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9. Occupations

Occupational terms

General information

Individual industries and occupations

The learned professions

Company records

Trade unions

Occupational records do not form a coherent category. There are state records only where people were employed by the state itself or where the government sought to regulate qualifications and employment. Otherwise each trade or industry kept its own records. Of course, many of our ancestors, especially those who worked the land, have left no record of their employment at all, other than in the occupation column of a census or a certificate.

Occupational terms

Given that most agricultural and early industrial occupations are now marginal if not actually obsolete, it is not uncommon to encounter unknown terms for occupations in historical records.

The definitive reference work for occupational terminology in any period is the Oxford English Dictionary (Figure 9-1). Accessing the online edition at <> is described on p. 186.


Figure 9-1: An entry from the online Oxford English Dictionary

The most comprehensive listing of occupational terms for the early twentieth century is the Ministry of Labour’s 1927 Dictionary of Occupational Terms, based on the terms used in the 1921 census, which has something like 30,000 entries and descriptions. (The OED uses this book as one its own sources for occupational terms.) It also classifies occupations, so that you can see all the jobs involved in, say, basket-making. The scanned volume is in the Internet Archive at < and there is a searchable database at <>.

A similar US work, The Dictionary of Occupational Titles, published by the US Department of Labor in 1971, is available online at <>, though, of course, you will need to exercise considerable caution if using this to interpret an eighteenth-century British occupation.

The other material available online is, by comparison, very concise. Brief explanations of terms for past occupations are provided in John Hitchcock’s ‘Ranks, Professions, Occupations and Trades’ page at <>, which has around 1,600 occupational terms. The ‘Dictionary of Ancient Occupations and Trades, Ranks, Offices, and Titles’ at <> is a smaller collection of around 750 terms, with the emphasis on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Olive Tree’s list of ‘Medieval And Obsolete English Trade And Professional Terms’ at <> may be useful, especially since it includes medieval Latin terms for many occupations, and some older English spellings. Rodney Hall’s ‘Old Occupation Names’ at <> is also useful. For specifically Scottish terminology, look at Scots Family’s ‘Old Occupations in Scotland’ page at <>.

There is a substantial collection of terms for a single industry in the Pottery Jobs Index at <>.

If you need to clarify an occupation shown in the 1911 census, you can look up the three-figure codes in the original census documentation available from Histpop (see p. 85) at <> (see Figure 9-2). This won’t tell you what the job involves but will allow you to see how it fits into a particular industry. It can also help you identify similar jobs, which can be useful if an ancestor has different occupations given in different sources.

If you have ancestors in manufacturing or trade, you may also find the Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities, 1550–1820 site at <> useful in identifying precisely what your ancestor made or sold.


Figure 9-2: Occupation classifications in the 1911 census

General information

The National Archives has material on occupations in its ‘Research guides’ section at <>, with pages devoted to the following occupations and professions for which there are state records:

These lead to pages with links to online information, relevant research guides and details of the relevant records at TNA.

The Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick holds records relating to ‘labour history, industrial relations and industrial politics’. While it has not put any records online, the main genealogy page at <> has links to genealogical guides for the following occupations:

The India Office area of the British Library website has an extensive set of pages relating to occupations in British India at <> with details of the relevant records in its collections.

There is as yet little occupational data available on the commercial data services apart from a small amount for the professions (see below). The only significant sets of general occupational records online are for apprenticeships:

Information about the City of London Livery Companies will be found on the Corporation of London site at <>, which has links to the companies’ own websites. The Institute of Historical Research has a project to make a database of Livery Company membership records for the period 1500–1900 available online. The data is available at <>.

In the case of self-employed tradesman or craftsman, it will be worth checking trade directories — see p. 189 — which may well bring the benefit of establishing a workplace address.

Cyndi’s List has a page of resources relating to occupations at <> and many other pages which have information on occupations related to particular topics — for example, the ‘Prisons’ page at <> includes links to police history websites.

