Working Lives – Occupation Records

In the course of researching your family tree you are likely to uncover details about your ancestors occupations, usually via sources such as the censuses, birth, marriage and death certificates and parish register entries. 

How many of us have simply entered the occupation on the tree and moved on? Have you ever thought of looking a bit further? Finding out about the type of work they did and whether there are any other records that could help shed some light on your ancestors working lives can really add some flesh to the bones – making them come to life rather than being a list of names and dates.

Image from FamilySearch

Image from FamilySearch

So how do you go about researching occupations? One of the first things I usually do is to look up the job title, especially if it is something I’ve never heard of before. There are some good websites out there with information about old occupations – a couple I often use are Hall Genealogy and WorldThroughTheLens. Sometimes they are jobs we know but have been described with old fashioned terms like Cordwainer for Shoemaker. Often they may be occupations that have long since died out with the deaths of certain types of industries. 

Once you know a little more about the type of work your ancestor was doing, you can start to look at where they might have been working. This may be a bit of guesswork without having more solid information; such as cotton workers working in a town with hundreds of mills, not really being able to pinpoint which exact mill they worked at. Looking into how these mills worked and the working conditions can give you a good picture of what their day to day lives might have been like. Even going to visit a working museum mill would be a great way to see and feel what the work and the environment was like. Hear the noise of the machinery, see how it all worked.

Sometimes it might be a little easier if they lived where they worked, like a Licensed Victualler – otherwise known as a Publican – running the pub they live above. The name of the pub may or may not be given on a census return, so if it isn’t, why not look on a search engine for the address on the census to see if there are any mentions of the pubs name? There are some good websites out there for historical pubs that often have mentions of the landlords from the censuses and from historical directories and licencing applications. 

Image from

Image from

If your ancestor had his or her own business it is likely they were listed in trade directories. In the days before telephones and the internet, people relied on directories in order to locate a tradesman for the work they wanted doing. 

There were a few directories published before 1750, but these were mostly lists of London merchants. In 1784 a county directory for Hampshire was published and within 20 years many cities and industrial towns were covered. The first national series of county directories (for England) was published in 1814 by Pigot & Co. Their rival Kelly & Co, launched the Post Office directories of provincial towns and counties in 1843. Kelly took over Pigot in 1853, and by this time directories included most counties and urban centres.

These directories are very useful, giving descriptions of the towns and villages, their transport links, banks, pubs and the wealthy residents as well as tradesmen. Early addresses for tradesmen were likely to be where they lived as many people worked out of their homes. By around 1875 more affluent traders were moving their families out of their shops, having managers living above the shop with unmarried staff – living in. By 1900 you may find heads of households listed with their addresses in a street or residential section as well as within the commerical section. Single and married women were only mentioned if they ran a business. The directories could be fairly incomplete in terms of their listings in poorer areas, but by the 1920s they became a more or less complete record. It is worth remembering that often the information used to compile these directories could be around a year before the date of the directory, so you may find people listed who had died or moved away by the time the directory was published.

Local libraries are a great source for locating trade directories, and online you can find details about county directories on Genuki and also the University of Leicester has a great free archive of directories which can be searched. Ancestry also has some directories including details from the British Telecom phone books from 1880 to 1984 – which is great for locating details about your more recent ancestors.

There are also a great many other types of occupation records becoming available online, such as the British Postal Service Appointment books, Railway employment records and Engineer records at Ancestry. There are records available under the Education and Work section on Findmypast – covering records such as Apprentice lists, Merchant Navy records and Civil Service. The Genealogist also has several lists such as law lists, company directors for 1936 and clergy lists. The National Archives is also a great site to visit to search for their holdings, or the location of holdings at other archives for occupation records – such as records for the Metropolitan Police.

My great grandfather Albert Hallas's record for the London & North Eastern Railway at Guide Bridge in 1939 from Ancestry

My great grandfather Albert Hallas’s record for the London & North Eastern Railway at Guide Bridge in 1939 from Ancestry

While they may not provide you with a full detailed employment record for your ancestor, they can at least help you to pinpoint details about them such as periods of service, promotions and perhaps reasons for leaving their employment. 

A good example of an occupation record from my own research was from my ex partner’s tree many years ago. Findmypast in conjunction with the Society of Genealogists, had released the Civil Service Evidence of Age record set. These details were collected by the Civil Service Commission to establish accurate birth records for their staff, to ensure they were of minimum age or to grant a pension. There are over 64,000 entries in the Civil Service Evidence of Age records. However it is estimated that only 2% of all civil servants are listed. The majority of the births recorded were in the 18th century, but the range spans 1752-1948. My ex’s 3x great grandfather had worked for the Privy Council and I was amazed to find it had his details listed. It costs £14 for a copy of the records and I dutifully sent off for it. I was taken aback by the wealth of information it provided.

