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Occupations: archival sources

On 2 January 1880 Charles Wallinger, a fifty-five year old coachman and parish reading room librarian, opened a new household account book for his employer, Charles Longuet Higgins of Turvey Abbey. The volume, entitled Turvey Abbey Mens Book continued week by week, recording the wages of male servants, as well as tradesmens' bills and travelling expenses, never amounting to more than a few points. Occasional items included coals for the church, refreshments for the choir, reading room and museum expenses, slates for cottages and payments for killing vermin. Suddenly, in early March 1886, Wallinger's large round hand deteriorated into a shaky scrawl. On 19 March he was just able to complete three entries including his own wages for the week, one guinea. A note in a different hand followed: "This was added up by good Wallinger sitting up in bed, on the night of 31 March - he died peacefully on the following day, at noon 1st April R.I.P." [Ref: Z569/3].

This example shows how it is sometimes possible, using in this case census returns, directories and surviving account book, to find out more about the working life of one particular man or woman. On a broader level the book Tracing Your Ancestors in the Public Record Office (PRO handbook no. 19 by A. Bevan & A. Duncan. HMSO) is an invaluable guide to the sources for genealogical or biographical research of this kind. In this article we shall be looking at the sources available at Beds & Luton Archives & Records Service.

Early parish registers frequently give occupations, but this was at the whim of the clergyman concerned. It was only in 1812, when separate baptism registers were introduced under Rose's Act, that occupations were systematically recorded. Similar information was not provided in marriage entries until 1837 when the occupation of the bride and groom and their respective fathers was recorded. Nonconformist registers provide similar information to their Anglican counterparts.

Occupations are also given in the decennial census returns dating from 1841. Usually it is just a one word description, but sometimes the scale of a business or farming enterprise is revealed, especially in the later returns. For example, William Addington of Chawston farmed six hundred acres and employed 16 men and 4 boys in 1881. Printed directories, which date from 1785 until the mid-1970s, are also a useful source, although the coverage and level of detail can vary quite widely. These volumes tend to concentrate on the gentry, professions and tradesmen - the numerous farm labourers are not recorded.

What can the researcher consult beyond these basic courses in order to find out more? Wills, obviously left by only a small proportion of the population, can be of great interest for they sometimes give a person's stock-in-trade. In 1652 the Bedford doctor, Francis Bannester, left his grandson William Lane his "...Librarie and also the medecynes and druges with all the glasses vessells and utensills belonging to my shopp and allso my silver instruments pertaining to phisicke and chirugerie." [Ref: ABP/W1655/8]. The value of Bedfordshire wills as a source in a study of this kind is reduced by the loss of all but a handful of the probate inventories. Nevertheless, Bedfordshire wills are indexed by personal and place names and by occupations from the 1480s, when the series starts, until 1857, when local probate jurisdiction by archdeaconry courts was superseded by a centralised national system.

The general occupations index in the searchroom should not be neglected for references in title deeds and other documents are recorded. There is also a similar card index of occupations taken from the Quarter Sessions rolls which record criminal proceedings and other judicial business. You can of course Search Our Catalogues online for specific occupations.

Until comparatively recent agriculture was the main employer in the County and anyone researching the ubiquitous agricultural labourer may feel that there is little chance of finding out more. Owing to the uncertainties of employment and low wages agricultural labourers could be in work one year and paupers the next. For this reason they frequently feature in overseers' accounts in parish archives and also settlement papers. The laws of settlement involved a kind of internal passport system to prevent paupers moving from their home parishes and claiming poor relief elsewhere. Removal orders show how families were returned to their parishes of origin, while the examinations carried out to prove settlement often give complete potted career histories, and incidentally demonstrate the mobility of the workforce. A personal names index has been made of the poor law papers in parish archives, including settlement and apprenticeship records, and has been published jointly by Bedfordshire Family History Society and the Record Office [see Publications]. A similar index is in progress for Quarter Sessions and Poor Law Union records and is available on a card index in the searchroom. The overall survival rate of these records is probably under 10% but they are still dauntingly voluminous.

