Snobs, Squatters & Trimmers: 19th C. Aussie Jobs That Are Obsolete

More than three million records from the Victoria Coastal Passenger Lists are now public

10/09/2016 8:00 PM AEST | Updated 10/09/2016 8:03 PM AEST
Cobblers, or shoe makers, were commonly referred to as 'snobs.'

If you've ever been curious about the strange jobs 19th Century Australians held, the release this week of Victoria's Coastal Passenger lists provides a fascinating look at what occupations were commonplace back then, that no longer exist.

A 'snob', a 'coal trimmer' and a 'sempstress' are just some of the jobs listed by passengers travelling by sea from 1852-1924. More than three million records are now public, giving us a snapshot of the workforce of the day.

While many of the jobs are now obsolete, others would not have made it past 21st Century health and safety regulations.

Public Record Office Victoria, Find My Past and Family Search have released the records, giving first-time online public access, so family historians can get a clear idea of what long-departed relatives did to earn a quid back in the day.

Daniel Wilksch, from Victoria's Public Record Office Victoria said the records are very important historical records of how many Australians were earning a living back then.

"The records also provide a vital missing piece of the puzzle for anyone wanting to track their ancestors' movements into and around Australia during this particularly fascinating time in the country's history," Wilksch said.

find my past
A page from Victoria's Coastal Passenger List


No, the word doesn't refer to the upper class elite who might be turning their noses up at the common folk - in the 19th Century, a 'snob' was actually a cobbler, or a shoe maker. The job still exists, although not in the same way it did back in the mid 1800s. The 'snobs' arriving in Victoria in the 1850s mostly repaired shoes, instead of making them from scratch. Sadly, the Industrial Revolution meant that shoes were mass-produced, and most shoemakers were quickly out of business. Of the 266 'snobs' that arrived in Victoria in 1852, all would have been out of work by 1900 when they abruptly disappeared.

De Agostini / V. Pirozzi
19th Century cobblers' shop

Coal Trimmer

Being a Coal Trimmer meant dicing with death. On the passenger records, the job is commonly referred to as simply a 'trimmer'. These poor people would have spent their days in the bowels of coal-fired ships, shoveling coal and putting out a lot of fires, due to the spontaneous combustion of the coal.

These men were paid an absolute pittance and were forced to work in horrific conditions: the inside of a coal bunker was dim, dusty, extremely hot and susceptible to random fires breaking out without warning. Many trimmers suffered from a nasty disease called pneumonoconiosis, caused by dust in the lungs. The symptoms are gradual emaciation, a persistent, irritating cough, distress in the chest, with shallow and difficult breathing, spitting of blood and, apparently, terrible breath. It's no wonder this nightmare job was eventually phased out.


In the mid-1800s times were changing and women were expected to contribute to the household earnings. The most popular option was to be a governess but because most women weren't highly educated, the next most popular job was a sempstress (or seamstress).

It was a job description that sounded better than it really was; by all accounts it was thoroughly miserable as the women worked for a pitiful wage. Unable to earn enough to help support families, many turned to prostitution, crime or even suicide to escape the misery.

De Agostini / M. Seemuller
Seamstresses and factory workers in 1845

Circus performers

Australia's population exploded in the 1850's, with the arrival of 370,000 immigrants in 1852 alone. By 1871, 1.7 million people had arrived and, with all those people to entertain, it was a great time to be a circus performer.

There were run-of-the-mill circus performers like trapeze artists and clowns, but also a selection of self-proclaimed 'circus artistes' flocking down under, along with singers and opera singers.

In fact, famed Aussie opera legend Dame Nellie Melba appears on the list as she travelled from Sydney to Melbourne.

Getty Images/DeAgostini
The circus was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the 19th Century.


The occupation 'squatter' appears many times in the records and commonly referred to people who were ex-convicts or free settlers who have claimed Crown land for farming, without making an official claim to it.

It was originally quite a derogatory word but, by the mid 19th Century, 'squatter' completely changed meaning and became attached to the upper class of colonial society. If you were called a squatter then, you were generally a man of great wealth, even an entrepreneur. If you spot a squatter in your family history, perhaps you should scout around for a missing fortune!

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