What I got was a copy of his job application form, it detailed his name, date and place of birth, his current address and date of application, his father’s name and occupation, where he went to school and how old he was when he left, details of two referees, whether or not he was ‘free of any pecuniary embarrassments’ – so presumably any bad debts or previous bankruptcy, and the details of all his previous employment. It was fascinating. It gave me a wonderful timeline of his life, from his education up to his term of employment with the civil service from which I was able to chart his promotion through the census entries until his death.

William Dishman job application p1 William Dishman job application p2

Another good source for occupation research is gazettes and newspapers. Many businesses and workers appear in the papers for a variety of reasons. It could be that they have been victims of crime such as a theft from their workplace, or that they had perhaps fallen on hard times and ending up declaring themselves bankrupt or ending up in a debtors prison. It could be that they are announcing the break up of a business partnership or selling their premises, or even advertising for staff or perhaps advertising their wares. You can search the archives of the London, Edinburgh and Belfast Gazette for free on their website. The British Newspaper Archive is also great for a wealth of newspapers which is always expanding its digitised collection. The site is pay per view but if you have a subscription to Findmypast you can search the collection through their website. Local libraries and records offices will have newspaper archives too, and if you are lucky like me, my local library has free online access to The Times Digital Archive and the 19th Century Newspapers Collections via Gale and all I need is my library card number!

Taverner and Young dissolved London Gazette 19th Nov 1937 copy

Notice from the London Gazette from 1937 for the partnership of Taverner & Young being dissolved.

You might also want to seek out apprenticeship records, ranging from lists of apprentices, to their indentures (the contracts with their masters) and perhaps one day becoming masters themselves. Ancestry has some apprenticeship records, but local records offices are usually a great source of indentures – although some often crop up for sale on eBay! Often boys and girls were entered into an apprenticeship from as early as seven years old but the minimum age was later increased to nine. They usually had to serve between five and seven years. You may also find that your ancestor became a member of a guild associated with their profession. Often these guilds could help out families in times of financial trouble, so there could be records of them applying for relief – often some generations later. Your ancestor might have been granted the freedom of the town or city, such as becoming a Freeman of London. There is a good guide on the National Archives website and also on the Devon County Coucil website.


You can also find some great books about occupations – the Society of Genealogists has a range of books “My Ancestor Was A ….” which help to give a great insight into the working lives of people across a wide range of occupations. If you are lucky, you may also find that local historians have written books about certain workplaces which may contain photographs and records relating to your family. I was particularly lucky in having several members of my family working in the slate quarries of Glyn Ceiriog which were featured in a series of books by John Milner. In them were photographs of the workers – some of which included my great grandfather, his son and nephews, plus details about my 2x great grandfather John Brown who worked as a waggoner for the Glyn Valley Tramway, which transported slate from the quarry. 

You may also find that your ancestor had to travel for their job, so you may find passenger lists for journeys overseas, perhaps visiting clients, or moving away for the opportunity of a lifetime! Findmypast and Ancestry have a great collection of passenger lists coming in and out of British ports. The earlier records may not provide much detail in terms of occupation, but the later ones can give some good detail, such as job title and the company they worked for and where they were going in the course of their work.

A good example of this is in a tree I researched for a client last year. Her paternal great aunt travelled back and forth to America in the late 1940s and 1950s in her role as a secretary for the United Nations. My client said she had heard that she worked for the UN but knew nothing more about it. On various passenger lists she was simply listed as a Clerk or Secretary but on some of the New York arrivals she was listed as working for the UN – and in one more specifically as working for the Trusteeship Council at Lake Success. You can also see the advances in transportation over the years with her going from travelling by ship to then flying there in the late 1950s. Fascinating stuff.

There are plenty of other records and sources that can be tapped into for details about occupations, too many for me to list here, but I can never say it enough – Google for information (other search engines are available!) You never know what websites are out there. Look at the holdings of the local records offices, see if there might be anything pertaining to the working life of your ancestors – it could be anything from records of a business to mentions in churchwardens accounts paying the local blacksmith for his work that year. You could also uncover details about a particular industry that may have affected your family – such as the Cotton Famine in the 1870s – which caused widespread destitution for many cotton workers in the north of England, to the gradual decline of the textile trade, or even disasters such as mining accidents or fires, or even rebellion of workers such as the Luddites

Machine breakers - image from Wikipedia

Machine breakers – image from Wikipedia

All in a days work!


4 thoughts on “Working Lives – Occupation Records

  1. These are terrific tips. There are similar records in the US—lots of city directories, which I have found tremendously helpful. Not only do they give business and residential addresses and occupations, often they will list someone as a widow or widower, giving me hints as to when a spouse died. They are particularly helpful for finding people between 1940 and 1950 since the the 1950 census is not public. Unfortunately around then they were replaced with phonebooks which have far less information.

    Great post! Thanks!!

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