Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Knackers and knackeries

There is a number of trades that don't exist anymore in our modern world of Europe or Northern America. One of those trades is being a knacker - in Czech pohodný, ras, drnomistr or antoušek, in German Abdecker, Wasenmeister or Kaffiler, in Latin excoriator or canicida. There were many families in Bohemia and Moravia in the past which were in this trade...

"A Dead Horse on a Knacker's Cart", drawing by Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827).

So, who was a knacker? What did he do for living? Let's use Wikipedia on this one: it is a job title used for the centuries-old trade of persons responsible in a certain district for the removal and clearing of animal carcasses (dead, dying, injured) from private farms or public highways and rendering the collected carcasses into by-products such as fats, tallow (yellow grease), glue, bone meal, bone char, sal ammoniac, soap, bleach and animal feed.

There was a knacker in almost every larger village in our area. You can find knackeries on old maps - usually marked as Abdeckei as the maps were in German. Or pohodnice, if the map was in Czech.

Abdekerei (above) and Pohodnic (under) on maps from 1st half of 19th century.

Research of these families is always complicated - these people were often personally free (independent) men, ie. they weren't serfs of any estate. Even if they were serfs of one family, they moved a lot. Like... A LOT. They were able to move hundreds of kilometers during their lives which was really unusual in our past. Tracing such movement is very complicated and every note about the family counts - for example when they acted as godparents etc.

Interesting thing is many knacker families had German surnames - and there are some surnames which belonged just to knacker families, such as Neuberger, Holler, Eichler, Kolinger, Fierbach, Ubl or Pikl. 

Here is an example of Neuberger family. They were originally from Blovice area in Western Bohemia but moved to Blatná and Písek area in Southern Bohemia during 18th and 19th century. It was complicated to trace the family as the places mentioned in the parish records of children and grandchildren weren't the same where the family lived when the children and grandchildren were born.
Places where direct line of one Neuberger family lived.

Life of knackers was complicated - they were living outside of the society as they belonged among the "filthy" people who were contempted by the others. But they were still highly needed as their work was very important for the society. This always caused tension between knackers and other people. That's why knackers didn't marry outside the knacker families, but a knacker almost always married a knacker's daughter. It's also a reason why it was impossible for knackers' children to do some other job until the beginning of 20th century.


  1. I have missed your blog! I have learned so much from it. It has helped me understand things about my family history that I had dug out of the Trebon archives. thank you.

    1. Thank you, Sandra. I'll try to write posts more regularly, hopefully I'll be able to do so.

  2. Fascinating! Thank you so much for your informative blogs!

  3. I am a direct descendant of the Neuberg[er] family. My 2 X great grandfather was born in Blovice. He eventually became the abdecker for Borek, present-day Štěnovický Borek. The knackery outside of Blovice has been in my family for almost three centuries. I visited the site in 2014.

  4. My direct descendants were also knackers (abdeckers) from Western Bohemia, family Reiser. I am still short of 2-4 generations before the records run out around 1650. Does anyone has info about this family so I can complete my Reiser family tree? I'll be very grateful for any info. The name is also sometimes spelled as Raiser, Reisr, Reizr, Raisr, Raizr, Rajzr and Reizer. The oldest records I found so far is about Wolfgang Reiser born in 1738 on Sep 28, in Olsovka, which was knackery in Brezi, presently part of town Zinkovy. He was the son of Adam Reiser, also a knacker, but unfortunately in the records is missing where he is from so I run out of leads for now...any help appreciated! Wolfgang's son, Jan, was also born in Brezi in Olsovka on Nov 23, 1768. Wolfgang later moved his family to Bystre near town Mochnin. Jan's son Matej (also spelled Mathias or Matous) was born in Bystre on Oct 8, 1795. Matej was 1st generation venturing out of the knacker trade and became "Wildheger", in Czech "pansky hajny" instead. In English it means a hunter and a ranger in one person. He was Wildheger in Bernartice, presently part of town Kolinec. He later moved his family to Horneckuv Dvur where they had their last child, Eva Reiser, my grandpa's grandma, in 1840 on Oct 21st. Horneckuv Dvur was demolished in the 80's but it was in an area belonging to Volsovy, a small village, presently part of town Susice. Reisers married into familes of other knackers in Western Bohemia, namely the Langmayer, Mayer, Heidinger, Keiger (or Keigr), Fleischner. Lets share some info about these too and if you know anything about my branch of the Reiser family prior 1738 please let me know, thank you.