Chris Upton discovers that apprenticeships of old offered a good deal for all – employers, parishes, trainees and families.
If you wait long enough, every exciting new idea will come round a second time...and possibly a third.
Take apprenticeships, for example. There has been much talk of apprenticeships in the last couple of months. Our skills base is narrowing, says the government and the barons of industry, and not enough people are leaving education with a skill or a trade.
Only a decade or two back, the factories of the West Midlands were full of apprentices, predominantly male, who helped to transfer manufacturing skills from one generation to the next. But the apprentice had been around and about for many centuries before that.
From the 17th century onwards there were two basic forms of apprenticeship, and both came with a piece of paper – an indenture – to give it legal force. Each party would have a copy.
Under the first form, a young man or woman, with the consent of a parent or guardian, bound himself or herself apprentice to a master or trader in order to learn his “art or mystery” as the indenture put it. The length of the training varied. Traditionally it was for seven years, but in many cases it was to the age of 21 or 24 or (in the case of a woman) until she married.
As part of the deal, the apprentice promised to love, honour and obey, and certainly not to go anywhere without his master’s permission.
As the indenture puts it: “taverns, inns and alehouses he shall not haunt. At cards, dice, tables and any other unlawful game he shall not play.” Quite how strictly these conditions were maintained it’s hard to say.
The second type of apprenticeship was arranged by the parish officers. Faced with ever rising numbers of orphans and poor children, the parish found a way of off-loading the cost of poor relief by fixing the child up with a master.
The trader lodged, maintained and trained the boy or girl, and hopefully at the end of the term the apprentice was equipped to earn his or her own way in the world.
For the girl, more often than not, it was the “mystery of housewifery” that she learnt. In other words, she became a domestic servant. But that was not exclusively the case.
In 1801, for example, the overseers and churchwardens of Harborne apprenticed one Sarah Pritchitt to a mantua maker in Nottingham to learn her art until she was 21.
The parish of Harborne has a particularly good set of apprenticeship indentures, now preserved in Birmingham Archives & Heritage. The 80 or so surviving documents show the young lads and lasses of Harborne scattered far and wide in search of a trade.
Nottingham is the furthest any of them went, but plenty made the relatively short journey to Birmingham, or headed for Halesowen and the Black Country. One young man – aged only nine – went to Kidderminster to learn how to weave carpets.
The apprenticeship was far from a cushy option. Over the course of 1838 and 1839 the overseers of Kings Norton sent four boys to assist coal-miners in Darlaston, Wednesbury and West Bromwich, while another went to a file-maker in Balsall Heath. For a young lad raised in the fields of Worcestershire, it must have been a rude awakening to find himself under the fields of Staffordshire instead.
But the chances were, if they became a fully-trained buckle maker or brass-founder or locksmith, they would never be returning to their parish of birth. That was all part of the cunning plan.
Of course, the cunning plan did not always work. Apprentices were occasionally mistreated, and sometimes they went AWOL of their own accord. In 1767, for example, no less than four apprentices deserted the service of John Baskerville, the Birmingham printer, and he was forced to place an advert in the paper to encourage its readers to look out for them.
Among the absentees was Samuel Clayton, described as “a jessamy young fellow”, James Pinfield– “bow-legged, but not disagreeably so” – and Samuel Jackson – “very hollow eyes, short neck”. Clayton, incidentally, had disappeared the year before as well.
Over at Kings Norton the parish girls often found their way back to the workhouse, when the arrangement broke down, complaining of ill-treatment.
In the case of the boys the overseers were less accommodating; if the boy proved disobedient or work-shy, they said, it was up to his new master to punish him. They rarely, if ever, rescinded the apprenticeship.
There was a good reason for that. Apprenticeships very often began with money changing hands. The master expected, and usually got, a fee or inducement to encourage him to take on a worker, and this could amount to anything from a guinea to five pounds. All that “art and mystery” didn’t come cheap, but (with any luck) it was an investment worth making.
At the end of the term the master was usually required – according to the terms of the indenture – to supply his worker with two suits of clothes, one for work and one for Sundays.
Suitably attired and trained, the young man or woman was now in a position to seek work, and go to church at the weekend.
On the whole it was an arrangement that suited all. The young person had a trade, the family or the parish had a potential wage-earner, while the master himself had an employee for practically nothing, apart from the cost of his bed and board.
It sounds like an idea that might just catch on.