This week’s theme in the ” 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” challenge is “twelve”. I’ve decided to focus on 12 of the more unusual occupations listed in the England and Wales census. In between the labourers and coal miners, the clerks and domestic servants, I found some Heenans whose occupations were not as common and some that I’d never heard of previously.
1. Iron Tilter
I had no idea what this occupation listed in the 1881 census involved. Initially I wondered if there had been an error by the enumerator who recorded this as the job of a Denis Heenan (family group 109) who was the head of a family living in Nether Hallam in Yorkshire . But I’ve learned subsequently that there was in fact a job called a Tilter.In fact there were three different categories of tilters all working in the iron industry.
A hammersmith tilter was someone who used a specific hammer called a tilt hammer to beat bars of steel into thin strips so they could be sold.
A shingling tilter used a steam hammer or drop hammer to squeeze slag out of a ball of puddled iron so it could then be shaped into a bar for rolling.
Finally a steel manufacturer tilter operated the levers required to tilt a Bessemer converter or a tilting furnace.
2. Rivetted shoe finisher
Also from the 1881 census comes this entry for Thomas Heenan, a man of Irish descent living in Salford, Lancashire, with his wife Ellen and son Thomas. A helpful article about the history of shoemaking revealed that rivetting was the mechanism used to attach the sole of a shoe to the upper. Apparently from the 1850s shoemakers in Leicester began to use machinery to rivet iron rivets instead of wooden pegs to assemble the shoe. This allowed an increased rate of production but also reduced the cost of the finished items. Finishers were skilled workers who then buffed and polished the completed boots and shoes.
3. Fish curer labourer
Fish curing was a common occupation in coastal areas so it wasn’t surprising to find this entry in the 1891 census for Joseph Heenan, living in Clee, Lincolnshire (now part of Grimsby). In the days before refrigeration drying and salting fish was an important method of preservation, enabling the fish to be transported inland from the fishing ports. Labourers it seems were involved in packing the dried and salted fish into barrels for transport. Grimsby has long been connected with fishing – the first true fish dock opened in Grimsby in 1856, and the town became a centre for the development of the commercial fishing industry. It flourished, helped by direct rail links direct to London and the Billingsgate Fish Market. Fresh ‘Grimsby Fish’ gained renown nationwide. By 1900, a tenth of the fish consumed in the United Kingdom was landed at Grimsby,
I’ve found one other Heenan family associated with the fishing sector around Grimsby. Michael William Heenan (family group 209) was working as a trawler man in Grimsby from the late 1870s . Fish wasn’t the only thing he transported – in 1899 he was in court on a charge of smuggling more than 50 pounds of tobacco. Of his 12 children, only one of them continued an association with the fishing industry – his son Walter who became a trawler engineer.
5. Vessel cleaner
In the 1871 census this was the occupation listed for an Eliza Heenan who was working as a servant at a farm in Somerford, Congleton in Cheshire. She was 18 years old at the time and single. I’m wondering what kind of vessels she was responsible for cleaning. If this was a dairy farm it might have been equipment needed for cheese making or milking but I don’t know that to be the case. It’s the only time I’ve come across an occupation of this nature.
6. Ship platers marker
7. Fur Forming Hatting
This entry from the 1901 census is the occupation that baffles me the most. My assumption is that John Heenan, a 35 year old married man living in Stockport, Cheshire, was somehow involved with making hats. The nearest explanation I can get to is that he was forming hats from the pelts of animals in a process called felting). If so, this was quite a dangerous occupation because the workers inhaled the vapours from the mercury used to stabilize the wool. Repeated inhalation frequently caused mercury poisoning and the neurological disorder of Erethism, where suffers could experience memory loss and delirium. If you’ve ever wondered about the origin of the expression “mad as a hatter”, now you know that it comes from this occupational hazard.
8. Dragger bandsman below (mining)
The census returns include plenty of people who were involved in coal and iron mining. Sometimes they are described generically as a miner but more often there is additional information to indicate if they are a hewer (a coal face worker) or a labourer working on the surface or underground. Often you get more specific roles like that of nineteen-year-old Nicholas Heenan in Walker, Northumberland in 1911. In the census he is described as a dragger bandsman below. A dragger was a person employed to get material to the coal face the use of rails or trams. The bandsman term meant he was working with a band of men.
9. Burler and mender
In 1939 this was how Jessey Heenan, wife of Albert, was making a living in the Bradford area of Yorkshire. A burler could be involved in several activities: removing fibres, burrs from the back of cloth; drawing out thick threads of warp and weft, and opening knots by cutting or loosening them. Menders were people who inspected the cloth as it came from loom and repaired any threads dropped by the weaver.
10. Heald knitter
Another occupation from the textile industry. Fifteen year old Florence Ada Heenan was employed in a cotton factory in Moston, Manchester, in 1911 as a heald knitter. This meant she operated of a textile machine which produced a jersey type of fabric as opposed to woven fabric.
11. Newspaper sub editor
This is one job, held by William Heenan in Elswick, Northumberland, in 1901, that I do know something about having worked in newspapers myself. I suspect a lot of people would think a sub editor was someone who was an assistant to the editor but in fact this is a quite separate role. A sub editor is responsible for reviewing the articles (known in the trade as the “copy”) produced by journalists, editing it (for clarity or to make it shorter) and deciding upon a headline. William had been a journalist himself according to the 1891 census.
12 Ladies & Gents Officer
I could be completely wrong on this but I wonder if Elsie Heenan in Dartford, Kent was too embarrassed to declare that she was an attendant at some public conveniences? I can’t think of anything else that would fit the description of her occupation. It just shows how we can’t take everything in a census return as the whole truth.
Useful sources of information about occupations
Scottish occupations: http://www.wakefieldfhs.org.uk/morayweb/Scottish%20Occupations.htm
Dictionary of occupations: https://www.occupationalinfo.org/about.html
Occupations of Irish immigrants: http://sites.rootsweb.com/~irlmayo2/irish_occupations_england_census.html