Have You Got Yourself an Occupation?

Do you know what cordwainers did for a living? Or coopers, or maltsters, or ostlers? I didn’t. They were, respectively, shoemakers, barrel-makers, grain selectors and horse handlers.

Do you know what it meant to be a journeyman? It did not mean travelling, as I first thought. It was the stage of a trade or craft where a man, and it was always a man in the 1800s, had passed his apprenticeship but was not yet a Guild approved Master and employer.

In the eighteen months that I’ve been researching family history, I have waded through too many census records, wedding certificates, and baptism registers – always fascinated by the occupations. Farmers, surgeons, butchers, and bakers are not hard to picture, but I have needed to investigate the lithographers, numerators, overlookers, drapers, glaziers, milliners, and watermen.

One ancestor listed his occupation as a ‘clergyman without the care of souls.’ At first glance, I thought he was indifferent to his congregation, but this meant that he was a school principal, rather than a Sunday sermon maker. Another ancestor was a plumber in the early 1800s. I discovered that this entailed, most likely, installing lead roofing or setting lead frames for windows.

I have noticed that people did useful things. They all deserved a seat on the last rocket off the planet. So far, I haven’t encountered any influencers, affiliate marketers, or lifestyle coaches. People tended to stick to professions or trades for the term of their working life. It is rare to see people changing occupations across the census records and their constancy makes it easier to trace them.

Most women in my family tree worked for all their lives. One female ancestor was raising six boys as a widow. While working as a silk weaver, her four-year-old son toddled into the River Stour in Sudbury, Suffolk, and drowned. I know this from a coroner’s report.  

It’s clear that not everyone had their nose to the grindstone, however. My favourite description of a young woman’s career was ascribed to one Catherine Cudney – no relation of mine. In 1881, her exasperated father, as head of the household, wrote in the occupation column, ‘Does as she pleases.’ 

I have rarely seen the word ‘retired’ in the 1800s. I have seen the term ‘living on his, or her own means’ and ‘gentleman.’ If someone was poor, they might be described as ‘living on the parish,’ but it becomes clear that you were lucky to reach the age to worry about retirement. With diseases like TB on the rampage, you first had to survive a deadly game of skittles. There were no hip and knee replacements, and no stents or pacemakers or by-pass operations.

Insurance agents made a good living, because almost everyone had life insurance. There was a dreadful stigma in being ‘buried by the parish.’ The poorest of families paid their funeral policies. Life insurance started as soon as a new baby was born, when parents would take out something called a ‘penny policy’. Agents made it their business to know about local newborns and would do their utmost to get the business ahead of other agents. An infant did well back then to survive to the age of two. There was a good chance a newborn would be needing a funeral.

I have wondered whether my ancestors, including the insurance agent, maltster, silk weaver, and the clergyman without the care of souls, enjoyed their work. Today I hear younger people telling me that they are waiting to find their passion. I suspect the words ‘passion’ and ‘meaningful work’ were not bandied around much in the 1800s.

We live in such fortunate times. One of my grandmothers used to say, ‘you don’t know you’re born.’ I have searched her family tree – and she was right.

2 thoughts on “Have You Got Yourself an Occupation?”

  1. This gives such perspective.
    Interesting that a clergyman principal didn’t see his students as ‘souls to be cared for’? Maybe that duty was confined to the clergyman delivering the sermon.
    I am also amazed how poor families would put money aside for someone’s funeral rather than spend it on something they needed while alive!

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