Just Jobs: The Effect of Occupations On British Family Life
Article by Elizabeth Simpson in World Conference on Records, 1980
Born in England.
Resides in Nottingham, England.
Lecturer in family history. Adult and Further Education Centers for County Authorities, East Midlands Region. Writer, editor, genealogist.
How many people collect their ancestors like bubble gum cards? With the definite aim of "collecting the set," they happily fill in the kind of pedigree forms which haunt some of us. To each is added the three magic dates: "born, married, died," but they haven't ever wondered what any of these people did to earn a living while they were here on this earth.
Put this another way. Imagine your self as an ancestor written up on one of these forms. There will be your name and beside it those three magic dates: the day you were born, the date you married, and the day you died — nothing else at all. Is this really all the mark that you will make? Will none of your descendants care what life was actually like for you?
The occupation of the bread winner of any family governs the way that family lives. It always has and still does today. You only have to look around you to see ample evidence of this fact. In your mind’s eye, stand up two contrasting families whom you know well. Think of the occupation of the breadwinner of each of these families. Now think of their homes. How does each family live? Now think of their children. What is it like for them simply to have been born into either of these families? If the children of these families changed places, what difference would this make to all of them? Remember to choose two contrasting families.
To a very large extent we are, each of us, a product not just genetically of our father and mother, but of the place in society into which we were born and the environment in which we were raised, and this "place in society" has a very real importance in the context of life in Britain. Add to this the opportunities which life itself offers and each individual's own personal make up, and you have the progression from infant to adult. These are the "ifs" and "buts" of life. We are all governed by them. Each of us in our own time can either succeed or fail when it is our turn to choose. But the occupation of our parent or guardian will make all the difference in how we start.
The study of occupations therefore is all important. Those three magic dates — "born, married, died" — beside an ancestor's name tell us only the framework upon which his life was built. What did this person do during his life? How long did he do it? How well did he do it? What did it mean to do it? These are the questions we must ask if we are to have any real understanding.
So often we cannot explain why we do certain things. It seems we cannot help ourselves sometimes. As we were raised, we may have been told as an explanation of a particular action, "Your grandfather used to screw his eyes up like that, turn his left foot out, and get all worked up over nothing just like you do." We know now that these are genetic traits, because the science of genetics has explained all this for us.
But let us turn this around and say: "Knowing myself and how I react to certain situations, then perhaps I know how my ancestors felt and reacted." To do this properly we must put our ancestors into the correct environment in which their occupations and time placed them.
First of all then, how can we find out what each of our ancestors actually did?
Throughout the nineteenth century, occupations were given on civil certificates, that is, birth, marriage, and death certificates; on census returns; in trade directories, in newspapers, and probably in 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 is often much more helpful. Settlement certificates, examination orders, removals, militia returns — these may all state a person’s occupation.
But knowledge of an occupation is one thing; the understanding of it is quite another. Sometimes the description can be unintelligible. Perhaps an old dialect word is used; perhaps the word no longer exists, and we cannot even begin to work out what the job could have entailed. Sometimes we might jump entirely to the wrong conclusion simply because we think we know what the word means.
To give you an example; an advertisement for a milkman in a Nottinghamshire newspaper dated May 1878 says, "Milkman wanted, 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 advertisement in 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 the milkman of today will ever even see a cow, much less be asked to milk one! But in both these cases the occupation is described as "Milkman."
We can even extend this example to reach back to the first half of the nineteenth century and consider the milkman in London then. Milk was sold in St. James Park, straight from the cow!  The milkman — milk seller to be more exact — was the servant of the cow keeper. He walked the cow to the park, set up a stand, and sold milk by the cupful.
Here then we have three completely different jobs, but all of them described as "Milkmen." In about 1825, the milkman sat in the park in London beside his cow and sold milk by the cupful. In 1878, about fifty years later, he was employed as a live-in servant to attend to the cows in a farm situation. One hundred years after that, he is now totally divorced from the cow, driving around in a truck, delivering milk to the doorstep of his customers. (That is to say, in Britain he does this.) Using only a little imagination, one can easily picture the family situation for each of these men engaged as milkmen in their own time.
This is a two-way theme: a man is what he does; he does what he does because of where 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 by the weather.
It is all too easy too fall into the trap of putting today's standards on yesterday's conditions, especially if the word used to describe the job is still the same — like the milkman for instance.
Let's take another example — converter.  Suppose that you had found "converter inH. M. dockyard" given as the occupation of an ancestor on a civil certificate dated 1856. Webster's dictionary defines converter as "one that converts: as the furnace used in the Bessemer process... or ... a device employing mechanical rotation for changing electrical energy from one form to another; also... a device for adapting a television receiver to receive channels for which it was not originally designed."
