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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 ($).

Professional Associations

The unique features of a profession is the qualifying organization (Prest), and its nature as a national occupational monopoly which continues to flourish in the 21st century. This is not to say that there was no-one performing these functions before the advent of an association—there were, and they cannot be relegated to non-professional status.

It was previously thought that professions before the industrial revolution were largely gentlemens’ occupations developed either within the church or the craft guilds, and that a major shift to a meritocracy occurred during the industrial revolution. This view seems to have been based on data limited to the most successful practitioners in the higher social strata (Prest). It is now considered that the 14th-17th professions straddled several social strata within a broad middle class, and that an earlier and more gradual evolution occurred with scientific, social and economic advancement to include systematic training and examination of potential professionals. Prest (The Professions in Early Modern England. Croom Helm, London. FHL book FHL book 942 U2p, 1987) provides an erudite historical approach to the development of the professions. A professional occupation was not necessarily a full-time one, and would usually be undertaken until incapacity or death rather than until retirement. The records are dealt with under the sections on the individual professions.

Trade Unions

A trade union is an organized association of workmen of a trade formed for protection and promotion of common interests. The beginnings can be seen in the craft societies which developed in England in the mid- and late 18th century to bargain for wage increases against a background of steeply rising prices. Reference is made earlier in the course to the first such group, the Brushmakers’ Society, formed in 1747. Unfortunately the late 18th century ones occurred at the same time as the French Revolution was making the aristocracy of England nervous about the preservation of the status quo.

Over-reaction secured the passage of the 1799 Combination Act which had a backlash effect of stimulating rather than preventing trade unionism. Craft societies, such as the spinning workers, wanted to prevent the use of blacklegs in a turn-out, control the supply of apprentices, and ensure a closed shop for the employment only of relatives and friends, and in 1810 demanded equal wages from all employers. In 1818 the first attempt to set up a general union of trades was made, and by 1824 the Combination Laws had been repealed.

Now that trade unions were legal there was a renewed impetus in the movement but it was intensely resisted by employers. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported in 1834 for trying to get a decent wage for agricultural labourers. The struggles continued throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries; even by the 1880s very few workers were protected by a trade union. Casual and unskilled workers, women and shop assistants had to wait until well into the 20th century. My own grandfather got his cards (was fired) many times for attempting to organize grocery trade assistants in the 1910s and 1920s. The emergence of the Labour Party in 1923 was closely tied to the development of trade unionism. Good synopses of this vast subject area can be found in Browne (The Rise of British Trade Unions 1825-1914. Longman. FHL book 942 U2bh, 1984), Fowler (Sources for Labour History. Labour Heritage, Richmond, Surrey.  FHL book 942 N43f, 1991), Hey (The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History. Oxford University Press., 1996), and Andrew Wood (Our Industrious Forebears. Family Tree Magazine Vol 18 #11, page 55-57).

Records of trade unions, their paid and voluntary organizers and members, can be most helpful for tracing men and women who have left little other documentation. Early member’s records, from the 1830s, typically show name, age, occupation and name of employing company. Towards the end of the 19th century some begin to show movement from place to place, either as transfers from one branch to another, or migration abroad. The trade society provided sick pay, pensions, funeral expenses and most of all it was the only place where a person could get out-of-work benefits. Naturally full records existed of contributions and benefits for the person and his dependants, to the delight of the family historian!

Many, but not all, national records have found a home at the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick. Bennett and Storey (Trade Union and Related Records. University of Warwick, 1991) have a list and introduction to what they have, and Storey (Records of the Working Man. Genealogists’ Magazine Vol 20 #1, page 5-10) presented selections of typical records. Others are still with the union, and many have been lost. Many union branch records are still held locally or have been deposited in local archives.


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

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