Researching your ancestors' occupations

How to identify your ancestors' occupations and find more information their employment history.

Finding records

Identifying a person's occupation

There are a variety of family history resources that can be used to identify a person's occupation, including - electoral rolls, post office directories, rate books, birth, death and marriage certificates, will and probate records and newspapers.

By searching through these records you will hopefully be able to identify the occupation of the person you are researching. Try and locate the name of their employer and the years they worked, as this may help you to identify relevant employment records. We also recommend that you search across several years, as many people had different occupations throughout the course of their life or may have worked in a variety of organisations.

Finding occupational records

Once you've established their occupation, your next step is to try and find a repository of records or a source that might contain useful information about their employment. The location of records will depend on the type of industry they worked in, such as a government department, a hospital or a commercial organisation.

You should also try and verify if the person was a professional – a doctor, lawyer or banker, for instance. For these type of positions, if the employment records have survived, they will generally be held by the employer, whether an agency, business or organisation.

As you look for records, please keep in mind that many employment records will not be available. Many records will have been destroyed, and in many industries there was no obligation to either keep or archive records.


The following section lists several key resources that can help you to identify a person's occupation. Use the tabs across the top of each box to help you navigate through the resources.

Resources for finding an occupation

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

Image from the Australian electoral roll.

Example from the Australian electoral roll, subdivision of Carlton South, 1935. (click to enlarge)

Only a very limited number of 19th century rolls have survived, the most comprehensive roll being the 1856-57 Victoria electoral roll. After Federation in 1901 an annual electoral roll for the Commonwealth was compiled.

Electoral rolls from 1903 to 2008 are available on microfiche in our Newspapers & Family History Reading Rooms. A selection of Victorian electoral rolls between 1903 and 1980 are also available on the Ancestry database.

Further information on how to access Victorian electoral rolls can be found on our Researching your Victorian ancestors guide.

Post office and telephone directories include the name and address of the main householder and sometimes included the occupations of individuals. 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.

The largest collection of Victorian directories are the Sands directories:

  • Sands & Kenny Melbourne Directories, 1857–1861
  • Sands & McDougall Melbourne Directories, 1862–1911
  • Sands & McDougall Victorian Directories, 1912–1974

Copies of these directories can be found on microfiche in our Newspapers & Family History Reading Rooms.

From home you can access digitised copies of the Sands & McDougall directories from 1857-1880, via the University of Melbourne website and every fifth year of the directory from 1860 to 1974, can be accessed via the State Library Victoria website.

A large selection of the Sands directories can be found on the Ancestry database, in a collection called Australia, City Directories, 1845–1948. 


Image of a page from the Sands & McDougall's directory of Victoria.1915

Example taken from Sands & McDougall's directory of Victoria.1915. (click to enlarge)

For more detailed information on the various Victorian directories held at the State Library Victoria, please go to the Post Office and telephone directories page of our Researching your Victorian ancestors research guide.

Rate books usually contain the name of the occupant, their occupation, address, name of owner, date, description of property and rate assessed.

A number of Victorian rate books, for varying dates, are held at State Library Victoria. For further details please go to the Rate books page of our Researching your Victorian ancestors research guide.

A large collection of rate books can also be found at the Public Record Office Victoria. Further information can be found on their Rate records website.

Many councils have copied their collections of rate books. Check with the relevant local public library or family history society of the area you are researching to see if collections are available.

A selection of Victorian rate books can also be found on the Ancestry website, within the Victoria, Australia, Rate Books, 1855–1963 collection.

Text from the Hawthorn rate book, 1909 Victoria, Australia, Rate Books, 1855-1963 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: 2015.
Original data:Rate Books. From series 580, 2332–2348, 4094, 4317, 6772–6773, 6895-6896, 6919, 9704. Public Record Office Victoria, North Melbourne, Australia

Historical birth, death and marriage records often include the occupation of any adults listed on a certificate. On a birth certificate you may find the occupations of a child's parents, marriage certificates should include the occupations of both partners and their fathers, and a death certificate should list the occupation of the deceased person, if known.

