The WDYTYA? 12-Week Family History Challenge: Week 11 – Occupation records

By Guest, 30 January 2017 - 4:03pm

In the penultimate stage of our 12-Week Challenge, Laura Berry reveals how occupational records can help you build up a vivid picture of your forebears' lives

  • Missed last week's guide? Click here to go back to Week 10: Parish registers
  • Download a free family tree chart to print and keep by clicking here

Your ancestor’s occupation can tell you a lot about their lifestyle and financial means, and occupation records help us to bring the names in our tree to life.

The types of records that you’ll be able to find will depend on the line of work that they were in. For example, if you’re researching a merchant seaman then you could find out which ships he sailed on and where he travelled to, whereas it will be more challenging to find surviving employment records for an agricultural labourer.

Nevertheless, books such as My Ancestor was an Agricultural Labourer by Ian Waller (2008) and Tracing Your Rural Ancestors by Jonathan Brown (2011) will give you a flavour of what their life was like and may lead to some sources hidden in the depths of an archive.

The Society of Genealogists’ series of My Ancestor Was… books, and Pen & Sword’s Tracing Your Ancestors series offer advice for finding occupation records for a wide range of industries, from leather workers to studio photographers and fishermen to canal workers. For a general overview, try my own book Discover Your Ancestors’ Occupations published by S&N Genealogy (2015).

It’s rare that a single record of service will exist for an individual, and it may be a case of pulling together a picture of their career using a variety of records like directories, staff registers and magazines, pension papers and so on.

Miners at the Furnace Pit in Lower Gornal, Dudley, take part in a Christmas Carol service below ground on 23 December 1954 (Photo: Keystone/Getty Images)

There’s a greater chance of locating a record for someone who was employed in public service, which is why it’s easier to find records for a miner employed by the National Coal Board after the nationalisation of the mines in 1947, than those employed by private mining companies.

Simply write to Iron Mountain Records Management, Rumer Hill Industrial Estate, Rumer Hill Road, Cannock, WS11 8EX to find the records of the NCB.

Records of some workers employed on the railways, in the coastguard, civil service, merchant navy, customs, the police, government positions, some teachers and a few other professions, are at The National Archives (TNA), including a number of apprenticeship registers.

Some of these collections have been digitised on partner sites, but the best place to begin a search is using the TNA A-Z subject guides, which will point you in the right direction.

The names of people who travelled to British India in search of work may be found in the India Office collections at the British Library, and there’s a finding aid for various positions from administrators to veterinary workers and writers available here.

The 1891-1911 censuses will indicate whether your ancestors worked for themselves or were employed by someone else

Specialist directories like the Law List, Medical Register, Medical Directory and Crockford’s Clerical Directory were published annually, listing names with biographical details about thousands of legal, medical and ecclesiastical workers.

The Post Office’s county trade directories include a commercial index, which is useful for identifying your ancestor’s business premises and finding adverts if they ran their own business.

There’s an excellent online collection of free trade directories to explore online at

The 1891-1911 censuses will indicate whether your ancestors worked for themselves or were employed, and the 1911 census records may even name the employer.

You can then attempt to find any surviving company records and their whereabouts by searching for the company name using the ‘Record creators’ tab on TNA's Discovery catalogue, and it’s worth running a search on the local archive’s online catalogue too.

Week 11 tasks

  • Double-check the 1891-1911 censuses for clues about your ancestor’s employment status.
  • Look at The National Archives’ A-Z index for research guides to see if there is one for your ancestor’s occupation.
  • Find out if a book has been written on the subject to help you find out more.
  • Establish whether the local archive is likely to hold any records for your ancestor’s occupation.


Next week...

In the final instalment of our 12-Week Challenge (Monday 6 February), Laura will show you how to connect with other researchers and become part of the family history community

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