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Article by Elizabeth Simpson in World Conference on Records, 1980

Born in England. Resides in Nottingham, England. Lecturer in family history. Adultand Further Education Centers for County Authorities, East Midlands Region. Writer,editor, genealogist.

How many people collect their ancestorslike bubble gum cards? With the definiteaim of "collecting the set," they happilyfill in the kind of pedigree forms whichhaunt some of us. To each is added thethree magic dates: "born, married,died," but they haven't ever wonderedwhat any of these people did to earn aliving while they were here on thisearth.

Put this another way. Imagine yourselfas an ancestor written up on one of theseforms. There will be your name andbeside it those three magic dates: theday you were born, the date you married,and the day you diednothing else atall. Is this really all the mark thatyou will make? Will none of yourdescendants care what life was actuallylike for you?

The occupation of the breadwinner of anyfamily governs the way that family lives.It always has and still does today. Youonly have to look around you to see ampleevidence of this fact. In your mind'seye, stand up two contrasting familieswhom you know well. Think of the occu­pation of the breadwinner of each ofthese families. Now think of theirhomes. How does each family live? Now think of their children. What is it likefor them simply to have been born intoeither of these families? If the child­ren of these families changed places, what difference would this maketo allof them? Remember to choose twocontrastingfamilies.

To a very large extent we are, each ofus, a product not just genetically of ourfather and mother, but of the place in society into which we were born and theenvironment in which we were raised, andthis "place in society" has a very real importance in the context of life inBritain. Add to this the opportunitieswhich life itself offers and each indi­vidual's own personal make up, and you have the progression from infant toadult. These are the "ifs" and "buts" oflife. We are all governed by them. Eachof us in our own time can either succeedor fail when it is our turn to choose.But the occupation of our parent orguardian will make all the difference inhow we start.

The study of occupations therefore is allimportant. Those three magic dates"born, married, died"beside an ances­tor's name tell us only the frameworkupon which his life was built. What did this person do during his life? How longdid he do it? How well did he do it?What did it mean to do it? These are thequestions we must ask if we are to have any real understanding.

So often we cannot explain why we docertain things. It seems we cannot help ourselves sometimes. As we were raised, we may have been told as an explanationof a particular action, "Your grandfatherused to screw his eyes up like that, turnhis left foot out, and get all worked upover nothing just like you do." We know now that these are genetic traits,because the science of genetics hasexplained all this for us.

But let us turn this around and say:"Knowing myself and how I react tocertain situations, then perhaps I know how my ancestors felt and reacted." Todo this properly we must put our ances­tors into the correct environment inwhich their occupations and time placedthem.

First of all then, how can we find outwhat each of our ancestors actually did?

Throughout the nineteenth century, occu­pations were given on civil certificates,that is, birth, marriage, and deathcertificates; on census returns; in tradedirectories, in newspapers, and probablyin a wide variety of family memorabilia.

To discover an occupation earlier than this, that is, before the nineteenth cen­tury, is a bit harder. Parish registers rarely give a complete description of an occupation, but even a hint can be help­ful. Other parish chest material isoften much more helpful. Settlement cer­tificates, examination orders, removals,militia returnsthese may all state aperson's occupation.

But knowledge of an occupation is onething; the understanding of it is quiteanother. Sometimes the description canbe unintelligible. Perhaps an olddialect word is used; perhaps the word nolonger exists, and we cannot even begin to work out what the job could have en­tailed. Sometimes we might jump entirelyto the wrong conclusion simply because wethink we know what the word means.

To give you an example; an advertisementfor a milkman in a Nottinghamshire news­paper dated May 1878 says, "Milkmanwanted, single, one used to milking,"meaning, of course, that he had to milk the cows, and be on his own, no wife or family living with him. An advertisementin one of today's papers beginning "Milk­man wanted. . . ." would require the applicant to be able to drive a motor vehicle. It is highly unlikely that themilkman of today will ever even see acow, much less be asked to milk one! But in both these cases the occupation isdescribed as "Milkman."

We can even extend this example to reachback to the first half of the nineteenthcentury and consider the milkman inLondonthen. Milk was sold in St. James Park, straight from the cow![1] The milk­manmilksellerto be more exactwas theservant of the cow keeper. He walked thecow to the park, set up a stand, and soldmilk by the cupful.

Here then we have three completely dif­ferent jobs, but all of them described as"Milkmen." In about 1825, the milkmansat in the park in London beside his cowand sold milk by the cupful. In 1878,about fifty years later, he was employedas a live-in servant to attend to thecows in a farm situation. One hundred years after that, he is now totallydivorced from the cow, driving around ina truck, delivering milk to the doorstepof his customers. (That is to say, inBritainhe does this.) Using only alittle imagination, one can easilypicture the family situation for each ofthese men engaged as milkmen in their owntime.

