Your Ancestors at Work

If you have an occupational surname then to some extent part of the story of one of your family members is informed by this name. This is because surnames did not come into being until after the Norman Conquest and if your name is Butcher or Baker you can be pretty certain that back then one of your male ancestors followed that calling.

Before the 11th century people were just known by a single name such as John or Thomas. Population growth and the the need for the Norman conquerors to identify people that their English feudal predecessors probably already knew well, meant that a surname was added after the French fashion.

In the ensuing few centuries the practice became more and more common. The introduction of Parish Registers in 1538 made the possession of a surname almost universal except in Wales where patronymic naming systems endured into the 1700s.

Work in a Rural Economy

Two medieval farm workers carrying some produce

Medieval Agricultural Workers

For almost all of British history, until well into the 20th century, most people were Agricultural Labourers employed to work on farms. They might have a multitude of skills such as ploughing, planting, weeding and managing stock and work animals, all of which were manual jobs carried out under instruction. They were flexible and mobile and their job title belies the skills and knowledge they had. The vast majority of the population worked on the land.

Those who did not directly work on the farms usually had occupations which supported and fed those workers that did. When these people came to take a surname, their craft, employment or calling was used to correctly identify them and their status and potential wealth when the Norman tax collector came calling.

Named After Your Occupation

The list of occupational surnames reads like the a survey of medieval job opportunities and gives an insight into the commonality of life in the mainly rural environment. The Smiths worked metal. It means to “smite with a hammer” and so it includes all those non-farming occupations such as goldsmith, shoesmith and sixsmith (sicklesmith).

A blacksmith at work

People were often named after their occupation

Blacksmiths primarily used iron, Brownsmiths brass and copper and Whitesmiths fashioned articles from tin which gave the name to tinkers who sold and repaired pots and pans. All were Smiths, that is to say metal workers. Whether they were the most populous workers other than Agricultural Labourers or just the most prolific breeders is debatable, but their occupational surname has long been the most common.

The Smiths were metal workers and their equivalent workers and shapers of wood were known as Wrights. The word Wright comes from the Old English word ‘wryhta’ or ‘wyrhta’, meaning a worker or shaper of wood. It came to be attached to any construction in wood such as Wainwright for a person who made wains or wagons and also included other workers such as wheelwrights and shipwrights.

The tradesmen that these low tech manufacturers supplied with tools and equipment were skilled artisans such as Thatchers, and Carpenters.

Secrets of the Trade

As time went by sons who inherited surnames did not follow the same calling as their fathers had. Smiths became wrights and Thatchers took up carpentry. These specialist craftsmen sought to protect their skills and secrets so that they might better make a living from their specialisations. They formed guilds to oversee the practice of their craft in a particular area. Their main concerns were the economic interests of their members, the upholding of standards of quality of the goods and services their members provided and the furtherance of the civic and political aims of their members.

There were guilds of weavers, dyers, and fullers in the wool trade and of masons and architects in the building trade; and there were guilds of painters, smiths, bakers, butchers, leather workers and soap makers amongst others.
Each guild created records which reflect what they believed was important. They are by no means standard and require expert interpretation. They can shed light on facets of a member’s life that might otherwise have gone unnoticed and are often well worth the hard work interpreting them.

Amongst these records you may find not just a list of guild members, but also lists of family members, birth records and correspondence about the competence of workers and letters of recommendation and complaint. Some of the records were kept in order to prove that a child was the son of a guild member and this might lead to some social and economic advancement further down the line.

Guild records belong to the guilds which survive until today and some can be found in county and regional archives. Occupational records should always be searched in order to see what information they hold, especially if records of vital events are missing.

Guilds operated a system by which a master took on an apprentice for several years, usually seven, during which time he learnt the skills and “mysteries” of the trade. Once he became competent he was promoted to journeyman, during which time he might travel around searching for a master if his own could not take him on. He would work under this further guidance until he was skilful enough to produce a “master piece”. Only then could he become a master himself, open his own business. This system gave rise to a further series of records which are known as apprenticeship indentures.

Apprentice Records

Between 1710 and 1811 there was a duty imposed by Statute upon a master who took on an apprentice. This was collected by the county representative of the Commissioner of Stamps and entered into chronological ledgers by the clerks at the stamp office. The date in the register is the date that the money was paid. Notionally, this was up to one year after the apprenticeship was finished. It may though be some years after the apprenticeship started, not necessarily when it was begun or even when it was finished. The master paid six pence for every £1 he received for taking on the apprentice up to £50 and 1 shilling per pound thereafter.

A shoemaker and his apprentice working

A shoemaker and his apprentice

These indexes contain information on over half a million apprentices. Many more names are included for masters and parents. They are divided into City (London/Middlesex) and Country Indexes. About 20% are Scottish.

Up until 1752 the names of the child’s parents are included in the register but sadly, after this date this is rare. Otherwise they include the date when the sum was paid, how much, the name and address of the master, his trade and the name of the apprentice and when his articles were drawn up.

It is important to note that these records refer to private agreements between individuals and do not include parish apprentices who were bound by the Overseers of the Poor of a city or parish. There are other records, local, charitable and national that record those categories of apprentices. Nor are apprentices bound to the London Companies who have their own records at the Guildhall in London.

The Professions

As time and society progressed and became more sophisticated the number of occupations and professions increased also. Army lists began from 1702 and the Clergy List began in 1841.
Trade Directories were printed from the 17th century and these finding aids became more and more sophisticated as the 19th century progressed, eventually listing almost every occupation above the more transient labourers and servants. They were often combined with street directories, especially in the larger towns and cities so that they gave a name and address and occupation in a single listing.

Knowing a persons occupation could lead to actual career and training records for medical and military professionals and eventually the nurses and ordinary non-commissioned soldiers and sailors. You can find soldier’s attestation and pension records, naval personnel records and locate members of the the clergy in University Alumni.

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution brought still more new trades and occupations and these are recorded in Freemason’s records and lists of Trades Unions members and employees of large national institutions such as the police, the post office and the railway companies.

All of these institutions have left a huge and complex legacy of employment records which can be accessed with varying degrees of success by the genealogist. They should always be followed up whenever a certificate of birth, marriage or death or a census record mentions an occupation that may lead to a work record.