Help Wanted: Sobriety, Diligence and Honesty Required

Like us, our ancestors, unless they were independently wealthy, had to work to put food on the table and to keep a roof over their heads. For our earlier ancestors, this often meant working the land or fishing the seas but when the industrial revolution brought change to the employment landscape, the growing number of jobs in the manufacturing sector pulled the rural population from the villages and hamlets of their ancestral homes to the expanding industrial towns and cities.

This change in the socioeconomic structure of Britain meant that rather than working on their own account as they had in generations past, our ancestors were increasingly working for someone else. How then, did they find employment?

They read the help wanted section.

Prior to the industrial revolution, many of our ancestors found work by attending local fairs where prospective employers would come looking for domestic staff, farm labourers and other workers. Other times, they found employment through word of mouth, recommended by previous employers or by people that they knew.

The quarter days were the four days in the year where servants were traditionally hired in England. Lady Day, March 25; Midsummer Day, June 24; Michaelmas, September 29; and Christmas, December 25. Those seeking employment would often inquire in person, presenting their references to their prospective employer. Those further afield would apply in writing directly to an employer who was looking for workers, sometimes with the assistance of a literate person who could draft a letter on their behalf.

But by the eighteenth century, with the literacy of the general population slowly improving, newspapers became more plentiful and affordable to the common person. Increasingly, our ancestors would apply for employment in response to an advertisement in the newspaper where most job seekers were invited to address the newspaper with their inquiries.

Domestic Help

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In the eighteenth century, when most of the aristocratic old families were still holding on to their ancestral estates, many of the postings in the newspapers were for domestic help. The gentry and upper classes placed advertisements for housekeepers, cooks, maids, footmen, butlers, nannies and governesses, sometimes in local newspapers, but also further afield in the larger cities, hoping to attract better employees to come and work in their country homes. Beyond the basics required by the occupation in question, employers were all looking for honest, sober and diligent people to work for them. Positions for hire often described the type of person being sought in particular detail including the gender, age, religion and sometimes even the physical appearance of the prospective employee.

A COOK  AND HOUSEKEEPER. WANTED, A Person to act as Cook and Housekeeper, who must understand Cookery in all its Branches extremely well. None but a Protestant, who has lived in good Families, and can produce proper Discharges, will be treated with. Apply at No. 16, Park Street. Saunders's News-Letter - Saturday 14 November 1778

Like the employment agencies of today, some newspapers, as part of the service provided for the fee for placing the advertisement, would collect the responses for the employer, allowing them to remain anonymous during the initial screen process.

COOK WANTED WANTED by a Gentleman who resides in the Country, a Person capable to serve as Cook and Housekeeper, who must perfectly understand the making Bread and raising Paste, and be well recommended for Sobriety, Diligence, and Honesty. Any Person so qualified may hear of a Place applying to the Printer hereof. Saunders's News-Letter - Thursday 19 March 1778

It was not unusual to specify age, religion or other very personal attributes when advertising for an employee in our ancestors’ day, something that would never be allowed in our time of equal rights. In this advertisement, not only is the employer looking for an older woman, but they must be of the Protestant religion.

A HOUSEKEEPER. WANTED, elderly sedate Woman to be Housekeeper, and to superintend a small but regular Family; she must know how to market, and must be a Protestant. None need apply whole Character will not bear the strictest inquiry. Apply the Printer hereof. Dublin 20th March, 1778.Saunders's News-Letter - Saturday 21 March 1778
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To attract the best staff, the advertisements sometimes mentioned the number of servants already employed in the household, so that the perspective employee could be assured that they would not have to attend to tasks outside of their position, although sometimes extra duties were specified, to avoid disagreements later. The following advertisement is for a cook and specifies that they must be about 30 years of age. Presumably the employer was looking for a mature woman but one who was still young enough to get the job done. Although the advertiser boasts of having four other servants, the cook would still be required to assist with the cleaning, washing and ironing, and apparently be cheerful while doing so!

