When we consciously decide to do Family history, as opposed to Genealogy, we set out to flesh out our ancestors lives a bit. We do this by seeking to understand what they did for a living, what the environment in which they lived and worked in was like and the social conditions that prevailed on them at the time.
My Devon ancestors are a mixture of Agricultural Labourers, Mariners, Small Businessmen and the like. Their work is very often dictated by where they lived. The countryside dwellers in and around Bigbury and South Huish worked on the land. Those that inhabited Dartmouth made a living on the river and at sea while those from Plymouth ran shops and small businesses. Not surprisingly none of them were coal miners or textile mill workers.
At the Society of Genealogists (SoG), in London, there is a good amount of material to help family historians research ancestors occupations and much of it is to be found in the Upper library at 14 Charterhouse Buildings. Although not all the material is exclusively on that floor, it is a good place to start as Else Churchill, the Genealogist at The Society of Genealogists pointed out in a talk I attended there last year.
With the “Ag Labs”, as we have come to call our Agricultural Labourers after the 1841 census introduced this shorthand way of describing them, there is a book that can be purchased from the SoG shop called My Ancestor Was an An Agricultural Labourer which explains what their lives were like and points the reader towards some source material that could be used apart from the census data.
Returning to the question in the headline of this article: What Did Your Ancestors Do? Finding the answer to this question will probably depend on what status they were and what and when they carried out their trade, profession or calling.
As some professions and crafts became more regulated then lists of those qualified to make a living from the activity will have thrown up records. Family historians can have recourse to Trade Directories, Apprenticeship lists and so on to try and find their forebears. Professional men, such as Medical men and Lawyers are going to be better documented than others. The SoG have extremely good runs of lists for these professions as well as those, such as Chemists and Apothecaries, who modelled their professional standards on the former class of practitioners, with the sanction of being struck off from the register to practice.
The Law list’s at the SoG include Barristers, London Attorneys and Provincial Attorneys back into the eighteenth century. The medical directories only really start in the 1850’s with the formal registration of these professions but I did find in their catalogue A directory of English country physicians 1603-43.
Men who were Officers in the Army or Navy can be found in the run of military lists on the upper library floor along with a great collection of Regimental Histories and Medal Rolls.
Some enlisted men can be located by using the Findmypast Chelsea Pensioner 1760 to 1913 data set and the Militia Service Records 1806-1915. Look in the county record office for the Ballot Lists of those men eligible to serve in the local militia from the 1750’s to Napoleonic times (1799 to 1815).
What if your ancestor went into trade by serving an apprenticeship? Else Churchill, explained that apprenticeship records are better documented before 1800 than after. A tax levied in the 18th century caused records to be kept and they are to be found today at the National Archives IR1 series and they are indexed by the SoG and can be found in books in the upper library. Another database is on Ancestry. The SoG has another excellent book called My Ancestor was an Apprentice which may help.
If your ancestors served an apprenticeship in one of the larger towns, or boroughs, in order to become a freeman and gain the entitlement to vote, then look for the records for the town/borough at the county record office. Ms Churchill pointed out that the more likely scenario would be that your ancestor would have served their apprenticeship within a family and there would be no record as the tax was not applicable within a family apprenticeship.
A possible record that may be found is where a child is apprenticed by the parish to make them less of a burden on the parish. Typically the age of the apprentice is much younger (7 or 8yrs old) and husbandry or housewifery. If the records survive they will be in the Parish Chest material.
This is only a short look at this subject and I will return to it in a further article here.
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