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Digital Subscriptions > Family Tree > Family Tree March 2019 > What did your ancestor do for a living?

What did your ancestor do for a living?

Genealogist Chris Paton delves deeper into The range of online and oTher resources to help you follow your ancestors’ employment history


Apprenticeship records provide invaluable information about occupations. This is The 1843 certificate of indenture of Thomas Nadauld Brushfield. He was apprenticed to Samuel Byles, ‘surgeon apoThecary and man midwife’ of Christ Church, Middlesex, for five years. Brushfield later qualified as a surgeon and was a pioneer of treatment for asylum patients, a freemason and an antiquarian


When studying our ancestors’ lives, many of The vital records that we use to reconstruct Their genealogical relationships to one anoTher will usually also yield information on occupations.

Investigating what our ancestors did for a living can help to inform us of Their world views, and to understand many of The decisions They took in life. The details gleaned can often include what They earned, where They chose to live, how They knew oTher people, and even what Their political affiliations might have been.

Where to begin Many resources are available to help flesh out The stories. As a starting point, The National Archives (TNA) offers research guides to some key occupations at with databases and links to externally held collections, while additional records can be found on The subscriptionbased platforms. A catalogue search on can help to locate useful collections, while has records in several categories, such as ‘Churches & #x0026; Religion’, ‘Education & #x0026; Work’, ‘Military, Armed Forces and Conflict’, ‘Directories and Social History’ and ‘Institutions & #x0026; Organisation’. Most resources of interest in will be found within its ‘Occupational Records’ category, and in its ‘Military Records’ section.

Before investigating The records of what our ancestors did, however, we sometimes have to interpret what Their occupations actually were from descriptions given in records.


A ‘Vulcan’ might have been eminently logical in his daily proceedings, but was more likely to be a blacksmith than a member of Starfleet, while a ‘braboner’ or a ‘webster’ is just an old-fashioned way of describing a weaver. If a term presents itself that needs a definition, consult Hall Genealogy Website’s Old Occupation Names at along with The ScotlandsPeople list of some 1,500 occupations at or The ‘Occupation Dictionary’ within for a helping hand.

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Roll up your sleeves and start digging for details about their work today with our top tips for tracing ancestors’ working lives. Learning about your ancestors’ work is the best way to get a feel for the lives they led. Did they have to tramp miles each day to reach the mine? Or did the whole family work together from home? Was everyone down their street employed in a similar industry? Did their toil leave them aching at the end of their shift, or working long into the night, just to make ends meet? Their line of work will tell you about the occupational hazards they may have faced, the sort of income and opportunities it gave, and an understanding of their times and their individual lives too.