Dishevelled and worn down by life, the old man trudges through the streets, inspecting the floor for the slightest hint of dog’s mess he can collect for his pail. Once the bucket is full, he will make for the local tannery to sell the contents for the highest price he can obtain. If this work goes well and he can collect enough “pure”, perhaps the tanner will give him eightpence – maybe even a shilling – enough to pay for a couple of nights in a lodging-house and some small food. Earlier generations had seen street-collecting work left mostly to female bunters (rag-gatherers), but this being the 19th century, the pure-finder has emerged as a distinct job, and with far more men amongst their ranks: a collector of dog mess for onward sale, living cheek-by-jowl alongside the bone-grubbers and bunters who make their living repurposing refuse from the streets.
Avid readers of the social reformers and writers of the Victorian age may recognise the figure of the pure-finder – an occupation which sounds repellent to us now (and was doubtlessly unpleasant for those who did it) but nonetheless occupied its own niche in the society of the time. Pure-finders had their purpose: not only did they help to keep the streets clean(er), but tanneries needed “pure” to rub into leather during the softening stage of the tanning process. But how do we even know about pure-finders, bone-grubbers and bunters? And are there any specific resources which can help us in understanding 19th century jobs in particular?
Discovering 19th Century Occupations
Last week we looked at general resources for deciphering unfamiliar occupational terms. No matter what the job though, context is vital and every unfamiliar occupational term should have us asking: when and where did this happen?
Any occupation which persisted in a particular place for any length of time did so because its output – whether a service or a physical object – had value to the wider community. The pure-finder we just met is a good example of this, performing the dual functions of street cleaner and supplier to the leather industry. Some such services or products (and the associated jobs) might have been short-lived, but thanks to authors, social reformers and physicians who set their recollections down on paper, and the thriving print trade of the era, we’re blessed with quite a few resources to help us understand the 19th century world of work.
If you’re trying to dig down into what a particular job was, then you can follow more tailored resources depending on the where (urban/rural) and when (before, during or after the 1800s). Today I’ll be looking at resources and strategies you can use for 19th & 20th century occupations: the yellow band of materials on our Action Plan above.
So if you’re after late Georgian, Victorian, or Edwardian occupational knowledge, have you thought of delving into some 19th century careers guidance, perusing the writings of social observers and campaigners, paying attention to clues in the census, or (metaphorically) peeking into the Victorian mortuary? Join me now for a romp through the wonderful resources which the 19th and early 20th centuries have to offer.
Let’s get started by jumping into that mainstay of every family historian’s arsenal: the census…
1. Scrutinise Census Codes & Occupation Lists
If you’re feeling baffled by a job title, then the census is possibly your biggest foothold into interpreting occupations from the 19th century and beyond – and in fact it’s the place where many of us meet an unusual job for the first time. Broadly speaking, each household completed a census return, which the local enumerator collected and transcribed into an enumeration book (until 1911, when original household returns were used without being separately transcribed). Ultimately these enumeration books were destined for centralised analysis so that the Registrar-General’s office could gather data about the ages, birthplaces and occupations of the population.
How can you make the most of census clues when researching occupations?
- Particularly when using the 1911 Census, identify the occupational codes annotated onto enumeration books by the census clerks;
- Observe any word annotations next to the occupational term;
- Delve into the occupational classification lists which were compiled to help census clerks interpret job titles when the centralised returns were being analysed.
Be curious about annotations…
If you’ve worked a lot with the 1911 Census, then you’ll be particularly familiar with the numerical codes which clerks wrote next to job titles.
- The first number (in or near the occupation column) indicates the code for that particular job class;
- If you see a second number (in the Industry column to the right), it indicates the code for the relevant industry.
Refer to the 1911 occupational codes list available on FindMyPast to understand the classification (occupational classification codes were also used in the background in previous censuses, but don’t often appear as annotations on the enumerators’ returns). Attention to these codes can suggest an industry-specific search direction.
No codes visible? Don’t worry. If working with earlier censuses, you may see clerks’ annotations across the page of an enumeration book, where a word or phrase was added as they classified a particular occupation. The example above from the 1851 Census shows Ann and Emily Deeks, two clearstarchers whose jobs have been annotated as “Laundress” by the clerk. Make the most of these clues!
…and think like a census clerk!
No single individual could have possibly understood each of the thousands of occupational titles which appeared in the census, particularly if they weren’t familiar with the local industries or language of a particular enumeration district. So the clerks tasked with interpreting the centralised returns needed advice on how to classify each of the occupational terms they met. This generated a wealth of supporting literature, ranging from memoranda to occupational dictionaries and classification lists, which were periodically updated to keep pace with the changing occupational landscape. These documents can be useful for genealogists in modern day, who, like those clerks of yesteryear, just want to understand what a particular job title means or the industry it sits in.
The best place to find occupational advice for census clerks is on Histpop (although their server capacity is very limited, so you may have to try refreshing the page a few times on occasion), where you can browse supporting literature by census year. The documents you’ll want are the ones with titles auch as Instructions to the clerks employed in classifying the occupations and ages of the people, which continue into a classified list of occupations.
