Most of a person's life between birth and death is spent in the workplace, and this generally determines how and where a person lives.
People's occupations or job titles constantly surface in written records, be they birth, marriage or death certificates, census returns, directories, parish registers or wills. Some jobs are now obsolete or have changed their meaning over time. Look in your local library for books about trades and occupations. You can discover at the Family Record Centre how occupations and professions were grouped by census officers in Instructions to the clerks employed in classifying the occupations and ages of the people, issued in 1881 and other decadal census years.
Here is only a small selection of the rich variety of sources you can trawl in our records to discover more about how your ancestors earned their living and what sort of working conditions they endured.
For more information about social and economic conditions of working people, see the local history chapter 5: Working lives.
If your ancestor was in trade, a craftsman or professional person, the chances are that he or she would have been an apprentice. The 1563 Statute of Apprentices forbade anyone to practise a trade or craft without first undergoing a period of apprenticeship. This usually lasted seven or eight years, commencing at the age of 12 or 14, unless sponsored by a parish or charity, when it might begin much earlier, and continuing until 21 or marriage. The terms of apprenticeship contracts were written up in documents called indentures.
There is no central register of formal indentures of apprenticeship, setting out the terms agreed between the two parties (the parent or guardian of the young person concerned, and the master agreeing to take him or her on). These were private documents and rarely survive, unless details were extracted and written down in registers of a local guild or livery company to which the master belonged, by the public or private charity, company, business or parish as parties to them. A large collection of such private indentures may be examined in the library of the Society of Genealogists. If you are not a member you will have to pay a search fee.
'Poor Law' apprentices were pauper children who lived on the charity of the parish and were sent out to employers to learn a trade and cease to be a financial burden on the local community. Most of them were sent as domestic servants to private homes or as labourers to farms or large estates, though boys were also sent into the navy as cabin boys, into the army as drummer boys, or out to the colonies.
In 1710 stamp duty became payable on the premium (sum of money) paid for or on the estimated money value of the apprenticeship, which generally included housing, feeding and clothing as well as training. The only exceptions from duty were apprenticeships set up by public charity or parishes. The Commissioners of Stamps in London kept registers of payments of duty, based on sixpence in the pound for premiums of £50 or less, or a shilling in the pound for premiums exceeding this. The money was due from the master no later than a year after the apprenticeship term was over, and records of payment dates, as well as brief summaries of the indentures, 1710-1811, when the levy was abolished, are in series IR 1. Duty was paid either in London, recorded in City (Town) Registers, or to an appointed local agent, and entered in Country Registers, and these include Scotland. The City Registers show that masters came from all over the country to London to have their copy of the indentures stamped. We hold personal name indexes to both masters and apprentices, 1710-74, the registers themselves are arranged in date order.
These volumes are a goldmine for family historians, because they indicate where and approximately when an apprentice might have been born, give the names of a parent or guardian before 1752 whose parish of residence might be the birthplace, and the named masters might well be relatives or people originating from the same place, whose wills or own family histories might provide important clues to your own family's background and connections. Where no other evidence of a person's work exists, or you want to know where someone came from, the Registers may hold the key to their career as an apprentice and master, and to their migration.