Tracing Ancestors in Trade and Business
By Jenny Thomas
It is somehow terribly satisfying to find an ancestor who was involved in trade; not only do we see them as the backbone of their town or local community, but it is easy and rather appealing to picture them standing proudly outside a shop or their business premises, a feature of the local high street, their name and reputation known by everybody in town. It may be that we feel a greater understanding or association with these ancestors and their lives than those who lived and worked in industries long since disappeared. And, what’s more, our ancestors in trade are likely to have left records behind them that you can use to find out more about exactly how they earned their living, and what their lives might have been like generations ago. Here are some ideas about how to find out more.
1. Find out what you know
As with any research project, the first step is to write down everything that you already know about your ancestor and their business, and to question other members of your family to see what information is preserved in the family memory. It may be that there is a photograph somewhere of your ancestor outside his shop, or that your grandmother remembers helping out there on Saturday mornings. There may be a tale or rumour to be uncovered to do with the business or its clients.
But as well as seeking as much of the flavour of the business as possible, you also need to try and discover as much precise information as you can: who owned the business, and when? Where was the business premises, and for how long was it occupied by members of your family? Did only one generation work there, or was it a concern that passed from father to son, and so on through the family? Of course, it is unlikely that all of these questions can be answered by you or your family – many of the events may be well beyond living memory. But your questions and any answers that you receive will provide a solid starting point from which to continue and direct your research.
2. Explore the basic genealogical documents...
…and by this, we mean gathering as many relevant certificates and census returns as you can. It may be that you were alerted to the existence of the business in the first place through an entry on a birth or marriage certificate, or on the census, but there is always scope to find out more. By looking at successive censuses, and successive generations, you might be able to discover how long your ancestor was involved in their particular business, whether they always operated from the same place, how many generations of the family worked in the same industry and how their fortunes grew or declined. You may discover from census returns whether the family lived at the business premises – for example, above a pub or shop, and whether all of their neighbours were also involved in trade.
You can find the basic genealogical documents, or indexes to them, at several websites, including:
www.ancestry.co.uk - Click here to read the review
www.findmypast.com - Click here to read the review
www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk - Click here to read the review www.genesreunited.com - Click here to read the review
3. Have a look at local trade directories
Trade directories, some of which date back several centuries, may list your ancestor along with his or her selected trade. Most commonly produced annually (and therefore able to give you a much fuller picture than the census), these directories often list tradesmen under the heading of their occupation, and also often include street directories, which will help you to establish the length of time that your ancestor spent in one place. You can see from trade directories whether your ancestor had any business partners, who else was operating from the same premises and how many people were involved in that particular trade at the same time as your ancestor. You will also be able to see what those living round about were doing to earn their keep.
The best place to search local trade directories is in the local or county archive (local to the business, of course, rather than to you). The Guildhall Library in London also houses an impressive collection of directories from all over the country.
To find the relevant archive, have a look at:
There is also a collection of historical directories online at:
You may also find local directories relevant to you by running a search on the internet.
4 Examine other relevant records
You might be lucky enough to find some records relating specifically to your ancestor’s business (for example, accounts), either passed down through your family or preserved in the archives local to the business. Histories of the local area may make a mention of the business, and you may even find a photograph of how it used to be. Of course, if the business is still going today, it may hold its own records relating to its history, which you might arrange to see. It is also worth looking in old local newspapers for advertisements and articles relating to the business, or perhaps for the obituary of your tradesman ancestor, which may talk about them in terms of their trade. And remember to search the catalogue at the local archives to see if any documents survive that are relevant to your ancestor and their business.
To search the collections of archives in England and Wales, have a look at:
And for Scotland, visit:
5 Pay a visit to the shop or business
If you have managed to acquire a business address from census returns and trade directories, it is always good fun to pay a visit to the premises in question to see what it is like today. You may find that it has long since disappeared and been replaced by modern buildings – or you may find a shop-front still in tact, or even an old sign or indication of how things used to be. If your ancestor was a publican, you may well find photographs of how the building used to look on the wall inside the pub.
6 Do your background reading
Part of any research project is to place your findings into a wider historical context – to discover whether your ancestor’s experiences were typical, and learn about the events and forces that might have affected them. There will be books in your local library or archive telling you about the history of the area, and thus how your ancestor fitted into the larger scheme of things. You may also find histories of particular trades or types of business: you may be able to discover what a butcher’s life, for example, was likely to have been like – where his supplies come from, who were they sold to and what kind of social position your ancestor might have enjoyed. You may read of social or economic changes that affected your ancestor, and resulted in a sudden abandonment or growth of the business.
To find out more about historical trade directories, have a look at:
British Trade Directories: A Bibliography and Guide, by Gareth Shaw and Allison Tipper
For further research ideas and background reading, have a look at: