Apprenticeship in England

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The learning of a trade through aprenticeship, 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

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".

(to be continued)