Take the example above from the 1871 census. 17 year old William Porter is a Philosophical Instrument Maker. Clearly this involves some kind of manufacturing, but what exactly is a philosophical instrument? Now as it happens, you could follow my advice from Part 1 and discover via JSTOR that it’s an archaic term for a piece of apparatus used to conduct scientific experiments, used by the gentlemen “natural philosophers” during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Alternatively, we could use census clerk’s documents to help us. The 1871 document Instructions to the clerks employed in classifying the occupations and ages of the people on Histpop includes a section for Philosophical Instrument Makers (shown below). This listing includes opticians, microscope makers and mathematical instrument makers, suggesting that precision glass grinding and some degree of metalwork was required in the job.
Anchoring ourselves in the census and paying attention to codes and other annotations can help us to understand the industry or line of work our ancestor was in. But stepping away from the census now, what other resources can help us to understand 19th and 20th century occupations?
2. Immerse Yourself in the Era
Social commentators and campaigners responded to the urbanisation of the 19th century with a multitude of writings, observing the menial and often unpleasant jobs which abounded in the most densely populated areas of the country. Often concerned with chronicling urban poverty and deprivation, these works can provide rich insights into your city-dwelling ancestors who lived on the breadline. The best-known social writings include interviews and anecdotal evidence for the jobs they featured, sometimes even details of typical pay. If the context of your research suggests you have an impoverished, city-dwelling working-class ancestor, then social writings may hold the key to interpreting an unfamiliar occupation or exploring their likely working conditions.
Amongst the social observers of the age, Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor is one of the most famous: two million words, delving into the multitude of working-class lives across England’s capital city (yes, including pure-finders too). Originally written as an extended series of newspaper articles during the 1840s, the pieces were ultimately collated into a three-volume set in 1851 (access Vol.1, Vol.2 & Vol.3 free online at Project Gutenberg) followed by the fourth and final volume concerning prostitutes, thieves and beggars, in 1861 (access Vol. 4 here). From dog restorers to tan-turf sellers, garret masters to lumpers, London Labour is a fantastic source of all sorts of information about the conditions and attitudes of the urban poor, particularly those in long-lost service industries or reliant on casual labour.
Mayhew frequently reports the verbal exchanges he shared with the street-workers of London. Take, for instance, this quotation from his encounter with a garret master (a self-employed cabinet maker):
“I am 63,” the man said, and he looked 80, “and was apprenticed in my youth to the fancy cabinet trade. I could make 4l. 4s. a-week at it by working long hours when I was out of my time, forty-two years back. I have worked chiefly on workboxes. I didn’t save money—I was foolish; but it was a hard-living and a hard-drinking time. I’m sorry for it now. Thirty years ago things weren’t quite so good, but still very good; and so they were twenty years back. But since the slaughter-houses came in, men like me has been starving.”Mayhew, “London Labour and the London Poor”, Vol. 3 (serialised 1840s, published in bound form 1851)
Decades on from Mayhew, socialist journalist Adolphe Smith and photographer John Thomson produced Street Life in London over the period 1876-7. Circulating through the streets of the capital, Smith focused on poorer workers and intriguing characters in the community. You can download a free PDF copy of the entire volume from Street Life’s page at the London School of Economics, which also provides high-res versions of Thomson’s evocative photographs. These are striking vignettes of occupational and community life and the accompanying stories will help you to understand a variety of urban jobs, including street-doctors, public disinfectors, shoe blacks and flying dustmen.
Mayhew and Smith are far from the only social commentators of the 19th century, so use Google Books and the Internet Archive to explore other titles where you may uncover an explanation for that mystery occupation in front of you.
3. Peruse Books of Trades
Have you thought of taking a bit of 19th century careers advice to help you on your way to understanding the costs and tasks involved with your ancestor’s occupational life? Then you need to explore books of trades.
19th century parents had a range of publications to help them educate their children about the different jobs within society – and potentially assist in selecting a career path. These so-called books of trades are explanatory directories of key jobs of the time, typically including descriptions and illustrations.
They were primarily aimed at boys – I have yet to find a reference to female employment in these volumes – but they provide lots of practical information about the processes involved in each job and how to set up in a particular trade. These are particularly handy once you already know the industry or trade your ancestor was connected with. The authors of some such books clearly had aspirations of inspiring a new generation of innovators:
“A tradesman at work at his calling is sure to attract a crowd of idle boys; and the chances are that each gathers an idea, takes it home, ponders over it, and so gathers, perchance, the raw material of a Watt, a Newton, or a Stephenson…“Wylde, The Book of Trades: a Circle of the Arts and Manufactures, adapted for Schools, Colleges & Families (1866)
The titles are characteristically long winded but if you find the job you’re looking for, I don’t think you’ll object to a volume entitled The Complete Book of Trades: or the Parent’s Guide or Youth’s Instructor in the Choice of a Trade, Business or Profession (and believe me, that’s the short title), compiled by one Nathaniel Whittock in 1842. These fantastic volumes sometimes include details of typical apprenticeship fees and the typical sums required to set up in a given trade, as shown in the above image. Be aware that the methods of data collection could be highly variable (and involve multiple contributors to a volume) so are subject to error – treat these sources as you would any other archival resource.