This is a two-way theme: a man is whathe does; he does what he does because ofwhere he is at the time. Variations on this theme are the result of his age, ability, opportunity, and time in his­tory, the government of the day, even bythe weather.

It is all too easy too fall into the trapof putting today's standards on yester­day's conditions, especially if the wordused to describe the job is still thesamelike the milkman for instance.

Let's take another exampleconverter.<u>[2</u>]Suppose that you had found "converter inH. M. dockyard" given as the occupationof an ancestor on a civil certificatedated 1856. Webster's dictionary definesconverter as "one that converts: as thefurnace used in the Bessemer process... or ... a device employing mech­anical rotation for changing electricalenergy from one form to another; also... a device for adapting a televisionreceiver to receive channels for which itwas not originally designed."

You are left now asking yourself what onearth this man could have been doing inthis dockyard in 1856. For a start youknow that he wasn't tuning his TV set to seme foreign station. You may spend some time wondering whether electricity couldhave been used in a dockyard in 1856,then stumble upon the fact that Sir HenryBessemer's converter was introduced intothe steel industry in 1856, and askyourself; "Did they actually make steelin a dockyard?"

What you have to understand here is thatthis word is being used in the context of1856. If you turn to the full Oxford English Dictionary,there you will find another definition: "One whose businessit is to 'convert' rough timber," toreduce it from the rough state to piecesof nearly the required shape and size.This is now more likely. Is a converterin a dockyard one who is working on roughtimber to produce planks? In otherwords, is he a sawyer? Now if they hadused that word to describe his job you may have understood right away.

Sometimes it might be necessary to goeven further than the full Oxford EnglishDictionaryto a dialect dictionary.

If you are lucky enough to find anancestor's occupation mentioned, then youshould spend some time working out what it meant. Books on specialist subjectsmight help a lot, as might books of fic­tional stories. The film industry and TVcompanies produce some very good examplesof what life might have been like aslived yesterdaywhenever "yesterday"was. The industry takes itself very seriously nowadays. Researchers areemployed specially to "get it right."

Basically there are two main kinds ofworkersthe man who works for himself,and the man who works for someone else.

In the first category we will find allthose who have managed, somehow, tocollect the wherewithal to work on theirown, be this a piece of land, a horse andcart, some tools, machinery or whatever.All kinds of tradesmen will come intothis category, too, and those who aredescribed as "masters": master bakers, master millers, master hatters, and soon. These will have reached a pinnacle of expertise; they will, if you like,have mastered their own trade and now bein a position to teach it to others.They will take on apprentices to train, and employ others to work for them.These are what we would call today the middle class, so you can reckon thattheir families lived comparatively betteroff than those of the workers in theother category, those who worked for themasters.

Let's have a look then at a few ofyesterday's jobs and try to understandfor ourselves what they meant within thecontext of the life of the family con­cerned. Let us remember though that con­ditions give rise to customs and customs dictate fashions. Let's take hats as ourfirst example:

Evidence of hat making can be foundthroughout history.[3] If you find an ancestor described as a "hatter," your first question is, when was he a hatter?

With all industries, the government ofthe day can yield an enormous control bytariffs and taxes. During the seven­teenth century, foreign-made hats beganto trickle into the United Kingdom. Thisdepressed the industry, so the governmentplaced a heavy tariff on these importedhats, pushing up their sale price. This boosted the home trade and made the jobof hatmaker more viable.

By the eighteenth century, the hat indus­try was booming and had even developed aflourishing export trade to the Conti­nent. Trade with Canada, then a part ofthe British Empire, was bringing the bestquality beaver skins to England. Amaster hat maker would probably employ eight to ten workers, who would work together in what was described as a"cottage industry." A small workshopwould be attached to his house, in thesame way as a dwelling house and shop areoften combined premises. Newspaperadvertisements during the nineteenthcentury often described combined premisesfor sale, for example, "dwelling house and hatter's workshop."

By the nineteenth century, the felt hattrade began to decline. Fashion was changing. The gentry now began to favorsilk hats, and the workingman chose thecloth cap. The occupation of hatter was,however, still there, but it was dif­ferent, for times and fashions hadchanged. So, depending on when yourancestor was a hatter, you can work outwhich type of hat he might have made.Unlike the milkman, the hatter is ahatter is a hatter. Where time canchange his job is in the kind of hat hemakes.

