From fields to factories

From fields to factories

For many of our ancestors, work was the major defining aspect of their lives. Luke Mouland surveys how working life has evolved

Luke Mouland, Genealogist, historian and writer

Luke Mouland

Genealogist, historian and writer

As many of our ancestors will have spent much of their lives toiling just to earn a crust, one of the most fascinating aspects to research is their working lives. This is often the key to understanding more about our forebears, as their occupations defined who they were, how they lived and their social standing within the community.


The majority of children will have formally started work between the ages of 12 and 14, either entering directly into employment, such as domestic service, or beginning an apprenticeship to learn a trade or craft. For a fixed sum, the apprentice would be taken on by a master or mistress under a series of formal conditions, which were laid down in an apprenticeship indenture. From 1601, apprenticeship for the poorest children was usually paid for by their parish, which wished to avoid the expense of their maintenance. Usually, a successful apprenticeship lasted for about seven years.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, with a large proportion of the population residing in rural areas, the predominant source of work lay in agriculture. The land provided seasonal employment for many unskilled labourers, including women and children, who often worked long, hard hours for relatively little pay. But as the 18th century wore on, great changes took place in the rural sector.

© British Library London Street Photography Festival

In 1750, the population had stood at around 5.7 million, with this figure rapidly rising over time. To meet the increase and the subsequent demand for food it produced, agricultural output was also required to expand. However, with the introduction of more efficient farming systems and the important developments in farming machinery and equipment, the proportion of the workforce in agriculture inevitably decreased as the century progressed. Eventually, this caused widespread unrest throughout the rural south, which culminated in what became known as the Swing Riots in 1830. As a result, many of our ancestors will have left their rural communities to seek work in the rapidly expanding towns and cities, where new employment opportunities had been created.

The London Costermonger
The London Costermonger, from Henry Mayhew’s, London Labour & The London Poor (1851)

Before the late 18th century, industry in Britain tended to be small-scale and based around cottage industries, which were often practised in the home. For many working class families, this provided the chance to earn a living outside of agriculture, while still remaining in their parish of settlement. However, as the Industrial Revolution began to gather pace, the nature of British employment underwent a drastic transformation. As people flocked to urban areas, the majority will have secured employment in the mills and factories which had been established throughout the country. Others entered into the mining industry and other trades which helped to fuel the revolution and meet the high demands for raw materials. Though many trades became widespread, some regions boasted strong concentrations of certain industries, such as mining. While coal was typically mined in South Wales, the north of England and Scotland, tin mining was particularly localised in Cornwall and lead in Derbyshire.

Workforce at a dairy In Poole, Dorset
Workforce at a dairy In Poole, Dorset

As with agriculture, for the majority of people employed in industry hard graft in pitiful conditions was usually rewarded with only meagre pay. The Industrial Revolution had created a growing demand for female and child labour, which often proved the cheapest option for the owners of large factories and mines. In 1788, two-thirds of the workers in 143 cotton mills throughout England and Scotland were described as children, with some having been put to work at the age of six. At that time, many workers would have been required to work for more than 12 hours a day, while the treatment they received in the workplace was usually nothing short of cruel. Furthermore, the tasks which people were required to perform were frequently hazardous and sometimes even proved fatal, while crowded and poorly ventilated textile mills were a major cause of health problems, from ‘fossy jaw’ to lung disease. While legislation had been passed as early as 1802 to regulate working conditions in industry and limit the hours people were expected to work, this proved difficult to enforce and was found to be generally ineffective. Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1830s that the first effective law was passed to deal with such matters, though further government intervention was required at various points throughout the 19th century. But the clutches of unscrupulous employers often extended beyond the workplace and into the home. Many mill and factory owners joined the rush to construct housing for their employees, which frequently proved to be little more than slums. Poorly constructed, insanitary and dangerously overcrowded, these properties were usually built as close to the workplace as possible and rented out to employees at high rates.

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Meanwhile, as expanding trade and communication networks changed the face of industry, they also played an important role in the lives of our forebears. Improvements in transportation saw people travelling greater distances, either in search of work or due to the nature of their employment. This was particularly true for those who worked on the growing railway network and in other professions which demanded movement, such as members of the armed forces or those in the maritime and shipping industries.

Some of our ancestors will have journeyed abroad actively seeking employment, as the technological and manual skills used to power the Industrial Revolution became particularly desirable throughout the colonies. As a result, these movements also helped to determine the relationships between our forebears, with the 19th century marking an increase in the number of people who married away from their parish of origin.

Working class couple
Working class couple, standing outside terraced house in Hull, Yorkshire

But our ancestors’ occupations can also reveal more about their position within their local community and help us to add character to our family story. For example, those who worked as shopkeepers, schoolmasters or policemen would have been well known within their town or village, perhaps commanding some degree of respect from other members of the community. Many who sat on local boards of health or acted as trustees to a local church, for example, were usually prominent local businessmen; this may suggest an entrepreneurial flair. In this respect, the occupations our ancestors pursued very much defined who they were and determined the station they held within society, particularly in the rigid class system of the 19th century. With this in mind, learning more about the role our forebears performed can often let us construct a sense of personality and eventually help us to ‘flesh out’ the lives of previous generations.

Timeline: Occupations

Jethro Tull invented the first horse-drawn ‘seed drill’, mechanising the process of sowing seed
Tax introduced on apprenticeship indentures with a premium greater than 1s.
Richard Arkwright invented the ‘spinning frame’, mechanising the manufacture of cotton1793
The Friendly Societies Act introduced regulation of rules and terms of friendly societies
The Factories Act introduced regulation of working conditions in the textile industry
The Luddite riots began in Nottingham, as textile workers protest against mechanisation
The Swing Riots began in East Kent, as agricultural workers protest against mechanisation
The Tolpuddle Martyrs convicted of swearing a secret oath as members of a friendly society
The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations opened at Hyde Park, in London
The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations opened at Hyde Park, in London
Strike by workers at the Bryant & May match factory in London regarding poor working conditions

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