Tony Robinson,
The Worst Jobs in History
(Boxtree, 2004)

As Baldrick in the Black Adder series, Tony Robinson had some pretty nasty jobs to do for his surly employer, so it is hardly surprising that, having moved on to Time Team, he then took an interest in the worst possible jobs available in history.

This book, adapted from the UK Channel 4 series, is fascinating. I thought being a writer and reviewer for a newspaper was bad, but this is an eye-opener. Read this one over the Christmas break and you will be delighted to get back to the office, shop or factory in January, counting your lucky stars that you are not a chimney sweep, woad maker or rat catcher.

The book is broken into historical periods -- British, naturally, but many of these also applied to other countries as well. Taking a few at random, I'll give you a flavour of the book.

The arming squire worked for the knights. We may remember Ivanhoe or Lancelot striding across the screen, but life was not like art. In those damp and dismal days imagine keeping the armour clean, shining and squeak free. The book also reminds us that the squire was responsible for internal maintenance and that the knight could spend many hours in battle being scared and without toilet breaks or trapdoors -- yuck!

Boy actor was not a barrel of laughs, either. The job was not seen as very honourable: think racism and prejudice. In addition, they had to play the female parts and apparently to allow one dress to fit all they were just pinned into the garments -- and not with safety pins.

The riding officer was a sort of one-man tax inspector who patrolled the shoreline watching for smugglers. Nice easy job, you might think. Think again. Smuggling was a night occupation best done in wet, cold and stormy conditions. Smugglers were not red-faced, friendly souls getting in the early duty-free. They were the organised crime gangs of the time and the riding officer could have a long wait for back-up, if he could call for it in the first place.

These are just a few of hundreds of jobs no longer around, thank God, described with a mixture of fact and humour in the book. Robinson also lists surnames derived from the jobs like Cash from the makers of chests and boxes or Fowler from a hunter of birds.

This is a great read, and you can learn how much better off we are in 2004.

- Rambles
written by Nicky Rossiter
published 1 January 2005

Buy it from Amazon.UK.