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18th Century Occupations: The Nightman

Trade cards were the 18th century’s equivalent to today’s business cards and they provide interesting insight into some of the now obsolete jobs people once held.



John Hunt, of Goswell Street in London, for instance, advertised his services as a “Nightman and Rubbish Carter.” What exactly did a nightman do? As the name indicates, they worked at night—in fact there were laws that they had to do their work after a certain time. They came in after dark and cleaned out “the necessary.” In the 1840s Henry Mayhew described the process as involving a team of three or four men with a cart. The “holeman” went into the cesspit and filled the tub either by immersing it or with a shovel, then scraped or washed off the outside of the tub. The “ropeman” would pull the tub out, and the two “tubmen” would carry the tub, suspended on a pole, to the cart. The waste was then taken to the nightman’s yard where it was mixed with, among other things, ashes and rotting vegetables that had been collected, and then it was sold to farmers as manure for their fields. Often chimney sweeps and rubbish collectors also worked as nightmen.