Work in 1881

There are over a million different occupations recorded in the 1881 census. However, this is due mainly to the inability of the census takers to spell! The vast majority of occupations only have a single entry, and nearly all of these are typos for other, more common job titles. This doesn't normally affect the statistics shown on this site, but where an unusual surname coincides with a misspelled or unusal job then you may see some oddities in the list. I have made no attempt to correct errors, other than to simply exclude job titles that consist of nothing but non-alphabetic characters such as "?".

Common Occupations

The most common entry made by the census takers in the occupation column on the census forms was, in fact, to leave it blank. This accounts for approximately 33% of the population. I haven't made a detailed assessment of the people with nothing recorded for their occupation, but a random sample suggests that the majority were young children not in education and married women who were housewives. Sometimes, though, the census takers would put "wife" in the occupation column, so it's hard to determine which of the blank entries where housewives and which were simply unemployed. Non-working men were generally recorded either explicitly as "no occupation" or similar, or, for those who didn't need to work (eg, those supported by their family or in possession of an independent income), the source of their income. I've excluded blank occupations from the surname occupation stats, but left in all other indications of non-working status.

The second most common entry, accounting for 20% of the population, is "Scholar". This was the term used by the census takers for any child in regular (not necessarily full-time) education, either at school or being given private tuition at home. Not all children were listed as scholars - there are entries with other job titles for children as young as 7 - but the vast majority were shown as such.

After the non-working and schoolchildren, the most common occupations recorded are Coal Miner and Agricultural Labourer (or "Ag Lab" as it was usually abbreviated). This accurately reflects the social conditions of the time, with industry being almost exclusively coal-fired and steam-powered and farming being as yet almost entirely non-mechanised (and still feeding almost all the population; food imports in 1881 were confined to luxuries only). The third most common occupation overall, and the most common for women, was Dressmaker. This may seem to be surprisingly high in the list, but a large proportion of these women would have been part-time workers supplementing their household income by utilising their domestic skills to earn money. Another possible reason for the seeming surplus of dressmakers is that this was, allegedly, often used by the census enumerators as a euphemism for prostitutes.

Excluding blank entries and scholars, the ten most common recorded occupations were:

  1. Coal Miner
  2. Ag Lab
  3. Dressmaker
  4. Labourer
  5. Cotton Weaver
  6. Domestic Servant
  7. Laundress
  8. Housekeeper
  9. Annuitant
  10. General Labourer

Most of these are fairly self-explanatory, except for "Annuitant". This was a term used for someone with an unearned income, and included those living off investments or a pension as well as other forms of unearned income such as inherited wealth or young adults supported by their parents. It was also used to describe people living in institutions (such as Lunatic Asylums) where their costs were paid for by charities or their relatives.

Uncommon Occupations

A simple list of the least common occupations would be rather pointless, since most of them were typos or misspellings. But some of the more interesting and genuine, but rare, occupations listed include:

  • Chiropodist
  • Bobbin Carrier
  • Foreign Correspondent
  • Blanket Warper
  • Bucket Maker
  • Cricket Ball Maker
  • Purveyor Of Cat Meat
  • Member Of Parliament
  • Extra Bed Chamber Woman To The Queen
  • Attendant On The Insane
  • Toilet Brush Finisher

One particular problem with uncommon occupations is related to those in Christian ministry. The instructions for completing the census form stated that Church of England clergymen should list their occupation as "Rector of [parish]" or some such similar construction, specifying the actual location in their job title. The result of this is that the majority of recorded church occupations are unique, which causes difficulties for a statistical analysis. If all the rectors and vicars were aggregated into a single occupation, they would appear in the top 500 occupations overall, and often appear on the top 50 for individual surnames (especially if curates - trainee or junior clergy - were included). As it is, they rarely appear in any ranked list - which gives a very misleading impression of their actual frequency. The problem is similar, though less severe, for many academic occupations such as teachers who are often listed as teachers of a particular subject or school.

Unsavoury Occupations

The 1881 census also recorded some occupations that have less savoury connotations. Although euphemisms were often used for those engaged in illegal activities (see "Dressmaker", above), the census does record a fair number of women with an occupation of "Prostitute" as well as men with an occupation of "Thief" (possibly unsurprisingly, there is a 100% gender divide here, with no female thieves or male prostitutes showing up on the census returns). Most of these, though, were in prison at the time of the census and their "occupation" was presumably given by the prison service - it would be surprising if someone voluntarily declared their occupation to be something that could land them in court.