Reflections on being a commercial genealogist

P1000338Officially I qualified as a genealogist last summer but had carried out some research for friends and family prior to that in addition to my own research that dates back to 2000. Over time I have found a mother of an illegitimate daughter, an habitual poacher, an aristocrat, a cinema pioneer and a family who were early immigrants to USA amongst 100s of others.

Now seems as good a time as any to reflect on some of the lessons learnt that might be of interest to my readers.

Sometimes people just cannot be found – this can be because the records have been lost or destroyed, they didn’t exist in the first place or ancestors deliberately muddied the trail as they did not want to be found. In this business nothing is guaranteed!

Sometimes our roots are just plain boring – with the vast majority of us being descended from ag labs (agricultural labourers) those exciting discoveries often just don’t exist.

On the other hand, our ancestors were ‘naughty’ to varying degrees – illegitimacy, bigamy, desertion, theft, prostitution often occur and I am often surprised at people’s reaction. Some love the idea that their elders and (supposedly) betters were not perfect while others are horrified and totally wracked with shame. At the ‘reveal’ of the research I have done this always has to be handled sensitively.

An ‘instant’ and free or cheap family tree just doesn’t exist – thanks to programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? there is a misconception that 10 minutes online and a quick visit to the local registry will result in the creation of your tree. It takes time, patience, expertise and detective work to know where to look and ….money even if you do all the legwork yourself.

The rewards can render people speechless – to end on a high note, I have seen clients reduced to tears with gratitude and had their lives transformed by knowing where they came from and family mysteries solved. Being a genealogist is hugely rewarding whether it is just creating the beginnings of a tree with a research plan to let people discover their own roots or creating an in-depth book as a family keepsake.

Anyone looking for a genealogy gift or help with research, check out my website at


The life of a shoemaker in March, Cambs.

Following on from previous posts around directories and tradesmen I thought it would be good to share with you the research I carried out for my own tree involving a shoe maker. Wigston is my family name and so anyone possibly related is of interest. I found Thomas B Wigston when I did a search for Wigston in Leicestershire in professional and organisational directories. As is often the case I was looking for something else but this interested me so I researched around the topic to make it more ‘real’.

shoe blog1

Under the apprentice indentures was this entry:

shoeblog 2

Context around shoemaking in March 1798-1844 (estimated career span)

Today March lies on the course of the Fen Causeway which is a roman road in the fen area of Cambridgeshire. Before the fens were drained March was an island in a landscape of marshy fens and was described a s a ‘considerable town’ in 1808. At one time the town would have relied on shipping on the River Nene but with the drainage and the arrival of trains in 1847, this trade declined. However, the railways were responsible for the overall growth of March being the chief railway centre for the Isle of Ely.

During the Napoleonic wars (1777-1815) the price of corn doubled as labourer’s wages fell and the poor were starving. Unrest inevitably followed and riots broke out. However, it did increase the demand for footwear and by around 1810 around 250,000 men in the British Army needed boots! During this period the demand drove the introduction of some mechanisation in order to improve productivity. By 1850 factories became centres of machinery and much of the outworking nature of shoemaking reduced or stopped altogether.

In 1785 the market tolls were assessed at £6 but soon after this it lapsed and in 1821 an attempt to revive it failed which is odd as during this period markets usually thrived. This was mainly due to the lack of a covered hall and the fact that the neighbouring markets were held on the same day. These points were remedied but after the period we are looking at.

March first had a post office in 1793 and was made a ‘post town’ in 1832.

From 1778-1846 the Guildhall was used by the Court of Request for the recovery of small debts. In the context of the Napoleonic wars, this is understandable with such hardship around. The Guildhall was rebuilt in1827 and still stands in the High Street.


Training as a shoemaker

In order to start your career as a shoemaker you needed an indenture, which was normally a private arrangement between the master and the parent or guardian of the child. The child was bound to the master by a written document and the family would pay the master a fee, normally in instalments.

