Series / Worst Jobs In History

Tony Robinson, of Blackadder and Time Team fame, introduces us to the worst jobs in history: occupations that are dangerous, unhealthy, boringly monotonous, disgusting, immoral or otherwise terrible from throughout most of British history. The show has aired two seasons, the first of six episodes, each focusing on the worst jobs in a given era (Roman and Anglo-Saxon, The Middle Ages, Tudors, Stuarts, Georgian and Victorian), a Christmas Episode, and then a second season of five episodes, each describing the remaining awful jobs in five different fields (urban, royal, industrial, maritime, and rural).

Regardless of how terrible all the occupations were, Tony Robinson himself reenacted nearly every job; the only exceptions were those which were too dangerous to reproduce for television. An amazing feat, considering that Tony was in his late fifties when the show was being made.

There were two book spin-offs, The Worst Jobs in History, and a book aimed at younger readers which focused on child labour, The Worst Children's Jobs in History.

Examples of the Worst Jobs:

  • An Arm and a Leg: Coin-stampers found guilty of stealing entire coins were punished by having a hand cut off and nailed to the door of the workshop. In the event that the guilty party couldn't be located, the coin stampers' boss would be punished instead.
  • Badass Grandpa: The 70+ year old retired deal porter - a job where you sprint up a mountain of lumber while carrying thirty kilos of boards on your shoulder - was still capable of outperforming Tony.
  • Body Horror: On top of being castrated and rendered incapable of leading a normal lifestyle, Castrati also ran the risk of being quite horribly disfigured by the lack of certain chemicals in their body.
    • Phossy Jaw, as suffered by the Bryant & May matchgirls.
    • Quite a few of the other industrial diseases suffered by factory workers fall under this heading; cup handle-makers ran the risk of slowly crushing their internal organs.
  • Boring, but Practical: To lift massive pieces of masonry, get something like a giant hamster wheel and use it with a pulley system. In fact, a large number of the jobs were dull and repetitive, but they worked (and there wasn't any other way to do them anyway).
  • British Brevity: It had eleven episodes spread over two seasons.
  • Butt-Monkey: Tony.
    • Also, quite a few of the worst-jobbers investigated over the course of the show.
  • Captain Obvious: Tony, during the Castrati segment, asking if the procedure hurt.
    • Played for laughs in the Industrial Age Episode: with a boiler's engine jacket about to explode, the air full of smoke and alarm bells clanging, Tony can only shout "I THINK WE'VE PUT ENOUGH COAL IN!"
    • And again in the Maritime Age Episode:
    Tony: How come we've just got onto the boat and it's already full of water?
    Andy De-Martine: ... it leaks.
    • While sampling a bowl of worm stew prepared by a wise woman:
    Tony: There's little lumps in it.
    Jane Milner: Those are the worms.
  • Corpsing: While playing a lob-lolly boy, Tony helps remove a musket ball from a wounded sailor's back. The doctor removes it and hands it to Tony, who drops it and scrambles around for it on the floor causing the actor playing the sailor to break up laughing.
  • Crapsack World: Everything, really.
  • Crapsaccharine World: The Georgian Era, an age of confidence and innovation in which the knowledge of human body was expanded, James Watt kickstarted the Industrial revolution, fine art enjoyed a renaissance under Turner and Constable, Opera became widespread and hugely popular, and tea was introduced to British society. Behind the scenes, a lot of this success was based on crime, corruption and suffering: anatomists learned a lot of their knowledge from corpses stolen by the body-snatchers, the industrial innovations quickly gave way to hellish factories run by expendable child-laborers, artists exploited working-class women for use in their masterpieces, the greatest voices in Opera could only be created through a barbaric process of castration... and because of the exorbitant tax on imported items, most of the tea was illegal contraband brought in by smugglers.
  • Dangerous Workplace: Quite a few of the workplaces visited or discussed during the show. The Bryant & May match factory was arguably the worst, due to the combination of No OSHA Compliance and white phosphorus.
  • Darkest Hour: The very Worst jobs of the episode, reserved for the very end of each episode and concerning only the most boring, humiliating, dangerous or just plain revolting out of all the already terrible jobs reviewed: Tony's least favourite out of all of these was the Tanner- for very good reason.
