Hunting for treasure in the sewers of London

Toshers made a living digging through the sewers of 19th-century London for items of value
Oct 022012

Some years ago I read Charles Palliser’s novel The Quincunx. Though I don’t remember much about the book at this point, it stands out in my mind as one of my favorites. Perhaps one day I will reread it and see if it holds up.

One thing I do remember from the book is that it introduced me to toshers (I have mentioned them before)–the people who made their living scrounging through the sewers of 19th-century London looking for items of value. I was therefore quite excited when I came across Mike Dash’s post about toshers in Smithsonian magazine’s Past Imperfect blog. Dash describes

the men who made their living by forcing entry into London’s sewers at low tide and wandering through them, sometimes for miles, searching out and collecting the miscellaneous scraps washed down from the streets above: bones, fragments of rope, miscellaneous bits of metal, silver cutlery and–if they were lucky–coins dropped in the streets above and swept into the gutters.

The work was dirty and dangerous (“what a tosher feared more than anything else was not death by suffocation or explosion, but attacks by rats”) but apparently surprisingly lucrative, earning toshers enough “to rank them among the aristocracy of the working class.”

After you’ve read up on toshers, learn more about what was going on beneath London in the 19th century in Dash’s post about the first attempt to build a tunnel under the Thames.

You could also read The Quincunx and let me know what you think.

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