Top three ways to find out more about your ancestor's trade or occupation


29 January 2018
Discover more about your ancestor's working life with this guide to top three trade and occupation resources, from the Federation of Family History Societies (FFHS).

Discover more about your ancestor's working life with this guide to top three trade and occupation resources, from the Federation of Family History Societies (FFHS).

Understanding how our ancestors spent their working day can give us fascinating insights that greatly increase our understanding of their life and times. Clues to their occupations can come to light in a multitude of ways, as demonstrated with these four resources:

1. Family clues

You may be lucky enough to have possessions in your own family archive, such as certificates or photos. A picture of a forebear in a uniform could suggest a particular occupation. Do older family members know about the jobs relatives had? Perhaps they have heard about a business, craft or trade being passed down from father to son? They might also be able to tell you about the type of work local people did, which may open up a further avenue to research.

2. Certificates and documents

The next port of call is records such as census returns, and birth, death and marriage certificates. Between them, these usually listed current and former occupations. Victorian trade directories are an invaluable source of occupational data, listing everyone of interest in a settlement from brewers, couriers and farmers, to tailors, gentlemen and shopkeepers. Try and track down wills as well. An interesting route to take is newspapers. You might find an obituary giving you details of an individual's working life, for instance, or an advert mentioning the wares they had for sale.

3. Apprenticeship records

Apprentice records may bring to light a trade or craft that your ancestor had. The 'master' would train the child from the age of 7 (though many were older) and this would continue until the apprentice was 21. Girls as well as boys were apprenticed, usually learning how to become household servants. Children would be sponsored by their parents or the parish. If the parish paid, perhaps because the child was from the workhouse, then generally the apprenticeship was just to undertake menial work. The higher status apprenticeships, leading to a proper trade were usually those arranged by parents.

Once the fee was paid, the apprentice was 'indentured'. These indenture agreements can sometimes survive in the local record office and will tell you the name of the apprentice and the master, the trade or craft involved, the parishes of the parties involved and possibly some information on the circumstances of the apprentice, such as if they were orphaned or in the workhouse. 

There was a duty sometimes payable on apprentice indentures and Ancestry has a digitised record set that you can search: Register of Duties Paid for Apprentices' Indentures, 1710–1811. Findmypast also hosts a series of indexes of apprentices, often compiled by societies. Search its card index using the keyword 'apprentice' for more details.
The above text is extracted with permission from a blog on the FFHS newsletter. Sign up to receive more family history news and advice.
Image copyright Bain Collection, Library of Congress. Call no. LC-B2- 4048-5.