Parish, Factory and Charity Apprenticeships in England

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Parish (or pauper) apprentices

The Statute of Apprentices of 1563 gave powers to two justices of the peace to bind out as apprentices the children of paupers, vagrants and of those "overburdened by children". A further Act in 1593 allowed the overseers of the poor to raise a rate to pay their premiums. The Poor Relief Act of 1601 encouraged the use of apprenticeship by allowing the churchwardens and overseers, with the consent of two justices, to bind out any child for whom they were responsible "where they shall see convenient".

The intention was to stop children roaming about and begging and, indeed, forming the gangs which had terrorised Elizabethan England. Any child under the age of 14 could be disposed of in this way and in 1696 this upper age limit was increased to 16. Girls served until they reached the age of 21 or were married and boys to the age of 24. Getting rid of the child by apprenticing it became a standard way of reducing the poor rate and when, in 1691, apprenticeship by indenture gave the child legal settlement in the parish in which it was being trained, there was considerable incentive to place that child anywhere but in its home parish.

Encouraged by the 1601 Act that the apprentice be "put forth very timely" almost eighty per cent were aged 13 or under. At Aymestrey in Herefordshire only 6% were 14 or 15, whereas 18% were 12, 20% were 11, 24% were 10, 14% were nine and 10% were only eight years old, a fairly typical pattern.

In rural places the youngest children were invariably put out to husbandry or housewifry but it was not always easy to find masters for very young apprentices, sometimes as young as seven. Some people may have been glad to have a slave to work in the house or on the farm, even if that slave had to be housed and fed for 15 years, but the more prosperous rate-payers might well not want obviously unsuitable young girls or boys from poor families as "apprentices".

As a result, another Act in 1696 compelled qualified parishioners, chosen by rotation or ballot, to take children, a refusal being punishable by a fine of £10. At Stevenage the children were numbered and lots drawn, but at neighbouring Hitchin, which was a little more humane, the masters were carefully selected in church and security asked of them "to keep the prentice like a Christian". This little ceremony took place on the second Tuesday after Easter, called Binding Tuesday. Here, indeed, the tenor-bell was sometimes rung to celebrate that a town-child or poorling was out of his "binding tyme".

At Hatfield in 1773 eight yeomen appealed to Quarter Sessions against the £10 fines imposed at Petty Sessions for refusing to take an apprentice, but only one appeal was allowed. The more prosperous householders became resigned to paying fines and in some parishes fines were so frequent that they became an important source of income. Leeds was said to have raised £1,000 a year from them. Halifax certainly raised £100 to £150 a year and one poor child at Ovenden, who it seems was completely unacceptable for any purpose, regularly added £50 a year to parish funds by his unsuitability.

The obligation to take an apprentice might be argued at Quarter Sessions and in 1700 alone three paupers apprenticed by the overseers of Hoddesdon were discharged, in one case because the widow who had been forced to take a child was "old and not of any trade or calling or held any lands to employ or teach the said apprentice", in the second because the master held land but did not live there, and in the third because the master, a tailor "was not of ability nor had business enough" to keep an apprentice. In 1743 the indenture of William Babam, a poor child apprenticed at Hemel Hempstead, was cancelled because he "was infirm, unhealthy, and not able to do any service or work".

In the majority of parishes no premium was paid for pauper children, though a few clothes might be provided. When premiums were paid, which was probably in less than a third of cases, they varied enormously from place to place and over time. A large sum might have to be given if the child were handicapped in any way. Any premium paid came from the poor rate, but sometimes the overseers would sell an orphan's possessions or obtain some contribution from the father of an illegitimate child. A low-cost arrangement ridding the parish of any liability for a long period would be most desirable; particularly one which placed the child's place of settlement away from home.

The indentures of pauper apprentices differ from those of other apprentices. Unlike the indentures of ordinary apprentices they invariably show the age of the child but they do not name its parents. The names of the father of illegitimate children, however, may be deduced from their indemnity payments and were sometimes noted in the margin of the indenture.

The majority also contain undertakings by the masters ensuring that the apprentice will not become a charge on the parish during its term and that he will provide "double apparel" for the boy or girl at its end. This was usually, though not always, the case with factory apprentices. It enabled them to be decently clad at least when first seeking work.

If the indenture itself has not survived there may be a bond by the master guaranteeing to carry out its terms, or their basic details may have been entered in the vestry minute books or in the parish registers. In a few places a separate register of pauper apprentices was maintained in accordance with an Act of 1766.