Another example of a master was haggler[4] aheavy carter, a man who probablyowned his own horse and cart, a cart ofenormous proportions and a big heavyhorse. This combination would cart heavyloads: building materials, bricks,timber, scaffolding, and, most likely ofall, stones direct from the quarry.While he and his horse were fit and able,they worked, and the money came in; butif either of them ailed, particularly thehorse, then times might be hard. Aboveall, the horse had to be kept fit. Itwas more important to find food for thehorse than for the man's family, for thelivelihood of them all depended on thehorseand second only to it, the goodrepair of the cart. Being the family ofa haggler could mean that life literallyrevolved around the horse and cart.

A carter<u>[5</u>] was similar to a haggler, but everything about him was smaller andperhaps cleaner, too. The carter mightwork with a pony and trap, even a donkey.Many carters worked carrying produce fromthe country into the towns on marketdays. Many stood outside auction houses,marketsanyplace where produce was being soldand then touted for business as thehome-going purchasers left. Sometimes acarter worked in conjunction with his wife, fitting her work in with his. Theyformed a team.

In parts of the country where there weremany large hotels or colleges orschoolsplaces where a lot of peopleused a lot of linenthen there was aneed for washer-women or laundresses.[6] Oxfordand Cambridge obviously were twosuch places. College washing was asteady business. If a woman lived withinreach of these colleges and her husbandhad a cart, then they could form abusiness partnership. You can find thesecouples listed in census returns fordistricts like thesehis occupation,carter; hers, laundress. At first sightthey look like two separate jobs, buttogether the couple formed a team. OnMonday he would take his cart into the town, hoping to have something to carrythere as he went. He would call at the college and collect the washing. Hiswife would then spend Tuesday, Wednesday,and Thursday washing, starching, andironing the linen. This she might haveto do against heavy odds: Suppose itwere simply pouring rain all week. She didn't have a washing machine remember!Suppose some of her children were ill. Just picture for a moment the clotheslinebreaking! Remember, she had to heat allher water in a big copper tub andprobably make her own soap! She had to work to the very highest standards, orshe could be quickly replaced by a rival.On Friday he would make the returnjourney, carrying the clean linen back tothe college in town. During the other days of the week the carter would workfor hire wherever he could and carryanything he could manage with his smallerteammarket produce, messages. Hemight even be asked to help people move.During the sunnier months he might hireout himself and his horse to help a localfarmer. Local newspapers would oftencarry advertisements from both cartersand laundresses: "Man and horse forhire." "Cart going to and from Oxfordeach week, able to carry small loads." "Laundry work wanted. Will collectMonday and return Friday."

If you look up the word carter in amodern dictionary, you will not be con­fused by the definition: "One who car­ries or conveys in a cart." But if youlook up the word haggler, you will run straight into difficulties.

Webster's says, "Haggle. . . .: to cut roughly or clumsily. ... to annoy or exhaust with wrangling." "Haggler. . .: one who haggles."

Chamber's gives: "Haggle—to cut unskillfully; to bargain contentiously or wranglingly."

These books would leave you with the impression that your haggler ancestor was either a clodhopping lumberman or a tiresome, price-arguing trader.

But if you use a dialect dictionary, the definition will be quite different.

Wright's Dialect Dictionary says: "Haggle-cart—a horse and cart let out on hire to do rough work or odd jobs." "Haggler—a haggle-cart owner."

Nobblers,[7] had another colorful occupa­tion. These were not men who "incapaci­tated a racehorse" (Webster's defini­tion), nor were they "men who cheated or swindled" (the Oxford English Dictionary definition). A nobbler was something be­tween a laborer and a quarrier. He had mastered the knack of cutting stone to produce the right shaped piece for the job. He was very good at dry stone wall­ing, for instance. There are a great many dry stone walls in Britain. They divide all those pocket-handkerchief-sized fields there. Some have stood for hundreds of years already. They are just stones placed one on top of the other in such a way that they will actually stay there. High winds, cattle scratching their hides, even carts accidently run­ning into them, do not easily dislodge them.

The nobbler was a man who usually worked alone, both for himself and by himself. He sorted the stones out actually on the job, especially when building dry stone walls. There are parts of Ireland where the fields are so stony, still, in spite of the miles and miles of dry stone walls snaking across the countryside, that you could still collect enough rough stone on the job to start building the walls over again!

