Apprenticeship in London and Borough Towns

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In London, where apprenticeship is concerned, things are seldom what they seem. You may find your ancestor calling himself "Citizen and Pavior" and think that he paved roads. You may turn to London Apprentices: Paviors' Company and find his apprenticeship, and think that he was indeed in that trade. You would probably be wrong, however, on both counts.

In London, in the majority of companies, the company name had very little if anything to do with the many different trades that its members followed. A Citizen and Pavior could just as well be a baker and, in that case, his apprenticeship, although recorded by the Paviors' Company, would be to learn the art of baking. The indenture itself (if it survives) would say, for instance, that the boy "doth put himself Apprentice to John Bloggs, Citizen and Pavior, of London, by Trade a Baker, and living in Saint Mary Axe, To learn his Art", i.e. the trade of baking.

Guilds and Companies

The old craft and trade guilds in the city originated from groups organised for religious and social purposes that, in the Middle Ages, "adopted" a number of key trades and eventually came to monopolise and regulate them. Nearly all the older guilds obtained royal charters granting incorporation, allowing them to have a common hall and to own land. Their ordinances or by-laws were recognised by the city authorities and allowed them to regulate apprenticeships, prices and wages, to set standards for products and to enforce those standards by carrying out searches for inferior goods, to settle disputes among their members and to maintain a trade monopoly.

However, with economic and social changes between the 16th and 18th centuries the majority of guilds or companies lost the links with the trades from which they took their names. However, the Watermen and Lightermen still control the apprenticeship of those working on the River Thames and, in more recent years, many companies have attempted to re-connect themselves with their original trades. They have retained an importance in the city because of their involvement in its government and their charitable work. The last "ancient" company was formed in 1709 but at least a further 25 have been founded since 1940. Many smaller ones disappeared or were amalgamated with others over the years.

Freedom of the Company

Full membership or "freedom" of a company could be obtained at any age in one of three ways:

  1. by "servitude" on the completion of a term of apprenticeship to a person who was already a freeman,
  2. by "patrimony" or right of birth (open to any legitimate child born after its father's or, since 1976, its mother's admission to freedom),
  3. or by "redemption" or purchase, i.e. on the payment of a fee.

Freedom of the City

In the early 14th century the acceptance of the companies into the administrative system of the city gave their freemen the right to obtain (on payment of fees) the Freedom of the City. It was this Freedom of the City as opposed to that merely of the company, that gave (in the words of Christopher Cooper writing in Archives, vol. 16 (1984) 323-53), "the exclusive right to trade by wholesale and retail within the city, immunity from tolls at markets and fairs throughout England, freedom from impressment into the armed forces, and the right to elect the city's aldermen and common councilmen". Since 1835 it has been possible to be free of the city (by redemption) without being free of any company, though some may join a company afterwards.

The Livery

By ancient right, often confirmed by charter, a limited number of the senior members of the main companies, may wear a distinctive dress or livery. That number has been fixed by the Court of Aldermen since 1712. The liverymen of these "Livery Companies" elected the lord mayor, sheriffs and some other city officers, and, from 1725 until the reforms of 1832, they also elected a member to represent the city in Parliament. This division of company members into freemen (sometimes called yeomen or bachelors) and liverymen exists only in London. Today there are altogether about 22,500 liverymen entitled to vote at elections.

Weakening of orginal system

In theory no one could work in the city unless they were a member of one of the companies, but the rule came to be ignored in the 18th century and disappeared in the early 19th century, though it was not abolished until 1856. Even in the 16th and 17th centuries only about 75 per cent of adult male householders in the city were actually company freemen.

It is important to note that from early times the customs of the city allowed any freeman of a trading company to practise the trade of any other company, and that by means of patrimony and redemption anyone could join a company without having learned its trade or craft. A butcher, for instance, could be admitted to the Wheelwrights' Company by patrimony because his father had been a member there. He woud then call himself "Citizen and Wheelwright". His father may have purchased his freedom in that company, not because of its relevance for his trade, but because it was relatively cheap, there being considerable variation in the fees of the different companies. Since the late 18th century some freemen have, in fact, been members of several different companies.

This weakening became more noticeable in Elizabethan times and by 1624, for example, only five per cent of the members of the Drapers' Company were actually drapers. By the end of the 18th century the system had completely broked down. The Paviors' Company apprenticeship records, for instance, which often include the actual trades of the masters, show that in 1800 Isaac Farlow, in reality a lighterman, took as an apprentice the son of a waterman; in 1794 William Beswick, a grocer, took the son of a mariner; and in 1791 Thomas Tyle, who ran a child-bed linen warehouse, took the daughter of a Welsh rector as an apprentice. None of these people had any connection with paving roads.