COOK, WANTED. WANTED, at Lady-day next, as COOK in Gentleman’s Family in Canterbury, where four Servants are kept, a person about 30 years of age, who can cook plain victuals extremely well, and who has no objection to clean part of the house, and assist in the washing and ironing, None need apply whose character will not bear the strictest inquiry for honesty, sobriety, cleanliness, and good humour. Apply to the Printers of this paper.Kentish Gazette - Tuesday 19 March 1793

The prospective footman, in the advertisement below, is required to ‘walk out with the children’, an activity normally done by a nanny or governess.

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FOOTMAN WANTED. WANTED immediately, or at Midsummer next, a gentleman’s family in Canterbury a Footman, He must perfectly understand his business, and have an undeniable character for sobriety, honesty, good temper and cleanliness. He will be required to walk out with children. Enquire the Printers this Paper.Kentish Gazette - Tuesday 31 May 1796

Some positions required the servant to ‘live in’, generally suggesting that long hours were expected. This advertiser is searching for a very specific type of woman to be a housekeeper at a school just outside of the city and responses are asked to be sent to a local shop, rather than to the newspaper or to the advertiser.

WANTED, Steady active woman as a house-keeper in large school, not a mile from the city; she must carry the keys, see the provisions weighed, measured, and served, and have the management of nine or ten maid-servants; she must write and be a Protestant.—A woman about 40, not incumbered with a husband and children, will be preferred ; she shall board with the master and mistress, and her wages be liberal if she comes well recommended – none else need apply.—A few lines directed to A. B. at Mrs. McCauley’s Music and Book-Shop, , Moore-street, will be attended to.  Saunders's News-Letter - Monday 01 January 1810


Even with industrialization, hard working labourers were in constant demand. Some could expect to be given room and board as part of their employment, while others were required to provide their own necessities. Wages were sometimes seasonal, and in this example, the wages during the off-season were guaranteed not to fall below a certain amount. And as an added bonus, the applicants could expect free beer as part of their remittance, although ironically, sobriety was an important requirement.

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WANTED, at LADY-DAY next, EIGHT or TEN Men, for constant Employ. They must provide Food and Lodging for Their Wages (exclusive of Three Pints of Ale per Day) will amount to more than to 10s 6d per Week, thro’ the Year, upon Average, but to be apportioned according to the Seasons, never to be lower than 9s. per Week during Winter, or exceed 18s in Harvest. Some of them must be good horse-keepers, that will drive Team carefully. Enquire of Mr. WILLIAM JOHNSON, Oundle, Northamptonshire. None need apply but those that can produce a good Character for their Honesty and Sobriety. Stamford Mercury - Friday 01 March 1793

The following advertisement appeared in an Arbroath newspaper, seeking young men to work as yardsmen and brakemen almost 100 miles away near Glasgow, with an offer of free passage to Glasgow on acceptance.

“CALEDONIAN RAILWAY COMPANY. ACTIVE YOUNG MEN WANTED to act as YARDSMEN and BRAKESMEN in the Mineral Districts near Glasgow. To Competent Men Permanent Employment will be given. Wages beginning at 24s per week with Uniform, and good prospect of Promotion Applicants will be conveyed to Glasgow Free of Charge. Apply to Mr A. C. KINLOCH. West Coast Agent. Perth, or Mr GILLESPIE, District Superintendent, Perth. JAMES THOMPSON, General Manager. Glasgow, January, 1891. 

Sometimes advertisements for able bodied men even appeared for employment in other countries, such as in this call for 2000 men to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway in Canada. As an added incentive to the high wages being offered was a notice that farms would be available under the Homestead Act should the men want to remain in Canada afterwards.

