Like so many people with any interest in genealogy, I have a fair smattering of agricultrural labourers in my family tree. It’s so easy when you see the ‘ag. lab.’ Notation on the census return to just pass by thinking that this particular ancestor was just another agricultural laourer. In fact those two little words can tell us a lot about the family life of the man and his family.
Ag. lab. Hours would be long and full of heavy larbouring, despite improvements in agricultural machinery by the middle of the nineteenth century. The family would most likely be living at subsistence level, managing from day to day to feed and clothe themselves, with very little left for any of the luxuries that we now take for granted. Job security would have been precarious, and it isn’t uncommon to see the families of agricultural labourers living in different places from one census to the next.
It’s interesting, too, to discover how someone develops their career between census returns. As a youngster, is may be that a young man showed as an apprentice on the census return (apprentice butcher, for example) ten years later, he would likely have served his time and show as a butcher, or even a journeyman butcher. The journeyman wasn’t a travelling man, but a qualified worker who had not yet achieved ‘master’ status. A master butcher, watchmaker etc. would have served his apprenticeship and developed in his craft before being afforded the title ‘master’.
We can plot this career development, not only through census returns, but by using other documents, such as baptism records, which show not only a child’s parents names, but their address and father’s occupation.
It’s also fascinating to discover how someone managed to progress from a lowly occupation through to a more influential one. Last year I managed to offend someone when I noted on a biography that an ancestor had been described as a ‘navvy’ on an early census return. This was a matter of fact, and not intended to be offensive, rather to demonstrate how much he must have worked to develop into a qualified engine driver on a later census return. In the late 19thcentury and early 20thcentury it wasn’t so easy for the working classes to be able to improve their lot; opportunities were fewer and attitudes more discriminatory, so anyone who managed such a dramatic change of circumstances must surely deserve recognition that he had achieved so much from a poor start. I don’t think for one minute that this post will be read by the person who I offended, but if it is, I hope that any misunderstanding has been cleared up.