Oh, the times when it happens. A fresh breakthrough when searching the records leads you to a result for your ancestor. Momentary delight is rapidly displaced by a sinking feeling of puzzlement as the scrawled handwriting reveals an occupational term which is a complete mystery to you. Such frustration.
There’s been a lot said in genealogy talks, books and articles about particular occupations, including many how-to guides targeted at specific industries or roles. Once you have a rough idea of the materials someone worked with, or the service they provided, it can be fairly straightforward to find out more. Yet very little is said about how to deal with those mysterious occupations which offer few clues about the industry involved or what the role entailed. When this happens, where do you even start?
So whether you’re being egged on by egglers (which, by the way, is simply a man who sells eggs), perplexed by a pop man (a type of home-working pawnshop owner) or bamboozled by a bullwhacker (that’s a drover of oxen to you and me), I have some suggestions which might help you…
Where & When: the Guiding Questions
Yes, there are plenty of occupational dictionaries out there (I’ll get to those later), but they can’t ever provide all the answers. As with so much of our source work in genealogy, at first sight of an unfamiliar occupation our initial question needs to be: WHERE and WHEN did this happen? These two elements help us to delve into context, select resources and tailor a search strategy in a sensible, and hopefully productive, way. Later on, after identifying the job, you can branch out and explore role-specific resources (which, depending on the era and place, might include records of apprenticeships, worshipful companies & guilds, union activities such as strike registers, and targeted how-to guides).
In the image below I’ve gathered a smattering of resources to help you along the early stages of that mystery occupation path. The green band includes some general pointers, whilst the blue and yellow bands focus on how to direct your search for rural and urban settings respectively. I’ll stress that this is a generalised approach and one diagram can’t capture all the nuances of historical jobs (for starters, urban occupations definitely existed before the 19th century!). My aim with this schematic is to offer some simple suggestions which will assist with a decent percentage of unfamiliar terms.
Adapting your approach to the appropriate time and place will make your search much more efficient. The schematic above suggests a possible route through: first, always determine the WHERE and WHEN of the occupation in question. Irrespective of location or era, the green route shown in the schematic above lists general resources which may be of use for identifying historical occupations over the past few centuries. I’ll be examining these in more depth here in Part 1, while my urban (yellow) and rural (blue) strategies will follow in Parts 2 & 3.
Why is local context crucial to understanding an unfamiliar job?
- The same job can adopt different names in different parts of the country;
- Whether a settlement is rural or urban will determine the direction of attack on an unknown occupation. Rural occupations are more likely to involve agricultural or craft roles, whilst urban settlements (particularly during or after the Industrial Revolution) feature a larger number of jobs in industry, manufacturing and commerce. Further searches will need to be tailored accordingly.
Why is time context crucial to understanding an unfamiliar job?
- Occupations could evolve over time: the requirements of a job might change from one century to another, so you need to seek out sources which provide relevant interpretations based on the time period;
- An occupation might adopt different names over time;
- The types of jobs available, and the strength of different employment sectors within the population, also evolved over time.
For instance, if you’re trying to identify an unusual job for a rural-dwelling ancestor in the 16th century, then a tailored search through craft and agricultural resources is likely to prove more fruitful than relying upon urban-centred glossaries from the 1800s.
Although occupational dictionaries come in handy, they don’t have all the answers and you can identify historic jobs using a variety of records (many of which will leave you more knowledgeable about the role in question, too). In addition, you need the tremendous trinity of occupational research: Lingo, Archives & Scholarship.
- Lingo: use specialist glossaries to immerse yourself in the local language;
- Archives: explore diverse resources in physical and digital archives;
- Scholarship: tap into academic knowledge through a range of websites & specialist search engines.
If a job was worth doing, then this is an indication that, however poorly paid the role, its function and output held some sort of value for the local community – whether this took the form of a service rendered or an item made. If you can understand that local context, you’re part way towards understanding how the role interlaced with the needs and lives of local residents. For example, what industries or crafts dominate in the area of the country you’re studying?
Following the England & Wales census of 1851, a map was drawn up to show the industries which dominated various regions. Entitled Distribution of the Occupations of the People, its depiction includes industries such as silk and ribbon manufacture around Coventry, flax and sailcloth making in Cumbria, and hemp and worsted near Great Yarmouth (you can download a high-res version of the map from TNA’s post on Flickr). But whether you turn to occupational maps or written resources, identifying the major industries or services of local economies can assist with educated guesswork as to where to begin searching for an unfamiliar job title.
1. Learn the Lingo
Language isn’t static. Part of its beauty is its continual evolution to continue meeting the needs of the people who speak or write it. As occupations become obsolete, the terms relating to them are used less, until they fall out of use completely and fade from collective memory. If you’re going to interpret that mystery job title correctly, you need to step into the language of the right time period.
