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  • Writer's pictureLynne Christensen

Weird and Wonderful Old Occupations

My 3rd cousin 10 times removed, Sir Samuel Dashwood, was the Lord Mayor of London in 1702-3. Fancy title and upper class? Most definitely. However, this family tree also contains some folks much lower down on the rungs of polite society. Going back in time, we encounter a long list of occupations that are either extinct or unbelievable. It’s a bit of a rogue’s gallery, a fantastical circus and collection of oddities all rolled into one. Adding in a bit of magic wouldn’t be out of place for this ancestral lot either.

We’ve all heard about the demise of the buggy whip manufacturer. Consider also the telephone operator manually connecting calls plugging in wires. History records milkmen who used to deliver early in the morning using a horse and cart (my grandmother’s street residents agreed the horse’s manure belonged to the house on the street where it fell; that’s why their roses were so beautiful). Smart phones have replaced attendants operating computers the size of entire rooms. There are many strange old occupations relegated to history and what you read isn’t what they were at all. Here’s some fun examples, in no particular order:

Unicorn driver

Today’s interpretation: a fantasy job involving a carriage pulled by a white horse with a golden horn galloping across puffy clouds.

What it really was: a man driving a cart with three horses in harness, two side by side, one in front.

Man of wax

Today’s interpretation: a horror movie character that frightens others.

What it really was: an important person so high up in society that Westminster Abbey could be expected to create a wax effigy of this person’s body to go on public display.

Ashbank fairy

Today’s interpretation: a magical creature who flits around in the moonlight granting wishes.

What it really was: a worker who took industrial waste ashes to the dump.

Bill Barlow:

Today’s interpretation: a person of that name.

What it really was: a person who dressed as a clown and busked on the streets for money.

Make-up man

Today’s interpretation: someone working on a movie set alongside the hair and costuming departments.

What it really was: a person who stood in at the last minute to complete the needed number of a set of workers on the docks.


Today’s interpretation: a magical creature who falls for simple scams.

What it really was: a person who never shows his opinion, politics or preferences.


Today’s interpretation: a magical, winged, white horse flying through the air.

What it really was: an amazing poet.


Today’s interpretation: a person on stage who needs to put on some clothes.

What it really was: one of the first London policemen, named for Sir Robert Peel who founded the force. More commonly known as ‘Bobby’ derived from ‘Robert’.

Pot Walloper

Today’s interpretation: a person who gets an odd sense of satisfaction banging a spoon against a saucepan.

What it really was: a man who owned a home and therefore was entitled to vote (prior to 1832).

Posture Master

Today’s interpretation: a person with impeccable self-carriage.

What it really was: someone who instructs pupils in calisthenic exercises.

Not to be confused with

Posture Maker

Today’s interpretation: a corset or girdle.

What it really was: a circus acrobat or intense bender of limbs.

Had enough? Didn’t think so. We’ll be back next week with more fun in Part 2!

In the meantime, contact Northleo Writing Inc. today for help with your writing needs – proposals, reports, long-form blogs and turning Subject Matter Expert interviews into customer facing documents.


Christensen, Dr. P., “What Did They Do: Ancestral Terminology”, Heritage Productions, Ontario, 2007.


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