Researching Work

A man in a striped jacket stands on a ladder, leaning against a street lamp.  A small boy, with an oil can in one hand, reaches up to take a lamp mechanism from the man's hand. W.H. Pyne, Lamplighter, 1806. © Bristol Public Libraries.


For most Londoners, work of one kind or another was a vital part of their lives, and although few of the records in London Lives were intended to record working experiences, the vast majority include information which sheds light on Londoners' occupations and working conditions. The economy of eighteenth-century London was still essentially pre-industrial, characterised by a heavy reliance on manual labour and small places of employment, rarely employing more than a dozen people. Few Londoners had secure jobs for life, and many, particularly among the poor, worked in a number of different jobs throughout their lives in order to make ends meet.

For records concerning apprenticeship, see the apprentices page in the Research Guide.


London Lives includes a wealth of evidence about the multifarious occupations practised by Londoners. Many, but not all, have been tagged, so it is possible to search for them using the person name search page, although a keyword search will generate more results (but also many irrelevant ones). For information on the extent to which occupations have been tagged, see markup of text. No attempt has been made to standardise occupational names, so it may be necessary to search for several different terms in order to find all instances of a particular occupation. If you are interested in sailors, for example, you will also need to search for mariner, seaman, etc.

One of the document types which includes the largest number of occupations is the Old Bailey Proceedings, where defendant and victim occupations were often given. For example, there are 400 trials alone between 1690 and 1800 in which carpenter appears as a defendant or victim occupation (many more can be found through keyword searching). The trial accounts provide significant incidental information about working practices in London.

A pauper examination given by Eleanor James on 23 October 1788 to the parish of St Botolph Aldgate London Metropolitan Archives, St Botolph Aldgate, Pauper Examination Books, 1788-1790, Ms 4215/1, LL ref: GLBAEP103000019.

Other records provide evidence of the mixture of occupations pursued by individuals over the course of their lives. The Ordinary's Accounts (OA), biographies of executed criminals compiled by the chaplain of Newgate Prison, include accounts of the employments undertaken by their subjects before they descended into a life of crime. Also containing evidence of jobs carried out at different life stages are parochial Pauper Examinations (EP), which, together with related records such as Registers of Passes (RD) and Registers of Orders (RV), record periods of employment which provided the basis on which an individual gained a settlement.

Many of the externally created datasets included in London Lives also include data on occupations. Those which include a significant number of occupations include:

  • Parish registers for St Botolph Aldgate, 1681-1709 which, in the context of listings of births, marriages and deaths, include some occupations, together with occasional information about place of residence, status, and age.
  • The Poll Tax assessments for St Botolph Aldgate in 1690-98, which record, in addition to the amount of tax paid and information about the size of households, the occupations for about one third of taxpayers.

For the poor, the most relevant database is:

  • The registers of boys recruited in the Marine Society between 1770 and 1804. Most entries provide an occupation for the boy's closest relative (often the father) and the boy himself (these occupations have been standardised). This provides good evidence of the types of work available to poor families, and shows the extent of intergenerational continuity in the occupations followed by fathers and sons.

Other occupation-rich databases are primarily composed of middle class and elite Londoners:

  • The poll books (voting records) in the Westminster Historical Database for the period from 1749-1820 include 1,612 separately named occupations. Each entry also includes the voter's street address and who they voted for.
  • The index to the Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills from 1680-1819. Each entry also includes place of residence.
  • The Fire Insurance registers include for most entries details of the policy holders' occupation and place of residence.
  • The 1774 Urban Directory for London and Westminster lists the names, addresses, and occupations of over 5,000 of London's most prosperous inhabitants. Unfortunately, the occupations are only provided as codes in London Lives, but you can find a full list of the codes and occupation names from the UK Data Archive. The dataset also includes a field listing the economic sector of the each occupation, such as manufacturing or dealing. The occupations have been divided into nine economic sectors which are listed on the dataset information page. It is possible to search for these by using the occupation search box on the person name search page.

With the exception of the Westminster poll books (where women are excluded because they could not vote), it is possible to use these records to identify a number of businesses run by women.

Two axe-grinders working; one seated on a high trestle, sharpening an axe on a large stone wheel, which is being turned by another man using a crank William Alexander. Axe-Grinders. Late eighteenth century. British Museum, Binyon 4. © Trustees of the British Museum.

