7 jobs you could be doing if you’d been born in the past

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So we love to share advice to help you figure out what you want to do with your career and how to get there. But do you ever wonder what life might have had in store for you if you’d been born in a different time and place?

We thought we’d take a look at some jobs from way back. Some of them are funny, one or two are pretty cool, some of them are downright awful – and some have even evolved into modern-day jobs...

'Gladiator, scrivener, squire - what job would you be doing if you'd been born in the past?'

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1. Gladiator

As anyone who's seen the film will know, gladiator fights were weekend entertainment for the Ancient Romans – like a riskier version of a trip to the cinema today. As a fighter in the arena, you’d be pitted against voracious beasts like lions, tigers and bears, as well as other (human) fighters.

The stats aren’t as bad as the movies suggest – in reality, nine in 10 gladiators survived their fights. The most successful gladiators were also the celebrities of their age – which means they actually lived pretty cushy lifestyles. But with lots of sharp objects coming your way and the likelihood of having to kill someone or something at some point, it was a fairly brutal business nonetheless.

What would a gladiator be today? Hollywood film star, Strictly Come Dancing contestant

Commodus from Gladiator gif
This is a gesture no gladiator wants to see

2. Navvy

Without navvies, or “navigators”, we wouldn’t have many of today’s railways. Navvies started off working on the canal network, but when the railways came along to replace it, they moved onto building the lines that criss-cross the country (and indeed the world) today.

Navvies may have been important, but they weren’t very well rewarded for their work. They were paid daily, and if they couldn’t work due to illness, they were given meal tokens instead, which would get them a bowl of soup and some bread. They lived in temporary huts by the railway, where diseases like cholera were rife, and it was dangerous work too – for every mile of track laid, three navvies died.

What would a navvy be today? Rail track maintenance engineer, railways engineering technician


Navvies laid thousands of miles of railway track in the 1800s, but pay and conditions were

very poor

3. Scrivener

What’s that when it’s at home? we hear you ask. A scrivener made a living before the invention of the printing press by having what was a very rare skill at the time – the ability to read and write. Scriveners took notes for monarchs and rulers, and copied out written texts like bibles and scholarly texts.

The profession of scrivener isn’t entirely extinct – in places where not many people can read and write, scriveners and scribes fill out documents for people who can’t do it themselves.

What would a scrivener be today? Copywriter, content writer, marketer


As this picture shows, scriveners were two-dimensional and wrote on enormous pieces

of parchment which were tenuously secured to their desks

4. Squire

Think Podrick in Game of Thrones or Arthur in The Sword in the Stone (before he realises he’s actually the king). A squire looked after the shield and armour of a knight, although they often ended up carrying out general chores (a bit like a PA in a tunic).

As time went by, the role of squire became a kind of apprenticeship for would-be knights, which meant opportunities for career progression were pretty good.

What would a squire be today? Personal assistant


5. Tomb builder

Transport yourself back to Ancient Egypt and there’s a good chance you could find yourself working on Pharaoh’s vanity project. Those iconic pyramids (big tombs for kings) didn’t build themselves – they were the work of thousands of masons, quarry workers and hauliers over many years.

Depending on your job, work could be fairly glum. Dragging tons of rock to the construction site as part of a team of hauliers meant hours of back-breaking labour out in the baking sun.

Because these great construction projects lasted for years or even decades, you’d live with other workers in a special village near the site.

What would a tomb builder be today? Mason, quarry worker, construction worker


Mummies were a notorious occupational hazard

for tomb builders

6. Chimney sweep

Despite all the chim-chim-cher-eeing of Bert in Mary Poppins, this is perhaps the saddest job on our list. Before the days of central heating, homes were heated by a fire – and sweeps were essential for keeping chimneys clear, clean and safe.

After the Great Fire of London in 1666, chimneys were made narrower for safety reasons, which meant the only people small enough to fit inside them were children. So instead of going to school, from as young six years old, a chimney sweep would spend their days climbing dark, dirty chimneys – in exchange for somewhere to sleep.

As an adult chimney sweep, you wouldn’t climb chimneys, but you would have to work in dirty, dangerous conditions for very little money.

Chimney sweeps still exist today as some people still have burners, but nowadays conditions are good and it’s actually a skilled profession.

What would a chimney sweep be today? School pupil, cleaner, modern-day chimney sweep

Chimney sweep
A young chimney sweep with his "master"

7. Ice cutter

Before the days of fridges and freezers, food had to be kept in icehouses. The “ice trade” started off in the eastern United States and Norway in the early 1800s, then spread from there. At its height, millions of tons of ice were harvested every year and sent all over the world!

All this ice was collected by “icemen” (sounds like a Batman villain, doesn’t it?). Icemen would wait until the ice was at least a foot thick, cut off big chunks with a saw, then pack it onto a wagon to be taken away and sold. Chilly business…

What would an ice cutter be today? Ice sculptor

Ice men
Native Americans cutting ice in the 1800s

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Image credits

Lead imagenavvies, scrivener, ice menchimney sweep via Wikimedia Commons


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