What is an ‘occupation’?

One of the most common questions asked both in state, business and personal interactions is ‘what do you do?’ or ‘what is your job?’ and for the former ‘what is your occupation?’


This may seem like a simple question to answer – but in historical terms it becomes more problematic. The concept of ‘an occupation’ starts to get a bit slippery once we begin to interrogate it, yet everybody in paid employment is assumed to have one.  We tend to think that an occupation is a catch-all term that describes a common set of work practices – an electrician works with wires carrying electricity, a plumber with pipes carrying water, a policeman with the prevention and detection of crime.   What they do on a day to day basis, where they do it, and for how much money, are all details – we know one when we see one, and they call themselves and each other, electricians, plumbers and policemen.


Occupation tends to be defined in terms of a particular materials worked upon or with (baker), or a particular set of procedures (hotel receptionist), or a particular end in view (a policeman).  But they also can be defined socially in some notional social hierachy – a judge or a university professor has a higher status than a plumber, although the latter might earn more than an impoverished university lecturer.  The former type of classification is an industrial one, the latter a social construction.


For the purposes of the Censuses, a rank or occupation was defined as ‘regular’ employment, but what is ‘regular’ – particularly in the case of women – 5 days a week? Twice a week? Regularly once a month? Regular trip for hop picking yearly?  It seems to me that ‘occupation’ in the was as much about how a person defined his or herself as opposed to what they did day to day. However, for the purposes of this site, looking at ‘occupations’ is trying to uncover the nature of the actual jobs carried out, and the experiences of those working in the jobs being studied.


Changing occupational structures


There are many occupations which have been lost in the mists of time – anyone know what a ‘bulldog burner’ is?  According to the official Dictionary of occupational terms for the 1921 census he was a man who:


“roasts tap cinder from puddling or blast furnaces to make bulldog, a refactory slag for fettling puddling furnaces; obsolescent.”


Bulldog Burner at work

Bulldog Burner at work



But on the whole occupations have been pretty stable within defined technologies – carpenters do today pretty much what they have done for thousands of years, although they may now work with other products such as MDF.  But new technologies lead to new occupations: steam led to the engine driver; electricity to the electrician; computers to the computer programmer; radio to the disk jockey; and the Internet to the webmaster.


Sometimes, of course, occupational titles shift their meaning – a ‘pilot’ means something rather different today than what it would have done 100 years ago.  19th century pilots piloted boats (and of course marine pilots still do), our modern initial impression of a pilot is someone who flys an aircraft but even then the job is rather different – we’d all feel a bit queasy if the pilot bailed out after getting the aeroplane out of the airport!  Similarly, if one looks up what the category ‘persons engaged in scientific pursuits’ comprised in the official occupational dictionary for the 1871 census of England and Wales one finds the following list:



Agricultural chemist                  Laboratory assistant

Analytical chemist                      Lexicographer

Antiquarian                                  Mathematician

Astronomer                                  Metallurgist

Botanist                                        Microscopic anatomist

Chronologist                                Mineralogist

Entomologist                               Naturalist

Experimentalist                          Nosologist

Expert                                           Observatory assistant

Fly gatherer                                 Ornithologist

Genealogist                                  Philosopher

Geographer                                  Doctor in philosophy

Geologist                                      Professor in philosophy

Geometer                                     Philosophical practitioner

Hydrographer                             Phrenologist







‘Scientific pursuits’ plainly meant something rather different to the mid-Victorian GRO, than it does to us today.  It meant someone working within a well-thought out set of rules and knowledge, rather than someone involved in the physical sciences, or the application of the scientific, experimental method.  But much of the change in 19th century occupations reflected changes in economic structure – some declined with economic sectors, others expanded.


In some ways, however, working patterns in the early 21st century have grown more similar to the 19th century as compared to 1951.  Increasingly today we are told how the idea of a job for life is a thing of the past – we can expect to have several careers, and to have numerous different jobs at the same time – ‘portfolio working’.  The career is dead!   But this is exactly how many WC people also lived in the 19th century – work was casual, seasonal, and opportunistic – ‘portfolio working was for many the norm’. So in some ways the early to mid-20th century may come to stand out as a peculiar period of job stability.


This is not to say that in the Victorian period there were not skilled working men who pursued a ‘craft’ all their lives.  Such men, with small amounts of capital, skills, and access to the trade, would ensure that their children succeeded them into their occupational niches.  There were also places where there was steady industrial employment, as in the mill towns of the North.  Of course, if the local staple ran into trouble – as the Lancashire cotton industry did during the ‘Cotton Famine’ in the 1860s, consequent upon the American Civil War – then there was no employment at all, and people starved.

The cotton famine led to thousands of workers finding themselves without work

The cotton famine led to thousands of workers finding themselves without work


But below this ‘aristocracy of labour’ there was perhaps a majority of workers who had to turn their hands to what was available, depending on the season, their access to materials, or changes in local demand.  They might be builders’ labourers in the Spring, then take to harvest work in the Summer, and work in the docks in the Winter if they could get employment there.  In Britain there was no legal right to job security as in modern Europe.



Dock working was for many a casual occupation - available work could be affected by something as simple as a change in wind direction

Dock working was for many a casual occupation – available work could be affected by something as simple as a change in wind direction

Hop picking was extremely popular among the residents of the crowded cities and offered a means of making money whilst enjoying the clear air of the countryside - particularly in Kent and Sussex - however, it was seasonal and only available for a few weeks a year.

Hop picking was extremely popular among the residents of the crowded cities and offered a means of making money whilst enjoying the clear air of the countryside – particularly in Kent and Sussex – however, it was seasonal and only available for a few weeks a year.





Given the casual and cyclical nature of employment, people had multiple ways of earning a living – people describe themselves in the census returns as ‘Maltster, Brewer and Publican’.  They spread the risk of economic life by not having a single job but several.  But the census tables we base our notions of occupational structure upon cannot cope with this sort of thing – people tended to give themselves a single occupation in their census schedules, and if they gave more than one, only the ‘most important’ was to be counted by the census clerks.  The census was also taken on one day every ten years – usually in March or April to avoid the movements associated with harvest work – so misses out much seasonal/casual work.


Occupations were also affected by life-cycles – as men and women grew older they often found themselves pushed out of steady employment demanding strength or good eye-sight into casual, poorly paid work such as scavenging, hawking newspapers, or acting as look outs for street traders. Many of the elderly ended up in the workhouse. It was the realisation that the poverty of the elderly was involuntary that led to the introduction of OAPs in Britain in 1908.


Occupation structure in the 19th century is a difficult thing to interpret, even though it looks so obvious on paper.  What appear to be the same occupations as today are not.  The experience of work covered by occupational terms may also have been very different to today.  Also, the 20th century concept of an occupation as a career was much less well developed in the Victorian period – work was often a day to day struggle to make ends meet, in which the whole of the household had to take part.  The ideal of the ‘male breadwinner’ was often just that, an ideal, although it may have been one that influenced how people described themselves and the members of their family.


Again, this raises the whole problem of the difficulty that the historian has in studying the past.  We may never be able to get back to the original reality/experience of work.  All we can do is to put together as many documentary sources as possible to give a richer overall picture.  Accounts of work based on one source, even a rich one like the census, are always liable to over-simplification, or even downright error.


This site aims to get to the ‘real’ people – to describe the working conditions, the pay, the nature of the work, the changes over time in their experiences and uses a wide range of primary and secondary sources to try and get under the catch all phrase of ‘occupation’ and see the work itself, as often as possible from a first hand perspective in the use of case studies and contemporary surveys and reports, wage books, newspapers, registers – anything we can find that lets us get back to the real people.



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