Who Was Your Ancestor?
Richard W. Price, MA, AG®
O let us love our occupations,
Bless the squire and his relations,
Live upon our daily rations,
And always know our proper station.
Charles Dickens, The Chimes, 1845.
Not all of us love our occupations, but in a very real sense they define who we are. In introductory conversation, “What do you do?” follows shortly after “How do you do?”
“Occupation” can be interpreted broadly to include status as well as vocation
Occupations for a given individual can change over time, or they may be seasonal. A man who worked in London as a pawnbroker’s assistant, later became a commercial clerk, a general salesman and a shopkeeper. It was typical of a Victorian husband and father to turn his hand to a series of different jobs to earn enough to support his family. To most of our ancestors, an occupation was something they learned in their early years and practiced until they dropped. Not for them the luxury of pursuing the path of ambition which was afforded to those in the law, the church or the military. You hewed stone or drew water because that was what was needed to keep the wolf from the door; indeed, you probably did both, since dual or multiple occupations have often been the norm in British society, as is evidenced by many a 17th century “shoemaker and alehouse keeper” or a 19th century “collier and grocer”.
Not all occupations followed by our ancestors were as straightforward as “silversmith” or “schoolmaster” both of which were terms used nationally with little variation. By contrast, a man whose job it was to finish cloth would usually be referred to as a “fuller” IN THE SOUTH EAST OF England, as a “tucker” in the southwest, and as a “walker” in the north.
Some trades and occupations came and went, as did the terms associated with them.
Learning the occupation of your ancestor helps you to understand more about what his life was like and you can get to know him or her better by knowing his vocation. Also, knowing the occupation may assist in correctly identifying your ancestor, especially if there are four John Mitchells in the city of Bradford and you cannot tell which one is which. Studying records of schools, apprenticeship or other educational pursuits may help you identify your ancestor.
Oxford and Cambridge University have brief biographies on everyone who attended their schools from their beginnings (in the 1300’s? 1400’s?”) to the present day. They are published and completely alphabetical.
In 1710 a tax was placed on apprenticeship indentures which lasted for 100 years until 1810. The resulting records list the name of the apprentice, his father or guardian’s name apprenticeship indentures Society of Genealogists 1641-1888. This tax did not apply to parish or public charities. Apprentices funded by public charities or the parish poor law are not included in these indexes
The occupation of the head of the household determined the life style of the family, dictating how and where they lived. Frequently it affected the next generations as sons followed their father’s occupations or carried on the family business, while marriage often strengthened ties between families already connected by trade or occupation.
There are several thousand occupations included in the census returns of Britain. A specific occupation can by known by several different names, and definitions of occupations are varied as well. For example, farmer, husbandman, agricultural labourer, yeoman, gardener, etc. An engineer can be either railway or factory – 1881 census had to distinguish between the two. Servant had to be identified as domestic or indoor. Parish records, poll books, wills, trade directories, birth, marriage and death certificates can provide occupations, along with census returns. Many occupations have been overtaken by machinery and technology and no longer exist, some like that of barker or chaucer or baker or carpenter are remembered in our surnames.
In some records a human tendency to upgrade one’s own occupation or that of a forefather can be misleading, as can the description of two female “Servants Kept by the Flour Dealer”, given in a Liverpool census. Other colorful occupations noted in census are:
A life long interest in money
Cook in a Big House
Keeps a Mangle
“A Scotsman” (occupation, not birthplace)
There are many instances of people having two occupations, and apart from solders and sailors with civilian trades, the most commonly noted are complementary, e.g. auctioneer and valuer, carpenter and joiner, chemist and druggist, glazier and glass maker, printer and publisher. There are also two apparently unconnected trades carried on at the same time by the same person, such as gardener and barber, cordwainer and publisher, coal agent and blacksmith, smith and cow leech, farmer and weaver.
“All society would appear to arrange itself into four different classes,
1. Those that will work
2. Those that cannot work
3. Those that will not work
4. Those that need not work.”
(Henry Mayhew London Labour and the London Poor, 1861).
Any good dictionary can be used to identify meanings and descriptions of more commonly known occupations, Oxford English Dictionary likely being the best.
Having a knowledge of occupations of the are assist in extending ancestry as well. For example, 1851 statistics linking population movement and occupations show that people moved frequently and freely, sometimes only a short distance, as in Derbyshire, where an increase in population in Litchurch sine the 1841 census was ascribed to the extension of silk and lace manufactories in the adjoining towns. Migration of workers due to stoppage of mills, in the Darley abbey district, was given as the reason for a decrease in the population.
Ale Taster: An inspector of ale. First recorded in London 1377. Appointed by manor or vestry he proclaimed the permitted price for selling beer and ale.
Badger(1) Pauper who was obliged to wear badge bearing letter “P” under condition of settlement Act 1697; (2) Itinerant (nomadic/traveling) trader, usually dealing in food. Also called Cadger, Hawker, Higgler, Peddar; (3) Corn dealer or miller.
