The goriest jobs in Victorian Britain: Barbers Apprentices and more!

Find out why and listen to the podcast episode below!

Apprenticeships are common today – they’re a way for young people to learn a trade whilst actually doing the job.

Usually it involves a mix of hands-on experience and studying. These days, apprentices must be paid for the work they do.

You can be an apprentice if you’re over 16 years old – and by law you have to be at school until then.

Apprenticeships in Victorian times were different for a few reasons; the first is that those taking up apprenticeships were much younger.

It wasn’t compulsory for children to be at school at all until close to the turn of the century, and even if you wanted to go, there might not be one near you, without having to pay for the privilege.

Click here to find out more about Victorian jobs!

This meant children would frequently just start a job, not least because their families might need the money for food.

Poverty was wide-spread in these times and every penny counted. A Victorian apprentice might work in a mine, a mill, dressmaking, or with a tradesman such as a barber, or a chimney-sweeper.

Another difference between today and those days, is that although an apprentice in Victorian times might expect food and lodging, he or she may not be paid for their work until they were 15 or 16 – or until they’d spent ten years learning the ropes.

Click here to find out more about Victorian jobs!

This might seem a rubbish deal, but being fed and housed was better than starving.

Also, as they’d frequently live with their master it meant their family had one less mouth to feed. In some cases children were actually sold to the master. Children as young as 7 might be apprentices.

Apprentice employment included such jobs as a bricklayer, goldsmith, shoemaker, baker, chimney sweep, tailor, like Oliver Twist, a coffin maker.

Things slowly changed for the better – not least thanks to reformers such as Lord Shaftesbury.

By 1880 it was compulsory for children to go to school. The “Poor Laws” in the 1830s and 1850s brought in new laws to protect child apprentices, checking they were fairly treated.

Thanks to Charles Dickens many people are familiar with apprentice jobs. Young children were often apprenticed by contract to a master, usually for seven years. During an apprenticeship, a child would learn a trade by helping the master. In return the master would provide shelter, clothing, and food, and sometimes low wages. Apprentice employment included such jobs as a bricklayer, goldsmith, shoemaker, baker, chimney sweep, tailor, like Oliver Twist, a coffin maker.

Some of the jobs that kids did

Fuller’s Apprentice

  • A great job if you like to take your shoes and socks off and climb into a barrel full of people’s wee and not even fresh wee – the best wee was a couple of weeks old.
  • Why would anyone expect you to do a disgusting thing like that? Well, when wool had just been woven it needs to be tightened up so it wasn’t floppy and didn’t unravel easily. Treading the cloth in a mixture of ground clay and stale urine tightened it up and gave it a lovely finish.
  • Although it might not be the greatest way to spend 7 years of your life

Sea Boys

  • Some thought running away to join the navy was really cool. They didn’t realise they’d end up haring around a ship at risk of being killed in any one of many unpleasant ways – risk of exploding when carrying barrels of highly explosive gunpowder to men firing cannon, getting speared by pieces of wood if a cannonball hit their ship, being crushed by a cannon if it broke loose from its moorings.
  • Boys might go to sea from the age of 6 – was thought important that they started young because they needed to be light and agile to climb the rigging and work the sails. This was called ‘learning the ropes’.
  • Older boys worked as Upper Yardman, high up in the rigging – 60 metres above the sea
  • Or for the those without a head for heights, boring jobs included cleaning out the animals on board and scrubbing down the decks.

Click here to find out more about Victorian jobs!

Kids in The Past

Discover what life for children was like throughout the ages


Dan and Bex have found a book that transports them back to Victorian Britain!

They’re exploring all the grim and nasty jobs that children just like you had to do in the past, from picking up poop to popping up chimneys.

english_landscape_blackReally? Kids Did That! is supported by The National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.


Explore all the free Fun Kids podcasts!

Download a series to listen to on your phone, tablet or in the car!


Add a comment