• 52 Ancestors 2024, week 6: Earning a living
A pie chart representation of the table shown in the body text.
Occupations by category in pie form.

For this post I thought I'd start by taking a dive into the data sitting in the genealogy software I use.

One piece of data that's commonly collected - from census returns to birth records - is an occupation. The individual's occupation, their parents' occupations, sometimes who they work for. All of that is stored in my family tree database and some of them are a little bit interesting.

Before I get going, though, a warning that this is a kinda long post. I mainly give a brief history of three of my hometown's most historic businesses, then go on a trip down a memory lane. Grab a coffee now!

The stats

First, let's look at the statistics. Click here to expand the pie chart.

According to the database, there are 464 unique occupations listed - although its report is case sensitive and has many variations on spellings, job titles, etc. Going through and de-duplicating these takes it down to around 225.

It's important to make the clarification now that these stats are the number of times the occupation is recorded, not the number of people in the tree with that occupation. For example, 'postman' appears four times, but is the occupation of two people at various times in their life.

Putting these occupations into groups gives this insight:

Occupation group

Number of records

% of total

Farm workers



Scholar / student / underage









Factory and office workers



Clothing and textiles









Family members



Retail / sales



Coal mining



Public service












Own means



Food and drink



Animal related (non-farming)




I've had to take a couple of liberties in the groupings. There are several mentions of engine drivers and workers with stationary engines. These could be railway drivers or workers in farms and factories. I've used the context of their other recorded occupations to try and assign them to the right group.

On the face of it, it's all pretty boring: farmers, labourers, domestic duties. There are a number of people who worked on the railways, which I'm hoping to cover in the Trains week, and others in the military, which I'll cover in the War week, so I'll save their stories for later.

Woop-woop, it's the sound of the police

I've also previously written at length about one of the policemen in my ancestry, James Whipp (A house of ill fame, a pheasant, and a tiger, and More rifling through the pages of the British Newspaper Archive).

There are a few other coppers in the list: my 4x great-uncle George Judge, his son, Arthur, and the husband of my 3x great-aunt Pamela Slade, Robert Collick. As with PC Whipp, I took to the newspaper archives as a way to find out a little more about their work.

Robert Collick showed up a couple of times, giving evidence in court in a case of dangerous driving, and another where he was assaulted, but nothing much else.

Searching for PC George Judge returned a single newspaper article from 1867 where he was involved in a search for a child's body, although it wasn't found.

Arthur Judge I couldn't immediately find in the newspaper archives, but I did find him in the Metropolitain Police warrant records in the National Archives. He joined the Met in January 1880 at the age of 21, and resigned in January 1906 aged 47.

Reading's three 'B's

Looking through the rest of the breakdown and there are some ancestors who worked for some of Reading's biggest employers of the time, and those businesses are going to be the focus of this week's post.

Reading became famous for its three 'B's - biscuits (Huntley & Palmers), beer (Simonds), and bulbs (Suttons Seeds). All three had vast, sprawling factories across the town, so it's unsurprising that some of the people in my tree worked for them.

A 1912 Ordnance Survey map of Reading, Berkshire.
A 1912 Ordnance Survey map of Reading.

In the Ordnance Survey map from 1912 above (view on the National Library of Scotland website), the Huntley and Palmer biscuit factory dominates the right-hand side. In the bottom-left corner is Simonds' Seven Bridges brewery. Sutton Seeds' buildings aren't labelled, but make up most of the block between Market Place and the Assize Courts, opposite the Forbury Gardens.

Huntley & Palmers biscuits

Two ancestors, Charles Halfacre and Charles Wickens, are listed as working at the biscuit factory. Neither are direct ancestors, and both were described as 'labourers'.

Extract from a census. It reads: Biscuit factory labourer, H & Palmers

Huntley & Palmers was founded in 1822 and, by 1900, had become the largest biscuit baker in the world with over 5,000 employees. Their biscuits were known across the world, sold in 172 countries, and were holders of a royal warrant of appointment, as they supplied biscuits to the royal family.

A black and white aerial photograph of the Huntley & Palmers site, Reading.
The Huntley & Palmers factory, 1920.

This photograph from Britain from Above shows the Huntley & Palmers factory in 1920, with its grand curved main façade in the centre of the picture, and buildings going back and crossing the river Kennet. Reading Jail can also be seen in the top left.

The site had its own direct connection to the nearby Great Western Railway line, and the factory was highlighted as a point of interest to travellers on the railway to and from London and the west.

Biscuit production stopped in Reading in the 1970s, and the brand itself disappeared through various acquisitions in the 1980s, but was revived in 2006 in Suffolk, with a number of lines being available today.

