The Trade Explained

Having a trade usually meant you had served a full seven year apprenticeship and were accepted by the associated trade association as being skilled. In industry skilled fitters and turners were tradesmen, the unskilled were labourers. A tradesman owned his own tools, in the Middle Ages he carried these in a 'sack' (actually a kind of cloth bag with rope handles). If an employer was not happy with the man's work he would be 'given the sack', that is told to take his tools and leave. If he did a really bad job his Guild would be called in and if they felt the job was not up to their standards they might require the tools to be burnt, which was called being 'fired'. As the guild controlled who could work in an industry this effectively disbarred the man from working in his trade, reducing him to being a labourer. Tradesmen were the core of the original 'middle classes', along with 'merchants' who buy and sell goods and services, the former generally had higher social status as many distrusted merchants.

In the present context there are two kinds of tradesman (or woman), those who operated entirely from premises, such as tailors and cobblers (discussed under App 1 - Shops and Shopkeepers), and those who's skill had to be employed at the customers premises, such as plumbers or chimney sweeps.

Most tradespeople wore the standard working clothing of the day, from the time the railways arrived until the 1940s that would mean for a man a suit consisting of jacket, waistcoat and trousers with leather boots and a hat. The long trousers appeared about the time the railways arrived and rapidly replaced the below-the-knee breeches and stockings worn before that time, the drawback was that long trousers tended to pull on the knees when bending so working men often had a leather strap or piece of twine fastened just below the knee to hitch up the trouser and give a degree of freedom to the knee. The jacket might be taken off in hot weather, but the waistcoat tended to remain on, even if un buttoned. Working men tended to wear blue shirts, skilled men and more senior staff favoured white shirts but most working men did not wear a collar and tie. The collar was a separate item, attached with a collar stud at the back, the blue collar was of no practical value and the white collar was a stiff thing that chafed the neck and served no useful purpose (although they were favoured by merchants). Many tradesmen and labourers wore a coloured handkerchief round their neck, useful for mopping up sweat and in cold weather the muffler (a woolen scarf tucked into the front of the jacket) was a much more practical option. The hats worn by men up to the 1860s were a mixed bag, the two common types seem to have been a wide brimmed hat, made either of soft felt or woven straw, and the cloth cap with a peak (resembling a uniform cap). In the 1860s the flat cap appeared, originally a hat for the sporting gentry but rapidly adopted as a practical bit of kit by working men. Also at this time the bowler hat appeared and became almost a badge of office for foremen and skilled tradesmen.

Typical men's working clothing 1860s to the 1940s


Women wore skirts, the length of which varied over the years (see also App 1 - Outline History for more on women's clothing fashions), under which they would wear a petticoat (a kind of underskirt) and over which they would wear an apron. By about 1910 working women often wore a skirt and blouse and by 1920 the apron usually had a bib front with wide straps over the shoulders and crossed across the back.

Having a sun tan in those days was deeply unfashionable as it was associated with poverty so women wore hats (indoors as well as out until about 1900). By the time the railways arrived a standard bit of kit for working women was the 'sun bonnet', a cloth hat with a stiff brim and a skirt at the rear and sides. By this time the fashionable waist for women's clothing had moved from high under the bust to the actual waist and working women were increasingly dressed in simplified versions of the currently fashionable clothing of the day but the apron remained a standard piece of kit for working women right into the 1960s.

In the 1920s a new kind of apron for women was developed, a kind of light cotton wrap-over, and these remained common until the 1960s. They were usually printed with a bright floral pattern and were standard kit for cleaning women into the 1970s.

As an alternative to the apron some women, such as those working in food shops, wore an 'overall', a light cotton coat that buttoned up the front, usually these were white when working with food. A white light weight cotton 'cover-all' coat was often worn by male shopkeepers and men working with food stuffs. In industry men working in light engineering or as supervisors or storekeepers at factories often wore a light brown of fawn version of this kind of overall. I believe these first appeared in about 1930 and there were sold under various names such as 'lab coat' or warehouseman's coat. I last saw these on sale in the mid 1980s, when I bought a couple for use in my workshop.

Many men wore an apron to protect their clothing (wash day was a major exercise prior to the 1960s), most were cloth but some trades used oil-cloth (waterproofed with an air-drying oil such as linseed oil). Blacksmiths and men working on boilers or other locations where hot sparks were a problem favoured leather, a leather apron was a standard bit of kit for men pouring molten tar onto roads for example. Blacksmiths used leather aprons but these were slit up the middle so he could lift a horses hoof between his knees for shoeing and often had a fringe at the bottom, used to brush particles of iron off the anvil.

