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Digital Subscriptions > Family Tree > Family Tree August 2018 > Exploring your ancestors’ occupational records

Exploring your ancestors’ occupational records

Learning about our ancestors’ jobs and careers can help us understand their lives, and perhaps even clear up some mysteries, explains Paul F Cockburn. Read on and start digging deeper into your family history

Using company records

Victorian railway porters helping people with luggage and giving children directions, wood engraving by WJ Linton


Imagine you’re at a party, or some other social event, speaking with someone you’ve only just met. They’ve already told you their name, but if you’re anything like me – you’ve possibly already forgotten it. If only out of politeness, you’re still interested in learning more about them, so what’s the second question you’re most likely to ask them?

‘What do you do?’ Down the years, that simple, innocuous question has essentially become synonymous with ‘Who are you?’. We increasingly take someone’s job, profession or career as helpful, get-to-know-you shorthand of finding out who they are.

Of course, there’s a risk of stereotyping; when we focus on professions rather than individuals, it’s easy to make false assumptions. Someone who works in sales might be assumed to be a pushy, sweet-talking charmer; a lawyer as someone who loves an argument, and charges an exorbitant fee for every second it lasts.

A self-declared accountant, meantime, may be dismissed as a numbers geek. Nevertheless, in our increasingly busy, information-filled lives, focusing on what someone does for a living the social equivalent, you could say, of demanding a soldier’s name, rank and number nevertheless helps us navigate through our lives. Nor is it always wrong to do so; it’s a genuine shortcut that can help us better understand other people’s lives at least to some degree.

So, all things considered, it’s hardly surprising that one of the things we most want to discover about our ancestors is what they did for a living, and how that influenced and affected their lives. As the genealogist Richard Ian Ogilvie wrote (in the December 2017 issue of The Scottish Genealogist), ‘One of the pleasures in pursuing family history is identification of occupations of ancestors, which then facilitates research and conjecture on their lives and times’.

Making sense of the census

Admittedly, what our ancestors did for a living may be technically one of the first things we discover about them, especially if we’re tracking them down through the national censuses, which have taken place in England and Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland since the early 19th century.

‘Occupation’ has certainly been part of the information requested and available since the 1841 Census; that said, it is likely to be little more than the briefest of sound-bites, at most one or two words that give only the most cursory outline of people’s working lives. And, just as one of your 19th century ancestors might have wondered at ‘SEO manager*’, you may well have to track down a copy of Colin Water’s comprehensive Dictionary of Old Trades, Titles and Occupations (originally published by Countryside Books in 1999, reprinted in 2005) in order to understand those job titles that have since largely vanished from the workforce such as the carders and axdressers who once worked in the nation’s textile mills. The Scotland’s People website at also includes a glossary of old occupations and the tools or machinery people in these occupations would have used, which can make things somewhat clearer for you.

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What did your ancestors do for a job? Were they an apprentice? Did they take the King’s Shilling? Or work down the mine? What were the opportunities available to them, and what were the very real hazards of the work they did all day? This issue we’re exploring those employment records that can help you find out more about your ancestors’ work in times gone by. Discovering the history of your ancestors’ employment will give you invaluable insights into the lives they led. What they earned, and how they earned it, will shed light on their income and lifestyle, the communities they lived in, and the roof over their heads. Investigate their work; understand their lives… We have all the info you need to help you do this.