Category Archives: Trading Stories, Working Lives

Trading Stories, Working Lives: Joseph Taylor, lime worker

Sometimes in family history research you discover a document or an object that hints at an intriguing story; something that compels you to investigate further. Such was the case when I discovered a gravestone at Barrow Upon Soar, inscribed with:

“Two fellow workmen in this grave do lie

Both in a well at Barley Hill did die

The unwholesome damp the fatal stroke did give”

Here was a gravestone with a story: Joseph Taylor and his workmate Henry Barsby had been buried together after perishing in a well on 11th June 1824, both aged 25 years.

Many of us have labourers amongst our ancestors – men who grafted in the fields or on the roads. Despite long years of toil, labourers generally leave a sparse paper trail; theirs were not jobs that brought about apprenticeship records, trade directory listings or wills. It can be tricky to get more than a general sense of their working lives. So here – starting with the gravestone inscription – was an opportunity to find out rather more than usual.

Joseph Taylor’s life as a lime worker is the focus in our latest article in the Trading Stories, Working Lives series: click to download

As well as uncovering Taylor’s tragic story, the article suggests ways in which you might enrich your own ancestral research by drawing upon newspaper snippets, trade directories, industrial histories and local studies. Which of your ancestors might have a working history to investigate further?

1841 Advert for Barrow lime at Webb & Austin, Leicester Journal 21 May 1841

Take a look too at the other articles in our Trading Stories, Working Lives series:

John and George Firn, monumental masons

Polkey boatmen of Loughborough

The Harrisons: gardeners, nurserymen and seeds merchants

George Robinson, Victorian letter carrier

Trading Stories, Working Lives: John and George Firn, monumental masons

As you track John Firn through successive census returns on Ancestry you get some sense of his progress in life; he’s first described as ‘Mason’ (1851), then ‘Builder employing 46 men and 9 boys’ (1861) and finally ‘Master builder employing 50 men and 4 boys’ (1871). Over a period of some twenty years – living and working from premises in Midland Street, Leicester – John Firn became a builder and monumental mason of some substance.

Trade directory advert for John Firn 1862

In the latest article in our Trading Stories, Working Lives series we take a closer look at John Firn’s working life. It starts with the discovery of one of his notebooks at the bottom of a family tool chest, and ends with the business floundering in the hands of his wayward son, George. In between, there are churches, temperance hotels and cemetery monuments popping up, shaping the local landscape.

As for all of our Trading Stories, Working Lives articles, the Firn family story showcases how some resourceful searching of records can help build a picture of our ancestors’ occupations. Using records from Ancestry, London Gazette, the British Newspaper Archive, and local history materials, it pieces together the rollercoaster story of a Victorian family  firm.

Meet John and George Firn, church builders and monumental masons: click to download.

Click here to see other articles in the series of Trading Stories, Working Lives occupational histories. Using a similar approach, could you research and write about the working life of one of your own ancestors?

Trading Stories, Working Lives: the Polkey boatmen of Loughborough

As you stroll along the canal towpaths near Loughborough, inquisitive dogs poke their noses out from barge doorways. Wood smoke tangs the air. And pleasure boats sit, patiently waiting for a fair-weather jaunt.

Loughborough Wharf

It’s hard to imagine this peaceful backwater was once a busy thoroughfare, a channel for trade from the 1790s. Where modern apartment blocks now cluster around Loughborough Wharf, barge horses clip-clopped their way, transporting coal to Leicester and Nottingham. It was here that the Polkey family worked as boatmen. But how did it come about?

In the latest article in our Trading Stories, Working Lives series we look at life as a boatman on the Loughborough Navigation. The article brings together research from social and industrial history, coupled with family records, to provide a glimpse of the close-knit, waterside community living on Canal Bank, Bridge Street and Rushes.

Take a journey through sixty years and three generations of Loughborough boatmen: click to download.

Boatmen on a coal barge

“The banks of the Soar in the vicinity of this town already wear the appearance of increasing commerce. Speculations are increasing, Wharfs are preparing, and manufactories are erecting to welcome the approach of our expected Navigation.” (Leicester Herald, 1792)

Click here to see other articles in the series of Trading Stories, Working Lives occupational histories.

Trading Stories, Working Lives: Gardening with the Harrisons

Study an 1828 map of Leicester and you might just spot Harrison’s Nursery; it’s out on a limb, some distance along Belgrave Gate. The cartographer has freckled it with trees. A brook wiggles its way along the northern edge and a small building stands on the main road. I set out to discover whether there’s a link between this nursery and the Harrison gardeners in my family tree.
Harrisons Nursery off Belgrave Gate, 1828
It’s a research journey that requires some resourcefulness – hopping between freemen’s records, a biography or two, trade directories and a clutch of books on gardening in Georgian times. Along the way there was a moment of joy unearthing a skinny booklet in the archives – ‘Harrison & Sons Bicentenary, 1764-1964’ – which opens with a rather romanticised tale about the beginnings of the firm:
“Somewhere around the year 1760… John Harrison rode off to market on his father’s horse, lost everything he had, horse and all, in a disastrous gambling bout, and decamped to join George III’s Navy, at that time at war with the French. By 1764, peace had been signed, sailor John had saved enough himself to buy himself out so he returned to Leicester to set up shop in East Bond Street as a nurseryman, greengrocer etc.”

From these early shoots Harrison’s nursery flourished for over two hundred years – at the Belgrave Gate location and beyond – and I was chuffed to see that it did indeed link in with my own family tree. Take a look here at the story of three generations of gardeners, nurserymen and seed merchants: Harrisons the nurserymen.

It’s the latest in our series of ‘Trading Stories, Working Lives’ occupational histories. To see others in the series:…/trading-stories-working-lives

Harrison's seed warehouse

Trading Stories, Working Lives: George Robinson, letter carrier

Postman with pillar box, late 1850sPost Office on Granby Street 1860s

Wearing a top hat and scarlet coat, George Robinson – a letter carrier from the late 1840s – would have been a familiar figure in the Leicester streets. He was amongst the first batch of postmen to be appointed; it was a time of innovation, shortly after the introduction of the penny post, and George would have witnessed the advent of pillar boxes and the growing popularity of Christmas cards. Read his story here: George Robinson the letter carrier

This is the first in our series of occupational histories. Researching an ancestor’s occupation can be a rewarding mini project. Start with the known facts about their working life – maybe a description of their occupation in a census return or a trade directory – and then be resourceful in your investigations.

The George Robinson article, for example, starts with a couple of records on Ancestry – the Post Office appointment book for 1847 and the 1851 census. From there, the story draws upon a broad range of resources, including published works (Rowland Hill’s ‘Post Office Reform’ and John Soer’s booklet ‘The Royal Mail in Leicestershire and Rutland’), a visit to the Royal Mail Archive ( at Mount Pleasant, and snippets from the local newspaper and trade directory. The aim is to get a sense of working life for a postman in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Let us know what you think of it.

To read other articles in our ‘Trading Stories, Working Lives’ series:…/trading-stories-working-lives