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2,000 MEN WANTED, BY THE CANADIAN PACIFIC RAILWAY. “ANCHOR” LINE. GOOD ABLE-BODIED LABOURERS wanted, by above Railway, which pays 1 dol. 75 cents, and upwards wages per day, and is guaranteed during Spring, Summer, and Autumn months. For those accustomed to Wood Chopping 22 dols. per month will be paid during Winter, and board provided. The Lands along the Canadian Pacific Railroad are the richest and most fertile in North America, and Farmes can be had under the Homestead Act. Carpenters, Bricklayers, and Stone Workers, receive high wages, 6 dols. per day even being paid. Steerage Fare, London to Winnipeg, £12 11s 3d. Tickets and further particulars may be obtained of Eggington and Brown, Printers, &c., Mercury Office, Lichfield.Lichfield Mercury - Friday 14 April 1882
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Similarly, in this advertisement, farm and railway labourers, masons, carpenters, wheelwrights and blacksmiths were offered free passage to New Zealand and land grants.

WANTED, FARM and RAILWAY LABOURERS, MASONS, HOUSE CARPENTERS, BLACKSMITHS, &c. FREE PASSAGES to the Province of AUCKLAND, New Zealand, and FREE GRANTS of LAND given to the above Classes. Young Married Couples preferred. Forms of Application and Regulations, will be sent by Mr Fleming, 10 Street, Dundee, receipt of a Stamped Envelope. Dundee Advertiser - Saturday 27 August 1864

Skilled Help

With industrialization came factories, and with factories came the need to find skilled employees in a variety of occupations. Steam engines were a relatively new addition at the end of the eighteenth century and finding someone knowledgeable in their maintenance and repair was key to the success of the factory.

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STEAM ENGINE. WANTED, a PERSON who completely understands Steam engines, to take care of one, and repair it when required. As liberal wages will be given, none need apply but those who can bring characters for ability, honesty, sobriety and industry. Also Wanted, MAN well acquainted with mule or water spinning, to superintend a factory. He will be required employ his leisure time as mechanic and overlook those under him in that department. It is unnecessary for any to apply whose character will not bear the strictest investigation. Apply to the Printer.Manchester Mercury - Tuesday 26 February 1799

Employers searched far afield for skilled workers. Throughout the nineteenth century, the population of Sheffield grew rapidly with a large percentage of the work force engaged in the metal working trades. Despite this, the following advertisement for a skilled electro-plater was placed in a Birmingham newspaper, suggesting that the right man for this job could not be found in Sheffield.

ELECTRO-PLATERS.—WANTED, for an Establishment in Sheffield, an intelligent MAN, capable of Plating Hard and Soft Metals. A competent Workman may meet with a permanent situation at a liberal salary.—Apply to Thomas Fearn, Electro-Gilding Works, 22. Vittoria Street. Birmingham.Birmingham Journal - Saturday 04 February 1860

It was not only employers who placed advertisements, but sometimes prospective employees. This young lad is looking for a position in an office and is willing to work without pay for the opportunity to advance himself in the business.

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TO MERCHANTS. WANTS a place, a young lad who can be well recommended, has been more than a year in Dublin in an office where he had an opportunity of improving himself. He understands accompts [sic] perfectly well, has a knowledge of the city and traders, would engage with an extensive merchant, without salary, as his idea is more to acquire a greater knowledge of business that emolument. Apply to the Printer.Saunders's News-Letter - Friday 01 March 1793

Opportunities for the educated man or woman became more plentiful as well and teachers were very sought after as more schools were opened. Sometimes, the opportunity for supplementing the wages supplied in a position was given as an incentive such as in this advertisement where the married couple could charge for the boarding of students in addition to being paid for teaching and running the school. Although the ideal applicant in this case would be a married man whose wife was able to manage a school for girls, no mention is made of paying his wife beyond the £20 per annum offered to the applicant.