You are left now asking yourself what on earth this man could have been doing in this dockyard in 1856. For a start you know that he wasn't tuning his TV set to seme foreign station. You may spend some time wondering whether electricity could have been used in a dockyard in 1856, then stumble upon the fact that Sir Henry Bessemer’s converter was introduced into the steel industry in 1856, and ask yourself; "Did they actually make steel in a dockyard?"
What you have to understand here is that this word is being used in the context of 1856. If you turn to the full Oxford English Dictionary,there you will find another definition: "One whose business it is to 'convert' rough timber," to reduce it from the rough state to pieces of nearly the required shape and size. This is now more likely. Is a converter in a dockyard one who is working on rough timber to produce planks? In other words, is he a sawyer? Now if they had used that word to describe his job you may have understood right away.
Sometimes it might be necessary to go even further than the full Oxford English Dictionary — to a dialect dictionary.
If you are lucky enough to find an ancestor’s occupation mentioned, then you should spend some time working out what it meant. Books on specialist subjects might help a lot, as might books of fictional stories. The film industry and TV companies produce some very good examples of what life might have been like as lived yesterday — whenever "yesterday" was. The industry takes itself very seriously nowadays. Researchers are employed specially to "get it right."
Basically there are two main kinds of workers—the man who works for himself, and the man who works for someone else.
In the first category we will find all those who have managed, somehow, to collect the where withal to work on their own, be this a piece of land, a horse and cart, some tools, machinery or whatever. All kinds of tradesmen will come into this category, too, and those who are described 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 be in 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 that their families lived comparatively better-off than those of the workers in the other category, those who worked for the masters.
Let's have a look then at a few of yesterday’s jobs and try to understand for ourselves what they meant within the context 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 our first example:
Evidence of hat making can be found throughout history. If you find an ancestor described as a "hatter," your first question is, when was he a hatter?
With all industries, the government of the day can yield an enormous control by tariffs and taxes. During the seventeenth century, foreign-made hats began to trickle into the United Kingdom. This depressed the industry, so the government placed a heavy tariff on these imported hats, pushing up their sale price. This boosted the home trade and made the job of hatmaker more viable.
By the eighteenth century, the hat industry was booming and had even developed a flourishing export trade to the Continent. Trade with Canada, then a part of the British Empire, was bringing the best quality beaver skins to England. A master hat maker would probably employ eight to ten workers, who would work together in what was described as a "cottage industry." A small workshop would be attached to his house, in the same way as a dwelling house and shop are often combined premises. Newspaper advertisements during the nineteenth century often described combined premises for sale, for example, "dwelling house and hatter's workshop."
By the nineteenth century, the felt hat trade began to decline. Fashion was changing. The gentry now began to favor silk hats, and the workingman chose the cloth cap. The occupation of hatter was, however, still there, but it was different, for times and fashions had changed. So, depending on when your ancestor was a hatter, you can work out which type of hat he might have made. Unlike the milkman, the hatter is a hatter is a hatter. Where time can change his job is in the kind of hat he makes.
Another example of a master was haggler  — aheavy carter, a man who probably owned his own horse and cart, a cart of enormous proportions and a big heavy horse. This combination would cart heavy loads: building materials, bricks, timber, scaffolding, and, most likely offal, stones direct from the quarry. While he and his horse were fit and able, they worked, and the money came in; but if either of them ailed, particularly the horse, then times might be hard. Above all, the horse had to be kept fit. It was more important to find food for the horse than for the man's family, for the livelihood of them all depended on the horse—and second only to it, the good repair of the cart. Being the family of a haggler could mean that life literally revolved around the horse and cart.
A carter  was similar to a haggler, but everything about him was smaller and perhaps cleaner, too. The carter might work with a pony and trap, even a donkey. Many carters worked carrying produce from the country into the towns on market days. Many stood outside auction houses, markets anyplace where produce was being sold and then touted for business as the home going purchasers left. Sometimes a carter worked in conjunction with his wife, fitting her work in with his. They formed a team.
In parts of the country where there were many large hotels or colleges or schools places where a lot of people used a lot of linen then there was a need for washer-women or laundresses. Oxford and Cambridge obviously were two such places. College washing was a steady business. If a woman lived within reach of these colleges and her husband had a cart, then they could form business partnership. You can find these couples listed in census returns for districts like these —his occupation, carter; hers, laundress. At first sight they look like two separate jobs, but together the couple formed a team. On Monday he would take his cart into the town, hoping to have something to carry there as he went. He would call at the college and collect the washing. His wife would then spend Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday washing, starching, and ironing the linen. This she might have to do against heavy odds: Suppose it were 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 clothesline breaking! Remember, she had to heat all her water in a big copper tub and probably make her own soap! She had to work to the very highest standards, or she could be quickly replaced by a rival. On Friday he would make the return journey, carrying the clean linen back to the college in town. During the other days of the week the carter would work for hire wherever he could and carry anything he could manage with his smaller team—market produce, messages. He might even be asked to help people move. During the sunnier months he might hire out himself and his horse to help a local farmer. Local newspapers would often carry advertisements from both carters and laundresses: "Man and horse for hire." "Cart going to and from Oxford each week, able to carry small loads." "Laundry work wanted. Will collect Monday and return Friday."
