Apprenticeship in England

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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

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 prjudice 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.

Finding a Master

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 experise 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

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 servant, 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?