Individual industries and occupations

There are many sites devoted to individual occupations, sometimes with just historical information, sometimes with a database of names. Unfortunately, it is not possible here to do more than cite a few examples, but you can find many other links to sites for individual occupations on Cyndi’s List .

Examples of the sites with individual names include:


Figure 9-3: The Coalmining History Resource Centre

For many occupations, records are very limited until you get to the twentieth century. The learned professions are a major exception, and these are treated separately below. Likewise, any service in the army or navy will have left some, perhaps even many, records for an individual, and these are discussed in Chapter 10. Otherwise, the occupations most likely to have left records are the professions, where formal qualifications and professional bodies are involved. It is always worth checking the website of any relevant professional body, since it may well provide some indication of what records are available and other information on tracing individuals. For example, the Royal College of Nursing has an area of its site devoted to archives at <> with a section on ‘genealogy and research advice’. It also has copies of historical nursing journals for 1888—1956, in which many individuals are named. The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors has a guide to its Library and a page on family history at <>. It is worth checking ARCHON (see p. 205) for details of the archives of such professional bodies.

On the whole, there are few substantial collections of professional records online, but there are two notable datasets created by the Society of Genealogists and available on Findmypast:

Ancestry has two important occupation collections:


Figure 9-4: British Postal Service Appointment Books at Ancestry

The Genealogist has around 20 sets of occupational records, including:

It is also worth checking record office sites for local data collections, such as:

Local directories (see p. 189ff.) often carry lists for individual trades, and you may well find an entry for a self-employed tradesmen or craftsmen. Appointments and promotions in the civil service, even at the lowest clerical grades, including, for example, postmen, should be recorded in the London Gazettesee p. 197.

There are a number of mailing lists devoted to occupations. They are listed at <>, and those most relevant to UK family historians are:

Many of these are hosted by RootsWeb, where details and archives will be found — most are linked from <> but others from <>. British-Genealogy has a general ‘Occupations’ discussion forum as well as forums for specific occupations:

All are linked from <>.

There are even a few societies devoted to the history of trades and occupations. In the case of the railways, for example, there is the Railway Ancestors Family History Society, with a website at <>, while the London & North Western Railway Society has a Staff History Group. Its web pages at <> offer a family history research guide and a database of staff members (Figure 9-5).

Resources relating to merchant seamen are discussed along with those for the Royal Navy, on p. 149. Photographers are covered on p. 309.


Figure 9-5: The Staff Database for the L&NWR

The learned professions

While records for individual trades and occupations are generally sparse and fortuitous, those for the learned professions are much more copious, well organized and, in many cases, available in print.

Most of the relevant material is, of course, specific to a particular profession, but there are a number of general sources to check. Directories, for example, often have lists of self-employed professionals.

Figure 9-6, from the Historical Directories site (p. 189), shows an example — a list of local dentists from Kelly’s 1895 directory for Gloucestershire. All the professional entries here give an address, and many indicate qualifications. In some cases, specific days are listed for surgeries in particular towns.


Figure 9-6: Dentists in Kelly’s 1897 directory of Gloucestrshire (Historical Directories)

Some professions have their own directories, such as the clergy’s Crockford’s Clerical Directory. The digital book archives discussed in Chapter 12 may have scans of individual volumes; otherwise a search of the library catalogues mentioned in Chapter 13 will locate a physical copy. The Society of Genealogists, for example, has a considerable collection of such directories, and all are listed in their online catalogue (see p. 222). The professional directories available on the commercial data services are discussed under the relevant profession below.

The learned professions are so called because they require a university degree. This means that the records of the ancient universities can be looked to for information on individual ancestors. For Cambridge, Venn’s Alumni Cantabrigienses, covering the period 1261–1900, is on the Internet Archive at <>. A search for the title will bring up a list of volumes; alternatively just follow the links from Wikipedia’s ‘Alumni Cantabrigienses’ article. It is also available to Ancestry subscribers at <>. A free database is in preparation by John Dawson and this is available at <>.

