England Professional Occupations J to Z (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 ($).

Professonal (cont.)

Parliamentarians

The Parliamentary Archives is called the House of Lords Records Office and Camp (2001-3) explains its contents and the website details opening hours. A series of biographies of Members of Parliament from 1386-1832 is being published online. The case files and minutes of the Royal Literary Fund is a lucky dip that contains submissions from former politicians now in reduced circumstances (see Royal Literary Fund and Cross’ Archives of the Royal Literary Fund: Case Files and Minutes. Royal Literary Fund, London. 122 films starting at FHL film 1473489 (indexes on last 5 films)).

ŸParish Officials

The records of parish officials will mainly be in the many items contained in the parish chest, and these as well as the duties of the churchwarden, vestry member, pew opener, sidesman, knocknobbler, constable, overseer of the poor, and highway surveyor. Other important parish officials are noted here.

The parish clerk was a literate man, (or occasionally woman), appointed to assist the parish incumbent, paid out of church funds and often held the position for life. Originally he was in minor orders but this changed at the Reformation. His duties included:

  • Making arrangements for services, including christenings, weddings and funerals.
  • Leading the singing and responses during services, hence the nickname amen clerk.

An 1815 epitaph for Philip Roe of Bakewell, Derbyshire announces:

The Vocal Powers here let us mark
Of PHILIP, our late Parish Clerk.
In Church none ever heard a Layman,
With a clearer voice say Amen.


  • Reading from the bible during services.
  • Entering the details of christenings, marriages and burials in the parish register. He may have kept daily notes on slips of paper, or had a rough book from which he drew up the official register weekly. It is largely to ‘his punctiliousness, or otherwise’ (Skinner) that we owe the present condition of the parish registers.
  • Responding to requests for copies of entries in the parish register.
  • In earlier times he was responsible for sprinkling holy water and sometimes for educating children of the parish.
  • In small or poor parishes he would act as the sexton, who dug graves, tolled the bell and did church maintenance jobs, and attended to heating.
  • If he was musical he may have organized a choir or band of players to augment services (Weir), and play on special occasions, as in Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree.

The parish clerk could exercise considerable influence over his incumbent, especially if the latter was inexperienced, as in Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford. Some notes on how the parish clerk was paid are given by Skinner. A guild of Parish Clerks of the city of London was formed in 1232, whose records are in the Guildhall Library and which still performs useful work in the city (Royall). Amongst its memorable duties prior to 1858 was the compilation of Bills of Mortality, which are often quoted in respect to the 17th century plague years. An 1844 act of parliament transferred most of the parish clerk’s duties to curates, and when civil parishes were created in 1894 most of the rest were given to the secular clerk of the parish council. The parish clerk now is only responsible for the care of certain documents and maps (Friar).

The beadle was a minor elected and paid parish officer with a variety of duties in different parishes:

  • As town crier ringing a bell and making announcements, such as bidding parishioners to attend vestry meetings. The Town Criers Guild can provide more information on this occupation.
  • Responsible for keeping order, and perhaps replacing a constable.
  • Ceremonial duties such as leading dignitaries in procession.
  • Acting as a subsidiary to the vestry in the relief of the poor, for example in whipping vagrants; in escorting persons given removal orders back to their parishes of settlement; and in arranging apprenticeships for pauper children.

Dickens created Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist as the archetypal beadle, and Webbe (The Beadle of the Parish in Portraits of the English Vol I: Parish Characters edited and published by COLLINS, Audrey. 1999. Original published by Robert Tyas, London) has given us a most telling and humorous account of such a character.

Prison Officers

Prison officers have always been members of the Civil Service and few records were kept of them except if they received a pension, in which case the Public Record Office staff appointment books and Paymaster General’s books may be useful. Background information can be sought from Thomas and from a history of the prison in which he worked, which should be available from the local archives or public library.

ŸRegistrar and Vaccination Officer

The civil position of Registration Officer was created in 1837 to collect birth, marriage and death registrations in each district. In 1867 vaccination against smallpox was made compulsory and local Vaccination Officers was created and many men held both these positions. The early registrars were often also the Relieving Officers for their Poor Law Union and as such their careers can be traced. Kernick (How Many Genealogists Can Boast Two Registrars Among Their Ancestors? Journal of One-Name Studies Vol 7 #9, page 12-13) relates the story of father and son registrars in his family.

Spy

Believe it or not, there is documentary material about British spies covering the period 1791-1909 at the Public Record Office in classes HD1-4 (Fowler 1995). Information about these and other useful material is included in their leaflet M26. Information about the recently released Security Service (MI5) documents, including 20th century material, is on the National Archives website. Campbell-Passmore (My Ancestor the Spy. Family Tree Magazine Vol 10 #7, page 3-4, 1994) has a good account of her Elizabethan spy ancestor, and Fowler (Was Your Ancestor a Spy? Family Tree Magazine Vol 13 #2, page 57, 1996) tells of a 1794 spy’s contract.


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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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