Working Practices

Evidence of working practices is limited in London Lives sources, but one can find a number of rich incidental details. Paradoxically, one place where it is not useful to look is the records of the Carpenters' Company, since this and other guilds no longer played a significant role in regulating their trade.

Records which provide narratives of short episodes in daily life, such as are found in the trial narratives of the Old Bailey Proceedings and in depositions and examinations kept in the Sessions Papers (PS) and Coroners' Inquests (CI), often describe working practices. This is particularly true when an injury or death related to a workplace accident or dispute. In addition, the Registers of Admissions (RH) of St Thomas's Hospital include the victims of workplace accidents, with very brief descriptions of their injuries.

Criminal activities in the workplace, or activities which were deemed by employers to be criminal, are well documented in the Old Bailey Proceedings and the related Sessions Papers (PS). Most of these involved accusations of thefts, many of which involved items such as scraps or spilled raw materials, which employees claimed as perquisites but which were increasingly deemed by their employers as their property. Other cases involved items borrowed from masters by their servants and pawned, with the claim that they would be returned shortly, and raw materials provided by employers for home work and not accounted for, leading to charges of embezzlement. Cases of fraud also frequently arose in a work environment.

Evidence concerning the labour disputes which occurred in several trades in the eighteenth century can be found in the Old Bailey Proceedings and the Sessions Papers (PS), primarily in trials where workers were charged with riot, damaging property, or conspiracy (to force up wages).

In addition, the working practices of those who were employed by the institutions whose archives are included in London Lives, including parishes, Bridewell, and St Thomas's Hospital, are well documented in their records. In particular, the Minutes of the Court of Governors (MG) include considerable information about the staff employed by Bridewell and St Thomas's, as well as contractors brought in to work on the buildings and fabric.

One of the externally created datasets included provides evidence of the professional careers and incomes of those following one middle class occupation, clerks. The database of salaries paid to East India Clerks between 1760 and 1820 includes evidence not only of their salaries, but also the length of time clerks had worked for the company, their specific occupation, the department they worked for, and the gratuities they received.

Working for the Parish

Parishes became significant employers in the eighteenth century, as the task of carrying out parochial responsibilities, particularly the provision of poor relief, in parishes with tens of thousands of inhabitants could no longer be carried out by churchwardens and overseeers of the poor alone. Parishes employed clerks, workhouse masters, parish nurses, apothecaries, surgeons, watch house keepers and watchmen. Workhouses alone were significant employers: the workhouse of St James Westminster employed fourteen salaried members of staff in 1726. Parish records provide evidence of the pay and working conditions of these employees, in particular their appointments and salaries or wages: see especially the Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor Account Books (AC), Miscellaneous Parish Account Books (AO), Payments to Paupers (AP), and Vestry Minutes (MV).

Among those employed to look after the poor were the poor themselves. Paupers served as nurses and contributed to the running of the workhouse. See, for example, the story of Mabel Hughes, a widow who was committed to the workhouse of St Botolph Aldgate because she was unable to support herself, and was given the task of supervising boys who were winding silk. Unfortunately, she beat one so severely that he died, and she was convicted of murder.

Questioning the Archive

  • To what extent did the London poor engage in multiple forms of employment over the course of their lives?
  • How diverse were the employment opportunities available to women'?
  • How dangerous were working practices in eighteenth-century London?
  • Why were those engaged in certain types of occupations more likely to be accused of crime than others?
  • Should workplace crime be interpreted as an aspect of the struggles of the London working class to improve their pay and conditions?
  • How did the working conditions of those working for the parish and other public institutions differ from other types of work in eighteenth-century London?
  • Were those who were given employment as a form of poor relief treated differently from other employees?

Back to Top | Introductory Reading

Exemplary Lives

Lives using the keyword Craftsman:

Lives using the keyword Mariner:

Lives using the keyword Servant:

Lives using the keyword Tradesman:

Introductory Reading

  • Dobson, C. R. Masters and Journeymen: A Prehistory of Industrial Relations, 1717-1800. 1980.
  • D'Sena, Peter. Perquisites and Casual Labour on the London Wharfside in the Eighteenth Century. London Journal 14 (1989), pp. 130-147.
  • Earle, Peter. A City Full of People: Men and Women of London, 1650-1750. 1994.
  • Linebaugh, Peter. The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century. 1991.
  • Rule, John. The Experience of Labour in Eighteenth-Century Industry. 1981.

For further reading on this subject see the London Lives Bibliography