Sometimes a man is an absentee bread­winner. Take the sailor, for instance. His children grow up "mother reared." This large, hairy, masculine creature will come and go intermittently through­out their lives. His huge presence will disrupt their tranquil, nurserylike life from time to time, and his going away again will allow them to fall back into the simple pattern of their life, which will now revolve around the arrival of another baby in their midst! This kind of household not only has to cope with the economic problems caused by the absence of its breadwinner, but also social family dilemmas. Lighthouse keepers are another group of workers who are more often away than at home. De­scendants of men of both these occupa­tions will try to explain to us how their young, formative years were different from those of the family living next door to them whose father was the local baker, for instance.

Brick making,[8] at the right time and in the right location, was a trade at which a man might prosper. But this prosperity was often almost entirely related to the speed at which he could produce these bricks. If something is being built, bricks are wanted now. Very few brick makers had property on which they could store vast loads of ready-made bricks. When the pressure was on, the brick maker's entire family worked alongside him. Look at the census returns, and see there a man described as a brick maker. His wife and many of his children will be described as "brick maker's laborers."

One of the stages of brick making was the pugging of the clay. This was a process by which the clay was thoroughly worked, until the mixture was smooth and even and pliable. To achieve this, the mass of clay was trodden: over and over again feet trudged and pounded the great mass. Small stones and pebbles, if left in the clay, would cause the brick to crack as it dried. So, as one trudged andpounded, he removed any of these hefound. Bare feet could find thesepebbles easier than booted feet.Besides, boots cost money. Why wear themout treading clay?

Quite little children were used as puggers. They had perfect little puggers'feet. Collect a party of children nowand set them to pug clay in their barefeet. For an afternoon they will have amarvelous time, but set them to do thisday after day, in all kinds of weather, being driven by the necessity of produc­ing several hundred bricks by a certain time, and they will soon become disen­chanted by the whole idea. But in thenineteenth century, children workedalongside their parents for twelve hoursa day in the brick fields. Had you been a brick maker's child, in no way couldyou have escaped this pugging!

One of the great dangers for brick makerswas gangrene. Any small wound in thefeet or legs, if neglected, could soeasily become poisoned. If there was nomeans or time to treat it, gangrene wasthe worst result. A one-legged man was often recognized as a former brick maker.

You might expect that a brick maker's jobwas a fairly static one, that he and hisfamily worked together in the local brick field, beside the nearest kiln; but thinkfor a moment about the difficulties oftransporting bricks, in that haggler'scart. Bricks are heavy, so this wouldhave been the best way to move them.They are also quite brittle, so if itwere possible, bricks would be best madeas near to the job as possible. If youcome across a brick maker, chances are you will find that he moves about quite alot. The birthplaces of his children, aslisted on the census returns, will pro­bably confirm this. When most peoplerented their homes, a person could aswell rent this one as that one, so thewhole family would often move house. Thecarter and perhaps the haggler, too,helped out. But think about this for amoment. If a brick maker moved hisfamily from A to B, then it must bebecause he had finished making bricks forsomething being built at A and had now gone to help build something else at B. Perhaps you can discover what. Readsomething of the local history of theselocations. Perhaps it can provide ananswer.

Locations have an important influence on the occupations of the men and women wholive there. The whole lives of children born by the edge of the sea, whoseparents get their living from it, for instance, revolve around such events asthe coming and going of boats and the tides. Any shoreside scavenging wasconsidered suitable work for women and children together. Shrimping at someparts of the coast and gathering cockleand mussel[9] from the rocks uncovered by the tide at other parts, were common occupations. A child of this environmenthardly ever had his feet out of water.But at least it was water with healingproperties, or so we are led to believe.No real fear of gangrene here, for in­stance. But what of rheumatic complaintsin later life? How did long hours'immersion in stone-cold water take itstoll?

Families living in the shadow of a pit,[10] or mill, will totally depend upon this, the major local industry. Take a pit,for instance. A huge proportion of the total male population will work there, most of them down at the coal face. Thelives of their womenfolk will revolveround the hours that their men come and goshift workers from early days, forwhen you work in the dark, it matters notwhether it is day or night on the sur­face. Because things like pithead bathsare facilities of modern life, our ances­tral coal miners came home filthytohouses without bathrooms or runningwater. Imagine for a moment the lot ofthe women who had to cope with all thatthis entailed. Boy children born in thisplace, to families in this occupation, followed their fathers as a matter of course into the pit. Much has been writ­ten about the employment of small boys in the mines, carried there on the shoulders of their fathers or older brothers beforedawn and returning home after dusk, thuseven, deprived of daylight as they grewup.[11]

The dangers of working in a mine areobvious, but when going down and comingback up again meant ladders, only thefittest of all could cope; and fallsdeep fallswere a very real danger.