Barber/Surgeon: Until 1745 barbers were also surgeons. The Company of Barber-Surgeons was incorporated 1461, and barbers were allowed to practice in surgery and dentistry until 16th century when an Act of Parliament restricted barbers to dentistry and the Company title was altered to Barbers AND Surgeons. An act ov 1745 allowed surgeons their own Corporation but the name persisted until 19C.
Belly Builder: Assembler and fitter of piano interiors.
Boonmaster: An officer of the parish appointed as Surveyor of Highways under an Act of 1555. He was obliged to carry it out a survey three times a year and organize labour to repair the roads. Any landowners who did not provide the statue labour would be liable for a fine which the Boonmaster was responsible for collecting.
Cardmaker (1) Maker of carding implement used for combing wool, flax, etc. Originally hand held, (2) Printer of playing cards.
Chanty man: A sailor who led singing of work songs on sailing ships, and ensured that sailors worked in unison. Different chants were used to vary the pace needed for each task. Songs became known as shanties.
Couple-Beggar: An itinerant priest who performed marriages irregularly, i.e. without banns or licence. (Hardwicke’s Marriage act of 1754 legalized such marriages but the officiating minister was declared a felon).
Engineer (1) Designer of bridges, roads, etc.; (2) Soldier; (3) Operator of an engine in the sense of a machine in textile industry, or of any steam-driven machine.
Foot Straightener: In watchmaking, one who assembled watch and clock dials.
Guinea Pig: An unattached, or rover parson, whose fee was usually a guinea (slang).
Hokey Pokey Man: Colloquial term for an Italian ice cream seller with his barrow. They were generally, but not always, of Italian origin, and often sold fruit flavored water-ice rather than the traditional ice cream we are used to today.
Jagger: (1) 14c Carrier, carter, pedlar or hawker of fish; (2) A young boy in charge of ‘jags’ or train of trucks in coal mine; (3) Man in charge of pack horse carrying iron ore to be smelted; (4) A uniformed messenger boy employed by a London business firm 1900.
Mariner: One who obtained a living on the sea in whatever rank, equivalent to an Able Seaman.
Pikelet Maker: Baker who specialized in pikelets, flat cakes made of dough. These can be of various sizes and shapes, or are known by different names, e.g. crumpets, muffins.
Pugger: Worker employed in brick fields to make clay paste by the method of treading the clay under bare feet. In some areas where brick making was family work it was the job of the children to do the pugging.
Sewer Rat: A bricklayer who worked in sewers, building and repairing tunnels.
Stone-workers: Included free and rough masons, imagers, carvers, setters, wallers, paviours, tilers, quarriers, scopplers, lewers, and diggers.
Throwster: Textile worker attending machine which twisted together strands of yarn, cotton, silk, wool, etc.
Town-Husband: A parish officer who collected money from fathers for the upkeep of their illegitimate children.
Upholder/Upholdster/Upholsterer: Originally maker of mattresses, quilts, hangings, anything of a padded nature, including linings for coffins. In 18c acted as chief agent in supplying furnishing of rooms and houses, often employing other craftsmen, e.g. cabinet makers, chair carvers, smiths, drapers. Hence (1) An auctioneer or broker who holds up goods for inspection; (2) Dealer in small wares or second hand articles of clothing, furniture.
Whitesmith: Maker of utensils in tin, esp. For a dairy.
Woolcomber: Worker in woollen mill who operated a machine which separated the fibres prior to spinning the yarn. Originally done by hand this was the last major process to be mechanized.
Yeoman: (1) Small freeholder, a commoner, one of a class just below the gentry; (2) Servant or attendant to an official, or employed in a noble household; (3) Ship’s officer in charge of stowage and distribution of the stores.
A vast amount of occupational information of interest to genealogists is available in print. There are innumerable biographical dictionaries, descriptions of archives, record publications, etc. All of these help to identify people in the past, and may provide essential clues to tracing ancestry.
Culling, Joyce. Occupations A Preliminary List. Oxford: Oxuniprint, 1994.
Foster, Joseph. Alumni Oxonienses: The Members of the University of Oxford, 1500-1714, Their Parentage, Birthplace and Year of Birth with a Record of Their Degrees. Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1968.
Hurley, Beryl, ed. The Book of Trades or Library of Useful Arts 1811, Part I, Vol. II, Vol III. New York: Dover Publications, 1977.
Oxford University Press. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Raymond, Stuart A. Occupational Sources For Genealogists, Second Edition. Oxford: Oxuniprint, 1996.
Twining, Andrew & Sandra., Dictionary of Old Trades & Occupations, Second Edition. Woodcroft, SA, Australia: Twining’s Secretarial, 1995.
Venn, John and Ven, J.A., comp. Alumni Cantabrigienses: A Biographical List of all Known Students, Graduates and Holders of Office at the University of Cambridge, from the earliest times to 1900. Cambridge, Massachusetts: University Press, 1922.
Waters, Colin. A Dictionary of Old Trades, Titles and Occupations. Bristol: J. W. Arrowsmith, Ltd.,1999.