The sketch below A shows a shop keeper (actually a tea merchant), circ 1900, note how long the apron is, protecting his trousers. He wears a white working jacket over the top. B shows a furniture maker in the 1920s wearing a full apron, the apron is still quite long and this was common up to the 1930s. C is a carpenter based on a photo taken in the late 1920s, I believe the 'bib' part of his apron is folded down inside, D is a brewery delivery man wearing an oil-cloth apron, E is a carter, note the jacket is worn over the apron (not uncommon) whilst F is a warehouseman in the mid 1930s wearing a cotton overall. Aprons and cover-all's were regularly worn into the 1950s but had been falling from favour since the outbreak of the Second World War.

Typical aprons and cover-all's

Plastering trowels

The one-piece 'boiler suit' appeared in the later 19th century and was adopted by people working in particularly dirty trades. These were in widespread use by 1900 and rapidly became standard wear for mechanics working on motor vehicles. They were made of cotton and usually a dark blue colour, from old photographs I believe the white boiler suit appeared in the 1930s. Most men wore the blue type of overall, supervisors and the like having the white, up to the 1970s these were usually supplied with a matching cloth belt with silver buckle. By the 1980s many were supplied with an elasticated waist and man made fibres were increasingly being used. The 'bib and braces' type of overall, worn with a shirt, appeared from America just before the First World War, this was favoured by some trades, notably painters and decorators, as the freedom of movement was greater.

Typical boilersuit and over-alls


Prior to the Second World War working men and women wore either leather boots or wooden soled clogs (British clogs had a leather upper, only the Dutch favoured all-wooden footwear). After the war labourers adopted the (black) rubber Wellington boots but most tradesmen and working women wore boots or shoes.

After the second world war the waistcoat quite rapidly disappeared, leaving the jacket and trousers as the standard working man's kit. All men leaving the armed forces in the 1940s and 1950s were issued with a suit, known as a 'de-mobilisation' or 'de-mob' suit. These were purchased in bulk from selected manufacturers (notably Burtons) but there was little if any 'tailoring' to get them to a reasonable fit, as a result these suits were generally kept as working clothing (this practice has been cited for the growing acceptance of ill-fitting off-the-peg clothing).

Boiler suits became more common but the 'flat cap' remained a feature until the 1960s.

In the later 1950s the American 'T-shirt', formerly worn as underclothing, became acceptable as working clothing. Dungarees or 'jeans' (trousers made of heavy tent canvass and designed to be hard wearing) appeared from America in the post war era and by the later 1950s were often worn by labourers. The use of jeans as work clothing spread to tradesmen and by the 1980s they were very common, however since that time tradesmen have favoured purpose design clothing made from lighter and harder wearing materials, often with special features such as pockets on the front of the legs for knee-pads (popular with plumbers and electricians).

Specific trades

Skilled men always owned their own set of tools, even when working for a company, and each trade had some fairly distinctive variations. Good tools were expensive so most tradesmen would therefore have a lockable took box, in many cases they would incorporate a lockable compartment in their vehicle, be it a hand cart, a traders tricycle or horse drawn van or wagon. Labourers and most factory workers were dependent on their employer for tools, although generally these amounted to little more than a wheelbarrow and spade and hence did not carry a tool box.

Window cleaners have been operating for many years dealing with commercial buildings, by the 1930s they were doing some domestic cleaning as well (although this was not common until the later 1940s). The scale of the British industry can be judged by the formation of a professional body, National Federation of Master Window Cleaners (now called The Federation of Window Cleaners) in 1947. There are however no restrictions and anyone can set up as a window cleaner, which means there are quite a few accidents involving unskilled people.

They had to carry buckets and ladders and usually operated in pairs, one with the extending ladder for the upstairs rooms, the other with a short 'A' shaped ladder for the downstairs windows. The photographs from the early 20th century often show window cleaners wearing a lightweight jacket, often buttoned only at the neck to allow freedom of movement. Rubber 'wellington boots' reaching nearly to the knee seem to have been common in this trade after their introduction in about 1910 up to the mid 1930s. In towns the staff of larger firms were issued with a long uniform overcoat worn over a bib-and-braces set of overalls, the coat appears to be light weight (probably a waterproof light oilskin) but I have not more information on these. By the 1950s my local suburban window cleaners wore long sleeveless brown jerkins with oilskin pockets to carry their wet chamois leathers.

