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Britain’s oldest-surviving occupations

butlerYou might be able to guess what Britain’s longest-surviving occupations are – no, we’re not talking about that particular ‘oldest profession’ – but you may be surprised to know that some of the more unusual roles listed in the Domesday book are still going strong now.

Written in 1085/6, our earliest-surviving public record offers a fascinating insight into the lands and resources of William the Conqueror – along with how the people made a living at the time. Among the more everyday jobs (bakers, carpenters, merchants, farmers, soldiers) we’ve picked out a few more unusual roles – and why you might want to do them today.

1. Beekeeper
There are 16 beekeepers or custos apium listed in the Domesday Book but hive beekeeping in England goes back much further and even pre-dates the arrival of the Romans. Like today, honey was used as a sweetener in cooking and used for making mead, while wax was used to make candles, seals and as cere cloth, a fabric soaked in wax used in burials.

Beekeeping today: There is an urgent skills shortage in the UK, especially as many professional beekeepers are now nearing the age of retirement. To recruit new entrants to the industry, the Bee Farmers Association has developed an ‘in house’ apprenticeship scheme to train 30 people. ‘We really need 300 new professional beekeepers,’ Board Member John Mellis says, ‘but 30 is a start.’ The three-year course will include 46 weeks practical work on a bee farm each year.

2. Interpreter
English was the most commonly used language in government before 1066 but after the Conquest, French and Latin were also widely used – which meant interpreters found themselves in great demand. While the Domesday Book lists both English and French interpreters, native French speakers were said to enjoy a higher standing and better pay.

Interpreters today: If you are fluent in one or more foreign languages; have a clear speaking voice and can think on your feet, you may be able to find work as an interpreter. Most of those who work in conference interpreting have a degree or postgraduate qualification in a modern foreign language or in interpreting. If you want to work in the community, you do not necessarily need a degree, although qualifications may certainly help.

3. Jester
Two jesters are recorded in the Domesday Book – one a Welshman and the other a woman; this being one of the few occupations that women could pursue (women then were considered property of their husbands). Paid to entertain, jesters used physical humour, sleight of hand and satire, and could even speak out against the court and mock royalty.

Comedians today: Like acting and writing, comedy is a ‘winner takes all’ occupation where only the top few hit the big time. Many stand-ups work for free to begin with and then might go on to earn between £50 and £200 a performance, depending on the size of the venue. A survey of Equity members found that nearly half of people in the UK performance industry had earned less than £6,000 from the profession in the previous year – and only six per cent had earned more than £30,000 from performing.

4. Butler
The role of butler may be considered menial in modern time but those with the title in the eleventh century were honourable officers in the royal household; quite often a high-ranking noble in his own right. There were several (very wealthy) Norman butlers recorded in the Domesday Book – although the job’s recorded history in England goes back much further, to the ninth century.

Butlers today: You might be surprised to know that professional butlers are still in demand. The British Butler Institute offers five-day (£1,350) and four-week (£4,890) courses and advertises vacancies around the world. They state: ‘The Modern butler should have classic and contemporary butler skills. That is why the British Butler Institute offers cooking classes, flower design classes, mixology classes and expert shoe care and valet skills.’ One job advert for a butler in London pays £48,000.

5. Hawker
Kings and their nobles spent many hours hunting and hawking, at least in peace time. Huntsmen, hawkers and foresters were therefore an essential part of the royal household both before and after the conquest – and dozens of them are listed in the Domesday Book. Look closely and you’ll see that the Bayeux Tapestry includes vivid illustrations of Harold accompanied by his hawks and dogs on his fateful journey to Normandy.

Hawkers today: Falconers still train and fly birds of prey today – mainly for sport, entertainment and pest control. Falconers paid by a wildlife centre for bird shows might expect to earn around £10 per hour. Freelance falconers who use their birds in exhibitions and shows can earn between £50 and £100 a show (work tends to be seasonal as its outdoors). Those who work in pest control can expect a starting salary of around £20,000, increasing to around £25,000 plus with experience. *

* Salary information from MyJobSearch.com

Image: © Robert Kneschke – Fotolia.com

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