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Beginning Your Family History

Part Eight: Occupations

User Avatar Penelope Lovesy 12/06/2020 16:16:27

Some of the records we have previously explored document what your ancestor did for a living, but how do you find out more? Occupations can be found in census, marriage, military, baptism and criminal records to name a few. This is often just a glimpse - a job title - and some of these may not even be recognisable today.  Finding out more about your ancestor’s occupation is another way to add some background detail to their entry on your family tree. What a person did for work depended on several factors including; their local area, their family background and social status. Finding out more gives you an insight into their daily life, routines, social circles and position in society.

Family search wiki is a good place to begin: https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/England_Occupations This has lists of historical occupations, summaries of them and signposts to discover more.

I clicked on the link for Coal Miners as many of my ancestors spent their working lives down the pit. I found an interesting overview of the industry and links for further information. I also searched the internet and found the National Coal Mining Museum; this would be a great place to find out more: https://www.ncm.org.uk/

There are many specialist museums which can offer an insight into the occupations of your ancestors. Some examples are;

They can often assist with family history enquiries.

Again, as in previous blogs, the National Archives has comprehensive lists and guides for this topic: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/?research-category=family-history&sub-category%5B%5D=trade-commerce-and-occupations

Alongside the National Archives, the local archives for the area your ancestors came from may hold records of local business and trade. For example, The Dorset History Centre holds the following: https://www.dorsetcouncil.gov.uk/libraries-history-culture/dorset-history-centre/collections/business-records.aspx

We looked at Historic directories in an earlier post: http://specialcollections.le.ac.uk/digital/collection/p16445coll4 They contain lists of trades so you can track an ancestor’s business or premises. They also include adverts. Let’s look at an example; I found a Harry Ernest Pipler on the 1911 census.  He lives in Poole and his occupation is Sail and Tarpaulin Maker. A search for Pipler in the 1915 Kelly’s Directory for Dorset brings up four results. The final one lists Pipler, H and son, Quay, Poole in the Trades section under the heading Sailmakers.  This gives us more information than the 1911 census because we learn the business address rather than Pipler’s residential address. When searching for the business of your ancestors, you can track the trades and premises through the available years of the directories. You may even find an advert for them.

Local guides also include adverts for business, for example, Poole History Online provides access to digitised local guides and it is possible to find a number of adverts for Pipler and sons, like this one from the 1950’s: http://www.poolehistory.org.uk/node/328611  

A search for Pipler on Poole History Online produces a number of results www.poolehistory.org.uk/taxonomy/term/50/all?keywords=pipler&recordType=&keywords=pipler&recordType=&termID=50&x=0&y=0 and even includes an oral history extract about the business: http://www.poolehistory.org.uk/node/18509

These are invaluable insights into the occupations of our ancestors. It is worth doing an internet search for the occupation and locality as similar resources may exist.  Even if the information has not been digitised it is a good idea to investigate local studies library collections. You can email, as although they may not be open, they may be able to respond with information. For example, in Poole History Centre, although there are no archives (staff information) from local business there is an information file for most local trade and industry, therefore you can read about and see pictures of the trade.

A variety of employment records can be found on Ancestry, including; railway employment records, British postal service appointment books, civil and electrical engineer lists, Dorset crew lists and Dorset poor law apprenticeship records.

For an example search I wanted to explore the Dorset, England, Poor Law Apprenticeship Records, 1623-1898. From the homepage:

  • Click on search (the search on the top bar)
  • Scroll down to by location
  • Select England
  • Click see more about England
  • On the right-hand side of the page, under narrow by county, select Dorset
  • Click view all Dorset Wills, Probate, Land, Tax and Criminal
  • Select Dorset, England, Poor Law Apprenticeship Records, 1623-1898

“This collection is made up of apprenticeship records for the county of Dorset. Records contain the following details, where available:

·       Date of apprenticeship

·       Name of apprentice

·       Age of apprentice

·       Name of father

·       Name of mother

·       Gender of apprentice

·       Name of master

·       Residence of master”


“Apprenticeships were used to train boys (and some girls) in useful crafts and trades as a way of preparing them to become independent craftsman in adult life. Apprenticeship was in decline in the eighteenth century, as wage labour became more common and it became more difficult to set up as a master. Nonetheless guilds such as the Carpenters' Company continued to enrol apprentices, and pauper apprenticeship continued to flourish as a means by which parishes and charitable institutions could prepare young people for future employment.”

I decided to search for John Biles of Poole and found that on 20th March 1792 he was apprenticed to John Aldridge of Poole, Schoolmaster. John Biles was 11 years old and his apprenticeship was to last until his full age of 21. 

For more recent records, the Modern Records Centre has a vast collection of all Trade Union Records and offer guidance with family history enquiries: https://warwick.ac.uk/services/library/mrc/research_guides/family_history/

Finally, a search of the British Pathe channel on Youtube can allow a look at some industry and workplaces:   https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCGp4u0WHLsK8OAxnvwiTyhA

I tried searching for Poole and found wonderful footage of Poole’s Water Postman in 1964: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoUOXSM6ms4

There is so much information available to add some substance to the lives of your ancestors and discover more about their everyday working lives. This post is just a brief guide to some of the places you can search. Good luck with your research and please contact us if you have any questions or any sources that you have discovered localhistory@bcpcouncil.gov.uk


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