Company Jurisdictions

About two-thirds of the companies had areas of authority outside the city's square mile, mostly varying from two to ten miles in radius. However, the Tylers' and Bricklayers' Company had a 15 mile radius, the Fanmakers' 20 miles, the Horners' 24 miles, and the Gold and Silver Wyre Drawers' 30 miles. The Watermen and Lightermen had authority over both banks of the Thames from Windsor to Gravesend, the Vintners' Company had supervisory rights over vintners in cities, borough and towns throughout England. The Tobacco Pipe Makers and Framework Knitters had authority throughout England and Wales. The latter, by charter of 1663, was meeting at Nottingham from at least 1727, though, sadly, few records have survived.

Some companies, indeed, had a national role: the Goldsmiths (in assaying and marking gold and silver wares), the Stationers (in the registration of printed books from 1554 to 1911), the Gunmakers (in proof of small arms since 1617), the Barber Surgeons (in examining surgeons in the Royal Navy from 1606 to 1745) and the Society of Apothecaries (through its Licenciateship after 1815). In very recent years national roles have also been given to the farriers, plumbers and spectacle makers to examine and register practitioners in some aspects of their crafts.

Residence and variety of Freemen

In the Armourers and Brasiers' Company in 1535, 10 of its 47 members lived outside the city. In the Coopers' Company in 1700, 69 of the 154 admitted to freedom lived outside the city. Many lived in the East and West ends and south of the Thames and, from the late 18th century, in the Home Counties and further afield. Of course, some smaller traders, who were not freemen, lived outside the city because they did not wish to incur the expense of becoming freemen and paying annual fees.

The freedom was not limited to professionals or craftsmen either. The records include many  small shopkeepers, street hawkers, mariners, and even some labourers. Unmarried women and widows sometimes appear, particularly milliners with their own businesses and widows carrying on their husbands' trades. In London single women and widows could be free of a company and of the city. Married women became admissible in 1923 but no woman was elected to the livery of a company until 1933; the first woman Master was elected by the Chartered Secretaries' Company in 1983.

Some boys left London on the completion of their apprenticeship and returned to their places of origin. Others remained in London and took apprentices from their home area. The hereditary nature of company membership strengthens in the course of the centuries and is particularly noticeable in the 19th century.


All companies kept a careful record of their apprentice bindings, the boy usually being at that time physically "presented" to the wardens of the company and occasionally writing or signing the entry. A large number have been transcribed by Cliff Webb and published by the Society of Genealogists (being collectively indexed on the pay per view website of English Origins). Where the books recording bindings have not survived there is often a list of apprentices admitted to the freedom of the company which may include some if not all of the details in the apprenticeship register. Most companies also have lists of apprentices paying the orphans' tax 1694-1861 and yet another series recording the payment of stamp duty 1694-1949, but these show only their names.

Many companies have lists of those admitted to the livery and elected to company offices. From 1839 these may be in the form of Declaration Books, recording their oaths of allegiance to the Crown and obedience to the rules of the Company. The elections took place during court meetings and may also be recorded in court minute books, the fees paid being recorded in the wardens' accounts. There may be other lists of members prepared for administrative purposes and the useful Quarterage Books will show the members' quarterly subscription payments. These may provide their likely dates of death.

It will be seen that the records of these companies are sometimes very extensive. All but eight of the larger ones have deposited their records in the Guildhall Library and they are fully described in Guide to the archives of the City Livery Companies and related organisations in Guildhall Library (1989).

Identifying the Company

It is clear from the above account that it may not be easy to identify the particular company to which an ancestor belonged. This may sometimes, however, be most conveniently done through a printed Poll Book, like that for 1796, which shows both the trade practised and the company to which the voter belonged.

However, a form of centralised index of great importance is provided by the "alphabets" to the Freedom Admission Papers and (from 1784) Books presently at the London Metropolitan Archives. The alphabets, 1681-2 and 1688-1940, are arranged chronologically by the initial letter of the surname. Not all apprentices who became free of their companies proceeded to the freedom of the city but the companies and further records of the two-thirds that did may be found here.

Other records

The apprentice's indenture was supposed to be enrolled with the Chamberlain of London within one year of their signing and a series of Enrolment Books  survives from 1686 to 1974  which is indexed in alphabets similar to those for the Freemen. Some apprentices who did not complete their terms or become freemen will also be found here.

From 1750 freemen were allowed to employ non-freemen "strangers" in the City and their licences to do so are also at the Guildhall Library, 1750-1845, indexed for masters and journeymen to 1761 and then only for masters to 1810. "Alien brothers" and "stranger brothers" were from overseas (and could not be apprenticed or freemen), "foreign brothers" came from the provinces.