In towns a hand cart was often used to carry the ladders and equipment, window cleaning companies often sent out teams of four or five with such a cart to handle the shop fronts in a town. This cart would (typically) not have the usual handles fitted as the ladders served for this. They usually had high sides bearing the company name and contact details, when on the move the buckets (one per man) would ride sitting between the rungs of the ladder. In the sketch below the chap on the right (based on a photo dating from around the time of the First World War) would serve for any period from about 1910 to the mid 1930s, the chap on the right would serve from the mid 1930s through to the 1950s.

Window cleaners with hand cart in the 1920s

window cleaning

For the working the suburbs some cleaners used hand carts but many favoured bicycles up to the 1960's, giving them a wider radius of operation. Some began using motorcycle combinations, with the ladders carried on the side car, from the 1940s but in the 1960s there was a distinct shift toward using vans with roof racks for the ladders. On bikes they carried their ladder on one shoulder and the galvanised metal bucket was slung on the handlebars often with a chamois hanging over the side. The sketch below is based on my memory of the two chaps operating in my local area in the 1950s and 60s (by which time they wore denim jackets with big oilskin-lined pockets).

Suburban window cleaners in the 1950s


Up to the 1960s domestic window cleaners favoured the plain chamois leather, the T shaped 'squeegee' cleaning tool spread from the industrial side of the business in the later 60s. The modern squeegee was invented in 1936 by a Mr Ettore, an Italian living in America. There was something similar on the market, widely used for cleaning skyscraper windows, but it was heavy and not very effective. Mr Ettore approached the largest manufacturer of professional window cleaning products with his design but they were not interested. He contacted the managing director and bet the cost of a new hat that by the end of the month they would be interested. The man took the bet and Mr Ettore then distributed some of his tools to window cleaners, asking only that they evaluate them, when the men asked where they could get one he gave them the manufacturers address and by the end of the month he had won his bet.

In the 1990s the 'water fed pole' approach found favour, a telescopic hollow pole with a washing head is supplied with water from a van mounted pump and avoids the cleaner having to use ladders, however these involve a fair capital investment and remain uncommon as of 2007.

Chimney sweeps have been a feature of British life since before the railways, burning wood or coal leaves soot and oily deposits inside the chimney which can catch fire. In the early years children were employed by a 'Master Sweep' to climb up inside the chimneys and brush away the accumulated soot with hand tools. These children were often orphans and many died, suffocated by the dust, falling from rotten chimney stacks and from cancer caused by the soot. In 1864, after many years of campaigning, Lord Shaftesbury’s 'Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweepers' outlawed the use of children for climbing chimneys and set up a penalty of £10 for offenders. This was a considerable sum of money in those times. During the Industrial Revolution, with the increasing use of coal as a fuel, the trade flourished (there were over a thousand sweeps in London in the later 19th century).

In most countries sweeps work from the roof, hauling the brush up the chimney on a rope. The alternative sometimes seen in the UK is the ball, brush and rope system (introduced from Europe) in which the brush is attached to a weighted ball and this is lowered down from the roof using a rope (this method is popular in Scotland). In Britain however sweeps traditionally work from the bottom, using light weight cane rods fitted with brass ends that can be screwed together to push the brush up the flue. This kind of brush was probably invented in the early 18th century by a Bristol engineer named Joseph Glass. Early canes were Malacca, a timber imported from the East Indies and the early brushes were formed from whale bones (otherwise known as baleen, not a rigid bone as such this is flexible, it was also used in ladies corsets, the whales (about 13 species) use it to strain plankton out of the water). The whale bone was replaced by (amongst other things) 'Bahia Piassava' the fiber vein of leaf from Brazil, in the 1970s polypropylene was introduced but the Bahia type are still useful as they can be used on hot chimneys (such as above pizza ovens and the like) as the bristles do not melt.

The circular brush has remained a popular choice, some sweeps carried two brushes of different diameters, approximately 12 inches and 15 inches in diameter (30 and 38cm) to suit different types of flue, some carried only a single brush. The brush itself is circular and made up of three layers of long bristles. The brush and poles are the basic stock in trade of the sweep, although they also need a sheet or blanket to wrap around the fireplace when working to prevent soot and dust falling back into the room. As a result after about 1910 it would be usual for a sweep to use a hand cart, small horse drawn van or motor vehicle to carry their tools and brushes, the better off sweeps had always used hand carts or two wheeled horse drawn vehicles, with their name and address painted on the sides and ends. The Victorian sweep often carried the brushes, ropes and canes (sometimes with an eight foot ladder as well) but by 1900 a basic hand cart was the norm, with the more affluent sweeps using a tradesman's tricycle. The gents shown below are either not very successful or just starting out, one carries his brushes, the other has a crude (probably home made) hand cart. The sketches are based on photographs, the man on the left from the 1880s the man with the cart from the early 1930s.

