Careers advice for St Albans children in centuries gone by

St Albans Clock Tower.

St Albans Clock Tower. - Credit: James Gaffney

Imagine you were a medieval schoolboy and your careers advisor suggested becoming a gong farmer. How would you have felt? Tempted by the money – you could earn in a day what most would earn in a week – or put off by the working conditions? 

Gong meant human waste, so yes, the job meant clearing out toilets (privies) and sewage pipes. And it was not only dirty but also dangerous. The wooden boards that were laid as seats across cesspits could rot and give way. Nasty way to go. Then the waste collected by the gong farmers would be used by farmers on their fields. Who knows what diseases were literally being spread? 

As a gong farmer in medieval St Albans, one of the stops on your round would have been at the Clock Tower. Here you would collect the buckets from the privies of the resident families – the shopkeeper on the first floor and the clock keeper on the floor above. Then it would be across to French Row, where the visitors staying at the Christopher Inn would ‘contribute’ to your collection. 

St Michael's Manor.

St Michael's Manor. - Credit: Elizabeth Walden

Another smelly option was to work in a tannery, producing leather from animal hides in a process which used urine to remove the hairs and a cleaning solution made with dog poo. Who would have thought that lovely St Michael’s Manor started out as a tannery, located well down Fishpool Street to spare the town centre the stench. The raw materials came from an on-site butchery and from the meat market just outside today’s WH Smith, where the stinking streets ran with blood and gore.  

A healthier option could be to become a monk. It meant giving up the chance of family life, but at the very least it could offer a life of quiet contemplation and prayer, tending beehives or creating beautiful, illuminated manuscripts. For some it could even give the chance to rise to a position of power. The Abbot of the St Albans monastery moved in very influential circles, welcoming aristocracy and royalty to his fine home in the monastery grounds.

Image of monks on stained glass.

Image of monks on stained glass. - Credit:

Many boys were apprenticed to a trade – carpenter, miller, cordwainer (shoemaker) amongst others – leaving home as young as seven years old to live with a new master. The working day for a St Albans’ apprentice would begin at 4.30am with the Clock Tower bell acting as an unmissable alarm call. 

What about the girls? For them, options were more limited. For most, the choice was marriage (which often came with a life of drudgery and frequent childbirth), the nunnery or becoming a servant. However, women also found ways to earn a living from spinning, midwifery or brewing ale at home.  

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Many of the children growing up in Victorian St Albans would have gone to a Plait School, in theory gaining a basic education, while they learned to plait straw for making into hats. Women in particular carried on this craft at home, helping to boost the family income. Hats were big business in 19th century St Albans, with a quarter of the population employed in dozens of factories. 

Sea god mosaic

Sea god mosaic - Credit: St Albans Museums

Or let’s go right back to Roman times and consider the lot of a slave in Verulamium. British slaves were not regarded highly, so presumably got the worst jobs, but they were cheap to buy. It was said that the going rate for a British slave was just a large jug of wine.  

Some of the best paid jobs in Roman Britain were in ‘interior décor’, providing the latest fashions to grace the homes of the wealthy. Skilled artists created colourful and intricate wall paintings, whilst mosaic makers crafted extraordinary designs from simple cubes of stone. Some of their best work is on display in Verulamium Museum. 

So, which job would you choose?  

Discover more about life in St Albans down the centuries with the St Albans Tour Guides.