Working Record of History
Byline: MARTIN RIGBY
ONE of the most fascinating aspects of family history research is discovering how our ancestors filled their daily lives.
Many lived and worked in conditions which today we can barely understand - particularly the urban poor of the 19th century.
If you trace your ancestors back to say the 18th century you will find most of them will have had some connection with the land, working either as farmers or the generic 'ag labs' (agricultural labourers) referred to in the later census records. Others may have been wheelwrights, game-keepers, carters, blacksmiths, shoemakers or servants to the many landed gentry and lesser squires.
But as you come to records in the 19th century and the industrial revolution, there is a gradual change in occupations. The rural poor, attracted to the industries in the growing urban centres saw a chance to improve their lot.
However, in many cases the working classes found life very tough. Long hours in the cotton mills and factories coupled with unsanitary conditions in their homes, made for a miserable existence.
In Liverpool the problems were compounded by the influx of thousands of Irishmen and women driven by hunger to search for a new life abroad. Here, as in other developing cities, infant mortality was high and life expectancy short.
Parish registers are a good source for discovering your ancestors' occupations. Many are quite detailed and enable you to build up a family just from the references to the occupation of a particular person. For example, one of my ancestors was a Thomas Rigby who lived in Rainhill around 1730. He was described as a 'shoemaker' in his children's baptismal records. As he was the only 'Thomas Rigby, shoemaker' listed in the records at that time I was able to build up a list of his children quite easily.
Wills are also a very good source for discovering occupations. Many early wills refer to a testator as a 'yeoman' i.e. an owner of land. But even people with very lowly occupations made wills and a growing number can now be accessed on-line (see panel). …