Although the vast majority of the biscuit factory buildings were demolished throughout the 1980s and 90s, the most southerly end of the factory buildings survived and is now social housing.

Suttons Seeds

On the same census return that showed Charles Halfacre as a labourer at the biscuit factory, his nephew, Jack Keatley, was a packer at Suttons seeds.

Founded in Reading in 1806 by John Sutton, Suttons originally traded corn before expanding into flower and vegetable seeds. The business expanded rapidly, developing international links to the Netherlands and India.

A black and white aerial photograph showing the Suttons Seeds site in Market Place, Reading.
The Suttons Seeds site is seen in the bottom-left quadrant of this aerial photograph.

This aerial photograph was taken in 1928, although it's very similar to the setup that Jack would've worked in.

The main stores building can be seen in the foreground with "Sutton & Sons" painted on the roof; the shadow of the arch-roofed garage can be seen on the road in front of it. There were two different packing areas, one for export and another, I'm assuming, for the UK market. The export packing floors is the building immediately behind the stores; the domestic packing floors were on the opposite side of the farm seed order floor building, the building running lengthways away from the camera.

This is probably better explained in this photograph reproduced on the Reading Chronicle website. I'm yet to establish the copyright situation of this photograph, so I'm not including it here myself.

An Ordnance Survey map of east Reading from 1912. The vast majority is identified as Sutton's Seed Trial Ground, nurseries, and allotments.
Sutton's Seeds trial grounds dominated east Reading at the time of this map in 1912. They were a tourist attraction to passers-by on the railway lines, and were later the site of their new offices. Today it's the site of Sutton's Business Park.

View the map on the National Library of Scotland website.

Suttons moved out of the town centre location in 1962 to a purpose-built site on its trial grounds on the east side of town. In 1976, Suttons moved to Devon and the Reading site was closed.

Today, Suttons Seeds is still going strong. The 'new' site in east Reading is now a business park that bears the Suttons name, and the central Reading site in Market Place has been redeveloped into the Forbury Square commercial and retail space.

H & G Simonds brewery

Although the census return for my 2x great-grandfather Isaac Slade doesn't mention the brewery he worked for, he is listed in 1901 as being a 'brewer's maltster', which allows me to talk about the other of Reading's 'B's is for beer thanks to Simonds.

Established in 1785 in Broad Street before moving to Bridge Street five years later, Simonds grew steadily throughout the 1800s. During this time it supplied the Royal Military College before winning a contract to supply the British Army, with a presence created in Malta and Gibraltar to establish a more local supply for the soldiers. The Maltese branch still exists today as the brewers Simonds Farsons Cisk.

A black and white aerial photograph showing the Simonds brewery and surrounding area.The Simonds site on Bridge Street continued to expand. This aerial photograph shows the Seven Bridges Brewery just to the upper-right of centre, on the sticking-out bump in the river. Nearer the foreground is the Great Western Railway Bear Wharf railway goods yard, and to the left of that, the malthouses.

In fact, in this photograph you can see the Suttons Seeds site (go straight up from the brewery, and it's in line with the dominant, light-coloured church in the centre), and the Huntley & Palmer's factory in the far top-right beyond the prison.

Simonds continued until 1960 when they merged with Courage & Barclay; the resulting Courage, Barclay, Simonds & Co. was simplified to just Courage ten years later.

Production moved to the new Berkshire Brewery, next to the M4's junction 11, and the Seven Bridges brewery closed in 1981. Production of various brands of beers and lagers continued here until the site closed in 2010.

Trying to follow the sales, takeovers and acquisitions, I think the Simonds brand is now owned by Marstons. They've already resurrected the Courage brand so, who knows, there may be a return of Simonds Hopleaf sometime in the future.

Aside from the three 'B's

Besides beer, biscuits and bulbs, what other jobs stand out in the data?

Mary Hearn, nee Wickens, and her sister Muriel were assistants in the microbiology department of the National Institute for Research in Dairying (NIRD), and this allows me to talk about some childhood memories.

The NIRD was somewhere I grew up hearing about and it was a huge operation in my little part of Berkshire.

I know Mary's and Muriel's roles were tiny - in the photograph taken just before the Institute closed, they're labelled as "Washing Up" - but I'm sure vital, nevertheless. It's also where my grandfather worked as a farmer. I remember visiting him in a field in the nearby High Copse Farm when he was combine harvesting one summer and I got to join him in the cab of the harvester.

