Discovering the skills of your ancestors
May 14 2010 By Paul Wilkins
Paul Wilkins looks at how to find out more about the work of your forbears
It is always interesting to discover the jobs our ancestors did and, in the process, chart the growth of trades in days gone by.
Why did Redditch become the centre of the pin trade? Why did Stourbridge become so involved with the glass industry? Why did Birmingham become known as the city of a thousand trades?
In the the next few weeks I will look at what records exist for our ancestors who worked in three major Birmingham industries – buttons, guns and chocolate.
Birmingham’s growth, reputation and prosperity was based upon many different industries.
And one of the best ways to discover what our ancestors did for a living is to look at the census records.
Once you have found that one of your ancestors was, for example, a gun maker, you need to establish whether he worked for himself or if he worked for someone else.
The first place you need to visit is Birmingham City Archives. It has a very good collection of trade directories going back to 1770. See if you can find that gun maker listed and if you can’t, it may be that he was working for someone else – then the search becomes more difficult.
If you order a birth, marriage or death certificate from 1837 onwards, you will find the occupation or trade of your ancestors listed.
The census is very useful in that occupations should be recorded fully in the census returns of 1841 to 1901. The returns for England, Wales and Scotland are available online. Parish registers will also list the occupation of our ancestors.
What we must realise is that the attitude to work was very different to the attitude today.
Up until the welfare state was introduced in 1945, people had to work for everything they had. When you look at the census you find many men and women working well into old age, and if you couldn’t work, you spent your last days in the workhouse. There was no state pension as this was only introduced in 1909. Life was hard.
We are all defined through our work and so were our ancestors.
A student of mine who works as a baker discovered one of his ancestors was a master baker too and felt a deep affinity. He believed his own path in life was in some way connected to this man.
I have heard of this phenomenon before, but can’t explain it. But for this student it answered a question.
Researching your family history can answer some important questions, but it can also raise some dilemmas.
Overall, it can be very interesting to find out the history of your family, but beware – it can be addictive.
* Paul Wilkins is the founder of www.Familyhistorydetectives.co.uk