Chimney sweeps


Gas fires were considered 'clean' and were often not swept. The regular cases of carbon monoxide poisoning which increased in the post war era as houses were made increasingly draught proof brought a greater awareness of the need for sweeping chimneys. Oil fired system are different again and require a third set of techniques.

Up to the 1980s there were no formal co-ordinating authority chimney sweeps but in 1982 the National Association of Chimney Sweeps [NACS] was founded with an initial membership of 30 sweeps. There is also the Guild of Master Sweeps, which owns and administers the City & Guilds 7641 qualification.

Legislation under various Health and Safety rules was introduced and by the early 1990s the sweep had at least the option of being registered with the appropriate organisation, CORGI (Gas), OFTEC (Oil) and HETAS (Solid Fuel). In 1998 a formal qualification (NVQ Chimney Engineering) was established but as far as I am aware there remains no legal requirement for a chimney sweep to be qualified in any way.

Knife grinders would tour an areas sharpening knives and scissors, they originally used a hand cart with a treadle mechanism to drive their grinding wheel, the sketch below shows a Victorian example (a model of something similar is available from ScaleLink), later types used something more akin to bicycle wheels both for the cart and the mechanism. These hand cart grinders came in a range of sizes, the example shown is quite a small one, larger types tended to favour an open frame body. The bowler hat seems to have been standard kit for knife grinders before World War Two. Knife grinders usually attended towns on market day where they would usually have a small crowd round them, customers and people just watching the spectacle of the showers of sparks from the wheel. In my youth in the 1950s knife grinders tended to favour a modified bicycle with a small grinding wheel on the handlebars with which they toured the suburbs, setting up on the pavement outside peoples houses. The grinding wheel was linked by a drive belt to the pedals and the bike had a pair of 'A frame' legs that folded down at the rear, lifting the rear wheel clear of the ground when they were working. I remember seeing one of these chaps plying his trade in the mid 1960s but I haven't seen one since. Incidentally many knife grinders also repaired umbrellas, sometimes indicated by having one on a long handle attached to the hand cart, which might make a nice little scene. The bicycle mounted grinder was a small device, the grinding wheel itself was perhaps six inches in diameter, in the sketch below the inset shows an enlarged view of the grinder itself.

Knife grinders


Plumbers - Originally these men worked with lead, they fitted lead roofing, lead 'flashing' to tiles or slate roofs and made or maintained a range of lead goods (including coffins, quite popular in the 18th century!). By the early twentieth century, with the rapid development of piped water supplies which used lead pipes they were increasingly associated with domestic and industrial water supplies. Lead is heavy stuff so plumbers usually had at least a hand cart, by 1900 a trade trike was a common option. To do their work they needed a range of hand tools, notably a very big and heavy soldering iron consisting of a lump of iron perhaps six inches long by an inch thick, tapering to a point, mounted on an iron bar with a wooden handle. This was heated in an open fire or on a gas stove and used to melt the solder used to seal the joints in the pipework. Another piece of kit used by plumbers was the pump-action paraffin 'blow lamp a fearsome device in the hands of a novice. This had a canister with a handle and fitted with a brass hand-pump to pressurise the contents, the outlet was via a coiled brass tube set inside a perforated outer tube about an inch in diameter, this was heated to vaporise the paraffin and a valve was opened to allow more paraffin to flow. The heat of the flame inside the perforated tube vapourised the paraffin, producing a fierce flame that could be used to melt large areas of solder and the like. If you got it wrong the coiled tube was not hot enough so when you opened the valve there was a jet of burning paraffin, similar to that from a flame thrower. These were replaced in the 1970s by a gas type using a pressurised butane-propane mix that does not require vapourising. Plumbers usually carried a fairly distinctive cloth bag that formed a half-moon shape when being carried. When set down this gave a cloth mat on which they could lay out their tools when working.



Carpenters and turners (men who 'turned' wood on a lathe) usually wore a canvas apron with a bib, generally a light brown one but some were white, many had a pocket on the bib although using this for the sharp tools of their trade would be risky I would have thought. Carpenters would build themselves a tool box during their apprenticeship, typically this was about four feet long by ten inches square with raised ends rising to a point and a long handle run between them.

Painters and decorators




Telephone Repair Men