If a mine went on short time, or evenclosed altogether, the miner was leftlooking for another mining job, the workhe knew best. Suppose he had been a tinminer in Cornwall. Many men thrown outof work there in times of depression setsail for America. But many others, lesswilling, or perhaps less able to takesuch a brave chance, simply looked for ajob in mining not quite so far away.This could easily turn out to be a leadmine in the Midlands, and if in turn thistoo left him stranded later on, he mightcontinue northwards to end up as a coalminer in Northumberland. Thus, he, andhis family with him, would have traversedthe length of England during his workinglife. Not a big thing to do, it istruenot as big as going to Americabut it will be harder to find him than hisbrother tin miner who stayed in Cornwall and simply changed his job. The moral ofthis case is that once you know a man'sjob, it just could help you track him down.

The capacity of the local mill to devourthe entire neighborhood as its workforce, gives little individual choice tomembers of the community. Worse! Iteven acts as a magnet for all the work-less who can wander in so that soon the people who once lived what they might remember as a peaceful, easygoing rurallife, now find themselves in the tread­mill of the machine, fighting to keep aplace for themselves in their ownvillage, competing with outsiders drawnby the chance of work.

Some industries can have a positivelydevasting effect on the locality. I meanby this a physical effect. Take thoseplaces where iron was madethe greatfurnaces of Coalbrookdale, for instance.Their ever-burning fires dominated theentire countryside, belched great cloudsof muck into the atmosphere. Manyhundreds of people lived out their livesunder such a cloud, the chemical proper­ties of which could strip paint, corrode,blacken, and decay. Think what this did to their lungs. Read the census returns there, and see how many were widowedearly in life. Take a survey of the agesat death and of the causes of thesedeaths, if you can. You will soonrealize the devastation this environment wreaked on the lungs of its inhabitants.

Coke burning was another such industry.Gasses given off from the coke ovenscould affect vegetation up to a distanceof half a mile, depending on the prevail­ing wind. Not only the men working atthe ovens, but also their families livingunder this permanent cloud of gas, couldalso be affected by really disabling pul­monary diseases.

The salt towns, too, presented much thesame kind of problems. Salt was obtainedby boiling huge pans at brine till thesalt crystallized out.[12] Really cheap quality coal was used. This producedgreat clouds of evil-smelling smoke.When this mixed with the steam from the salt pans, it produced an almost perma­nent, and certainly dangerous, fog.

The words coke burner, salt maker andfurnaceman,therefore, describing anoccupation, tell you much more than whatthese men did. They tell you also whatit was like for their families to live inthe shadow of that particular industry.

When communities are dominated by asingle major local industry, they areterribly vulnerable. If trade slumps,the mills go on short time, or the pit closeseven temporarilyfamilies have aterrible struggle to survive. In a way, then, bringing one's industry indoorswith him, working in one's own home,seemed to offer an answer. Wholecommunities fell for this idea, or were trapped by it. Frame work knitters are aperfect example. F.W.K. is the accepted abbreviation to describe this occupation.This has fooled all at some time orother. It does not mean farm worker!

I say "trapped" because this is exactlywhat happened to these operatives. Inthe first place, the cost of the frame was huge for the ordinary worker, so mostof them gladly accepted the offer of oneon loan. "You work on my machine. I'llbuy what you make. I'll even provide thematerials for you to use. You can buythem direct from me." Too late, the poorfellow realized he was trapped. He hadno control at all over the price of hisraw materials, and no redress when the master lowered the purchasing price ofhis finished goods. Great armies of menand women sat hunched over these frames,knitting stockings with an urgency which proved that their very lives depended onthem. Their children were set to seamthese stockings together just as soon asthey could hold a needle and learn tosew. If they progressed to chevening,embroidering "clocks" or designs on them,so much the better. Look at the censusreturns again. See there the eight- andnine-year-old girls described as"seamers," and the nine- and ten-year-olds as "cheveners."

Although many such workers had frames intheir own homes, there were plenty whoworked in cramped and often unsanitaryconditions in workshopscottage indus­tries againcontaining as many frames ascould be fitted into the space available.Ultimately, most of these operativesended up with one or more disabilities.

First of all, the work was a very greatstrain on their eyesightand this in an age when the kind of spectacles which areprescribed today were undreamed of. Ifthey could afford to buy any at all, theyprobably had them off a market stall,trying them all on till they found a pairwhich suited them best. Woolworths used to sell them for six pence a pair wellinto the twentieth century!

Next, it was, if anything, an even greater strain on their patience, asanyone who has ever tried to use a modern knitting machine and had it keep dropping all its stitches can attest.

Next, the huddled way that they wereforced to sit, gave their spines a lot oftrouble. If they were not yet fullygrown when they began to work at thistrade, then they grew round-shouldered,even humpbacked. Sitting long hours inone position did awful things to theblood supply to their legs, not tomention the effect it had upon theirbowels. Their lungs too were physically cramped. Add to this the probabilitythat they had to breathe air anything butfresh, and you get a sorry picture of people stunted in growth and poor ingeneral health.

It is hard for us now really to decide what trade might have been the best to work at then, whenever "then" was. If aman went to sea, it was a dangerous,often lonely life, with great physicalhardships. But at least he had fresh airto breathe. Would he willingly havetraded with his brother in the pit? For all the strenuous and often dirty, wet, and cold work a laborer in the fieldmight have been called upon to perform,would he have traded with his brother hunched over a knitting frame?

The laboring man had a tough, hardstruggle to survive. He had to be ableto turn his hand to anything. Thedescription laborer can cover dozens of different jobs. Sometimes you might find some of these described. Because the job of a laborer varies throughout the year,it could all depend on when you ask him,what he will reply. Suppose you find aman described as a "drainer" when hebaptized a child in February one year. What you have to ask yourself is, did he do this draining all the year round? Wasthis his permanent jobonce a draineralways a drainer? Finding the baptism of another child of his next yearthis timein April, when he is described as a "welldigger"will confirm for you that hislaboring job certainly did alter throughthe seasons. For the laborer it was aconstant struggle to find work. Thus,when the railways or canals were beingbuilt, suddenly it looked like prosperityfor the laborer. Here was a steady job.There was work as far as the line was going. Men were drawn to these sites asif by a magnet. As these projects passedthrough an area, they created wealth forall sorts of folk. The local innkeeper,for instance, victuallers, boot and shoemakers and repairers, blacksmithsallthese and many more enjoyed an unexpectedprosperity.

Because of the very nature of these jobs,the men lived rough. The camp sites, atbest, were collections of sheds andhovels, quite unsuitable for families totag along with their menfolk. It wouldbe naive of us to suppose that all menworking away from home for long periodscould remain celibate and 100 percentfaithful. There are reports of over-the-bushmarriages taking place between men from these work gangs and local girls.[13] It is very hard indeed to decide one wayor the other, whether these were perma­nent or only temporary marriages. Theyamounted to what we call today common-lawmarriages. There was nothing writtendown, nothing left for us to check, except perhaps contemporary writings,sometimes with dubious credibility. Someof these marriages could well have provedto be permanent alliances; but if therewas already a legal wife, and possiblychildren waiting at home somewhere, thenthese had to be temporary alliances.Sadly, a trail of innocent babies was often left behind. Parish registers of those churches fringing the area wouldrecord the baptisms of children to localgirls the requisite number of monthsafter the team has moved on, chancechildren in every sense of the word.Many of these little children found theirway into the local workhouse, abandonedeven by their mothers, and who canpossibly say, at this distance, whetherthey could be blamed for this or not?

Almost any workhouse census return willshow many young children as inmatesalonethat is, without any other personthere with the same surname as them­selves. The 1841 census for StockportWorkhouse, for instance, shows that 35percent of the children there were alonelike this. Because men, women, andchildren were housed separately then in workhouses, they are listed apart fromeach other, so it is hard to try to work out family relationships. If some of thesurnames are common in that area, then there could easily be even more of thesechildren alone. Another point: because workhouse children were expected to workto support themselves as soon as they possibly could, many of them would havebeen put out as apprentices already, thusdecreasing the real numbers. They were often forced onto unwilling masters and cruelly used. The mills literallydevoured them. The burial registers for Linby Parish in Nottinghamshire read likea trail of disasters as they list thedying children, sent there as a seeminglyendless supply from the city workhouses, from even as far away as London, to workin the mills which stretched along the river Leen.[14]

The seasons of the year, besides changingthe laborer's job, offered the chance ofwork to all sorts of people who might notwork right through the year. Tradition­ally, harvest time was the one importanttime of the year when everyone was busy.Whole families worked together harvest­ing, in a race against time and weather.There were three major types of harvest­ers: (1)home based.[15] (2)individual traveling harvesters.[16] and (3)family traveling harvesters.[17]

For the home-based harvesters, it was a case of everyone into the fields to help.Farmers and landowners alike needed extra help at this time and relied upon it; theworkers in turn looked upon the harvest time as a bonus time and relied upon theextra money earned to make special pur­chases against the coming wintershoesand food, for instance. Men, women, andchildren all worked together in whatever capacity each of them could manage. Thiswork force moved from farm to farm in thearea till all the crops were gathered in.It was the one time in the year when thelaboring man had some bargaining power!

