Throughout history, there have been all sorts of professions people have engaged in that seem incredibly bizarre to us today. Some of these were quite practical; others were more absurd; but all reveal a fascinating glimpse into the unique ways that people lived in times past.

From the depths of medieval Europe to the bustling streets of Victorian London, there is no shortage of weird jobs that once fit seamlessly into their respective cultures. Gong farmers, toshers, knocker-uppers, resurrectionists, and sin-eaters are just a few examples of the unusual professions that existed, each with its own set of responsibilities and peculiarities. 

In this article, we shall delve into the intriguing world of these peculiar occupations, and uncover the extraordinary tasks undertaken by those who were brave enough to embrace these unusual paths.

Gong farmer

In medieval Europe, it was a necessary function of society that someone empty and maintain the cesspits and latrines within cities. It was not a desirable job–to deal with human waste–but it was an important one.

“Gong” means to scoop up, and so gong farmers used shovels and buckets to gather excrement and transport it outside of town where it could be disposed of.

The dangers in this role were aplenty, not just in the risk of falling in the dark pits, but also in its unsanitariness. Gong farmers often contracted diseases such as cholera or dysentery that led to early deaths.

Unsurprisingly, society often looked down upon these workers, but without the invention of plumbing systems, they played a crucial role that aided the development of medieval society towards the modern day.

An illustration that shows two men standing in front of a brick wall. One man is wearing a bowler hat and a jacket, while the other man is wearing a suit and a bowler hat. One of the men is carrying a large crate on his back.
Gong farmers carrying a bucket to collect human waste and transport it outside the town.


Now, if you didn’t quite have the mettle to be a gong farmer, but you still fancied rummaging around in the sewers, you may have become a tosher instead.

Toshers were primarily found in Victorian London, and they made their living by scavenging the sewers in search of precious loot! Accidentally dropping a coin or a watch or a ring down the drain is not just a modern problem, but if you did this in Victorian London, someone might just have scooped it up!

However, this was not a state sanctioned activity, so a tosher was technically a trespasser and a thief. Nevertheless, they treated it as a trade, and used a number of inventive strategies to seek out their treasure. Sometimes they used long poles with hooks on them, and sometimes they wrapped themselves in layers of clothes and ventured into the depths.A related and slightly more sanitary profession was that of the mudlark, who was someone who scavenged in river mud–often along the side of the Thames–also for valuable possessions. Interestingly, the activity of mudlarking continues to the present day!

An engraving of a man in a hat and overalls, standing in a sewer tunnel. He is holding a sieve in one hand and searching through it with the other. The background is a dimly lit sewer tunnel.
A tosher searching for valuables in the sewer.


Have you ever considered how much of a modern luxury is the humble alarm clock? Before these miracles of invention were bestowed upon the world, the heavy sleepers among us had to employ a “knocker-upper” to bang on their door in the morning!

During the Industrial Revolution, the workday lifestyle was realizing itself, and people needed to be at work on time. In larger areas, a knocker-upper might visit hundreds of clients each day–tapping on bedroom windows with sticks, or even throwing pebbles!

There were no multiple alarms or snoozing in–you either got up straight away or you missed work–oh how time has changed (pun intended)! The job continued until cheap mechanical alarm clocks became available in the early 1900s, and today the only knocker-uppers left are mothers trying to get their kids ready for school!

This black and white photograph shows a man standing in front of a brick building with a window on the second floor. The man is wearing a suit and holding a long rod in his hand. He appears to be a second floor window using the rod.
A photograph of a Knocker-upper, an early form of human alarm clock


In the 18th and 19th centuries, resurrectionists were employed to dig up corpses from graveyards so that they could be used for medical research and as teaching devices in schools.

However, this macabre practice was far from legal, as to satisfy the demand for corpses (in the absence of modern organ donor cards) a black-market developed where graves were unearthed under the cover of darkness.

After tunneling into graves directly, or bribing undertakers, the resurrectionists would sell their loot for exorbitant prices–making it a tempting practice indeed (well, perhaps not).

