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Researching occupations

Researching the occupations of the inhabitants of a locality or community can provide an insight into the origins of a neighbourhood, the social structure of a community and the type of lives that were led by the people who formed them. Occupations determined lifestyle and status, and may explain why certain people lived in a particular place. Some communities grew up around a particular place of work, collieries and foundries being a good example in Staffordshire. Some towns were centres of specialized industry, such as Stafford and the shoe trade or Burton-upon-Trent and brewing, and many of the occupations found within such places are linked directly or indirectly to that particular trade.

Larger towns and cities would have associated trades or professions concentrated in one area, with dirty or odorous trades (such as tanning) being concentrated in the poorer parts of a town and ‘respectable’ professions (such as doctors or lawyers) concentrated in the wealthier streets or squares.

Families might carry on the same trade for generations, firmly establishing them in a locality. Loss of occupation could lead to population movement, as migrant workers moved to areas where work might be more plentiful. Such movements contributed to the creation of major industrial centres, as was the case in the Potteries and the Black Country.

Key sources for occupations

Census returns (1841-1911 at ten year intervals) are a great source for occupations.  They list the occupation of every member of the households visited. They are available to consult online through Ancestry.co.uk, which is available at the offices of the Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Archive service. Census returns for the whole of Staffordshire are also held on microfiche at Staffordshire Record Office, whilst Stoke-on-Trent City Archives holds microfiche for a more localized area.

Trade Directories (18th to 20th centuries) record businessmen, traders and professionals who would pay for an entry in a similar way to the ‘Yellow Pages’ of more recent times. Some of the occupations recorded in these sources will be unfamiliar to the modern researcher as they belong to trades or industries long since ceased. A number of ‘Dictionaries of Occupations’ are available to help trace the meaning of these lost job titles. The main collection of Staffordshire Trade Directories is held at the William Salt Library, Stafford, although there are also holdings at Stoke-on-Trent City Archives and Lichfield Library.

Other records: There are also more specific records relating to particular trades and occupations held by the Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent Archive Service, also these vary in scope and quantity depending on the trade and period being investigated.

To find out more about local working lives, please take a look at the Staffordshire Working Lives online exhibition.

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