A master was normally found amongst the family’s friends, relations or on personal recommendation. In some cases apprenticeships were kept very much within a family network, often creating a monopoly. Failing this masters and parents would advertise in local newspapers.

The apprenticeship normally started at the age of 14 for 7 years and in theory needed no payment as the technical training was supplied in return for the labour given but small, regular payments were often made for clothes, for example, especially in the latter years of the apprenticeship.

By the 18 century those who lived apart from their masters were frequently paid a regular wage, below that of the journeyman (masters’ other workers) and this was often referred to as ‘half pay’ or ‘colting’. In these cases the apprentices often went home from Saturday night to Monday morning.

Traditional forms of apprenticeship were inflexible making it ill-matched to a rapidly changing economy. It also relied on the exploitation of young people which then resulted in a change to the law in 1814, which meant it was no longer possible to prosecute anyone who practiced a trade without having served a 7 year apprenticeship. With this in mind it is possible that our Thomas never went on to train his own apprentices.

Even if Thomas did complete his own apprenticeship, it did not guarantee an immediate entrance to the trade as there were many difficulties between the end of the apprenticeship and the point where a shoemaker could set up in business. These included financial challenges and family conflicts which mean they would become a journeyman rather than a master shoemaker. Few apprentices could afford to become freeman of the company at the end of their 7 year period. Most of them then spent many years saving hard in order to set up their own business.


In London by the 1730’s, the shoe and boot market had grown so much that small master shoemakers were setting up workshops wherever they could, often in highly unsuitable places. Robert Bloomfield the poet, left Suffolk as a boy of 14 to join his brother in one of these workshops and his brother gives an insight into life as an apprentice: “It is customary in such houses as are let to the poor people in London to have light garrets fit for mechanics to work in. In the garret where we had two turn-up beds and five of us worked, I received little Robert. As we were all single men, lodgers at a shilling a week each, our beds were coarse and all things far from being clean and snug, like what Robert had left at Sapiston. Robert was our man to fetch all things to hand. At noon he fetched our dinners from the cook’s shop, and any one of our fellow workmen that wanted to have anything fetched in, would send him, and assist in his work and teach him, for a recompense for his trouble.”

Career of a qualified shoemaker

We know that Thomas went on to be a shoemaker in his own right as we have entries in the following directories found on

Pigot’s Directory of Cambridgeshire, 1830-1


Robson’s Commercial Directory 1839


Shoemakers usually had workshops in their homes, where wives and children helped out and often even worked on Sundays. They had to be highly literate, keeping records and conforming to measurements to ensure that shoes fitted correctly. By the mid 19 century certain shoemakers were described as ‘manufacturers’, employing a large number of shoemakers, supplying them with the materials and selling their finished products to buyers. Astute businessmen recognised that mechanisation meant profit, which meant more factory hands and less shoemakers, leading to the mechanisation dispute of 1857-9. In 1810 a patented sole riveting machine was registered and manufactured by M I Brunel who also designed a press for cutting leather in order to speed up production. In 1853 Thomas Crick also patented a method of improved riveting of boots. As a result of this, the last quarter of the 18 century is characterised by intense protests against employers on the subject of wages. ‘Our’ Thomas Wigston must have seen this ‘squeeze’ on individual shoemakers but probably did not survive to see the trade go completely mechanised.


Although unlikely due to the location of Thomas in rural March where work footwear was more likely to be in demand, some shoemakers went on to be a cordwainer. This is a shoemaker who makes fine soft leather shoes and other luxury footwear articles. The word is derived from “cordwain”, or “cordovan”, the leather produced in Córdoba, Spain. The term cordwainer was used as early as 1100 in England. Historically, there was a distinction between a cordwainer, who made luxury shoes and boots out of the finest leathers, and a cobbler, who repaired them.

In London, the occupation of cordwainer was historically controlled by the guild of the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers which is still in existence today.

Although originally a force to be reckoned with and despite changes in its approach and remit to meet the changing demands in society and business, the guild gradually declined in the 18 century.