Factory apprentices

Pauper apprentices were considered an object of compassion by some but as a burden by others. They became increasingly a source of unskilled and cheap labour and they were more and more apprenticed in a narrow range of rather unacceptable occupations. The more unhealthy trades, such as hatmaking and brickmaking, became highly "pauperised" and this in itself deterred the more respectable families from entering them. This was also the case with trades which offered poor career prospects afterwards, such as those in textiles, cotton, lace and framework knitting.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries large numbers of poor, orphaned or abandoned children in London and the south of England were sent by overseers of the poor to work as apprentices in the textile mills of the industrial north. From about 1786 children were sent to Lancashire, Cheshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, and by 1805 to Glasgow, to work in the cotton, woollen, worsted and silk mill areas, often from the age of eight until they were 21.

The factory owners advertised their vacancies quite widely. One in a Coventry newspaper in 1807, specifically addressed to overseers of the poor and churchwardens, asked for "a number of healthy boys and girls as apprentices to the business of Calico weaving; liberal and humane treatment may be relied upon; and a moderate premium only expected". In answer the parish officials wrote to the mill-owners to negotiate terms. If there were a number of possible apprentices and the mill was not too far away, the owner or his agent would come to the parish to sign the indentures and arrange the transport of the children.

The conditions in which some children were kept became notorious, but that factory apprentices actually went or were sent further from their homes than other apprentices has been a matter of some argument. The best authorities think that in general factory children were probably not sent further than other apprentices, but it was this aspect of pauper apprenticeship about which the 19th century philanthropists most often complained.

The terms served were, however, often exceptionally long, though some children were freed at various ages after 16, regardless of what the acts of parliament said. Some overseers, however, believed that a very young child should serve as a silk-weaver or chimney-sweep until he was 14 or 16, and then be apprenticed for a second term in a trade which would be more useful later.

The numbers of factory apprentices declined following the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act in 1802. This stopped any work at night and specified that, when three of more apprentices were employed, their working day should be a maximum of 12 hours, between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m., excluding mealtimes. They were also to be taught reading, writing and arithmetic, and to have new clothes yearly.

Improvements were slow in coming. In 1816 another Act restricted the distance to which the children could be sent to a 40-mile radius of their homes and they had to be at least nine years old. The maximum number of hours worked in a day was reduced to 10 in 1847. When in 1834 one poor law commissioner asked an assistant overseer how the long-distance apprentices turned out after they were bound, his brutal answer was, "We have nothing to do with them afterwards".

Another Act in 1802 had again said that registers of those apprenticed should be kept by the home parishes. They survive unevenly in the appropriate county record offices. A good example is that of apprentices in St Peter and St Paul parish, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, which has been printed for 1720-1848 by the Mansfield & District Family History Society.

Many of these registers end in 1834 but the great changes in the poor law that year did not altogether put an end to parish apprenticeship. Many pauper children were bound out by the Poor Law Unions after 1834, but the parishes continued to take an interest and to raise money for the apprenticeship of individuals on whom they took pity, perhaps because the father had been transported or the children left destitute by some tragedy. In these cases the cost might be raised by a one-off collection, which would be easier to organise than an increase in the poor rate. The vestry minutes or churchwardens accounts should then provide the details.

Charity apprentices

Some parishes that had charitable funds specifically for that purpose continued to arrange apprenticeships for suitable children after 1834. From early times a few benefactors bequeathed money to parishes with which to apprentice children. At Ardeley in Hertfordshire in 1655 Edward Head left £20 for the purchase of a piece of land, still called Apprentice Land, the income from which was to be used to apprentice children. For a while in the 1730s the vestry rather typically agreed that this should only be done if the boys were settled outside Ardeley itself.

Fees for the more exclusive trades increased with time and it became difficult for parents to find means to apprentice their children. In some towns there were borough charities and other charitable institutions which helped.

At Harrow in Middlesex, for instance, over 600 children, including girls in the 19th century, were helped by a charity between 1648 and 1871. They are listed in Jim Golland's The Harrow apprentices (1981). The Bear Club at Devizes in Wiltshire was a social club which met at the Bear Inn and in addition to other charitable work, paid from its subscription fees for the apprenticeship of local boys, between 1765 and 1875. These have also been printed.

A small number of charities even recognised the difficulties that an apprentice would face at the end of his term if he wished to set up as a master on his own. Some early indentures specified that the master give assistance to the apprentice at that time, with tools or even stock, but that became unusual. Webb's charity at Warwick even provided £5 at the end of the apprentice's term if the master certified that the boy had been satisfactory.

Some charities provided interest-free loans. One founded by Sir Thomas White in the Midlands in 1542 required that the loans be repaid after nine years. It still flourishes and in 1990 the charity distributed over £600,000 to apprentices from Coventry, Northampton, Leicester, Nottingham and Warwick.


This article has been adapted with permission of Family Tree Magazine (UK; from an article by Anthony Camp, 'Apprenticeship: Part 2: Parish, factory and charity apprentices' in Practical Family History, no. 65 (May 2003) paes 5-7.