Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor…

Well it’s that time of year again when the A Level students are submitting their university applications.   Psychology, Sports Science, Marketing, Chinese with Economics, Film Production, Linguistics, Aeronautical Engineering – you name it, you can do it at university these days.  Shall I  be a journalist or an Events Manager?  Should I go into digital marketing or nanotechnology?  For the most part these are choices our ancestors just did not have.  And whatever you apply for, whether a degree course or one of the increasing number of higher or degree level apprenticeships, the application process can be increasingly complex.

Back in my day, you applied for university on a paper application form written in black ink. I suppose we must have written a personal statement, but I really can’t remember doing that.  The choice of courses and universities was not vast.  Going to open days in advance of applying was definitely not a thing – you were invited for an interview and if you were lucky you might get to see some accommodation while you were there.  Today, of course, all the universities are after the same, currently small, pool of students and open days are big business.  If you applied for an apprenticeship forty-odd years ago you would almost certainly not have had to do a psychometric test or attend an assessment centre and would definitely not have had to do an interview by phone or skype as part of the selection process.

If I look through my family trees at ancestral occupations I can see that ‘agricultural labourer’ is far and away the most common. In rural areas the choice was limited – your father was an ‘ag lab’ so that’s what you went into too.  Not much family wealth, not much education, not much choice.

Ag labs

There are some more diverse occupations that occur on my family trees: stonemasons in Oxfordshire, bricklayers in north London and dyers in Derbyshire.  Creating a report through RootsMagic on my George family also reveals a French Polisher, a brushmaker, a blacksmith, a Police Constable and a gardener’s labourer.  (No tinkers or tailors).  Of course that’s just the men.  What about the women?  That same report shows a laundress and a Headmistress.  In other family groups there are women basically supporting their husband’s business, whether that was running a pub or shoemaking, but basically following marriage it was assumed a woman had occupation enough with running a home and raising a family.  And of course for women in some occupations (like teaching in the early days) it was forbidden to continue once you were married.

Mum was looking through her 1947 diary recently. She applied for teacher training and made a note in her diary that she received a letter from Furzedown College near Streatham on a Friday, inviting her for interview the following Monday!  Not much time for preparation.  She noted the timings of her fairly lengthy journey there on the Monday and reckoned the interview can’t have lasted more than a quarter of an hour judging by the time of the return train!  Certainly times have changed – nowadays a Primary Education application involves passing skills tests in English and Maths and the interview day may well include a written task, a presentation, a group exercise as well as an individual interview.

Mum’s diary also notes that her father’s cousin Edith (who is the Headmistress referred to above and whose village of Leigh in Staffordshire we visited earlier this year) came to visit that year and gave Mum 10 shillings! I wonder if she passed on any teaching tips?!

Tinker, tailor……. The choice of occupations is greater for today’s school leavers, but so are the hoops they have to jump through to get there.




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