Baffling archaic terms in historical records might lead us to assume that we’re only puzzled because we’re so far removed in time from our era of study. Yet many occupational terms were specific to a locality and even contemporary understanding could be limited to those who lived in the community where these jobs existed.
An appreciation for the local dialect can be instrumental in correctly interpreting historical records – and not just where occupations are concerned. Attune yourself to local naming conventions as soon as possible when you step into a new place. For this, you’re going to need dialect dictionaries and regional glossaries, many of which can be found online.
Your new best friend: the English Dialect Dictionary
The English Dialect Dictionary (EDD) was compiled by Joseph Wright, a philologist, and Elizabeth Mary Wright, a linguist, at the end of the 19th century and saw its initial volumes (six in total) published privately in 1898 – 1905. Although you’re not guaranteed to find every term you look for, it has a pretty impressive scope and you may find yourself using it for all sorts of archaic, unfamiliar terms in your research. Digital surrogates of all six volumes are available on the Internet Archive, but I’d recommend using the fully-digitised version of the EDD compiled by Prof. Manfred Markus of Universität Innsbruck. The tool has an easy-to-use interface and is by far the fastest way to navigate the EDD; you can also refine your search results by county, region or country and by timespan.
I’ve included an example of the EDD entry for CODGER in the images below (digital surrogate & fully digitised version) so you can compare the two. Did you know that this term can describe a shoemaker or (especially when in Derbyshire) a saddler? Furthermore, you may find it written as coager in Devon, coajer in Devon or Cornwall, or cawzer/cozier in Gloucestershire. Handy information to have if you’re trawling through pages of parish records written in unfamiliar handwriting!
Historical occupations are rife with instances of synonyms for the same job. If you’ve ever turned up clothes-making ancestors, then you may well have encountered a gorer, who was responsible for cutting out the shaped pieces of fabric used in making a corset. This rather changes if you’re in Lancashire though, where the term is not gorer, but fanner: two very different terms for exactly the same role. So when you’re trying to understand an historical job title, be on your guard for potential differences in regional naming. Conversely, you can have one job title which means completely different things in different regions of the country.
Recall, though, that we said era is important. If you’re researching individuals in the 17th century, then you may not find the term you’re looking for in the late-19th century EDD. Earlier dictionaries are available, although you should approach the particularly early examples with a critical eye, as some early titles are not always the most reliable.
If you’d like to learn more about early dictionaries (Robert Cawdrey’s 1604 effort is considered the first English-language instance) then take a look at some of the suggestions from the team behind the Oxford English Dictionary. The Lexilogos site offers a clickable list of dictionaries to help you with the early-modern period – including John Kersey’s 1708 Dictionarium Anglo-Brittanicum.
Find Industry-Specific Glossaries
Later on, once you know which industry your ancestor worked in, you may be able to locate a specific glossary for that industry and locality. This can be particularly valuable in large industries such as textiles and mining, which were active in multiple areas of the country and frequently developed their own local vocabulary. The 1888 Glossary of Terms in the Coal Mining Trade of Northumberland and Durham is a case in point. From the entry for barrowman (part of which is shown below), we learn that this role is also referred to as a putter, is typically carried out by a younger man in his late teens or early twenties, and is “usually paid from 11d. to 15d. per score of 6 tons, put an average distance of 80 yards with 1d. extra per score for every additional 20 yards.”
2. Rummage in the Archives
Archives are a superb place to search for archaic occupations, because they house so many of the extant records which feature these terms! It doesn’t hurt to go to the online catalogue for the relevant local archive (or a regional or national archive) and type in the name of that baffling occupation.
Imagine you wanted to know about the historical work of flint-knappers (this involved the shaping of flint, originally for arrow heads, later for flint-lock pistols). The image above indicates that a quick search on Discovery, the catalogue for the UK National Archives, yields 12 results – one held at TNA, and another 11 at other archives, including the Museum of English Rural Life, Suffolk Record Office and the Historic England Archive. Sometimes you’ll be able to access digital resources directly; but if not, you now know of several locations where relevant information is held and where archivists or local history societies may be able to enlighten you.
But if you try searching newspaper collections online, you’ll uncover some fantastic explanations of the role – and within a local context too. Take this article from 1890 (shown right) about The Flint Knappers of Brandon, part of the British Newspaper Archive collection at FindMyPast. If you were trying to understand what flint knapping involved, this article is a brilliant lead. Not only does it describe the processes involved in the daily work of flint knapping, it also provides detail of the different grades and sizes of flint (singe, horse-pistol, all the way to “best musket”) and hints at the progression of the role from arrow-head making through to the pistol-flint making which was common for the era. Newspapers provide some superb leads when investigating unfamiliar occupations, so I’d advise putting these high on your priority list if you are working in a relevant time period.