We mentioned apprenticeship records above, but of course parish and Poor Law Union records are not the only source. The section of the searchroom index, TRADE & INDUSTRY: apprentices, list all the records held locally as well as useful references to material held elsewhere. Among the most important sources are the enrolments of Bedford borough apprentices, 1615-1843 [Name indexed transcript at 130 BED], and the records of Harpur Trust apprenticeship, c1760-1856 [see HT8 catalogue]. The indentures give the name of the apprentice and sometimes their age, the name, occupation and abode of the master, the terms of the apprenticeship and often a standard code of behaviour to be followed on the part of the apprentice prohibiting dicing, fornication and the like.

Some occupations, particularly those involving the sale of perishable or dangerous goods or carrying the risk of criminal temptation, were open to increasing regulation from the eighteenth century. There was also a desire to raise revenue by issuing licences. Records of deputations to gamekeepers, 1767-1916, are held in Quarter Sessions records [Ref.QDD]. Under an Act of 1710 only one gamekeeper was allowed for any one manor at a time. In 1785 gamekeepers and game dealers were obliged to apply for a licence annually at Quarter Sessions, and from 1831 every person who took out a licence was allowed to kill game. The laws brought in some revenue, but if they were intended to restrict poaching they were largely ineffective. The deputations give the name of the applicant, his occupation and the date of the application.

Printing presses were also registered at Quarter Sessions under the Unlawful Societies Act, 1799, repealed in 1869 [Ref.QDPT]. The Quarter Sessions archives also contain records of people at opposite ends of the social spectrum, the police (registers 1840-c1871, Ref: QES8-9, giving dates of joining and dismissal and details of disciplinary offences and transfers) and the criminals in the gaol registers, 1799-1878 [Ref: QGV10-16]. The gaol registers give the fullest details of any of the sources, including occupations, complete personal details and physical descriptions of the prisoners (and in some cases photographs, see QGV10/4), together with remarks on general education as well as details of the offence and conviction. A database of these 17,000+ prisoners is available in the searchroom and will soon be available online. It is interesting to note that the police kept records of certificates granted to local and out-county pedlars, 1871-1891 [Refs: QER18-19] and chimney sweeps, 1876-1921.

The Petty Sessions minute books provide details of the transfer of public house licences from the 1830s [Ref.PS] , but by the late 1860s beerhouse keepers and vendors of fireworks, explosives, petroleum and game were also licensed. By the late nineteenth century the new Urban (UD catalogue) and Rural District Councils [Ref. RD catalogues] were responsible for licensing bake houses, slaughter houses, game dealers and vendors of perishable food, but the survival rate of records is not good. By contrast the records of Luton Borough contain quite a comprehensive series of similar records for the period, 1910-1939 [Refs: BorL/EH/1-8].

The records of local firms of solicitors contain the papers of their clients, many of whom were in business. The records, which mostly date from 1850 onwards, document the increasing rate of bankruptcies among farmers and associated occupations during the agricultural depression.

Lastly there are the surviving wage books and list occurring in business, farm, and estate archives, indexed under: LABOUR: Wages & Conditions and HOUSEHOLD: servants/household officials. Only a small quantity of records survive as in the days before national insurance and state pensions there was a tendency to destroy such records when they were no longer needed. The records of local Post Office staff for the Ampthill, Bedford and Sharnbrook districts, c1870-1930, stand out as particularly comprehensive [Ref: X378 catalogue].

Discipline at work was often harsh. The Wootton vestry minutes of 1832 record that "Any man working at the gravel pits detected smoking in the open air is not to be paid for that days work" [Ref: P3/8/1]. What a far cry from the respected career and lamented end of Charles Wallinger of Turvey Abbey in 1886.