England Occupations Food and Drink (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Food and Drink


The baker’s primary work was the production of bread, and mixing dough was heavy work and not successfully mechanized until the 1850s. Descriptions of the bakers’ trade are not hard to come by so only a few are given here. The Shire book by Muller gives a thorough history of baking and the processes used with lots of pictures. Hill (Old Occupations: The Baker. Family Tree Magazine Vol 11 #7, page 9, 1995) relates the development of bakeries during the last two centuries, whilst brief descriptions of the trade are given by Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol I. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991-1), and Filbee (Cottage Industries. David and Charles, Newton Abbot, Devon, 1982) who also gives details about a modern home-baked pie making franchise. The experience of military bakers provided the basis for bread factories which by 1960 provided 60% of all bread.

The baker also made a wide assortment of biscuits and cakes which were sold from his own shop, but also later mechanized and factory produced, of-course. Hudson provides perspective on 20th century biscuit making, and Dolphin (Biscuit Tins. Shire Publications) reminisces about their distinctive containers.

There was an increase in the number of bakers when the large personal outside brick ovens were replaced by smaller Victorian indoor ones that couldn’t hold enough loaves for the 19th century family. So far only the apprenticeships of the London Brown Bakers’ Company 1615-1646 have been indexed by Webb (London Apprentices Volume 31. Wax Chandlers’ Company 1666-1800; Brown Bakers’ Company 1615-1646. Society of Genealogists, 2000); it merged with the White Bakers’ Company in 1646 becoming simply the Bakers’ Company.


In the days before piped purified water, tuberculin-tested cows and orange juice the staple drink of the people-men, women and children was ale. The process involved heating water before the mashing, boiling the wort, and then fermentation with production of alcohol, all of which ensured that the liquid was sterile and remained so. This was all produced in the household, in local alehouses for the retail trade, and in monasteries for the use of travellers and the monks.

No doubt housewives also produced juice from wild or cultivated fruits, but its shelf life would have been short. Wines had been introduced first by the Romans and again by the Normans but as few spots in England were warm enough for growing grapes domestic production was minimal and imports were too expensive for the masses. Fruit and flower wines such as elderberry and dandelion seem to have been made only in the home. Apples and pears were used commercially for cider and perry, respectively. Cidermaking, practiced largely in the West Country, has been described by Quinion (Cidermaking. Shire Publications), Wymer (English Country Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to Present Day. Batsford, London, 1946), Manners (Country Crafts Today. Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan., 1974) and Bailey (The Industrial Heritage of Britain. Ebury Press/Book Club Associates, 1982).

Brewing was therefore an important part of every village and town economy carried on not only in homes and farms but in taverns, alehouses and inns where it was often done by women, known as alewives or brewsters. The price of ale was fixed and aletasters or aleconners had to test the quality before it went on sale. Brewing of beer became established when hops were introduced from Europe about 1400, but the guilds of ale- and beer-brewers kept themselves apart and even used different sizes of casks for their products (Lovett). The government soon recognized the revenue potential of ale and beer and it has been taxed since 1188.

Breweries as we know them only began in the 18th century and were called common breweries, the early ones being run by immigrants from the Low Countries, especially in London. The old processes of distilling spirits have been described Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol II. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991 under brewing, The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol III. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1994) and Webb (London Apprentices Volume 11. Distillers’ Company 1659-1811. Society of Genealogists, 1997) has indexed the London Distillers’ Company apprenticeships from 1659-1811.

There were thousands of small brewers and a few larger ones which came to dominate the market; by the late 20th century only a half-dozen firms supply the demand. London was the main site of commercial brewing but there were other provincial ones, notably Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire owing to its supply of excellent water for beer. Good accounts of the history of brewing can be found in Lovett (Brewing and Breweries. Shire Publications. FHL book 942 U25s v. 72, 1981), Bailey (The Industrial Heritage of Britain. Ebury Press/Book Club Associates, 1982), and Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol II. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991). For details of the manufacturing process refer to Lovett.

The process of malting, whereby barley is converted into malt for the brewing of ale is found chiefly in the barley-growing areas of eastern and southeastern England, notably Suffolk, Essex and east Hertfordshire (Bailey 1982). Some of the ancient malt-houses or maltings are still in use, and many have been converted for other purposes, for example the East Sussex Record Office in Lewes is housed in one. The tale of one maltster or malster is recounted by Lever (The Maltster. Family Tree Magazine Vol 5 #5).

Individual brewers’ records can be found amongst the records of the Brewery History Society (Barber), and in the victuallers licenses and over 6,000 London Brewers’ Company apprenticeships from 1531-1685 (2001) and 1685-1800 (1996) have been indexed by Cliff Webb. Some breweries, such as Courage, have good archives. They have the records of their 80 constituent companies including details of licencees, tenants’ registers, deeds of public houses, photographs, company magazines and directors’ minutes. Several Brewery Museums are described by Lovett (Brewing and Breweries. Shire Publications. FHL book 942 U25s v. 72).

Carbonated beverages became fashionable as a corollary to visiting spas during the late 18th century and Schweppe, a German emigrant in London, sold over a million bottles of his soda water, lemonade and ginger beer at the 1851 Great Exhibition. The story of carbonated beverages is well told by Hill (Old Occupations: Soda Water Manufacturer. Family Tree Magazine Vol 13 #9, page 21-22, 1997).

Confectionery and Cooking

The cultivation of sugar cane was introduced into the Caribbean in the 16th century, and sugar beets were grown in Europe from the late 18th century. Refiners of sugar were known as sugar bakers. The industry was concentrated in the east end of London and the majority of the workers were late 18th century to mid-19th century German emigrants. The Anglo-German FHS have published a detailed history of the industry. The confectioner had a ready market for his sweetmeats (sweets, or candies to North American) and the ancient confectionery ingredients of milk, cream, butter, gelatine, pectin, almonds, pistachios and fruits were supplemented by new discoveries of spices, citrus fruits, rose water and liquorice. Chocolate, vanilla and pineapples arrived from the New World. Anyone with a confectioner as an ancestor should read the mouthwatering description in Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol III. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1994) of the eight kinds of confects or confits (fruits, flowers, herbs, roots, and juices boiled and prepared with sugar or honey) as well as gingerbread, ice-cream and specialty cakes. Another good account is that by Mason, who discusses both the early hand making of sweets and chocolates and mechanized mass production. Baron-Jones wrote about searching for her ancestors in the Clarnico Company and the company’s history. The early records of the London Cooks’ Company are kept at the Guildhall Library and Webb (London Apprentices Volume 26. Cooks’ Company 1654-1800. Society of Genealogists, 1999) has indexed over 3,000 apprenticeships from 1654-1800.

Preserving Food

There is very little written for the genealogist about those who worked in food preservation. Curing of ham was done above the fire in most homes, but also sent out to a local curer, beef and mutton being too expensive for most people (Arnold, All Made by Hand. John Baker, London, 1970). Chaloner (People and Industries. Frank Cass, London. FHL book 942 U3ch, 1963) has a chapter on the canning industry, and ice-houses are the subject of a Shire book by Buxbaum.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

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