The equivalent publication for Oxford, Foster’s Alumni Oxonienses, is also available on the Internet Archive at <>. Again, Ancestry has made the material available to subscribers, at <>. Bob Sanders has a page devoted to ‘Oxford University Alumni with Cardiff & Vale Of Glamorgan Connections’ at <>. Familyrelatives at <> has not only the Alumni Oxonienses, but also the Alumni Dublinenses, which lists staff and students of Trinity College, Dublin 1593–1846. Findmypast Ireland (see p. 54) also has this latter work, while Google Books (see p. 184) has A catalogue of graduates who have proceeded to degrees in the University of Dublin, going up to 1868.

If you know which college an ancestor attended, you may find useful information about the available records by consulting the college website. Balliol College Oxford, for example, has a comprehensive page devoted to tracing past members at <>.

The legal profession

For the legal profession, a useful place to start is The National Archives’ site, which has a research guide on ‘Lawyers’ page at <> .

The Law Society has a guide on ‘How to Trace Past Solicitors’ at <>.

The Inner Temple is another useful site. Its Admissions Database at <> has entries covering the period 1547 to 1850. The Admissions Database home page also has links to a list of bibliographical sources for lawyers and information on ‘Legal Education to 1850’. The site has a number of historical articles and those of most use to genealogists are ‘The Inns Of Court And Inns Of Chancery And Their Records’ and ‘The admission of overseas students to the Inner Temple in the 19th century’ — search for ‘historical articles’ from the home page at <>.

The commercial data services do not as yet have much in the way of records for lawyers. The exception is The Genealogist which has several Law Lists, and a Biographical Dictionary of the Judges of England for 1066 to 1870 available under its Diamond subscription.


The medical profession has a range of professional bodies to which an ancestor may have belonged, and the websites of these are worth looking at. The Royal College of General Practitioners has a guide to ‘TResearching a medical ancestor’ at <>, which includes information on former colonies. Although it does not itself hold any personal records, the British Medical Association has information on ‘Tracing a doctor for historical research’ on its ‘Tracing a doctor’ page at <>. The older medical establishments all have historical material in their libraries and archives, which may include the publications and perhaps even personal papers of members, so it will be worth consulting any online catalogue.

The Guildhall Library has information using its own holdings in ‘Sources For Tracing Apothecaries, Surgeons, Physicians And Other Medical Practitioners At Guildhall Library’ at <>, but this page will also be of use for doctors outside the capital.

Munk’s Roll is a collection of obituaries of members of the Royal College of Physicians, and the College has an online index to it at <>. Ten volumes have been printed, covering the period from the founding of the College to 1997, and all of these are included in the online index, with detailed biographies for a number of members.

A list of those granted medical licences by the Archbishop of Canterbury is available as a PDF file on the Lambeth Palace Library site at <>. The licences cover the period 1535–1775.

The commercial data services have a number of resources for medical ancestors. Ancestry has a complete run of the quadrennial UK Medical Registers of the General Medical Council for 1859—1959 at <>, which can be browsed (the entries are in alphabetical order) or searched, though since the index has been created by optical character recognition it is not entirely reliable. Findmypast has three medical registers: the 1925 Dental Surgeons Directory, the 1858 Medical Directory For Ireland and the 1913 Medical Register. Familyrelatives has a series of medical registers covering the period 1853 to 1943.

DOCTORS-NURSES-MIDWIVES is a mailing list for those with ancestors in the medical profession, details of which will be found at <>.

Further links will be found on the ‘Medical & Medicine: Doctors and Nurses’ page on Cyndi’s List at <>. The Library of the Wellcome Institute at <> has links to more general material on the history of medicine.

The Church

Among the useful guides for anyone starting to investigate clerical ancestry is the Guildhall Library’s introduction to ‘Sources for tracing clergy and church officials’ at <>. Although the main focus is London, much of the information is relevant to all ancestors in the Established Church. Lambeth Palace Library has a guide to ‘Biographical sources for Anglican clergy’ at <>.

