Occupational records can be a valuable family history resource. You can use them to trace your ancestor’s working life and find information, such as dates of employment, salary and qualifications. They can confirm where your ancestors lived, help determine their social status and by evaluating the dates and locations of their places of employment, you can plot out your ancestor’s movements – within Victoria, interstate or overseas.

To assist you with your research, the State Library has released a new online research guide called Researching your ancestors’ occupations. In this guide you will find resources that can help you to identify your ancestor’s occupation as well as a series of separate pages that focus on specific occupations and industries. On these you will find key resources that you can use to compile information on someone’s career, including occupational registers, indexes and directories, archives of company or government records, personal papers, books, newspapers and magazines.

Sievers, Wolfgang, photographer. Women packing boxes of Smith’s Potato Chips in factory, Melbourne, 1966. This work is in copyright; H2003.100/747.

What was their occupation?

If you’re unsure as to what type of work your ancestors did, there are several resources that may provide the answer.

Electoral rolls

Electoral rolls include valuable details on an individual, such as their address, the names of other adult family members living in the same household and, up until 1984, their occupation.

Australia, Electoral Rolls 1931, District Ballarat, Subdistrict Sebastopol, Ancestry.com. USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010. Original data: Australian Electoral Commission. [Electoral roll].
Post Office directories

Post office and telephone directories list the name and address of the main householder and sometimes include their occupation. They are particularly useful for confirming where a person lived or ran a business. Trade directories contain commercial listings and often include details of government officials and those who worked in such industries as banking, law and education. Here’s an excerpt from the commercial section of a 1890 Sands & McDougall directory listing people employed as Japanners (lacquor workers), Kapok Merchants, Ladder Makers and so on.

Newspaper articles

Newspapers can be great for locating family notices, legal information, land and property sales, advertisements and feature articles. In many cases you will find a person’s name and their occupation mentioned. Articles may also provide additional details relating to their employment, such as in this story covering the retirement of Daisy Annette Quigley, a nurse at the Ballarat baby health care centre. It not only confirms that she was one of the original nurses in the centre and that she worked there for 27 years, but that she had also been a nurse in the Australian Army Nursing Service during WW1 – another avenue to explore.

Pioneer nurse farewelled. The Age, 22 December, 1951, p. 2.
Will and probate documents

Will and probate documents often list the occupation of the deceased and in some cases include the name of the establishment where they were employed.
Here is a brief excerpt from the will of Mr. Peter Campbell, who died in 1886. It reveals a fascinating detail about one of his previous occupations.

This is the last will and testament of Mr Peter Campbell presently residing at Parer Brothers Hotel, in Bourke Street East, Melbourne in the Colony of Victoria now a Public Lecturer, and formerly known as “the Australian Voluntary and Nondenominational Bush and Gold Fields Missionary. Peter Campbell; Grant of probate, no. 33/018. Date of grant: 15 Nov 1886.

Rate books

Rate books usually contain the names of the owner and the occupant, their occupation, address, date, description of property and rate assessed. This excerpt from a 1909 rate book lists a few residents of Burwood Road, Hawthorn, including – a clergyman, cycle maker, sweep, jeweller, chemist, dressmaker and bill poster.

Hawthorn Rate book, 1909. Ancestry.com. Victoria, Australia, Rate Books, 1855-1963 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: 2015.

Finding occupational records

Once you’ve identified a person’s occupation, your next step is to try and identify key resources or collections of records that might contain information about their employment.

The location and availability of records will depend on the type of work they did and who employed them. For instance if someone was employed by the government it’s possible that staff records may have been archived, or details of their employment may have been recorded in a government gazette. However if a person was self employed or ran a small business it’s less likely for any significant employment records to be available. It’s also worth noting that over time, many records have been destroyed, and in many industries there was no obligation to either keep or archive records.

In our Researching your ancestors’ occupations guide we look at several different occupations and offer suggestions on where you may be able to locate information. Here are are a few brief examples that will give you an idea as to the type of records available.

Researching nurses

If your ancestor was a nurse their details might appear in the Register of general nurses registered with the Nurses Board, which appeared in the Victoria Government Gazette between 1924 and 1957. The register listed their name, address, date of registration and the name of the hospital or training establishment where they were based. More recent registrations can be found on the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (Ahpra) website.

Administration records from many Victorian hospitals have been archived at the Public Record Office Victoria (PROV), so it might be possible to access these collections and search for relevant staff registers, employment history cards, nurse training record books, hospital images or staff newsletters. State Library Victoria holds many resources relating to hospitals and health professionals, so by searching our Library catalogue you may find biographies, the histories of training institutions and hospitals, photographs, industry journals and newsletters. Click here to see some of the items in our catalogue on the Royal Women’s Hospital.

