England Occupations, Commercial Services, General Labourers (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Commercial Service[edit | edit source]

Auctioning[edit | edit source]

The role of the auctioneer has been hilariously depicted by Brownrigg (The Auctioneer in Portraits of the English Vol V: Working Lives edited and published by COLLINS, Audrey. 1999-1. Original published by Robert Tyas, London, 1840).

Cleaning Services[edit | edit source]

Charring and Laundering[edit | edit source]

Two staple occupations which provided income for married and widowed women were charring (house or office cleaning), and washing and ironing other people’s dirty linen. It is probable that the participation of women in the paid work force has been much under-reported, for example many, if not most, married women do not have occupations stated on the censuses. Malcolmson (English Laundresses: A Social History, 1850-1930. University of Illinois Press, Urbana. FHL book 942 U2mp, 1986) has written a most intriguing book on the social history of English laundresses during the period 1850-1930 and describes the methods used before the use of soaps, as well as the commercial processes. Laundering could have been a life work, but was often resorted to as a temporary source of income in times of adversity. Mechanization came late to the laundry trade, so most of the work was hard manual labour, with census entries such as washerwoman, or keeps a mangle usually indicating a home-based job or sometimes working for a large household. Small unmechanized workshops, known as hand laundries, still constituted almost three-quarters of the commercial establishments in 1901. Mechanized laundries first started in the 1860s and rapid development of large steam laundries and factory laundries developed only after 1890, and first in the cities with large public and private institutions or large numbers of temporary residents such as spa, seaside and university towns.

Chimney Sweeping[edit | edit source]

The development of chimneys to facilitate the escape of smoke from fireplaces brought with it the need to regularly clean them of accumulated soot. This job was relegated to the lowest servants, along with the cleaning of the garderobe (toilet). The problem was exacerbated upon the introduction of coal, usually termed sea-coal as it came by sea from Newcastle, and the commercial sweep had plenty of work. The trade was notorious for taking workhouse foundlings and orphans, the smaller the better, as apprentices where they were subjected to horrific conditions climbing up inside chimneys to scrape off the soot and tar. The sweep machine, a round brush on a jointed, elongated, flexible handle was invented in the very early 19th century, but was not adopted widely until much later, as employment of sweeping lads (and some lassies) was far cheaper. From 1773 reformers, including Jonas Hanway, Charles Dickens’ (in Oliver Twist), and Charles Kingsley (in The Water Babies) had tried to stop the abuse of these poor children but it was not until 1875 that Lord Shaftesbury’s Act eliminating the use of sweeping boys was passed (Trevelyan). Goddard (Sweeps. Family Tree Magazine. Vol 7 #7, 1991) has presented a brief social history of home heating and an interesting discussion of the life of sweeps and sweeping boys.

While there was usually a male who was the main sweeper, children as young as 4 years old were regularly employed as sweeps. That was because the job often required someone to actually climb up the chimney, past bends and branches, to remove particularly stubborn residues. All of this climbing and scraping of knees and toes resulted in painful callouses. Inhaling the dust and smoke was terrible for the lungs of these persons, and life expectancy was often less than 40 years.

Smaller sweeps were the most sought-after, so many were deliberately underfed to stunt their growth. Most of the young helpers had outgrown the profession by the age of 10. Some poor children became stuck in the chimneys or were unwilling to make the climb, and anecdotal evidence suggests their bosses might light a fire underneath to inspire the poor mite to find their way out at the top of the chimney.

Fortunately, an 1840 law passed by Parliament made it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to climb and clean a chimney, though some unscrupulous fellows still continued the practice.

Crossing Sweeping[edit | edit source]

In the days of horse traffic in the cities but inadequate public cleansing the person who acquired a broom and swept a path for ladies and gentlemen to cross the street without soiling their clothes and shoes could make a few pennies. Mayhew (Mayhew’s London, [a condensation of volumes I-III of London Labour and the London Poor]. Bracken Books, London. FHL book 942.1/L1 E6m, 1861) allocates 30 pages to the old and young, male and female crossing sweepers and their activities.

This was an occupation that really didn’t have a salary attached to it. Aggressive children, as young as 6 years old, would lay claim to a street crossing as their own patch, in the richer neighborhoods. When the gentry wished to alight from a carriage, the child would quickly walk in front of them, and sweep the detritus from their path, ensuring that the patron’s shoes and clothes were kept clean. If he was lucky, he would get a small coin for his services. The gentry quickly learned that if no coin was given, there was the great likelihood that the urchin would deliberately sweep muck on them the next time he saw them! The streets in these times were both mud-soaked, and piled high with the droppings of the horses. The child was constantly dodging between carriages and omnibuses, while attempting to ply his work, and it was not uncommon for a child to be maimed or, indeed, killed, if he was not quick enough to move.


Lace cleaning and mending[edit | edit source]

Amongst the many specialized services, this one catered to fashionable 19th century ladies who wore a phenomenal amount of expensive lace and passed it down as heirlooms. An article on home and commercial cleaning methods was published by Given (Victorian Lace Cleaners. Family Tree Magazine Vol 7 #6, 1991).

General Labourers[edit | edit source]

A subject about which very little has been written, especially for the family historian. Mayhew (Mayhew’s London, [a condensation of volumes I-III of London Labour and the London Poor]. Bracken Books, London. FHL book942.1/L1 E6m, 1861) deals with several types of unskilled labourers in the London docks such as coal heavers, ballast getters and lumpers.

Hairdressing and Wigmaking[edit | edit source]

The old-fashioned hairdresser not only cut and styled ladies’ and gentlemen’s hair but also made wigs and braids, and usually did shaving as well. Perukes, also known as periwigs (later shortened to wigs), were worn by the upper classes but not by working people as they were both expensive and cumbersome. Elizabeth I wore a wig but this adornment did not become fashionable in England until the mid-17th century and started to go into a demise after the French Revolution (1789) and upon the introduction of the hair powder tax in 1795. Hair powder, used to whiten women’s hair or the white men’s and women’s wigs first introduced in 1710, was made from wheat and the scarcity of that commodity in 1799 further reduced the popularity of the wig. The best-paid part of the trade was wigmaking, and full wigs, shorter styles such as tie-wigs, are still worn by members of the legal profession. Given runs an index of perukemakers and has written about the trade (Old Occupations: Perukemakers. Family Tree Magazine Vol 13 #3, page 3-4, 1997).

Keeping Lodgers[edit | edit source]

A classic method of supplementing family income was to take in lodgers and the census divides them into boarders who ate with the family, and lodgers who catered for themselves. In the 19th century the term lodgings came to mean rooms rented by migrant or unmarried workers in industrial towns (Hey). Mayhew (Mayhew’s London, [a condensation of volumes I-III of London Labour and the London Poor]. Bracken Books, London. FHL book 942.1/L1 E6m, 1861) has an excellent description of the common lodging house, a nightly dormitory for the very poor.

Painters and Paperers[edit | edit source]

House painters and decorators often combined these occupations with those of oil and colour merchant, plumber and glazier. There was a Painter Stainers company in London (Englefield, Arnold and Ingram), which attracted apprentices from the provinces (Surry).

Porters[edit | edit source]

Thousands of porters were employed at the great trading centres, markets, docks, and railway stations. There were several different organizations regulating porters of various kinds in London, and these men would have been freemen of the city. Alien Porters were porters of aliens’ goods employed by the city packer responsible for collecting various duties on aliens’ imports. Fellowship Porters were also known as the Billingsgate Porters or the Coal, Corn and Salt Porters and they had a monopoly in the porterage of measurable goods from 1605-1894 when they were wound up. There were usually only 12 Tackle House Porters and they were actually the porterage contractors of the 12 Great Livery Companies. They employed Street or Ticket Porters to carry goods at the waterside tacklehouses. Membership lists exist for 1604, and 1673-1869. Wine Porters belonged to the Vintners Company. Aldous recommends Stern’s work on The Porters of London. Porters’ licences exist for many markets for periods in the 19th-20th centuries

Vermin Control[edit | edit source]

The rat catcher was formerly a very necessary service man who would be called upon to rid warehouses, barns or homes of infestations. However there was also a good market for live rats for the blood sport against dogs or ferrets, and the delicacy of rat pie graced many a poor table (Cuffley). A ratcatcher earned more than a labourer and Mayhew (1861) tells us about some experiences with this trade in London. Other vermin, for example moles, were valuable for their skins.

Telecommunications[edit | edit source]

Chaloner (People and Industries. Frank Cass, London. FHL book 942 U3ch, 1963) has summarized the first 130 years of telecommunications history and anyone with telegraphists, telephone engineers, telephonists and those in the radio and television industry would find this useful background reading. There are some Shire books on old gramophones and other talking machines (Bergonzi), old radio sets (Hill), old telephones and old television (Emmerson). British Telecom has extensive archives with indexes that can be used by the public.

Undertaking[edit | edit source]

The elaborate rituals of the Victorian funeral are splendidly depicted by May (The Victorian Undertaker, 1996), and Jerrold (The Undertaker in Portraits of the English Vol V: Working Lives edited and published by COLLINS, Audrey. 1999-1. Original published by Robert Tyas, London, 1840).


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com 

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