While we’re on the subject of archives, always investigate whether your ancestor left a will. Prior to the creation of the Principal Probate Registry in 1858, the proving of wills involved a sometimes dizzying network of ecclesiastical courts; such wills may survive in local record offices. Wills may state the testator’s occupation in the opening lines, and although they won’t offer a direct definition or explanation of your forebear’s occupation, the rest of the document might include clues to the materials or places associated with their trade or profession. Bequests of specific tools may suggest what their work entailed, or at least hint at the relevant industry. Mention of relevant buildings or legatees may also build up a picture of their professional network.
3. Dive Into Academic Literature
Jobs influence our lives in a multitude of ways: pay levels which determine our standard of living; risks to our physical or mental health; where we live or even the arrangement of our homes. These “job imprints” were true of our forebears too. If a job had an impact upon housing, health or wealth, chances are that an academic has studied it at some point. Although many academic publications still lie behind obstructive paywalls, there are a number of sites where you can (legally) access the literature.
JSTOR (shown above) is one of the best places to start. It operates under both free and paid-for models and a free account permits you 100 article views per calendar month. It’s one of my go-to sites for historical research and will quickly become an essential part of your research process once you register and start using it!
As far as internet searching is concerned, a standard search on Google (or your preferred search engine) will often not provide a conclusive identification when you’re working with obsolete occupations. If you’re delving into the research literature, try using Google Scholar instead. This literature-specific search engine will link you to academic papers, some of which may be open access. As far as extended reading (or searching!) is involved, don’t forget to use Google Books, which has lots of free, full-text reading. Above I’ve shown you an example search for the term chape filer (a smaller-scale metalworker who made buckles, metal loops and the protective endpieces for scabbards).
The image below is a book result discovered via Google Books, searching for the term gongfarmer (which you might know as a night soil man if you’re researching in the late-18th century or beyond: the man tasked with the unenviable job of emptying your earth closet when it got full). Although this job does actually turn up in a “regular” search, the results from the specialised Google services provide more extensive information – and usually have a closer relationship with original records.
This extract from the churchwarden’s accounts of St. Mary Woolnoth from 1577 details the payment of 27 shillings and sixpence to the local gongfarmer for emptying the contents of William Charley’s privy (all 15 tonnes of it – what a grim prospect!), in addition to covering payment for foure pounds of candells…for two nights. Not only is this giving us a sense of the basic job, it also hints at the nocturnal timing of the work. The messy and smelly task of the gongfarmer was often strictly regulated; they were required to work only during night-time and could be fined if they failed to comply, or if they left any mess on the parish roads. Brooke and Hallen’s comments about the term goldfinder being a corruption of gongfarmer can’t be taken as a certainty, but is worth slating for further investigation.
And Also…Invest in an Occupational Dictionary
Although these are generally our first port of call when we see an unfamiliar occupation, I’ve left them until last in this round-up, mainly because it’s best not to get into the habit of relying solely on a single magical look-up source to save us. And returning to what I said earlier – about occupations being a reflection of the needs of the local community which they serve – quick look-ups in isolation may cause us to forget to consider the broader context we’re dealing with.
Don’t get me wrong – a good occupational dictionary is a superb resource, and I’d definitely recommend investing in one if you haven’t already. Incorporate them into your research process, just not at the expense of interrogating a job’s role within the wider community, and always consider whether local dialect may influence the terminology. Dictionary definitions are typically brief and designed to give you a rough idea of the type of work involved, but may not have space to go into detail about the specialisms within the discipline, or to indicate how the role changed over the centuries.
If you’re interested in a hard-copy occupational dictionary, I can recommend the 1999 work A Dictionary of Old Trades, Titles and Occupations by Colin Waters (as shown above). It contains around 4,000 to 5,000 entries ranging from the medieval era through to the 19th century. For understanding late-19th and early 20th century employment, the 1927 Dictionary of Occupational Terms (associated with the 1921 Census of England and Wales) is invaluable. I’ll talk more about that in Part 2 of this article series, when I’ll be outlining strategies and resources for 19th century research and beyond!
Serifabers, Skelpers & Sucksmiths Galore…
Hopefully those disgerbigators (haymakers) and cockfounders (not as rude as it sounds – just someone who makes cocks for taps) won’t get the better of you in future. Remember, if an unfamiliar occupation strikes, try starting with my “green band” approach of Lingo, Archives & Scholarship. If those don’t leave you any the wiser, you’ll need to delve into other resources more specific to either a rural or urban setting.
Remember: occupations aren’t just a passing identifier we use to separate our ancestor out from his or her namesakes. They can be the key to opening up a kaleidoscope of life details, helping us to understand the twists and turns of our forebears’ lives, reflected in the footprint they and their fellow workers left behind in all manner of records.
Come and join me here at The Parchment Rustler next week for Part 2, when I’ll be exploring urban-specific aids for uncovering the weird and wonderful occupations of those city-dwelling ancestors of yours.