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Wednesday, 5 September 2018

On the Job - A Look at Occupational Records: 52 Ancestors - Wk. 36

Work was a major part of our ancestors' lives, with long hours the norm.  So the more we can find out about their working life, the greater the rounded picture we bring to a family  history.   

If you are lucky, 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 of sources  I have come across in the course of my research in the north of England and Scotland.  

    Mill Workers at Rhymer's Mill. Earlston, Berwickshire - early 1900's 
Photograph: Courtesy of the Auld Earlston Group
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 consul" item if this is your ancestor's background.

Being a  COUNCILLOR   might seem rather  a dull local government role,  but the 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. 


FARMING  - Most  of us must count farmers, shepherds, hinds, 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 survey 
  • 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 a carter from my local community heritage group Auld Earlston.  
  • Valuation rolls which show the owners,  occupiers  and tenants of farm cottages.

 A carter - in the collection of the Auld Earlston Group

One of the most significant collections held at my local Archive Centre  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".   

Image courtesy of the Heritage Hub, Hawick

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 Richard 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 Mitterrand, 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]

The Scottish Borders is noted for its knitwear and tweed textile industry. It can be difficult  to trace records on individual workers on the floor.  But you may be able to find background information on the owners/managers, products made, old adverts and photographs.
Rhymer's Mill in Earlston, Berwickshire, Scottish Borders.  The mainstay of the village's economic life for 200 years until its closure in the 1960s.  Photograph from the Auld Earlston Collection.
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, though I have not traced anything on family members.

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 descriptions, 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 that had could online.    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.  

 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.

Occupation Records are  a fascinating example of how family history can take you in so many diverse directions. 


This week's prompt from "52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks"  is Work

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks 


  1. Great research tool on your blog...wish I lived in your neck of the woods ~ Sharon

  2. I have many many miners in County Durham too! The Durham Mining Museum has a great website at http://www.dmm.org.uk/mindex.htm that includes a ton of info. Kind of an 'old' looking site but the info is there! Enjoyed reading your post, great collection of resources.
    Sue (KindredPast.com)

  3. Thanks for sharing! I don't know much about the occupations of my family when they still lived in England. You've inspired me to do a little more digging! I'm guessing they were farmers, but you never know!

  4. Thank you all, for your comments. We might not find the name of individual ancestors, but occupational records are invaluable in giving us a picture of what life was like for them. Yes, Sue, I too have found useful the the Durham Mining Museum site for my husban’s Hibbert ancestors from South Shields.

  5. Great post! I often see "farmer" as the occupation for many of my ancestors, but I don't know what they farmed. I found agriculture census records for family in Kansas a while ago which lists acres owned, cattle, and so forth. That may be some of the best clues I've found yet for my family of farmers, that and a probate record out of Franklin County, KS.

  6. An interesting collection of occupations... Sue, I really love the pairing of "policemen and prisoners".. made me smile. I must revisit my lot, as I have found many more occupations since I first wrote about occupations many years ago.

  7. Thank you, Karenlee and Crissouli, for your comments. I think delving into the occupations of our ancestors can be an absorbing sideline. I watched a TV programme last night on the development of the great plains of America and it gave a stark reminder of the huge challenges that faced settlers farming there - climate, pestilence, accidents, illness etc.


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