used to be a much more common profession—especially as urbanisation increased during the latter part of the 18th century and into the 19th. The role was often dangerous because of the risk of contagion, and catchers were paid by property owners on a per rat basis. Catchers used terriers and ferrets to help them, and traps were baited with arsenic-laced food to kill the rats.

As technology continues to develop, other jobs will die out. When we do our research in years to come, we’ll look back at some of the jobs of today and wonder at them. What do you think will go and what will stay?