Take for instance a fuller within the textile industry, which The Parent’s Guide describes as “an indispensable adjunct of the clothier’s trade…for wool could not be spun without being combed in oil; nor would it take the dye when woven, unless divested of the oil. This is the proper business of the Fuller; or, as he is provincially called, the Tucker.” Having covered the regional names for the role, the entry goes on to describe the materials and methods which the Fuller uses: useful information for the family historian trying to understand the demands and processes of an ancestor’s job. Whether or not these guides were well-received by 19th century children and their parents, they certainly provide some welcome insights in modern day.
4. Become a medical sleuth
Links between occupations and health had been acknowledged for many years, since the 17th century Italian physician Bernardino Ramazzini, the “father of occupational medicine,” published his 1700 work De Morbis Artificum Diatriba (“Treatise On Workers’ Diseases”). Despite this, it wasn’t until the 19th century that occupational medicine in Britain became more widespread, as increased industrialisation coupled with a growing population led to increased interest in the hazards of the workplace.
A series of Factory Acts over the course of the 1800s sought to regulate working hours and conditions within the nation’s factories. An initial focus on the textile industry later broadened its scope to address other industries. Just as one example, by the end of the 19th century the hazards of work with poisonous substances had been formally characterised and greater regulation introduced. The Factory & Workshop Act of 1895 required the formal reporting of all instances of lead, arsenic, mercury or phosphorus poisoning and anthrax infection within the workplace. Yet it’s the medical treatises which accompanied this social shift which can help us understand ancestral occupations.
In order to understand the hazards which workers were exposed to, physicians had to study many jobs to observe the processes, working conditions and the impact upon health. The resulting documents provide us with rich insights into what particular jobs entailed – an excellent, and I think very underused, resource which can help us to reconstruct a working life, understand how the job relates to our ancestor’s physical appearance, and potentially link a forebear’s cause of death on the death certificate to how they worked during their lifetime.
Perhaps the best-known and most comprehensive 19th century guide to occupational health is John Thomas Arlidge’s 1892 work, The Hygiene, Disease and Mortality of Occupations. Its in-depth assessment of jobs and their associated health risks spans the entire occupational spectrum, from clergyman’s sore throat (“an affection of the fauces and larynx…dependent on excess of speaking“) to the severe eczema, dust-based lung diseases and shortness of breath amongst flax workers, and the unpleasant sickness called brassmakers’ ague, caused by inhaling poisonous copper compounds during the brassmaking process. Even familiar jobs such as the blacksmith are included – the Arlidge extract shown above really helps us appreciate the physicality of the role.
In assessing workplace risks, Arlidge had to distinguish between different jobs within the manufacturing chain – this can really help the family historian wanting to distinguish between distinct occupations in the same industry. For instance, in his discussion of the leather industry we discover that the fellmonger “receives and prepares skins for the operations of the tanner“, whilst the chapter on brewing informs us that maltsters “are [only] concerned with the [raw] materials and not with [making] the liquor itself.“
Although Arlidge’s classification does not detail the truly obscure roles, it can help to clarify the kind of work your ancestor was involved with if you at least know the industry (remember how useful those occupational codes can be on the census!). On occasion, entries may also clear up confusion about similarly-named roles. Take for instance the entry shown above, for the Manchester Warehouseman. In assessing the physical and mental risks of the job, Arlidge has to explain what kind of work is involved, and as a result provides an insight into how the Manchester Warehouseman is an entirely different role from the warehousemen found elsewhere in the country.
Occupational medicine can provide us with all manner of insights into the processes and risks of a given job. Arlidge isn’t the only resource, either: try exploring the Wellcome Collection catalogue, which has a range of historical records relating to public and personal health issues, including the impact of jobs on workers’ health.
Medical sleuthing and looking at 19th century career guides might not be obvious places to start when trying to research 19th century occupations, but they’re a valuable source of information and can provide a completely fresh perspective on the kind of work your ancestor did. By anchoring ourselves in the census and using that to jump off into industry-specific resources, we can gain a much fuller picture of what each job entailed, how much it paid and the manner in which it shaped ancestral lives.
Occupations have a way of bleeding out from the working day into the rest of our lives, influencing where we live, our standard of living, and even how we die. They embody a web of links between a person and their local environment. Remember: jobs on records aren’t just useful as identifiers to separate someone from their namesake – they’re telling you how that individual related to their community, hinting at some pretty fundamental parts of their life. If we can embrace occupational research as part of the story, there can be some amazing insights out there, just waiting to be added to your family’s narrative.
Has an archaic craft occupation turned up in your research? Next time, I’ll conclude this three-part series with a look at craft and agricultural occupations, and how to understand the world of work as experienced by our rural ancestors.
Have you found these resources useful in researching occupations in your family tree? Please share your stories in the comments below.