1848 Stinking Sewage Scavengers Discovered

In April 1848 a group of unemployed men, drafted in to clean Glasgow’s stinking and filthy sewers, spotted lights in the dark “flickering and dancing in the distance”.

At first they were frightened by the ‘ghostly spirits’ of the sewers and reported it to the foreman – but his suspicions lay in something far from the supernatural – and he was right. They’d discovered, for the first time in Glasgow, a class of workers who were making their living picking through the city’s putrid bowels.

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Arguably the most disgusting line of work ever, mud-larks were a common sight on the banks of the River Thames in Victorian Britain. Often just children, they would traipse out onto the filthy mud hunting for anything of any value that could be sold on. Going barefoot was the most effective way to hunt as you could feel things with your feet that could be pulled or dug out that would otherwise be missed.

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1896 drawing by Phil May

The discovery of Mud-larks in Glasgow’s sewers was first reported in the Glasgow Herald on Friday 7th April 1848.

“Most people know that there has long existed in London a peculiar class of persons called “Mud-larks,” who earn their living in the common sewers and drains of the metropolis, by picking up whatever chance or crime may throw into these receptacles. We were not aware, however, till the present week, that a similar class of subterranean operatives has, for a considerable time existed in-Glasgow. Some weeks since, the Police and Statute Labour Committee of the city, following the example of the London Sanitary Commission, directed that all the common sewers should be cleaned, and, in accordance with this instruction, a number of the unemployed, who are on the Relief Fund, were set to perform the work.”

The article went on to describe what the workers had found…

“a few days ago, the men engaged in the work were surprised  and alarmed at observing underground lights flickering and dancing in the distance. The foreman, however, put confidence in the labourers, by expressing his suspicion that the lights proceeded not from ghostly, but from human spirits, who were searching for valuables in the sewers. “

He was right and when they investigated further they discovered these underground scavengers were sweeps – young boys more commonly seen climbing up chimneys, the type often spotted gathering in a certain area of the city known as Goosedubbs, also known as  the “Lazy Corner.”

Goosedubbs is an ancient lane and used to stretch from Saltmarket to Old Wynd but was curtailed when the railways came. Apparently it gets its name from when Bishop Aird’s (who live in the adjoining Aird Lane) geese used to paddle in the puddles, or dubbs, of Goosedubbs.

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“Armed with a shovel or rake, a riddle or seive, and a collier’s lamp, they are in the habit of entering the sewers at various points opening to the Clyde, as well as at the Molindinar Burn, and thus they find their way over the city, a searching eidently [diligently] under ground, while a torrent of waggons, cabs, and pedestrians, are rolling over their heads.”

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Despite the nature of the work, it seems it was worth it. The workers could choose their own hours and could often turn a nice profit – and there was always the chance of cracking find.

“The trade, on the the whole, is a profitable one, as there is mitch to be picked up, from a single copper to a silver spoon, for we are informed than not a few of the latter find their way into common sewers from careless servants and imperfect “sinks.”

They had favourite spots to hunt in too, usually close to market stalls and trading places, as listed by the Glasgow Herald…

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Of course it was incredibly dark and you couldn’t be sure exactly what you had picked up until you emerged into the light.

“One of the ” larks” admitted that he once picked up as much as l8s. in the Goosedubs sewer, but on coming to the level, or day-light, he found to his bitter disappointment that the most of it was bad money.”

Apart from the obvious, the sewers weren’t just a receptacles for lost coins and household items, but things of criminal nature too – perhaps dumped in order to escape the law…

 One day last week, two pistols which had been stolen from a gunshop, during the late riots, were found in the Molindinar Burn sewer; and from the same place was recovered a large quantity of valuable finished brass work, which had been stolen several weeks since. This proves one thing at least,-that the police are not to blame for the non-recovery of all the property which is I stolen or lost.

In a city that had been blighted by Cholera, had the stench of overcrowded graveyards hovering around it, backstreets covered in filthy slime, and industrial pollution everywhere you can almost see why being a mud-lark  might be as good a job as any for as a working class boy – the paper does not agree.

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As for those workers on the Relief Fund who were tasked with cleaning the sewers, well, they could be grateful that once they had finished, it wouldn’t be long before they were called into action again.

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Mud-Lark-Mudlark-Victorian-London-c1880-Mounted-Antique
Circa 1880

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Take a look at this blog post, Transient Places, by Ben Cooper who in 2008 published the story of his expedition into the very sewers where the Glasgow mud-larks would enter the system.

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