A bright yellow New Holland combine harvester against a blue sky. My grandfather is at the steering wheel.
My grandfather, Colin Galbraith, driving a New Holland Clayson 1530 combine harvester.

An institution within the University of Reading, as the name suggests, the Institute "research[ed ...] the production and uses of milk and improving methods in the dairy industry".

Although the Institute was disbanded in 1985 after 70 years of operation, some work continued in Shinfield as part of a newly-merged branch of the Food Research Institute, which was later transferred to the main University of Reading campus in 1992 (now CEDAR).

Mary Hearn holding a 'sorry you're leaving' card.
Mary on her last day at the Institute.

I have a photograph of Mary leaving her job with a note captioned "Taken by Ubi, 24/12/86". A calendar in the background of the photographs shows November 1986. I know the Institute had a policy of retirement at the age of 60 (Hansard, 1985) and, with Mary turning 60 just two weeks later, this is quite possibly the reason why she left.

I have a wonderful story about Mary and her husband, Jack, to share with you for love and marriage week at the end of April, so stay tuned for that!

The old NIRD buildings were somewhere I'd visited as a child, mainly after the majority had been abandoned. There were public footpaths through some of the sites but, it was the 80s, these places were easy to access and just wander around.

An Ordnance Survey map from 1971 showing the main sites of the NIRD.
An Ordnance Survey map from 1971 showing the main NIRD sites.
High Copse farm is to the south connected by the track from Church Farm.

They were buildings my mum especially wanted to visit before they were demolished and, once they were and housing estates had replaced them, she very rarely went down Church Lane as the memories of how it used to be was too upsetting. Paraphrasing her own words, she hated it.

Seeing photos of the site on 28 Days Later from 2007, 2012, 2013, and 2014 unlocked some memories of buildings I know I've seen before. I remember visiting them as a child, looking around the abandoned farm site.

I also remember being on a walk with my dad, sister, and an uncle. I think we'd walked the footpath through the entire NIRD site then out through High Copse to the main road. I remember looking up at the side of a building and seeing a slightly sun-faded blue sign with clear, white lettering in a Helvetica-like font, something like:

National Institute for
Research in Dairying

There might've even been a white cow's head or similar logo. It's one of those things on my research list to try and find a photo to corroborate that memory.

Another random memory: I remember my granddad having some wooden models of milking parlours in his house showing different configurations of parlour. I don't know if they're the same ones, or why he had them - maybe he was involved in their making, or was keeping them safe - but some very similar ones are now museum pieces!

Anything else?

There's an interesting little category where 37 census returns describe someone, usually the wife, as being a blacksmith's wife, policeman's wife, dairyman's son, etc.

There's also my great grandfather, Robert Hearn, listed being a sewage attendant for a couple of years. That's certainly eye-catching! No idea what the story is there.

There was a sewage farm about 1.5 miles away from where he lived, which is now the area of Green Park business park and the Kennet Island residential development - along with a modern, less smelly sewage facility.

A map from 1938 showing the Manor Farm sewage works, Whitley, Reading.
The Manor Farm sewage works in 1938.


Hansard. (1985-04-04). HC Deb 04 April 1985 vol 76 cc1368-74 National Institute for Research in Dairying, Shinfield. Retrieved 2024-01-14, from UK Parliament: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1985/apr/04/national-institute-for-research-in

Kay, H. D. (1951-02-15). The National Institute for Research in Dairying, Shinfield, Reading. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 138(890), pp. 17-31. Retrieved 2024-01-14, from https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.1951.0002

Lawrence, G. (2023-01-26). The story of Suttons Seeds: 1806 - present. Retrieved 2024-01-13, from The Museum of English Rural Life: https://merl.reading.ac.uk/blog/2023/01/story-suttons-seeds-1806-present/

Nash Ford, D. (2008-2015). H & G Simonds' Seven Bridges Brewery : a description from 1891. Retrieved 2024-01-13, from David Nash Ford's Royal Berkshire History: http://www.berkshirehistory.com/businesses/simonds_brewery.html

Reading Museum. (2003-2022). Huntley & Palmers History Online Exhibition. Retrieved 2024-01-13, from Reading Museum: https://www.readingmuseum.org.uk/online-exhibitions/history-huntley-palmers

Reading Museum. (2023-08-24). The other Bs: beer, bulbs, and bricks. Retrieved 2024-01-13, from Reading Museum: https://www.readingmuseum.org.uk/online-exhibitions/huntley-palmers-history/1-wider-picture/other-bs-beer-bulbs-and-bricks

All map images used on this page reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland, unless otherwise stated. Search and view the maps in their amazing collection at maps.nls.uk.