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I am trying to build up a picture of the kind of work my great-great-grandfather, Joseph MARKHAM, was doing in Liverpool in the 19th century. He was born in 1815, the son of a merchant, John MARKHAM, in Middlesex. At some point, he made his way to Liverpool where in 1838 he married. His marriage certificate states that he was a merchant’s clerk. His wife, Ann, refers to herself as a merchant’s wife but other sources indicate that he was a broker (1851 census), a commission merchant (1861, on his son’s birth certificate), a general broker (1861 census) and, strangely, a sauce pickle maker (1871 census).

I’d like to find out just what a general broker or commission clerk did. Presumably, apart from when he was a merchant’s clerk, he would have been self-employed. Would he have worked from home? What would a typical day have been like, assuming that there was such a thing? So far, I have not been able to access a trade directory for the relevant years to give me any clues.

He seems to have returned to his roots for the last few years of his life as he is listed on the 1881 census back in London, living on his own on an annuity. So presumably he must have made some financial provision for his old age. He died in Mile End Old Town in 1884. His wife, as the informant, still insisted he was a merchant.

Could you direct me, please, to any sources which would colour in the rather grey picture I have of Joseph MARKHAM, commission merchant and general broker?

Elaine McCurry


The occupations that you have – merchant’s clerk, broker and general broker, and commission merchant – are all very general and without something more definitive it would be difficult to be precise in what was involved. Merchant’s clerk is self-explanatory. Essentially, a ‘commission merchant’ was someone who bought and sold goods on behalf of someone else, for a commission. And I believe that a ‘broker’ was very much the same. I do not believe it is certain that at any point Joseph MARKHAM would have been self-employed (though that is not to say that he was not).

As you have suggested, you do need to examine trade directories for the period. Copies will of course be found locally, in Liverpool, for example at Liverpool Record Office and Local History Library. One of the best, if not the best, national collections is held at Guildhall Library, (Aldermanbury, London EC2V 7HH; tel: 020 7332 1862/3; The Society of Genealogists (14 Charterhouse Buildings, Goswell Road, London EC1M 7BA; has a reasonable collection.

Many old directories have been published in facsimile or are available on CD. For example, the Liverpool and South West Lancashire FHS ( has the following available: Slater’s Directory of Liverpool 1846; Gore’s Directory of Liverpool 1853; Slater’s Directory of Liverpool 1859.

Historical Directories is a digital library of local and trade directories for England and Wales from 1750 to 1919, produced by the University of Leicester ( Within the digital library you’ll find high quality reproductions of comparatively rare books, essential tools for research into local and genealogical history. This is an ongoing project that is initially concentrating on the decades of the 1850s, 1890s and 1910s

The Liverpool Record Office and Local History Library (Central Library, William Brown Street, Liverpool L3 8EW; tel: 0151 233 5817) holds a wealth of information and if you have not already done so I would recommend a visit. Its website (found at details what is held there. There are a number of ‘Reading Guides’ intended to help people with their research; split into seven different categories, they contain commentaries, essays and finding guides. Of possible interest to you is the ‘Work, business and the economy’ category that covers the economic history of the city and includes business biographies, company magazines, information on trade associations and the overhead railway. The guide for ‘Clerks’ tells us:

Liverpool’s central business district had one of the largest clusters of clerks anywhere in the world in the late nineteenth century, working long hours in small, cramped offices. The clerical workforce was overwhelmingly male until the 1890s, when an increasing number of women began to be employed. Clerks struggled to maintain a middle-class lifestyle on low wages, having to dress respectably and live in appropriate districts. Their lives tell us a great deal about Victorian and Edwardian attitudes to class, gender and work. Despite this, historians have paid much less attention to office workers than to other groups, and our knowledge of office work in the twentieth century is particularly thin.

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