Track down a trade

Track down a trade

Unless they were landed gentry or in direst poverty, your ancestors would have worked for a living – here’s where to find records of their employment

How to, How to

How to

How to

With an almost endless range of different trades open to people down the ages, many of them coming and going as technology has developed, tracking down occupational records can be complicated. Many businesses have kept records, and some trades faced specific bureaucracy that means a paper trail can be followed; others have been lost to obscurity.

However, there are also three major categories of record which can help to shed light on your forebears’ work history. One is the censuses, of course, which from 1841 onwards listed details of individuals’ trades and, later, whether they were employed or self-employed.

Apprenticeship records in some cases date back to the 13th century when the trade guild system began. From 1563, it actually became illegal to enter a trade without undertaking an apprenticeship – this usually began between the ages of 10 and 14, and typically lasted for seven years. TheGenealogist has a major record collection, of duties on indentures from 1710-1811.

Finally there are trade directories. These are the forerunners of the modern Yellow Pages. The first ones appeared in the 18th century, although they were only really common from the mid-19th century onwards. There are many available online.

Trade directories and apprenticeship records can help piece together the working lives of your ancestors

Discover your ancestors through apprenticeship records

Point your web browser to search TheGenealogist’s IR1 Board of Stamps: Apprenticeship Books – they record tax money received, which might have been some years after the actual apprenticeship.

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We’ve searched for a Robert Bright. Note that the search system covers masters as well as apprentices. Maybe your ancestor even went on to become a master years after their own apprenticeship.

What the records show varies. A father’s name (or even both parents) is only generally given before 1752, as in this 1742 example. Other than that, the names of both parties, the trade and where they lived were recorded.


In focus: trade directories

This is a page from Pigot’s Directory for Cambridgeshire for 1839, available at TheGenealogist.

Being from 1839, this directory came out only two years before the first useful census, which could help to track down the same people.


  1. Old directories show how trades change over time – you could try looking for directories in the same county a few years later to see what’s changed
  2. Trade directories can be a useful source of information about local history – though pub names sometimes change over time
  3. The carriers listed show how people relied on a local network of draymen and the like to keep goods flowing between towns and villages
  4. Trade directories tend to have interesting introductions about each town or village, helping you to get a sense of what they were like in the past
  5. With churches named here, you can use this information to help track down parish records for the place too
  6. It wasn’t just common tradesfolk who were listed, but also the ‘great and the good’

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