Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Occupational Records

If our aim is to portray a rounded picture of the lives of our ancestors, then researching occupational records is a must.  

You may find records relating to an ancestor's working life in your local archive centre, though a lot does depend on the particular type of employment.  Here are some examples from England and Scotland  that I have come across in the course of my research. :

ARCHITECTS - A Dictionary of Scottish Architects is  a database providing detailed biographical information and job lists for all architects known to have worked in Scotland during the period 1840-1980, whether as principals, assistants or apprentices.  A "must consult" item if this is your ancestor's background.

Being a COUNCILLOR   might seem rather dull,  but Scottish Burgh and County Council  Minute Books, which go back to the mid 17th century,  give a full description of local affairs and council discussions and can reveal interesting sidelines,  such as the councillor in the 1880's who was petitioning in support of woman's suffrage, long before it was close to becoming a reality. 
Most  of us can count farmers, shepherds, hinds (farm servant or ploughman), carters and  ag. labs amongst our ancestors, but how to find out more about their lives?  Realistically records on individuals  are likely to focus on  landed gentry and tenant farmers, rather than their workers.  I live in a rural region and my archive centre has a wealth of information that can provide background on estates,  and life in agricultural communities.  For example:
  • Advertisements of sale of stock 
  • Auction Mart records
  • Drawings of farm machinery
  • Field name surveys
  • Farmers' Club & Pastoral Societies - members lists and minute books
  • Individual farm records - day books, account books etc. 
  • Postcards of farms and farm workers - with an image below of "bondagers"  from my local community heritage group Auld Earlston 
  • Valuation Roll showing owners, tenants & occupiers of property - very useful in indicating the size of farms & estate, and the type of workers employed. 

Bondagers were female farm workers in south east Scotland and Northumberland.   As part of their husband's contract (or bond) with the farmer, he would undertake to  provide another worker (usually his wife) to help as and when  required. They wore a distinctive dress with bonnet, described as the last remaining peasant costume in Britain.
One of the most significant farming collections held at my local Archive Centre. the Heritage Hub, Hawick,   belongs to the Border Union Agricultural Society, with material dating from 1813,  when the Society was formed.   Included are minute books,  subscription books,  letter books, financial paper and lists of prize winners at the annual show which remains a major event in the local calendar today.  

Here is a record showing that A. S Pringle won prizes in 1876 in the class of "Implements of Husbandry"  for "a self acting horse rake" and "a turnip topping and tailing machine".

MARINERS -   I used the enquiry service of Tyne and Wear Archives who provided me  information on the life of my husband's ancestor, Robert Donaldson   (1801-1876),  a master mariner of South Shields.  “A Dictionary of Tyne Sailing Ships:  a record of merchant sailing ships owned, registered and built at the Port of Tyne 1830-1930”, compiled by Richrd Key  is a complete A-Z of Ships, master mariners and owners, detailing ships, voyages, disasters and share-ownerships, and much more - an indispensable for anyone with maritime ancestors in this region.

The entries make fascinating reading, with all six ships on which Robert Donaldson sailed, having an eventful history and coming to a sad end (though not under his charge).  

Lloyds Captain's' Register provided information on the ships under the command of another mariner ancestor, Matthew Iley White.  His journeys took him to the North Sea ports of Belgium and Holland, to Spain & Portugal, the Mediterranean, Black Sea, Adriatic Sea,and north to the Baltic and the Gulf of Finland.   

[Above right - another ancestral master mariner - John Moffet of South Shields]

MINERS   - my husband's Armitage and Hibbert ancestors were miners in Yorkshire, Derbyshire and County Durham, where the  history of mines, mining and miners  is well documented on the Internet.

The website www.scottishmining.co.uk provided detailed  information when I was researching the Spowart family of Fife.   

An early insight into life in mining areas was given by Robert Franks in his report to the Children's Employment Commission in 1842 who commented  "The domestic condition of the collier population presents a deplorable picture of filth and poverty" .   

He conducted interviews with children including 15 year old Helen Spowart who  was described as  a “putter”, with the task of propelling   a loaded coal-hutch from the coal-face to the pit-bottom by means of a series of shoves or pushes.

The report noted "Began to work in mines when nine years old and has done ever since. Helen added  "It is very coarse, heavy, cloughty work, and I get enough of it, as am never able to do muckle after hours from the fatigue".

POLICEMEN & PRISONERS  -  if your ancestor was a constable or even  on the other side  of the law, police records are a great resource and include mug shot photos of criminals, lists of prisoners, plus constable registers with personal details including a description, service record,  next of kin and family etc.

A long-held family story recollected a lost photograph of a relative in a top hat serving in the River Tyne Police. A silver uniform button (left)  was still held by the family. Tyne & Wear Archives provided some answers, finding that not only Henry,  but also his older brother Matthew Iley White,  were members of the river police force – both with rather a chequered history.

The Nominal Roll of the Tyne River Police showed that Henry, a single man, joined 9th January 1882.  By the time of his promotion seven months later in July, he was married.  The Police Defaulters Book recorded his misconduct for "assaulting a seaman A. W. Hanson and other irregularities on 11th June 1889"  Henry was fined 2/6 and transferred to Walker Division at his own expense.  The Nominal Roll of 1904 noted his age as 42 and that he had 22 years of service, with a wage of 29/6. 

With three of my Danson ancestors working as POSTMEN,  I  upgraded my Ancestry subscription, so I could access their Post Office Records.   All I got was a name, date of appointment and place, so I can't really say it added anything to my family story. Also if you are looking for a popular local name, it will be difficult to confirm which is "your" entry.  Still we all consult records in hope of finding something worthwhile!

TEACHERS  -   School Records are the place to look - with Log Books recording daily  school life, and School Board Minute Books and Education Committee Minute Books recording appointments - and dismissals!   Here is an example from a school log book: 

1873 - At Glenholm, Peeblesshire, a school inspector reported "This small school was taught by Mr Grieve in an intelligent, painstaking and efficient manner". We would all love to find such a  testimonial on an ancestor.  

 Archive image courtesy of the Heritage Hub, Hawick 

Occupation Records are  a fascinating example of how family history can take you in so many diverse directions.  So many of these records are not available online, and the message is -  search the online  catalogue of the Archive Centre relevant to your research,  and use their enquiry service if you cannot visit it.

Good luck with your research! 



  1. I love the Scottish Mining website. References I found on that site have led to a lot of other discoveries. I do have some Scottish farmers so will be looking into the resources you mentioned. Thanks!

  2. Sue,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2015/09/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-september.html

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  3. You're so right about occupational records and understanding our ancestors, Sue. Love the photos, too.

  4. Thank you for taking the time to comment - much appreciated.

  5. This is such valuable information! Thank you so much. My newest post for sept. 27, 2015 will be about occupations somewhat, so this was very enlightening for me! I will use these resources for sure! Helen

  6. Thank you for the ideas on where to look to flesh out my ancestor through his occupation. I wanted to let you know that this post is included in my NoteWorthy Reads #22: http://jahcmft.blogspot.com/2015/10/noteworthy-reads-22.html Enjoy your weekend!


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