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Apprentices in Wymeswold

Alec Moretti

Besides administering settlement certificates, removal orders etc, the Overseers of the Poor were responsible, with the Churchwardens, for arranging apprenticeships for any poor children or orphans in their parish. The object of this was to train the apprentice in some work or craft and to pass the cost of keeping the child from the parish to someone who would get the benefit of the apprentice's work, in return for teaching and training them. In addition to these 'pauper' apprenticeships, it was of course not uncommon for parents to put their children out as an apprentice so that they could be taught a craft or skill. To make these arrangements binding, an indenture was drawn up and signed by all parties concerned, and in the case of those arranged by the parish officials, the indenture was examined and counter-signed by two Justices of the Peace. These indentures are of interest as they give the researcher the names of people and the occupation in which they will train the apprentices, as well as those officials concerned in running the parish, and the names of some of the JPs of the period.

The Wymeswold records at the Leicester Record Office contain some 28 indentures dating from 1628 to 1837. The majority of these are 'pauper' indentures and relate to children aged between 8 and 16 years who were mostly bound apprentice until they were 21 years old, though the girls could get released earlier if they married. Only in five cases was the apprentice bound to someone in Wymeswold, the rest being sent to 'masters' further afield in Loughborough, Barrow on Soar, Quorndon, Nottingham etc. Judging by the form signed by the JPs, 40 miles was regarded as the maximum distance away from the home parish that an apprentice should be sent.

There was usually some indication of what trade the apprentice was to be taught. It is not surprising to find that framework knitting was the most common trade, with six examples among the Wymeswold indentures. Five were apprenticed to cordwainers and five to farmers or husbandmen, two of the latter being girls. Others were to be taught the trades of blacksmith, laceworker, collar and harness maker and housewifery.

In 1790, William Moore, aged 8, was bound apprentice to Sam Moore of Great Leake, to be taught 'the art and mistry [sic] of farming'. Ann Moore – presumably his sister – aged 9 years was also placed with Sam Moore 'to learn the art and mistry of husbandry'. According to the indentures, they were both bound until the age of 21 in 12 or 13 years' time. I wonder if Sam Moore was related to them. There is another case of a brother and sister being placed together, this being Margaret and John Rowlands, who were placed with Gabriel Leake of Wymeswold, farmer, in 1678. Another interesting case is that of Mary Wood 'a poor child' who was apprenticed to William Bozworth of Plumtree, labourer, in 1743, 'to learn the art and mystery of a spinster'. Did she really learn to spin?

Conditions were laid down, being printed on the indenture form, whereby the apprentice 'shall faithfully serve in all lawful businesses according to his power, wit and ability; and honestly, orderly and obediently in all things, demean and behave himself towards his Master during the said term'?. The master for his part had to teach and instruct and provide 'such meat, drink, apparel, lodging, washing and other things meet and fit for an apprentice'. In another case, on a hand written indenture, the conditions were much more strict, and John Skelson was bound apprentice to George Wilson of Rempstone, framework knitter, by his father in 1781, and the conditions state that 'he may not marry, commit fornication, or play cards, dice, tables or other unlawful games whereby his master may suffer loss. Nor may he haunt taverns or playhouses ...nor absent himself day or night unlawfully'. Perhaps the father understood his son and so laid down these rules! The consideration of only one penny was paid, but the apprentice 'agreed to be taxed at 7/- in the plain and 9/- in the ribbed and Machine Frame'?. Perhaps this was the way that the master gained some recompense for the low consideration money.

In ten of the Wymeswold indentures, some consideration money was paid by the Overseers to the master receiving the apprentice. In the 18th century this was about 2 or 3, but by 1823-1837 this ranged from 5 to 11. I suppose inflation could be one reason for this increase, though the increase of manufacturing in factories might be the cause of a change in employment conditions leading to an increase of unskilled labour.

Comments on these 'pauper' indentures are often fairly critical, regarding them as a source of cheap labour to the masters. Though some of the children did learn a trade, much depended on the behaviour of the master to his apprentice, and working conditions could be very hard. Legislation from the middle of the nineteenth century, relating to compulsory education and the banning of child labour, improved conditions and ended these 'pauper' apprenticeships.

Originally published in WHO Newsletter 1994.

Copyright the author.

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