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WANTED, A middle-aged Man, SCHOOLMASTER, to teach the English Language, Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic; —salary, 20£ per Annum, for teaching twenty Poor Boys, Parishioners of the Parish Southam all others pay for their Schooling ; and the to have the Privilege of taking in Boarders and Out-Parishioners,— The Situation is eligible for a Person who understands the Management of a School, and will pay proper Attention; there being School within than ten Miles of the Place –A Married Man, whose Wife understands the Management of a School for Girls, will be preferred. Any Person wishing the above Situation, is desired to apply to the Parish Officers of Southam aforesaid, on or before the 5th of April next, as the School will then be vacant. This Advertisement will be only twice inserted. Northampton Mercury - Saturday 02 March 1793

By the nineteenth century, employers were looking for specific skills and specializations. Albion Fire and Life Insurance was founded in 1805 and offered fire insurance, life insurance and annuities. In this advertisement, the company was looking for a clerk who could calculate the risks associated with the life insurance business, a very specific skill and one that was relatively new at that time.

CLERK WANTED— Albion Fire and Life Office 31st December, 1814.— WANTED a Clerk, in the LIFE DEPARTMENT of this OFFICE, He must write a good hand, be of good address, and be accustomed to business. He must have a competent knowledge of the means by which Life contingencies are calculated; and be able to apply such knowledge readily and correctly. — Any candidate for this situation should address a letter to the Company’s Secretary stating his qualifications, and referring to proper persons, as to character and ability. By order of the Board of Directors.Morning Post - Tuesday 03 January 1815

With new technology came new occupations. Those skilled in such new trades such as photography, telegraphy, telephones and other inventions of the late nineteenth century were highly sought after. Ironically, in the advertisement for the telephone operator, applications were accepted by letter only. No telephone calls accepted.

 CAMERAS —WANTED MAN ; also One or Two Improvers, to the photographic apparatus trade.— J. and A. WILKINSON, photo, apparatus manufacturers, St. Oswald-street, Rochdale-roadManchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser - Saturday 07 March 1896
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WANTED, YOUNG LADIES, age 28 30, Telephone Operators; previous knowledge unnecessary.—Apply, letter only, to the Northern District Telephone Company, Commercial Chambers, South Shields.Shields Daily Gazette - Tuesday 16 April 1889
POSTAL TELEGRAPH. Wanted, JUNIOR ASSISTANT; accounts; Morse printer.—St. Post Office.Exeter and Plymouth Gazette - Friday 24 June 1898
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Employment and Unemployment

Statistics of occupations for earlier years are approximate and incomplete but in 1841, the first all-name population census was taken in England, Wales and Scotland and the government finally had the data required to analyse the work force of Britain. In that first complete census, there were approximately 11,000,000 people enumerated in England, Wales and Scotland combined. Of these, about 8,000,000 were employed in some fashion or another, supporting the remainder who were mostly children or the elderly. 1Knight, Charles. “The Popular History of England.” Google Books. 1880. Accessed May 30, 2016.

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Not surprisingly, at the time of the 1841 census, some 36% of the workforce were in manufacturing of one type or another, with a further 33% working in services. In 1841, the percentage of people working in farming and fishing was 22% but this fell steadily throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.   2Office for National Statistics. “170 Years of Industrial Change across England and Wales.” The National Archives. Accessed May 30, 2016.

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By the beginning of the twentieth century, the population of England and Wales had risen to 32,527,843 people, almost triple what it had been in 1841 when the total also included Scotland and almost four times the population in 1801. Of these, 83.7% said that they were employed, despite the decline of employment amongst school aged children, aged 10 to 15 who were now attending school, and a marked decline in the number of employed married  women, especially in rural districts. Of those between the ages of 65 and 75 years of age, 15.7% were still employed, and even 7.5% of those over the age of 75 were working in some capacity.

No doubt, many of our ancestors found their employment from the multitude of advertisements in the newspapers. Check out the help wanted section of a newspaper in your ancestor’s place and time and see what jobs they had to choose from.


1 Knight, Charles. “The Popular History of England.” Google Books. 1880. Accessed May 30, 2016.
2 Office for National Statistics. “170 Years of Industrial Change across England and Wales.” The National Archives. Accessed May 30, 2016.