Follow in the Footsteps – Thursday Thoughts

In whose occupational footsteps do you follow?Photograph of traditional shoe making tools to illustrate the historytrace blogpost "Follow in the Footsteps". Image copyright freeimages.com / Miguel Ugalde.

Do you share the same occupation as one of your ancestors? Has your family business been established for generations? Do you know what your forebears’ work entailed and is your line of work similar?

What an immediate insight into your ancestors’ lives is provided when you know what the occupations of your ancestors were. Often an occupation is among the small handful of vital data which censuses and records of life events tell us. But what a direct glimpse into our ancestors’ everyday lives that one word or short occupational description can provide.

If you don’t know what occupations your ancestors carried out, then start to gather vital records, censuses and address book or commercial directory entries which can give you details of their work. You may find that their occupation subtly or even drastically altered during the course of their life. Even if records are written in a different language to yours, the internet provides many resources to help unlock the meaning of occupational descriptions in foreign languages.

The range of occupations represented among your ancestors will tell you much about each historical time period they lived in. Shedding light on their economic and social standing, their background and their prospects too. Exploring an ancestor’s occupation is a crucial contextualisation tool for investigating and bringing their everyday to life. Providing a powerful opening onto an ancestor’s individuality, their skills and knowledge-base. With this can also come insight into the experiences which shaped their personalities.

As you think through ancestors’ day to day lives you can ask yourself some questions – how did their occupation shape their daily routine and annual cycle? Where did they work and how did they journey there? What influence did the seasons and location have on their worklife? Were other family members engaged in the same work or in supporting the bread winner in their role? What were the tools of their trade and what training would they have undergone? Who were their employers or their customers and how much did they earn, what were their career prospects? Did their occupation change during their lifetime, what were the factors at play, did emigration alter their occupation?

Most fascinating are the instances of more than one generation pursuing similar trades within one family. This can show how worklife altered over time and career ideas were refined. One of my ancestral family lines were by turn fishmongers and greengrocers around Petticoat Lane and in the eastern suburbs of Greater London over several generations. But a shift came partly due to the outbreak of the Second World War and partly due to economic and social changes in British society.

Did your family specialise in one particular area of commerce or handicraft over generations? Up until the First and Second World War in Britain it was not uncommon to find family occupations based on traditional skills that were passed between generations or rooted in family connections and loyalty to a local employer. For example, employment within the Royal Households such as at Windsor often ran in the family. Likewise apprenticeships in the Swindon railway industry often saw sons signed up by their fathers for employment “inside” at the railway works.

Did your family’s occupational focus shift as a result of greater access to education and the modernisation of post-industrial or post-war life? Or has your family retained occupational traditions despite the surrounding changes in society? Are there handicraft skills which have been passed through generations or have descendants broadly followed professions in the same sector or industry, such as agriculture or the entertainment industry?

Has something of your family’s occupational heritage been passed down to your generation? Perhaps this is just in the form of an interest or a hobby, particular skills or occupational wisdoms which have been retained. If you in fact work within a long-established family business or multi-generational family company how has your line of work changed with each generation?

Following in one of your ancestor’s occupational footsteps may have been unwittingly done but perhaps a trace of influence subtly shaped your career ideas somewhere along the way…

Hannah Gill, historytrace, 03/03/2016

Links: STEAM Museum of the Great Western Railway, Swindon, UK, http://www.steam-museum.org.uk/Pages/Home.aspx

Historytrace can help you to explore your family’s occupational heritage to unlock the ancestors daily lives and economic and social standing in their communities of origin. Have you thought of sharing family business history with your customers? Historytrace can help you research and present your family business history as part of your company’s advertising strategy. Do get in touch using the Contact page of this website if our services could help you explore your family heritage on a deeper level.

You have been reading the historytracings blogpost “Follow in the Footsteps – Thursday Thoughts”. Copyright text: www.historytrace.co.uk, 2016; copyright image: freeimages.com / Miguel Ugalde.

If you enjoyed reading this you may also be interested in our Research Your Own blogpost series which shares how to get started with your own family history research. Also our Nature Versus Nurture blogpost explores our fascination with ancestral influence on our lives.

You might also like to read our LinkedIn Pulse article Would You Take Career Advice from the Ancestors?

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