[This excerpt from Michelle Allen's Cleansing the City (2008) accompanies my review of her valuable study of resistance to sanitary reform and slum clearance. Readers might be interested to lean that toshers play important roles in to recent Neovictoran novels, Charles Palliser's Quinqunx (1997) and Dan Simmons's Drood (2009) — George P. Landow]

Cesspool-sewerermen carrying away feces and urine from a London cesspool.
From Allen, p. 28; originally from Mayhew, 2:243. [Click on tumbnail for larger image.]

The cesspool-sewererman [interviewd by Mayhew] recognizes both the role his own work has played in displacing the nightmen and, more generally, the precarious position of all workers in the modernizing city: "In time the nightmen'll disappear; in course they must, there's so many new dodges comes up, always some one of the working classes is a being ruined. If it ain't steam, it's something else knocks the bread out of their mouths quite as quick" (2:448-49). Through the voice of the laborer, Mayhew reveals his concern over the negative effects that industrialization and sanitary progress, in particular, have on individual workers.

While reform might entail the loss of wages and of certain kinds of labor, it also brings with it the loss of something more difficult to define. Maxwell makes the point that for Mayhew the street laborers represented an image of discontinuity, of freedom and mobility, that was both important to him imagi- natively and emblematic of London life. To lose the nightman, the "tosher" (sewer hunter), or the rat catcher is to lose something of the spirit of the city itself. This attitude is most evident in Mayhew's description of the toshers, for him the most daring and canny of the city's workers in filth, who risked their lives in searching the labyrinthine sewers for treasure or, at least, saleable bits of refuse. Reflecting on Mayhew's attitude toward the toshers, we find that Maxwell's discontinuity is not so much at issue as is the romanticization of a dangerous and utterly alien way of life:

Many wondrous tales are still told among the people of men having lost their way in the sewers, and of having wandered among the filthy passages . . . till, faint and overpowered, they dropped down and died on the spot: Other stories are told of sewer-hunters beset by myriads of enormous rats, and slaying thousands of them in their struggle for life, till at length the swarms of the savage things overpowered them, and in a few days afterwards their skeletons were discovered picked to the very bones. [Mayhew, 2:150]

Such thrilling, if gruesome, adventures were becoming more rare just as Mayhew was recording them because the Metropolitan Commission had closed the entrances to the sewers opening out into the Thames and forbidden unauthorized entrance. The intrepid sewer hunters were certainly displeased with the new regulations, as Mayhew makes clear, but men Mayhew himself seems also to regret the passing of this curious mode of making a living and almost to root for the toshers who managed "to evade the vigilance of the sewer officials" (2:151). This vigilance must certainly have put an end to the "wondrous" tales and stories that made London such a vital and rich place. [32]


Allen, Michelle. Cleansing the City: Sanitary Geographers in Victorian London. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2008.

Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. 4 vols. 1861-62, Reprint. New York: Dover, 1968.

Last modified 24 February 2009