Apprenticeship in England

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Medieval baker with his apprentice.jpg

The learning of a trade through apprenticeship, in which a young person was placed with and formally bound to a master, has roots way back in medieval times. By the 16th century it was generally accepted as a means of providing technical training to boys and a very few girls in a wide range of occupations.

The Statute of Apprentices of 1563, sometimes called the Statute of Artificers, made apprenticeship compulsory for anyone who wished to enter a trade. It remained on the statute book until 1814. In that long period, no man could, in theory, set up as a master or as a workman till he had served his seven years' apprenticeship. A supply of labour in particular trades and to a certain standard was thus ensured. The historian G.M. Trevelyan said that apprenticeship was the key to the new national life of the Elizabethan era, almost as much as villeinage had been to the old.

In 1601, in a major early attempt at social control, the system was extended and the Overseers of the Poor were given powers to bind out the children of paupers and vagrants and those "overburdened with children". Anyone under the age of 21 "refusing to be an apprentice and to serve in husbandry", might be imprisoned until he or she found a master. If a man had half a ploughland under tillage (the area he could cultivate in one year with one ox-team) he was obliged to take an apprentice.

The number of those formally apprenticed in the 16th century was, however, probably quite small. By the 17th century, at the same time as the system was being extended to include the children of the poor, the children of the gentry, under economic pressures, were being apprenticed to merchants and manufacturers and to lawyers and doctors. By the 18th century apprenticeship is thus found at almost every level of society except the highest.

The child effectively became an extra worker in the master's household. He or she was subject to the absolute authority of the master and by the terms of their "indenture" could not gamble, or go to the theatre or a public house, and certainly could not marry.

Indentures and Premiums[edit | edit source]

That indenture was nearly always a private arrangement between the master and the guardian of the child apprenticed. The chance of its survival is therefore relatively small. The written indenture bound the child to the master; an oral agreement was not sufficient. Under the 1563 Act a deed or written contract was essential, but parishes which apprenticed paupers were spared that additional expense until 1691. The Stamp Act of 1709 put a tax on the indenture which resulted in a centralised record until 1808 (described below) and after 1757 the indenture was generally replaced by a stamped deed, though most people still called the document their "indenture".

Only about three per cent of indentures related to girls, though the figure was higher, rising to about seven per cent, in areas where more dressmakers were employed, such as Bath and London. These figures are for apprentices who were not paupers. The proportion of female pauper apprentices was much higher.

In the 16th Century the payment of a fee or "premium" to the master of the child was not at all common, but fees became usual in the 17th century, though they varied greatly from trade to trade. The payment of a one-off fee could be very difficult for some parents and in the 18th century payment by instalment became frequent, this actually being required by law in 1768.

In some specialised trades, particularly in London, very high apprenticeship fees could be obtained. Daniel Defoe said that in the 1720s the highest charges were those of the eminent Levant merchants who charged £1,000. In the 1660s and 1670s their fee would have been about £200, and before the Civil War £100 or less when affluent drapers or grocers charged about £50.

Theodore Klepenican, who came from Russia to England with Peter the Great in 1718, was apprenticed in Birmingham to learn the trade of edge-tool making. He was charged £70 for five years, whereas the usual fee was about £5 to £10 for seven. Peter also arranged 15 apprenticeships in ship-building for between £30 and £120, when the going rate was £4 to £40. The masters feared that their skills would be taken back to Russia and others instructed to the prejudice of their own trade. There were language difficulties to contend with, other apprentices were not taken at the same time, and the masters may have lost some trade as a result of their foreign involvement.

Very occasionally a premium consisted partly of goods as well as cash. In one case an apothecary in Wiltshire received £60 and four hundredweight of cheese valued at £5 (which was also taxed). In another case a pauper girl in Warwickshire took a feather bed as part of her premium.

An example of a 1721 Apprenticeship Indenture -- Norwich, Norfolk, Apprenticeship Indentures 1721.

Finding a Master[edit | edit source]

An appropriate master was usually found amongst one's friends and relations on personal recommendation. In some trades, like the London printing trade, there were complex networks of acquaintance and relationship. Some kept apprenticeship very much in the family and their whole expertise became a monopoly of a small handful of connected families, as it did in the Mint.

If you could not find an appropriate master by this means, the alternative was to advertise. Masters requiring apprentices and parents seeking places for their children regularly advertised in local newspapers. These advertisements do not normally mention a premium as this was subject to negotiation afterwards.

An advertisement inserted by a wigmaker in 1744 reads, "William Griffin, perriwig maker, opposite the Red Lion in Birmingham, wants an apprentice about 11 years. Any person that has a mind to set their son apprentice to that business, he will take him on reasonable terms, may depend on good usage and ... being carefully taught". He was "much confined" to his shop and a stranger in the area,

A typical advertisement by a father with a particular trade in mind for his son appeared in the Warwick Advertiser for 1818: "Wanted for a youth, about fifteen years of age, residing in the country, a situation, as an apprentice to a mercer and draper; a proper attention to his morals and domestic comforts will be required, as a handsome premium will be given".