Newspapers can be a great source of information, so by searching for your ancestor’s name in the Trove Digitised newspaper database you may find personal stories or nursing news – click here to display the results of a search on Maud Primrose, a pioneer infant welfare nurse in Victoria.

Le Dawn studios, photographer. Nurses gathered around hospital equipment, 1970, This work is in copyright; H2005.100/2314.
Researching Publicans

If you have a publican ancestor you could start with the Robert K Cole collection of hotel records. You can search the index to the Robert K Cole collection on the State Library’s Australiana index. Covering the years c.1841 to 1949 this collection contains the names of over 21,000 Melbourne and metropolitan and 16,000 country hotels and/or licensees.

You can use this resource to find the name of a licensee or owner, the location of the hotel and dates when the licence was held, Key liquor licensing records from 1851 onward are held at the Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) and licensing records for the Port Phillip District are available on the Ancestry database.

By searching our Library catalogue for the name of a publican, a hotel or a brewery you may find books, images, personal papers or company reports. It’s also worth contacting the local historical society for the area where the hotel was situated, as they may hold unique collections of material relevant to the area. Once again it’s really worth searching the Trove Digitised newspaper database for a publican’s name and/or the name of a hotel or pub. A search for the Essendon Hotel retrieved nearly 1000 articles, covering the details of license transfers, robberies, and many stories about it’s various publicans.

Commercial Photographic Co., photographers.The public bar, Hancock’s Essendon Hotel, ca. 1938. H2011.52/49.
Researching railway workers

Surviving railway employment records from 1855 to 2014 are held at the Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) Records include staff registers, staff salary records, employee leave records, employee history cards and accreditation and licencing records. From 1884-1929 a Triennial lists of railway employees appeared in the Victorian Government Gazette, listing a persons name, branch and rank.

The State Library holds a rich collection of material relating to public transport including thousands of publications produced by the Victorian Railways. Search the Library catalogue for books on the history of specific railway branches, railway stations and personnel or look for journals, images and maps. It’s worth exploring the Victorian Railway History Library collection (formerly the ARHS) at the Prahran Mechanics Institute (PMI) and of course the Trove Digitised newspaper database will be a valuable resource for tracing the working life of your railway ancestor.

Two railway workers resting against undercarriage of train, on the tracks, in rail yard. [ca. 1910-ca. 1930]. H2009.60/82
Researching business records

If your ancestor worked for a company or business, you first need to verify its name, location and period of operation. If the company is still active, contact them to see if records have been archived onsite or whether they have been deposited in another repository such as a library, university or government archive. If the company has closed, you need to verify whether its records have survived and if so, where they have been archived. This is more likely to have happened for larger companies – unfortunately in the case of smaller companies, few records will have survived.

There are several ways you can locate business archives. Searching the Trove – Diaries, letters and archives collection will retrieve unpublished material from organisational archives, business records and personal papers. It will also list the name of the archive where the records are held. Explore the University of Melbourne Archives (UMA) – its business collection includes the records of wholesalers and retailers, factories and foundries, solicitors, architects and mining companies. The Guide to Australian business records can also be used to find information on many existing and defunct Victorian companies.

By searching our Library catalogue for the name of the company you may find books, images, company reports, staff newsletters or personal papers. News articles, advertisements and personal stories can be found by searching the Trove Digitised newspaper database.

Sievers, Wolfgang, photographer. Technician at work, PCB Assembly department Varian Techtron. 1968. This work is in copyright; H2000.195/233

There are many other unique collections available, and in our Researching your ancestors’ occupations guide you can find lists of resources suitable for researching several other occupations, including – architects, artists, miners, mariners, police, politicians, public servants, the clergy, the defence forces and the agricultural industry.

We hope that this guide will assist you with your research. If you’d like to know more about our family history resources please browse our Family History research guides or go to our Family history tools & resources page.

This article has 6 comments

  1. Thanks Ann. Excellent work. This is really helpful.

  2. Thank you so much for this wonderful article—full of resources!

  3. So much valuable information, clues and direct sources to investigate, thank you. Opens up many channels to check and verify details that I was not aware existed. Oh woe, I fear many more hours will be spent finding answers and pieces of the puzzle, Thank you Ann. As a member at least I do not have to travel to the city from Geelong to investigate thoroughly, with the resources you and your teams have made available, thanks again Ann.

    • Thanks Stan. I’m so pleased that you think this will be a valuable resource. Good luck with your research. Ann.

  4. Hi Ann
    Thank you for this terrific resource to support family researchers.

    I take this opportunity to suggest another way to use the Victorian CEDT index.
    It is possible to search for applicants using their occupation.
    Below is an example of searching for CEDT applicants who are declared their occupation as “Wrestler”


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