It is more likely that Thomas was sworn in as he entered into apprenticeship into the local merchant guild of shoemakers. I have searched but cannot find any reference to this type of guild in March or Ely.


The life of a shoemaker in this period was a difficult one. It was skilled but not generously paid and was battling with the demands of a fast moving era of production improvement, competition from other trades moving into shoemaking and from those working without the apprenticeship credentials. Thomas’ life was probably quite hard however from the two following entries from the poll books of 1832 and 1835 it was quite likely that Thomas was a freeholder or had property that then entitled him to vote so he had not done so badly after all.


Also, on searching the 1861 census Thomas is still alive and well at 65 and living with his daughter which also indicates that his hard life did not affect his longevity, thankfully.



George Riello                                     A foot in the past: Consumers, Producers and Footwear in the Long Eighteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 2006)



Further thoughts on trade directories

After my last blog I revisited my notes and past research on directories as it had rekindled my interest in this sometimes overlooked resource.

The earliest trade directories date back to the mid 17th century and started just in London only. By the 19th century they reached their peak whereby annual directories covering most counties were produced by the likes of the Post Office, Pigots, Kelly and White, amongst others.

whites directory lincolnshire

For some specialist trades there were specific directories or compilations which can make searching that much easier. One good example of this is the extract of photographers taken from Slater’s 1868 directory –

Even if your ancestors were not candlesmiths or drapers, these directories can provide useful information that goes beyond the commercial adverts. The content varies, but typically they contain descriptions of cities, parishes, towns and villages. These may include geographical, historical and statistical details. They also can contain information about local facilities, institutions and associations which might prove a useful starting point for researching craftmen or professionals.

In addition to the paid-for adverts of traders, trades and professions they often include listings for private residents too which can help to place people’s location between census’ which can narrow down where to look for parish records, for example.

Large collections of directories can be found at the Guildhall Library, London, and the Society of Genealogists. A catalogue of the latter has been printed as Directories and Poll Books in the Library of the Society of Genealogists (6th ed. 1995) [FHL book 942.1/L1 D23so]. There is also a fine series of London directories on microfilm at the London Metropolitan Archives.

For further reading on the matter you might like to consult Jane Elizabeth Norton’s Guide to the National and Provincial Directories of England and Wales, excluding London, published before 1856 (Royal Historical Society, 1950) [FHL book 942 C4rg].

My final thoughts on this topic is not to forget the newspapers. Adverts were placed by tradesmen in their local paper, much as some do today. These can be found on FindMyPast, Ancestry or The British Newspaper Archive at In the case of the latter of these resources you can narrow down the search criteria by several terms including specifying you are interested adverts.

Hope you found this of use…happy hunting!



Spreading the word

It’s been a while since the blog has been up and running but being honest, I have not had the time to spend on it that I would have liked. A change in circumstances now means I do have some time over the summer but I have been busy with other things.

I have now decided to set up a website and facebook page and to start promoting my wares, as it were! All I need to do know is to wait for the enquiries to come in. Why not have a look here. By all means give me any constructive feedback.

In the process it made me think about how our ancestors would have promoted themselves in the past.


(Photo – Knees Ironmongers and Manufacturers in 1911. Photo courtesy of The Trowbridge Museum, The Shires, Court Street, Trowbridge, Wiltshire, BA14 8AT)

Originally traders and craftsmen would have had a very local market…mainly passers by and neighbours so shopfronts would have been very important. Later on in the industrial revolution there would have been more competition and some trades or manufacturers would have been further removed from their target audience. It’s then that we see more use of trade directories.

Leicester University has a great collection of digitised directories here. However, it is a bit tricky to navigate and find what you are looking for. Here is an image of a Kelly’s directory for Kent in 1913.

Kent directory

Obviously Ancestry and FindMyPast have some directories online too. Another rich source is the local County Record Office and I have found there are generally some editions on eBay too!

How much information they offer you that might be useful is variable but a little piece of additional information might help knock down that brick wall or distinguish one possible ancestor from another.

So, like many before me I have put my message out there and will await the business coming in.