If you look up the word carter in a modern dictionary, you will not be confused by the definition: "One who carries or conveys in a cart." But if you look 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 clod hopping 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, 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 accidentally 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, nursery like 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, 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 and pounded, he removed any of these he found. Bare feet could find these pebbles easier than booted feet.Besides, boots cost money. Why wear them out treading clay?
Quite little children were used as puggers. They had perfect little puggers'feet. Collect a party of children now and set them to pug clay in their bare feet. For an afternoon they will have a marvelous time, but set them to do this day 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 the nineteenth century, children worked alongside their parents for twelve hours a day in the brick fields. Had you been a brick maker's child, in no way could you have escaped this pugging!
One of the great dangers for brick makers was gangrene. Any small wound in the feet or legs, if neglected, could so easily become poisoned. If there was no means or time to treat it, gangrene was the worst result. A one-legged man was often recognized as a former brick maker.
You might expect that a brick maker's job was a fairly static one, that he and his family worked together in the local brick field, beside the nearest kiln; but think for a moment about the difficulties of transporting bricks, in that haggler'scart. Bricks are heavy, so this would have been the best way to move them. They are also quite brittle, so if it were possible, bricks would be best made as near to the job as possible. If you come across a brick maker, chances are you will find that he moves about quite a lot. The birthplaces of his children, as listed on the census returns, will probably confirm this. When most people rented their homes, a person could as well rent this one as that one, so the whole family would often move house. The carter and perhaps the haggler, too,helped out. But think about this for a moment. If a brick maker moved his family from A to B, then it must be because he had finished making bricks for something being built at A and had now gone to help build something else at B. Perhaps you can discover what. Read something of the local history of these locations. Perhaps it can provide an answer.
Locations have an important influence on the occupations of the men and women who live there. The whole lives of children born by the edge of the sea, whose parents get their living from it, for instance, revolve around such events as the coming and going of boats and the tides. Any shore side scavenging was considered suitable work for women and children together. Shrimping at some parts of the coast and gathering cockle and mussel from the rocks uncovered by the tide at other parts, were common occupations. A child of this environment hardly ever had his feet out of water. But at least it was water with healing properties, or so we are led to believe. No real fear of gangrene here, for instance. But what of rheumatic complaints in later life? How did long hours' immersion in stone-cold water take its toll?
Families living in the shadow of a pit, 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 go—shift 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 filthy—tohouses 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, thus even, deprived of daylight as they grewup.
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 falls—deep falls—were 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 istrue—not as big as going to America—but 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 made—the 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. 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 closes—even temporarily—families 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 a perfect 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 exactly what happened to these operatives. In the 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'll buy what you make. I'll even provide the materials for you to use. You can buy them direct from me." Too late, the poor fellow 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 workshops—cottage industries again—containing 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 eyesight—and 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 probability that 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 physical hardships. 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 field might 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 job—once a draineralways a drainer? Finding the baptism of another child of his next year—this 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, blacksmiths—allthese 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. 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, abandoned even by their mothers, and who can possibly say, at this distance, whether they could be blamed for this or not?
Almost any workhouse census return willshow many young children as inmatesalone—that 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.
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. (2)individual traveling harvesters. and (3)family traveling harvesters.
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 winter—shoesand 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 reason—maybe he had married by now; maybe he was so employed that hecouldn't get away or had simply become too old—then 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, fruitpicking—even 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,an old English custom, a dance always performed by a team of men, fitted the bill nicely. Some of these teams perfected the dance and could earn good money giving exhibitions as they went,particularly if they reached London,where this would be a real novelty. They went as far as London if they could—to cut the grass in the big parks there! It is reported that the last such harvest journey 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 children—girls aged twenty-one andthirteen and a boy of sixteen—formed 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!
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. 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 who sold the butts to a "master" who put thesehorrible cigar ends together again tomake new cigars! The finders andrestorers of dogs  who more often than not enticed dogs into custody regularlyand ransomed them back to their owners;the child crossing-sweepers, 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 —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 today the hopelessness of it all,the poverty and despair and consequent dreadful ill health? In 1899, when Britain was looking for men to go to fight in the Boer War, of eleven thousand men who volunteered in Manchester, eight thousand were found to be unfit and rejected!  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 foranything—anything 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.