Posted by Ancestry.com.au on September 28, 2018 in Australia

When the First Fleet landed in 1788, the convicts were skilled in more than 80 different trades and occupations. Some of these trades were useful in starting a colony from the ground up, others not so much. Some occupations stayed in existence, but many are no longer in use. Here are 5 of the more unusually named occupations that have been practiced in Australia.

The ‘knocker-upper’

What did people do before iPhone alarms to wake them up in the morning? They employed a ‘knocker-upper’. The knocker-upper was paid to wake people. They would use a truncheon to tap on the door or, if on an upper floor, a peashooter to send little these missiles to tap on the windows. The activities were repeated until the person was up for work … there was no snooze button!

The ‘tweenie’

Employed as a ‘tweenie’? Then you’re a maid who works ‘between stairs’ to help the older housemaids and cooks in their duties. And on the subject of domestic servants, you really didn’t want to be a ‘vassal’ – they were the lowest ranked servant in the house.

The ‘battledore maker’

Often the word to describe the occupation gives no clue at all to its meaning. Take for instance a ‘battledore maker’. This job had nothing to do with battles, or doors,  but was the art of making beaters, usually from cane or reed, to remove dust from cloths or floor mats. It appears to have been a seasonal job undertaken around the time of a spring clean.

The ‘scourger’

In the 1822 muster, which is available on Ancestry, there were five ‘scourgers’ working in the colony. Their role? To wield the whips over any misbehaving colonist sentenced to receive the last. There was one for each district in New South Wales at the time: John Roach worked in Sydney, William Reynolds at Windsor, William Yates at Liverpool, James Walton at Parramatta and William Edwards at Argyleshire.

Convict flogging Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The ‘pettifogger’

The origin of some surnames harks back to our ancestors’ occupations. Ones such as ‘Taylor’ (a spelling variation of the occupation tailor), and Cartwright (a maker of carts) are fairly simple and self-explanatory. But you may not be so happy to have the surname ‘Pettifogger’ – it meant you worked as a dodgy or shyster lawyer.

This weekend, Ancestry is offering free* access to more than 270 million historic records to help you discover what your ancestors did for a living!


By Cassie Mercer compiled with the assistance of Michael Flynn, Carol Baxter and Gay Hendriksen.

Cassie Mercer is an editor based in Sydney. She founded the award-winning magazine Inside History in 2010, creating a following of 60,000+ readers and working with Australia’s key cultural institutions to bring the nation’s history to life across Inside History’s multi-channel platforms. The history bug struck her when she discovered the story of her 5x great grandparents – in the late 1700s, one was a highwayman in Dublin and the other was a madam of a brothel, of the Lower Sort.

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