The individual traveling harvester was aperson prepared to work hard, reallyhard, specifically to earn as much as hecould during this special time of year.It was possible to work out a schemewhereby one could travel from one part ofthe country to another, harvesting vari­ous crops as he went. Young men formed themselves into teams and planned their routes out very carefully. It was impor­tant to be in the right place at theright time. Once they had worked out agood route and made their contacts, theywould repeat this journey each year.When a member of this team had to fallout for any reasonmaybe he had married by now; maybe he was so employed that hecouldn't get away or had simply become too oldthen his place would be eagerlyfilled by another growing lad. Theseharvest journeys could entail many hun­dreds of miles of walking and cover themonths of June to September. The menwalked between the jobs, usually on aSunday, for they hoped to be able to workon all the working days while they wereaway from home, both going and coming back. The jobs they did included haymaking, corn cutting, grass mowing, fruitpickingeven hoeing and weeding formarket gardeners. One big advantage of this system for the men was that they could form a working team, coupling those who worked best together, who could matcheach other for speed and reach, forinstance. They lived rough, sleepingwherever they could, and carried withthem their own scythes, of which theywere duly proud, each one balanced and honed to suit the worker's own prefer­ence. A strange and unique combinationthat some of these teams practiced was todance a$, well as harvest. Morrisdancing,<u>[18</u>]an old English custom, a dance always performed by a team of men, fittedthe bill nicely. Some of these teamsperfected the dance and could earn good money giving exhibitions as they went,particularly if they reached London,where this would be a real novelty. Theywent as far as London if they couldtocut the grass in the big parks there! Itis reported that the last such harvestjourney took place in 1912.

If you have been wondering perhaps how anancestor of yours met and married a girlsome hundreds of miles from his ownvillage, could it have been because hewas a member of such a harvest team? Hadhe met this girl before as he had gone through this village where she lived, theprevious year perhaps, possible even theyear before that as well? Now, as hepassed through again, she agreed, at long last, to marry him and he carried her offback to his own village. Perhaps they started their married life together withthe nest egg he had earned on thisharvest trip. For him this might havebeen the last of such trips, for I doubtshe would let him go again the next year!

Family traveling teams really did takethe whole family, right down to thesmallest child. Perhaps the best exampleof these teams was the hop pickers.Londoners traditionally migrated en masseto the hop fields of Kent for the pick­ing. It was even referred to as the hop holiday. Since the size of the job was such that the local labor force couldnever have coped alone, these migrantworkers were welcomed, especially by thehop farmers. Payment was by the weightpicked, so even the smallest child couldcontribute to the family bag. Grandmacame along too and had her own specialjobs, minding the littlest ones and pre­paring food for the family of pickers.The job could take as long as five weeks,from the end of August through September.This harvest followed directly upon the corn harvest in Kent, so there was a goodlong stint of harvesting if you had amind to work it all. This colorful hop holiday for Londoners lasted well intothe twentieth century, right up until someone at last worked out how a machinecould replace all those willing littlehands.

When you consider how city-based peoplelived then, even though they worked hardright through the hours of daylight,endlessly picking in order to earn asmuch as possible, these hop holidays wereindeed looked upon as holidays. Livingconditions in the towns and cities were often truly terrible. Small four-roomed houses, two rooms up and two down, couldcontain as many as fifty people, and,what is much worse, these houses could have been so built that it was intended that ten of them, ten houses that is,should share one privy or necessarybetween them. A page of the 1851 censusfor Nottingham shows a lodging house ofonly four rooms in which fifteen people slept the night. A man, his wife, and three childrengirls aged twenty-one andthirteen and a boy of sixteenformed thelodging house keeper's family, and theyshared the house with another ten people.This kind of gross overcrowding was notuncommon in places where large numbers ofpeople were gathered and there justweren't enough houses to go around. Instone and slate quarries in North Wales,rural areas if ever there were any, it isreported that people even slept inshifts. As the day workers rose, thenight workers retired, and the beds were never really allowed to go cold![19]

Is it any wonder then that men and womenalike would look towards the open spaces reported to abound in those lands beyondthe seas? Migratory workers would evencross the Atlantic.[20] Stone quarriers from Scotland regularly spent the summer in America working, crossing over in thespring and returning for the winter.

