Posted by on 3 September 2010 in Record Collections


Were your ancestors wealthy doctors and dentists? Or did they scratch out a living as labourers and servants? Perhaps they helped to kick-start the Industrial Revolution, working on our nation’s railways?

Whether we like it or not, our jobs play a huge part in our lives, and it was the same for our ancestors. If you know what your great-grandfather did for a living, you can get a good idea of how he spent the vast majority of his waking hours.

Besides that, an occupation will suggest how well-off your relative was, and therefore imply the kind of luxuries, or otherwise, they might have enjoyed. Pinpoint a trade at a particular point in history, and you can even deduce whether your forebear was involved in crucial events, such as the 19th-century Luddite movement or the preparations for war a century later – all this from a single piece of information. 

So how do you go about discovering a forebear’s job? It’s actually very easy, using our records. Census returns, birth, marriage and death certificates include occupations as matter of course. Then, if you want to discover more about a trade, we have a host of more specific collections to help you. You can find out more about all of these on our dedicated Occupations page.

Once you’ve uncovered all you can, take the time to read up on what the job entailed, either online or at your local library. It’ll help you gain a far greater understanding of your ancestors’ lives.

I’m keen to provide more help and advice on this blog. So it would be great to hear whether you find this kind of article helpful – and what else you’d like to see. Let me know in the comments below.


Ray Fairwood 

I found your blog interesting and a useful spur to look into the occuptaions of my family tree members.
Thanks, Ray

4 September 2010 at 7:42 am
David Phillips 

I imagine that many of us begin with trying to build a simple family tree: we soon realise that it isn’t that simple because go back four generations and you have perhaps 100+ individuals and a whole lexicon of family names… This certainly happened to me. After quite a short time, though, I became side-tracked by the sometimes oblique references to people’s jobs and places of residence. In particular my 2x great grandmother on my paternal side was down on the Census in 1891 as an ‘acoucheuse’ ??? Likewise a 2x great grandfather on my maternal side was involved in what today would be called recycling textiles (rag and bone man?). Fascinating stuff. And of course like everyone else one of the family drove the Flying Scotsman!

6 September 2010 at 4:11 pm

David: “Accoucheuse” most likely refers to the French word for midwife.

6 September 2010 at 4:49 pm

The old occupations can be fascinating and often give a really good insight into how a persons family has faired over the years. I recently found someone on a marriage certificate discribed as a ‘Chinaman’ but he turned out to have been a dealer in Bone China!

However, I think the most interesting professions that I have come across in my tree were two brothers who were professional Tilters (or Jousters) at the courts of Queen Elizabeth I and of King James I. The elder brother later was a profession Soldier, an Actor and for a time owner of the Globe Theatre.

This contrasts with a number of others who were ‘Straw Plaiters’, preparing the straw for other to making into Straw Hats. This was a subject I knew little about and, just as the article says, it was easy and interesting to reseach.

10 September 2010 at 3:57 pm