What a person did as an occupation can very often give the family history researcher a greater insight into their ancestorâ€™s life. It may also be a useful way of distinguishing between two people who happen to have the same name and that you need to work out which belongs in your family tree and which one does not.
Another reason to look into a forebearâ€™s occupation is that it may help you to work out an ancestor’s social status, political affiliation, or migration pattern.
Skilled trades were often passed down from father to son and so having regard to an ancestor’s occupation may also be a useful tool in identifying a family relationship with others who happen to have the same name.
An important point to remember, in your research, is that people’s occupations sometimes changed. I have an ancestor who changed from being a gunsmith to working in a pawn brokers and another who changed from being a cordwainer (shoemaker) to being a boatman on the river. Workers may suffer accidents or simply get ill and so are no longer fit to work in their primary trade. When this happened they were often forced to take on less prestigious jobs as they grow older. Many of our unskilled ancestors would have had a variety of jobs which depended on the season and local trade requirements.
I have wondered about one of my ancestors exaggerating their occupational qualification status in the census returns and I am sure that I am not alone in this! Clearly not everyone would be completely truthful. Just keep in mind that the census collections may exhibit some embellishment as to what your ancestor did; e.g., from Labourer to Mason, Carpenter to Cabinet maker, or from journeyman to Master craftsman.
Names for old or unfamiliar local occupations have the potential to cause us confusion if they are poorly legible in the record we are consulting. A prime example is the similarity between the words ostler (a keeper of horses) and a hostler (an innkeeper) which could so easily be confused for one another.
In a similar manner, some descriptions of occupations may also pose us problems. One of my Plymouth ancestors was a General Commission Agent, another a Merchant in London, but what did they do? I am yet to find out what areas of commerce these two distinct gentlemen worked in in spite of trawling the trade directories. Several trades have regionally preferred terms. For example, “shoemaker” and “cordwainer” have the same meaning in some places.
Finally, we need to remember that many apparently obscure jobs are part of a larger trade community, such as shipbuilding, framework knitting, or gunmaking.
We can look for occupational data in several places. It may be found in the records of occupational licenses, tax assessments, the membership records of professional organisations to which our ancestors belonged, trade, city and town directories, census returns, and civil registration vital records.
There are a number of websites available that explain many of the obscure and archaic trades, here are two that I have found:
Clearly, the occupations that our ancestors carried out on a day to day basis can give the family history researcher an insight into their forbearâ€™s life, as well as providing clues about other family members and the social status of the family. The data may be used by us to distinguish between two people of the same name; but all along we have to be aware that our ancestors may well have been telling little white lies and embellishing their actual job descriptions to the officials compiling the records.