  • The Dung Ages: The Dark Ages episode, which features an in-depth examination of wattle-and-daub construction: one of the key ingredients is, somewhat unsurprisingly, manure.
  • Failure Hero: The Riding Officers. They were supposed to police the English coasts and prevent smuggling, but thanks to a limited workforce and a lack of any fast means of communication between officers, they weren't all that effective. Worse still, because they worked alone and were usually armed with only a cutlass and a pistol, they usually ended up being horribly brutalized by the smugglers, if not killed outright; even if the riding officers managed to conduct an arrest, the smugglers would have been able to escape conviction very easily thanks to sympathizers among the local juries. To add insult to injury, the officers recieved about the same wage as a farm labourer.
  • Groin Attack: The Castrati were a natural recipient of this.
    • Coin-stampers trying to make a little extra money by clipping bits of silver off the coins were punished by castration.
    • Shepherds had to castrate male lambs. One of the few instances when the attacker is suffering almost as much as the victim: in order to prevent infections from dirty fingers, the testicles would have to be drawn out with the shepard's mouth.
  • Mistaken For The Devil: The Reddleman, a dye merchant often stained red by his product, was a recipient of this.
  • No OSHA Compliance: Played straight and subverted: it's made clear that most of the jobs examined in the show would have had very few safety precautions, especially the work of Steeplejack; Tony, however, is given as much safety equipment possible under the circumstances.
  • Oh, Crap!: Commonly uttered during especially dangerous worst jobs; Guillemot Egg Collecting sees Tony deliver quite a few, particularly when he loses his shoes off the edge of the cliff.
  • Precision F-Strike: While playing the part of a Guillemot Egg Collector and making a very perilous climb down a cliff, an unexpected stumble makes Tony yell "Oh shite!"
    • Though muffled by a scold's bridle, Tony (now playing a Fishwife) can be heard telling one of the men jostling him to fuck off.
    • When asked about where the Saltepetre Men went to collect their product, Robert Smith is very frank in explaining that the best sources would have been large concentrations of "feces, urine- shit, basically."
  • Professional Killer: The Tudor Executioner, undoubtedly on the "Hitman" end of the scale; unskilled, underpaid, despised by the entire community, and often Driven to Suicide.
  • Scavenger World: Victorian London; because it produced so much rubbish, various classes of scavengers could earn semi-regular wages by finding saleable items among the waste. The Victorian episode examined a few of these kinds of scavengers, from near destitute cigarette-end collectors and Mudlarksnote , to the premier league examples like Bone-Gubbersnote , Dustmennote , and Toshersnote .
  • Self-Deprecation: In the Elizabethan segment on acting and the perils therein, Tony reminisces about being a child actor back in the late 1950s and then calls his past self a "total tosser".
  • Throw the Dog a Bone: The job of Tudour Spitboy; long, monotonous and back-straining though it was, it allowed Tony to sample some of the chickens roasting on the spit. He even said that it was his first decent experience in the entire program.
    • While not enthusiastic about the taste of Umble Pie (the medieval cook's christmas treat), Tony remarked that it was still "the nicest thing I've smelt all day."
    • Also, after the finicky job of cooking and preparing a boar's head for Christmas dinner, he got a chance to try some of the boar meat himself.
  • Too Much Information: Used in one or two situations where Tony learns far more than he intended about the jobs he was about to perform. For example, when studying the work of the Royal Food Taster, he's given a bowl of food to eat while a scientist explains what would happen if it had been laced with arsenic; Tony spends most of this discussion looking more and more horrified, and eventually asks her to stop explaining altogether when the topic of "purging" is brought up.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Used in the Christmas Special when Tony is playing the part of the Puke Collector.
  • Why Did It Have to be Heights: Tony has acrophobia, and nearly every episode has a worst job that involves him either climbing or dangling off a tall building, all while being visibly terrified. Despite his fears, he only failed to complete one aerial challenge in both series: a 'flying man' acrobatic routine that had to be cancelled because the rope got soaked in a rainstorm and started to droop.