Kristin Butcher

What jobs did your ancestors have?

A few years ago I wrote a book called Pharaohs and Foot Soldiers (Annick Press) about 100 jobs people did in Ancient Egypt. It was mind-boggling to learn about the various ways people earned a living.

Certainly there were the usual fishermen, dentists, and bakers, but there were also unique occupations such as sandal bearer, grinder girl, and mourner.

So it is that as I work on my family tree, I take particular notice of the occupations and professions of my ancestors. Over the years, the family has seen many farmers and carpenters, a few weavers, a doctor, pharmacist, photographer, butcher, and a few seamstresses, as I would have expected, but there are several more obscure jobs as well, including some that have become obsolete.

My great-grandmother worked in a London factory as a button maker in the late 19th century. Using dies, male workers cut the buttons from sheets of metal. It was the job of the female employees to file smooth and polish them. Employees toiled in dark factories, 12-16 hours a day, six days a week for a pittance.

In the 1850s, my second great-grandfather worked in a Suffolk factory as a stationary engineer. He was likely responsible for greasing machinery and keeping it operating, a position similar to today’s mechanic. Around the same time, my 3rd great-grandfather was a fruiterer or greengrocer—that is he sold fruits and vegetables. Another relative held two jobs simultaneously. He was a publican, which meant he ran a public house/pub/inn. His other job was as a chandler—a maker of candles and soap.

In the early 18th century, one of my ancestors was a cow keeper and a gardener. Today we would call him a farmer. Upon his death, his farming operation, including 34 milk and in-calf cows, a bull, 3 heifers, 3 calves, 8 goats, a pig and some poultry, as well as 4 wagons, the crop in the field, and various farm implements was auctioned off. He did not own the land.

My family also included a whitesmith, which is similar to a blacksmith, except a whitesmith works with tin. There were several generations of confectioners too. How wonderful it must have been to be born into a family of candy makers.

Two of the most interesting occupations belonged to my 4th great-grandfather, who was born in 1777. In his younger years, he worked as a shipbreaker, which means he demolished ships for disposal and parts. It was a dangerous line of work, so it’s little wonder he abandoned the job and entered a 7-year apprenticeship to become a skinner, a tradesman who prepares hides for clothing, leather goods, etc. During his career, he himself took on apprentices, including his own sons who, in turn, trained their sons in the trade.

What jobs did your ancestors have? If you need them explained, check out this website: Obscure Old English Census Occupations

Campbell River Genealogy Society