The bizarre catalog of jobs done by thepoor and hopeless of any city, particu­larly London, makes strange and pitifulreading: the cigar finders[21] who sold the butts to a "master" who put thesehorrible cigar ends together again tomake new cigars! The finders andrestorers of dogs[22] who more often than not enticed dogs into custody regularlyand ransomed them back to their owners;the child crossing-sweepers,[23] who often worked in gangs, the most powerful ofwhich could reap good rewards in placeslike Trafalgar Square in London in an agewhen horse manure lay on the roads andwomen's skirts trailed on the ground!Perhaps the most bizarre of all was the pure finders[24] those whose days werespent searching for and collecting, dogdirt, the alkaline qualities of whichmade it suitable to use to cure, orpurify leather! These unfortunates wouldkeep this in a bucket in their noisome garret until it was full and then carryit to Bermondsey to sell to the tannersthere.

How can we even contemplate this situa­tion todaythe hopelessness of it all,the poverty and despair and consequentdreadful ill health? In 1899, whenBritainwas looking for men to go tofight in the Boer War, of eleven thousandmen who volunteered in Manchester, eightthousand were found to be unfit andrejected![25] If some of them lived like this, and many of them must have done, was it any wonder they were unfit? Bothmen and women finding themselves in thiskind of situation will volunteer foranythinganything at all which willoffer an escape, be this the chance of aback-breaking hop holiday, foreignservice in the army, or even emigration.Surely there is something somewhere which can offer them some hope for the future.

Many of you are the living proof thatsome at least found this El Dorado. Folkwho were prepared to try, and willing towork hard, flocked to these shores, facedthe great unknown, were willing to take the risks that this huge step entailed, and withstood the hardships which went with this decision. Many of them suc­ceeded. To their great credit and per­sonal joy, they succeeded. To them isowed an enormous debt, which you cannoteven begin to contemplate unless you havetried to understand something of what itwas like for them as they struggled tomake a living.

Look at your pedigree forms again. What have you written there? Great-grandpapawas born in 1820, he married in 1850, andall his children were born between thenand 1870. All right, then, so what?What was he doing to earn a living tosupport them all? Did his wife earn too?Are all the birthplaces of the children the same? If not, why not? What causedhim to move his family around? Ask your­selves these kinds of questions, and setabout finding the answers. When you havefound some of these, then begin askingmore questions: What was it like to workat this occupation? Was the familyinvolved? How did they fare for thingslike food, clothes, and living quarters?Would there have been any chance of aneducation for the children, that is,apart from an apprenticeship straightinto some job? How did they cope withillness, and did their job expose them tomuch of this? Would they ever havemanaged to take a rest, never mind a fullholiday? If they traveled, then how?Could it have been by train or canal, byhorse and cart, horseback, or just plainwalking.

In time you will find that you can put together something much more valuablethan that sterile string of beads whichthose three magic dates and a namesignify. You will find yourselvestelling the story of your own background.You are what you are today because ofwhat your ancestor was yesterday. Under­standing him will greatly help you tounderstand yourself.

It would be impertinent of us to lookback on our ancestors with pity, to besorry for them. Of course times wereoften hard for them. But each of us in our own time learns how to cope withlife. Let us do them the courtesy of atleast trying to understand what life waslike for them, for it is because of theirstrength and determination that we are all where we are today.



[1] Henry Mayhew, Mayhew’s London (Pilot Press, London, 1949), p. 127.

[2] Don Steel, Discovering Your Family History (BBC, London, 1980), p. 15.

[3] John Briggs ed. Newcastle Under Lyne 1173-1973 (North Staffordshire Polytechnic, 1973), p. 86.

[4] Raphael Samuel, ed. Village Life and Labour, History Workshop Series (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1975), p. 176.

[5] Ibid., pp. 42-43.

[6] Ibid., p. 177.

[7] Ibid., pp. 167, 176.

[8] Ibid., pp. 168, 113.

[9] Ibid., p. 104.

[10] Raphael Samuel d. Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers, History Workshop Series (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1977), p. 205.

[11] Eric Forster, The Pit Children, Northern History Booklet no. 83 (Frank Grahm, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1978), p.5.

[12] See Samuel ed., Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers, p. 141.

[13] Terry Coleman, The Railway Navvies (Hutchinson, 1965), p. 21.

[14] John Brown, A Memoir of Robert Blincoe (Caliban, Sussex, 1977).

[15] See Samuel ed., Village Life and Labor, p.45.

[16] Ibid., p. 50.

[17] Ibid., p. 82.

[18] Ibid., p. 51.

[19] See Samuel ed., Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers, p. 72.

[20] Ibid., p. 72.

[21] See Mayhew’s, London, p. 304.

[22] Ibid., p. 223.

[23] Ibid., p. 366.

[24] Ibid., p. 296.

[25] “Going for a Soldier” BBC TV program – screened 1980.


 

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