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England Occupations Building Trades (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 ($).

Buildings[edit | edit source]

Men have been building shelters and defensive structures such as earthworks in Britain since prehistoric times but no archaeological evidence of their homes survives until after the Norman Conquest (1066). The record is excellent from the time most of us can trace our ancestors, the 16th century, but as most houses were built of wood and plant/mud combinations it is a wonder that they have survived. Churches and the homes of the wealthy were built of more enduring stone, but there is at least one wooden Anglo-Saxon church still in use, and plenty of remnants. The quality of stone used in building the parish church often reflects the prosperity (or lack of it) of that parish during the period of building, extension or renovation. Those parishes not situated close to good stone outcrops were at an obvious disadvantage. Hey (The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History. Oxford University Press) has presented a masterly survey of the best literature on the history of British buildings.

The early modern period (1570-1640) was a time of increasing prosperity largely due to the English wool trade and this wealth was used for the Great Rebuilding of homes. During this period, stretching from the middle of Elizabeth’s reign until the start of the Civil War disturbance, the increasing middle class comprised of yeomen, husbandmen and craftsmen used local stone where available and otherwise brick to replace the timber building materials of their homes. Since the geological stratigraphy of Britain, especially England and Wales, is so varied, ranging from the earliest Pre-Cambrian rocks in the west to the current alluvial deposits in the east, vernacular architecture presents a very diverse and appealing variety across the country. Brick earth fields are widespread and since the coming of the railways (1830s onwards) brick has been more economical and the use of stone has declined. Stone is now very costly and by the late 20th century was used mainly as a veneer.

Moving the stone from the quarry to the building site was problematic and costly, but greatly facilitated by using navigable rivers and coastal waters (Hey), as well as the extensive canal system begun during this period. Investigation of the stone used for the different periods of building of the church, and for the tombstones, can indicate the waterways network in operation at the time.

Background reading on types of English homes can be found in the following Shire Publications: Richard Harris (timber-framed buildings), Christopher Powell (cottage architecture), G. M. Dixon (East Anglian Cottages), David Iredale and John Barrett (Discovering Your Old House), and Greg Stevenson (the 1930s home). Other buildings are featured in Marton Watts (water- and wind-powered mills), Nigel Harvey (old farm buildings), Peter and Jean Hansell (dovecotes), Christopher Powell (stables), Tim Buxbaum (ice-houses), Lynn Pearson (piers and other seaside architecture), and Allen Eyles (old cinemas).

Materials[edit | edit source]

The ancient building material called cob, made of mud and pebbles with straw or horse hair for binding, is typical of the farmhouses and outbuildings of the west country counties of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. The building technique, described and illustrated by Staniforth, demands a good foundation and an overhanging thatched roof to keep the rain out. The thick walls keep the buildings warm in winter and cool in summer and many surviving examples are over 300 years old.

Lime was much used in mortar, plaster and whitewash, and the building of limekilns has been described by Williams (Limekilns and Limeburning. Shire Publications, 1989). Pla(i)sterers rendered walls with a covering of plaster from early times, but ornamental plasterwork on walls and ceilings became fashionable from the 16th century. A special form of decorative plasterwork on outside walls, called parget(t)ing, was common in Essex and Suffolk (Buxbaum). Webb (London Apprentices Volume 34. Plaisterers’ Company 1597-1662, 1698-1800. Society of Genealogists, 2000) has indexed the apprenticeships of the Plaisterers’ Company 1597-1662 and 1698-1800.

Building Trades[edit | edit source]

Most of the building trades have been regulated by craftsmens’ guilds in the larger towns since mediaeval times. The exception were the masons who were often itinerant workers controlled through a system of lodges. Hey (The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History. Oxford University Press, 1996) indicates that the typical unit consisted of a master craftsman employing one or two men and a boy, and this continued well into the 20th century. Large construction firms were rare before the 1960s, a modern example being discussed by Hudson (Where We Used to Work. J. Baker, London. FHL book 942 U2hk, 1980). The trade was not subject to much technological change before the 20th century. The master builder developed a network of other skilled craftsmen such as plasterers, plumbers and glaziers whom he employed as needed during the course of a project. Descriptions and records of some of the trades are included here.

Bricklayers[edit | edit source]

Bricklayers have been in demand since the 16th century in areas having little natural stone, particularly the south east and eastern parts of England. Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol I. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991) has a description of the work, and Webb (London Apprentices Volume 2. Tylers’ and Bricklayers Company 1612-1644, 1668-1800. Society of Genealogists, 1996) has indexed the apprenticeships of the Tylers’ and Bricklayers’ Company 1612-1644 and 1668-1800.

Glaziers[edit | edit source]

Mediaeval glaziers did most of their work installing windows in major secular and ecclesiastical buildings since glass was too expensive for domestic buildings. There was a slow increase but it was not until the 19th century that glass was mass-produced cheaply enough for the glazier’s trade to really expand. Webb (London Apprentices Volume 7. Glaziers’ Company 1694-1800. Society of Genealogists, 1997) has indexed the apprenticeships for the Glaziers Company 1694-1800.

Masons[edit | edit source]

Stonemasons undertook a variety of work from quarrying and dressing stone to laying it with mortar (masonry) and also the polishing and lettering of monuments. The term stone cutter referred to anyone who hewed or cut stone, and these could be divided into rough masons who used a pick to shape quarried stone into more or less cubical blocks but without angles or finely dressed faces, and stone dressers who shaped the blocks precisely.

A free mason was originally a man who worked the best quality freestone (fine-grained easily sawn sandstone or limestone), but the term also refers to members of the friendly society. Hislop (Mediaeval Masons. Shire Publications) has a fine book on mediaeval masons, and Webb (London Apprentices Volume 27. Masons’ Company 1663-1805. Society of Genealogists, 1999) has indexed the apprenticeships of the Masons’ Company 1663-1805.

Paviours[edit | edit source]

The floors of mediaeval England were simply earth bound with bullock’s blood, hard-packed with use and strewn with rushes and sweet herbs to provide warmth and improve the smell. Later the paviour was called upon to provide more substantial flooring, although most of his work was on roadways. Larger buildings were the first to have flagstones laid, and other materials used for paving included bricks, quarry and baked clay tiles and cement, with marble and mosaic work favoured for some pretentious buildings. Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol II. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991) describes the paviour’s work and the apprenticeships of the Paviours’ Company from 1568-1800 have been indexed by Webb (London Apprentices Volume 20. Paviors’ Company 1568-1800. Society of Genealogists, 1998).

Plumbers[edit | edit source]

Plumbers originally worked only with lead and installed water cisterns, roofs, pipes, and gutters for all kinds of buildings. Their company was already well-established by 1365. Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol I. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991) describes the work and Webb (London Apprentices Volume 33. Plumbers’ Company 1571-1800. Society of Genealogists, 2000) has indexed the nearly 2,000 Plumbers’ Company apprenticeships 1571-1800.


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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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