Would you be a tosher?
Henry Mayhew published the four volumes London Labour and the London Poor which is a fascinating read. They are a real insight to how the poor lived and is well known as an influential work of sociology that documented the life of working class Victorians.
One of the most interesting groups were the “toshers,” these individuals were sewer hunters who travelled the length and breadth tunnels that ran under Victorian London and sieved the waste (which would’ve included rotting flesh, faeces and carried all manner of germs and diseases) for anything of value ranging from bones, metal, coins, cutlery, in fact anything that could be sold, a good day could earn you as much as 6 shillings about £35 in today’s economy.
However there was always the chance that one might run into the great ‘Queen Rat’ and one such tosher named Jerry Sweetly had encountered the Queen Rat in a pub. They drank until midnight, went to a dance, “and then the girl led him to a rag warehouse to make love.” Bitten deeply on the neck (the Queen Rat often did this to her lovers, marking them so no other rat would harm them), according to legend Sweetly lashed out, the girl vanished and reappeared as a huge rat up in the rafters.
Sweetly had offended the rodent Queen and for that he was cursed. His first wife died in childbirth, his second on the river, crushed between a barge and the wharf. But, as promised by legend, the tosher’s children were all lucky, and once in every generation in the Sweetly family a female child was born with mismatched eyes–one blue, the other grey, the colour of the river.
And it appears that the insult used widely today ‘tosser’ is a mispronunciation of the word ‘tosher’ and what a job that must of been.