By far the most important online resource is the Clergy of the Church of England Database project (CCEd) at <>, which aims to document the careers of all Church of England clergymen between 1540 and 1835. The project is still in progress, but it already has details of around 120,000 individuals on the website. Information about the dates and dioceses covered so far will be found at <>. For each individual the database gives details of his university degree (if known) and a list of appointments, with links to information on sources (Figure 9-7).


Figure 9-7: The entry for the poet John Donne in CCEd

The Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae list English bishops and higher clergy up to 1857 and are available on British History Online at <>. They are organized by diocese and locating an individual may be easier if you use the indexes provided by the Institute of Historical Research at <>. The first two volumes (of seven) of the equivalent publication for Scotland, the Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, are indexed and transcribed at <>. Vol. VII is available (catalogued as Vol. 10) on the Internet Archive at <>, and it will be worth keeping an eye out for other volumes appearing on this site.

CHURCHMEN-UK is a mailing list for those interested in clerical ancestors — details will be found at <>, and British-Genealogy has a ‘Clergymen’ discussion forum at <>.

Mundus at <> describes itself as a ‘gateway to missionary collections in the UK’, and will be worth checking if you have missionary ancestors. The site provides information on over 400 collections of overseas missionary materials held in institutions in the United Kingdom, including collections of personal papers. The International Mission Photography Archive is described on p. 305.

For ministers outside the established church, see the links for other denominations in Chapter 7.

Company records

If you think that an ancestor may have worked for, or even owned, a particular company, it will be worth trying to find out whether there are any surviving records. Unless the company is still in existence, and perhaps even then, the records are likely to be in a repository, in which case they should show up in the National Register of Archives at <> (see p. 207). The NRA’s ‘Corporate name’ search will identify such records, and in many cases link to an A2A record (see p. 206). For example, Figure 9-8 shows the beginning of a substantial page in A2A describing the records of Berger Jenson and Nicholson Limited of Hackney. Lower down the page is a complete history of the company, and a list of the individual documents, which include staff records.

The NRA also has a Business Index Advanced Search, which helps you to find companies by business sector and county or town.


Figure 9-8: Corporate records in A2A

The Business Archives Council of Scotland has details of the records available for the 100 oldest Scottish companies at <>.

Of course, in the case of a large company, there may well be a website with information about the company’s history and staff records. For example, although it is not an official company site, there is ‘an electronic history of J. Lyons & Co. and some of its 700 subsidiaries’ at <>. This has a ‘Pensioners’ section including hundreds of death notices, obituaries of notable senior staff and lists of the company’s war dead. RBS has a dedicated company history wiki, RBS Heritage Online, at <>. The ‘Sources for family history’ page at <> is the best place to start for guidance on records of genealogical interest, such as staff registers and war memorials.

The website for Guinness’s Dublin tourist attraction, the Storehouse, has a Find Your Family section at <> giving details of over 20,000 staff with dates of birth and dates of joining.

Familyrelatives has four volumes of the Directory of Directors for the period 1897 to 1946.

Trade unions

In the case of nineteenth-century or later workers, there may be information on individual ancestors in the records of the trade unions. Records for the thousands of individual unions which preceded the growth of the large amalgamated unions of the present should be sought in the online catalogues of the local record offices (see Chapter 13). But for general information about trade union records and family history the site to visit is Trade Union Ancestors at <>. This not only lists the more than 5,000 unions which have existed over the last 200 years, but provides family trees showing the ‘genealogy’ of the modern national unions, which may help to identify the likely location of surviving records. There are also brief histories of a number of unions, with lists of officers.


Figure 9-9: A trade union family tree from Trade Union Ancestors

A partner site, Chartist Ancestors at <>, will be of interest to those with activist ancestors in the 1840s, and contains lists of names from newspapers, court records and petitions.

The Trades Union Congress Library Collections are deposited at the London Metropolitan University, and details will be found on its website at <>.

Next chapter: 10 The Armed Forces