An illustration that shows a group of men gathered around a grave in a cemetery. The people are dressed in clothing from the 1800s. Some of the men are holding digging tools. They appear to be digging up a corpse. One man is kneeling next to the tombstone, while the others stand around him. The scene is set at night, with the moon and stars visible in the sky.
Resurrectionists stealing a corpse, illustration

Rat catcher

Practically all of the medieval cities of 19th century Europe had a notorious problem–rats. Rat infestations led to numerous outbreaks of disease–the bubonic plague among them–and were a major obstacle in the development of modern society. 

Thus, we needed, as best we could, to address the problem–enter the fabled rat-catcher. These valuable members of society were hired by the state or rich townspeople to lay traps, bait, and poison; and also to conduct a small army of ferrets and terriers which could access areas impossible for human hand alone!

The rat-catchers’ work was both demanding and dangerous, as being bitten by a rat could easily lead to infections. In return for being willing to accept this perilous path, they were valued and respected by the community, who knew well that without them much worse things than our little furry friends were at risk of raging through society.

This illustration shows a man in dirty 19th century clothes, holding a large walking stick in one hand and a rat in another. He has a determined look on his face. A rat cage is on the ground next to him.
An image of a traditional rat-catcher from Kent.


In certain cultures, particularly Welsh and to a lesser extent English and Scottish, there existed an unusual and fascinating profession called the “sin-eater”. These individuals were hired to participate in spiritual rituals that supposedly cleansed the sins of the deceased.

During a ritual ceremony, family members would prepare a special meal after a loved one’s death. The sin-eater would consume this meal to symbolically absorb the transgressions said individual performed throughout their life, thus absolving them from being judged guilty in the afterlife.

It was a common belief in folk religion back then that dying with unconfessed sins would condemn one to an eternity of fire and brimstone, and so families would do anything they could to prevent such a tragedy from occurring!

The practice varied within different towns and settlements–sometimes involving the consumption of alcoholic beverages, and sometimes just food.

Though its prevalence decreased over time due to the increasing modernization of religious belief, it has been suggested that Jesus of Nazareth himself represents a universal archetype for sin-eaters, given that he gave up his life to atone humanity of their sins (so the story goes).

A painting of two grotesque figures, one looks like an old man the other like a skeleton. They are sitting at a table. The old man is eating from a bowl of soup. The background is dark and there are no other objects in the room.
Two Old Men Eating Soup by Francisco de Goya, 1819-23, Wikimedia Commons

Whipping boy

The whipping boy was a role that was present in the medieval cities of Europe from at least as far back as the 13th century, and as recently as the 19th century. 

The idea behind this custom was based on the belief that punishing the future king or queen through physical harm was unbefitting of royalty or would otherwise bring bad luck. 

Hence, instead of punishing the prince or princess when they committed a transgression, a young companion would serve as a substitute. Theoretically, the young prince or princess would be saddened by causing their companion harm, and they would be disciplined through their conduit.

The job did not come without its rewards, however, as the whipping boy was in a prime position to develop a close relationship with royalty. For example, a man named William Murray was the whipping boy of Charles I, King of England. He later became an adviser to the king and was made the 1st Earl of Dysart.

A painting that depicts a medieval priest using a broom to stop a royal child from protecting his whipping boy.
Edward VI and his Whipping Boy

Court jester

The court jester, the fool, or the joker is a beloved character from history and television alike. During the medieval and Renaissance eras, these performers could be found everywhere from town markets to royal palaces–singing, dancing, telling jokes, and performing circus tricks.

In palaces, court jesters were popular for their role of providing laughter to lighten the mood in stressful situations. Thus, they dressed in comedic getup, including brightly colored hats adorned with jingling bells and peacock feathers.

They were the comedians of their day, often commenting with witty remarks on current affairs and famous names. It was a skillful job, and one that allowed them to get away with things that no one else could: imagine the danger of insulting a king–not if you also make him laugh!

In fact, kings relied on jesters for pragmatic purposes too, for they could be relied upon for honest feedback at times when other people would be too scared to speak up!

While the job seems unconventional now, we merely have the luxury of vast industries of comedic entertainment ready at our fingertips–something we take for granted in a society in copious need of a healthy dose of facetiousness!

An illustration of a man wearing a jester costume with a red and gold jester hat, white face paint, and black eyebrows. He has a creepy smile on his face.