A careful parent might take his child to the new master, or the child might be sent with the carrier, but in 1719 William Cookworthy, an orphan bound to a London apothecary, walked there from Devon.

The professional genealogist Alexander W.D. Mitton, of The Dungeon, Earl Court Road, London, who died in 1977, once advertised for an apprentice with a large premium. A good premium was always a welcome injection of capital into a business but, at a lower level, payments might sometimes go in the other direction. Chimney sweeps might offer two or three pounds to a mother to take her child. There are other instances where the father of an illegitimate child paid £5 for his unwanted son to be taken on and others where the fathers of illegitimate children were obliged to pay by the overseers of the poor.

Apprenticeship terms[edit | edit source]

A seven-year term was usual and in the better trades, such as cabinet makers, saddlers and silversmiths, apprenticeship usually started at the age of fourteen. By the "custom of London" those apprenticed in the City had to be over 14 and under 21. In Surrey in the 18th century some 87 per cent of the apprenticeships were for seven years, the remainder ranging from one to 15 years.

The shorter terms included attorneys, milliners and mantua makers (dressmakers), who usually served for five years. In these cases the premiums for females could be as high as £40, whilst those for attorneys could be a good deal higher.

Unwanted children, on the other hand, such as orphans, bastards and stepchildren, might be apprenticed for longer terms to butchers, millers, blacksmiths, masons and shipwrights, and long years of drudgery were also the fate of the poorest children (not necessarily only those "on the parish"), who were put out to work with small farmers, weavers, carpenters, tailors and shoemakers.

Some trades that required physical strength did not suit very small children, but in low-skilled occupations, such as nailing, ribbon weaving, framework knitting and cotton manufacture or with farm and house servants, work could begin at a much lower age. In Coventry it was usual to bind children aged seven to ten and even as young as four or five years old for 14 years as chimney sweeps. Some survived to become, themselves, masters.

In the flax and hemp trades in Ireland a five-year term was set in 1709 and reduced to four years in 1723. In Scotland the ordinary term was three years.

Who completed the term?[edit | edit source]

By the 1563 Act an apprentice was bound to serve until the age of 24, this being reduced to 21 in 1768. In theory the indenture could only be broken by order of a Justice of the Peace but in practice it is thought that only about 50 per cent of apprentices completed their terms. Some were ill-treated, some ran away and in others cases their masters became ill, went bankrupt, absonded from their families, or died. In the latter cases the child might be "turned over" to another master.

Richard Gough, writing at Myddle in Shropshire in the eary 1700s, mentions sixteen apprenticeships of village boys and pauper children. Of these several did not complete their terms. Some boys died; others gave unsatisfactory service or were intemperate. The deaths included his own son who caught smallpox at Shrewsbury.

An apprentice who stole from his master might well abscond and, as he had not completed his term, he would not legally be able to work in his trade for another master. A livelihood of crime was then almost inevitable. The justices would punish bad work, staying out at night and disobedience, with a month's hard labour in the House of Correction. If the apprentice repeated the offence he could be discharged and his indentures cancelled. The premium that his parents had paid would then be lost.

Country boys who came to be apprenticed in London, even those from good families, might experience a major change of social standing and they undoubtedly experienced many of the troubles and temptations that beset young people going to university today. In London in the 1660s half the male population was under the age of 25 and unrest was frequent. The word "apprentice" in the 17th and 18th centuries had many of the connotations of the word "student" a few years ago. They worked long hours and resented their lack of leisure and personal freedom.

The number of apprentices who ran away was always higher during periods of foreign wars when some found refuge from uncongenial trades and masters in the army or navy. In Warwickshire, for instance, advertisements in the local newspapers by masters trying to trace their runaway apprentices reach a peak in 1810-11. Following an earlier peak during the Seven Years War, an Act in 1766 had required that time lost be added to the period of the indenture if the apprentice were found or returned to his master.

Apprentice Wages[edit | edit source]

In theory an apprentice needed no payment or wage, the technical training being provided in return for the labour given. In fact, however, from quite early time it was usual to pay small sums, sometimes with which to buy, or instead of, new clothes.

By the 18th century regular payments, at least in the last two or three years of the apprentice's term, became widespread. Those who lived apart from their masters were frequently paid a regular wage, below that of the journeyman (the master's other workers, who were paid by the day). This was sometimes called the "half-pay" system or "colting", payments being made weekly or monthly to the apprentice or to his parents. In these cases the apprentice often went home from Saturday night to Monday morning. This is very characteristic of the 19th century but the system had, in fact, existed in some trades since the 16th century.

Rising through marriage[edit | edit source]

In due course an industrious apprentice might marry his master's daughter or even the widow. The apprentice who married his master's daughter had several advantages. His livelihood was assured with an existing clientele. He needed no help from his parents in starting a separate business and with luck he might inherit that of his master who meanwhile had a new partner that he knew well, could rely on, and would not become a rival when he himself was perhaps not so active. The dowry too would be less. In the early 17th century some eight per cent of London aldermen were former apprentices who had married their masters' daughters. A strictly supervised apprentice would have little opportunity to meet girls of his own age other than the household servants who would probably be of a lower social class.