Honorary Freemen

The Freedom of the City could also be given as an honour and full details of those who were made Honorary Freemen are given in two volumes London's Roll of Fame 1757-1959 (1884 & 1959) published by the Corporation of London. They are also listed 1674-1998 in Vivienne Aldous, My ancestors were freemen of the City of London (Society of Genealogists, 1999). These honorary freemen should not be confused with those who purchase freedom by redemption.

Honorary Freedom was also given in 1900 to members of the City Imperial Volunteer Force who were about to fight in the Boer War, in 1915 to any former pupils of the Corporation of London schools who served in the First World War, in 1918 to the sons of members of the court of common council who had fought in the War, in 1920 to constables who had served in the city police reserve from 1914, and in 1945 to the sector or block commanders of the city fire guard during the Second World War.

King's Freemen

In 1784 discharged servicemen, their wives and children, were given the right to trade in any town in the British Isles. Although not technically freemen they are usually referred to as "King's Freemen". In London certificates were issued from 1784 to 1873 when the right was abolished, but those for 1815-54 are missing. The papers contain discharge certificates and, in the case of wives and children, marriage and baptismal certificates. The numbers are not great but there is a card index at the Guildhall Library which may repay investigation.

Borough Towns

Guilds similar to those in London arose in much the same way from religious fraternities in many provincial boroughs and cities in the 12th century. They flourished in medieval times, controlling the quality and price of the goods produced by their members, but declined rapidly after the Reformation and had largely disappeared by the early 17th century. In some place, however, guilds were founded at later dates, and were characterised by amalgamation and subsequent decline. A few guilds or companies continue today, but usually have only social and charitable purposes.

Some towns such as Preston in Lancashire had a single guild, called a Guild Merchant, with a large membership, but in other towns there were many small guilds. Newcastle upon Tyne had 36. A Guild Merchant to which people practising all kinds of occupations belonged, though its main concern was retail trade, survives at York. Its apprenticeship records have been published on microfiche and include a surprising number of girls.

Shrewsbury is fortunate in having a good number of surviving guild records and many continue to the end of the 18th century. There were originally thirteen companies in Shrewsbury, many of which amalgamated over time so that, for instance, one company covered saddlers, painters, glaziers, plumbers, curriers, tinplaters, booksellers and lorriners.

In Sheffield the records of the Cutlers' Company, which had a strict control over the city's many small workshops, are particularly important, factories not appearing here until the 19th century. The apprenticeships 1624-1791 were printed by R.E. Leader in his History of the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire in the county of York (2 vols., 1906).

In many places the powers of the guilds passed in the second half of the 16th century by charters of incorporation to the governing bodies of their towns. In these boroughs the corporations enrolled those who had completed their apprenticeships and admitted them as freemen. This gave them the right to trade in the borough (until 1835) and a vote at borough and, in some places until 1918, at parliamentary elections.

Freedom could be obtained by servitude, patrimony and (until 1835) redemption, and in some towns it could also be gained by marriage to the widow or daughter of a freeman. In the first two categories the details recorded usually include the father's name and place of residence. In most towns, other than London and York, women were not admitted to the freedom. As in London applicants for the freedom of the borough had usually to be free of the guild or company, though at Alnwick one had to be free of the town before one could become free of a guild.

The numbers of freemen in almost every provincial town declined rapidly after 1800. In most places only about half the adult male labour-force had at any time consisted of freemen, though control must have varied from place to place. In early times the completeness of the registration may be suspect and later some men avoided freedom because of the expense involved.


The surviving records of the companies are usually found, along with the freedom rolls, in the city archives or appropriate record offices. Published freedom rolls include those for Bristol, Canterbury, Chester (to 1805), Coventry, Exeter, Gloucester, Guildford, Lancaster, Leicester, Newcastle upon Tyne (to 1710), Norwich (to 1752), Oxford (apprentices to 1800) and York (to 1759). If the freeman elected a representative to Parliament then a printed or manuscript poll book may give their names and from 1832 to 1918 they will appear in electoral registers.

At Liverpool Record Office there is, in addition to the usual record of freemen, a series of certificates brought to Liverpool by freemen of other boroughs who wished to work there. They came from various places including London and Bristol and there are a number from Wexford and Waterford in Ireland 1754-1841. Similar records may exist in other places where the vestiges of some trade restriction still remained.


This article has been adapted with permission of Family Tree Magazine (UK; from Anthony Camp's article 'Apprenticeship: Part 3: Apprenticeship in London and Borough Towns' in Practical Family History, no. 66 (May 2003) pages 5-7.