Birth, death and marriage certificates are held by the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages in each Australian state and territory. To obtain a copy of a historical certificate you first need to check the relevant index to find the registration number.  In our Newspapers & Family History Reading Rooms you can access all published Australian civil registration indexes. From home you can access the online index to the Victorian registry of births deaths and marriages. Once you have the registration number you can purchase a copy of the certificate from the registry.


Image of the marriage certificate of John Wesley Watts and Mary Theresa Singleton' Benalla,

`Marriage certificate of John Wesley Watts and Mary Theresa Singleton' Benalla, 1880.
Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Certificate no. 1375/1880,
in possession of Ann Copeland, Victoria, Australia. (click to enlarge).


Further information on accessing Victorian and interstate birth, death and marriage records can be found on this page of our Researching your Victorian ancestor research guide.

Will and probate documents often include the occupation of the deceased. In some cases they also include the name of the establishment where they were employed. If you go to the digitised copy of Robert Bromby's Grant of administration -

Robert H. Bromby: Grant of administration.15 May 1884. Public Record Office Victoria. Reg. no. 27/464

you will see that he is listed as being an Assistant Librarian at the University of Melbourne.
Please note that if an individual had retired, it's unlikely that their profession would have been included.

The Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) hold Wills and Probate files that have been administered by the Victorian Probate office from 1841 to 2018.

Records from 1841-1925 can be viewed online and records from 1926-2018 can be ordered to view in the PROV North Melbourne Reading Room. Indexes to these collections can be found on Public Record Office Victoria's  Wills and Probate website.

Further information on Will and Probate documents can also be found on this page of our Researching your Victorian ancestors research guide.

Newspapers can provide a wealth of information about your ancestors, including family notices, legal information, land and property sales, advertisements and feature articles. In any one of these records you may find details about their occupation listed.

If you already know their occupation, you can use newspapers to look for additional articles relating to their career or place of employment.

The State Library Victoria holds a rich collection of Australian and overseas newspapers, including almost every issue of every newspaper in Victoria. Most newspapers are available in print or microfilm and a number of titles are available through online newspaper archives.


The Trove - Historic Australian Newspapers database includes over 1000 state and national newspapers, dating from 1803 to 1954. Over 350 Victorian newspapers are available and more are being added each year.

Try searching Trove for the name of your ancestor. By enclosing their name in quotation marks this will ensure that their name is searched as an exact phrase, i.e. "John Smith".

If you get too many results add a location "Elizabeth Watson" Frankston. You can also use the many filters which appear on the right-hand side of the Trove results screen, such as - date range, specific newspaper title...etc.

Here is an example of a search on Trove for "Myrtle Bray" Eaglehawk. It retrieved the following article which confirmed that in 1917 Myrtle was working as a teacher at the North Eaglehawk State school.


Image of a newspaper article titles Presentations to school teacher

Presentations to school teacher. The Bendigo Independent, 17 Aug. 1917, p. 3.

Not all Victorian newspapers appear on Trove. So for further newspaper research it's worth exploring the collection held in our Newspapers & Family History Reading Rooms. Here you can access current copies of Victorian newspapers as well as back copies of over 4000 Victorian newspapers, which are available on microfilm. We also hold archival copies of newspapers in storage, and subject to our access policy, these can be requested and read in the Library.

Our Library subscribes to a wide range of current and historic Australian and international newspaper databases. They are available in the Library and many can be accessed offsite by Victorian residents who are registered State Library members.

For further information on researching newspapers, please consult one of the Library's newspaper research guides.

Image of a scientist looking through a microscope

 Scientist examining specimens through a microscope,  H83.96/367

Occupations throughout history

When researching an ancestor you may come across several professions that no longer exist or have changed over time. Perhaps your ancestor was a Wharfinger (a keeper of a wharf), a Cutler (a maker of cultery) or a Fellmonger (a dealer of animal hides).

The State Library holds many titles that focus on old occupations including:

The following websites may also be of use: