Far from being lightsabre wielding would-be masters of the Force or business-savvy would-be masters of the universe looking for the patronage of a billionaire businessman, apprentices in the eighteenth century had a rather more humdrum time of it in general.
The system of apprenticeships, as with much of the Poor Law, was born (if we’re making a charitable interpretation of its motivations) out of good intentions, but as with many of the systems the Poor Law evolved, it was often somewhat lacking in its execution, and this is what my post today will be looking into.
As you may be aware, the ‘old’ Poor Law basically worked on a parochial system, whereby the parishioners of a parish were assessed and made to pay a so-called ‘Poor Rate’ to assist the poor of the parish, who might be destitute, sick or infirm, or in need of poor relief for any number of reasons. The kind of disputes and inequalities of provision this system threw up can be guessed at and need not concern us directly in this post, but it’s useful to know the general background to understand why the system of apprenticeships came into being. Having sustained or provided for an orphan child born into the parish workhouse, or having sustained pauper families through the poor rate, the parish was keen to enable the child to provide for themselves by learning a trade to use later in life, and, less altruistically, so that they were no longer a burden to the parish rate either from that point forward or in the future.
As a result, such children were bound out as apprentices to local individuals who either volunteered to take an apprentice or had one to some extent imposed on them. Their masters and mistresses were to provide for their apprentices in terms of food and lodging, and also clothing. In return, apprentices were to serve their masters and mistresses faithfully for a period of time, usually a term of years. At the end of this term the apprentice would be discharged, and able to legally practice a trade (practicing a trade without having served a recognised apprenticeship could, after all, land you in trouble with the Quarter Sessions, though the cases of this I’ve seen indicate that it was a difficult crime to prove).
So there’s the basic theory, what of the reality?
Well, as you might have guessed, cases of masters and mistresses not caring for their apprentices and failing to provide for them come up fairly regularly in the records. So too do cases of ‘excessive’ beating of apprentices, with one particularly nasty case coming to my attention the other day when I catalogued a recognisance dated 22 August 1740, in which Mr William Philips of Whitestone, husbandman, was bound to appear at the next sessions to answer charges of assaulting and beating his apprentice, Sarah Pring, and for striking her violently on the face with a pike, in two places. (QS/4/1740/Michaelmas/RE/3).
It’s perhaps no surprise then that cases of apprentices leaving their masters and mistresses are fairly common occurrences too, and often when charged for absenting themselves by their master, you’ll find a counter charge brought by the apprentice, of mistreatment or a failure of provision. Almost without exception in the records I’ve catalogued so far, female apprentices were bound out to men and again almost without exception they were bound out to learn the ‘trade’ of ‘housewifery’ or ‘good housewifery.’ Almost without exception, and unsurprisingly given the uncompromising nature of 18th century justice, apprentices are found guilty of absenting themselves from their masters or mistresses, while convictions for failing to provide for apprentices or administering excessive beatings are rare, though if a case was particularly bad the churchwardens and overseers of the poor of the parish, who originally bound the apprentice, might discharge the apprenticeship and re-bind the apprentice to someone else.
The sad truth is that in many cases an apprentice was probably regarded as an unwelcome burden, and an extra mouth to feed. In times of hardship cases of apprentices not being provided for tend to be more common. Nor were masters or mistresses necessarily people of particularly good moral standing. At least one apprentice, Joseph Hendy of Plymstock, was forced by his master Edmond Ley, yeoman to provide him (on pain of being killed), with powder and shot, for which the churchwardens and overseers of the poor rebound the hapless apprentice to another master.
It comes as no surprise that family members, perhaps fearing the kind of exploitation the records hint at, might object to their children being bound out as an apprentice (though the poor relief could be witheld from them if they tried to prevent their child being bound out). In 1739 George Gay the elder of Pilton was presented for refusing to hand his son over to the overseers of the poor of the parish so that he might be bound out. (QS/4/1739/Michaelmas/PR/9). Frequently, when apprentices did leave their master or mistress’ service, it was of course to their families they returned. But harbouring an apprentice who had absented themselves without permission from their master’s service was regarded as an offence, akin to harbouring a fugitive. The master was well within their rights to inform the town crier that their apprentice had absconded, and that nobody was to harbour or entertain them. This happened when Anne Edbury absconded from her master James Reed junior, going to her father, Philip Edbury of Crediton, who was subsequently prosecuted for having harboured and entertained her. (QS/4/1738/Michaelmas/PR/30) The circumstances surrounding her decision to leave are not recorded (nor are they in any cases I’ve seen).
The apprenticeship system, as we can see, left a lot to be desired, though it’s important to kae a balanced view. In some cases it must surely have provided people with the means to earn their living after their service was completed, and the traces of the apprenticeship system recorded in the Quarter Sessions are often going to have a negative air to them given that we are dealing in the end with court records. It’s important not to portray the entire system as hopelessly corrupt; to do so would be to get trapped within the sources, after all.
Nevertheless, the experience was undoubtedly mixed, and like many things in the eighteenth century, being a poor child of a parish bound out as an apprentice was yet another life lottery. Some would undoubtedly have prospered as a result, but I can’t help feeling that for many who faced neglect, abandonment and exploitation by their masters and mistresses, this would undoubtedly have seemed an appalling and perhaps even tyrannical system, leaving them branded as criminals if they attempted to escape or take their chances to improve their lot.
On the positive side the apprenticeship system highlights one way that 18th century society attempted to tackle the problems of poverty in its midst. Yet on the negative side the flaws in the system sometimes provided a means whereby the poor could be exploited. Once again though I’m left to conclude that I’m glad I don’t live in eighteenth century Britain!