There were advantages too in marrying the master's widow and thus acquiring the firm or shop. In 1775 Thomas Dawnsley, a barber's apprentice of 23 who had just finished his term, married his master's widow, Mrs Searles of Southwark, aged 74. He was her fifth husband; all had been barbers. Such marriages were quite common even into the 19th century. In dangerous but quite prosperous trades, like plumbing and farriery, women were often widowed young, and continued to manage the firm with the help of journeymen and apprentices. Indeed, women blacksmiths are often seen in 19th century trade directories. For them marriage was an obvious and practical solution.

Apprenticeship in decline[edit | edit source]

With the growth of population at the end of the 18th century and the greater demand for goods, opportunities for work became more widely available and the use of formal apprenticeship, except in some skilled trades, began to decline. Because the 1563 Act had carefully listed all the trades to which it applied the lawyers held that it did not extend to trades which had not existed when it was passed. In some trades the use of indentures, except for paupers, had become much less common and in many areas the Statute was clearly not enforced.

The traditional forms of apprenticeship were inflexible, taking seven years to produce a skilled worker, and ill-matched to rapid change in either the economy or society. The boy had little or no say in his career, which was largely dictated by the financial situation of his father. The ill-treatment and exploitation of so-called apprentices as cheap labour in factories and the sweated trades helped to bring the system into disrepute.

Sections of the 1563 Act were therefore repealed in 1814 and it was no longer possible to prosecute anyone who practised a trade without having served a seven-year term. It is thought, however, that the number apprenticed was not immediately affected. Even as late as 1906, over 20 per cent of working males aged 15-19 were apprenticed and it was only the educational revolution of the 20th century that brought the system almost to an end. In 1993 the government, drawing on its best aspects, introduced Modern Apprenticeships, for teaching particular technical skills.

The historian Jim Golland, quoting Crabbe's Peter Grimes, wrote of apprentices as "compell'd to weep", but that is no more true of all apprentices than it is for all girls in domestic service or boys at a boarding school. For many a child of humble origin, without prospect of other education, one of the most appealing aspects of the apprentice system was that it might indeed prove to be their road to fame and fortune. James Dawson Burn said in his Autobiography of a beggar boy (1882), "I think I am entitled to credit for one act of wise determination, and that was in serving my apprenticeship to a trade. I look upon this as the grand turning point in my existence; to me it was the half-way house between the desert of my youth, and the sunny lands of my manhood".

The tax on Apprenticeship Indentures 1710-1811[edit | edit source]

Main article: England Apprenticeship Indentures 1710 to 1811

The discovery of the main record of apprentices in the past, that of the tax on apprenticeship indentures between 1710 and 1811, was due to the professional genealogist Gerald Fothergill (1870-1926). He was active in lobbying for the preservation of records and one of his hobbies was to read acts of parliament and then consider what records would have resulted from them. Some time in the 1920s he found the Act imposing this tax and went to the Inland Revenue Office at Somerset House and asked if the records still survived. They did, and he then persuaded the authorities to tranfer them to Public Record Office (now The National Archives, at Kew).

Between 1710 and 1811 a stamp duty of sixpence had been levied on each apprenticeship indenture, but more importantly the premium itself had been taxed at sixpence for every £1 of the premium and a shilling (twelve pence) for every £1 above £50. The resulting centralised record shows the name of the apprentice and of his or her father or guardian, the name and place of residence of the master, the trade to be learned, the term of years, and the premium paid. The entries do not, however, show the name of the apprentice's father or guardian after about 1752. The books record the money received until 1811 but the last indentures recorded were signed in 1808.

The record if extremely important but far from complete. No tax was payable on the premiums of parish and charity apprentices or on those nominal premiums of a shilling or less which were common when an apprentice was bound to his father or to some other relative. Many others seem also to have avoided the tax for reasons which are not altogether clear. For the first 50 years or so of the record it appears reasonably reliable, but later the volumes were maintained irregularly.

The Society of Genealogists raised a fund to have the entries in the period 1710-74 transcribed and indexed in two series, 1710-62 and 1762-74, all the index slips being sorted by the artist Duncan Moul. Separate indexes to the masters for both series have also been prepared. They enable a master to be traced from place to place if he takes a series of apprentices.

The typescript transcripts and indexes are also available at The National Archives at Kew and at the Guildhall Library. They have all been published and are widely available on microfiche. Users should note that there is a large appendix of extra entries after the letter "Z" at the end of the first series, and that the deadline for payment of tax was a year after the expiry of the indenture, so an entry might well be seven or eight years later than expected.

The early entries for five counties (Bedfordshire, Surrey, Sussex, Warwickshire and Wiltshire) have been printed and typescript abstracts of those for Cambridgeshire for 1763-1811 are available. After 1774 the large unindexed volumes naturally take time to go through. They have been microfilmed to 1811 by the Genealogical Society of Utah.

In 2011 complete indexes to the names of the apprentices and their masters, the places involved, and the dates, were made available on the subscription website

Acknowledgement[edit | edit source]

The article has been adapted with permission of Family Tree Magazine (UK; from Anthony Camp's article 'Apprenticeship' in Practical Family History, no. 64 (April 2003) pages 12-14.