Poor Law apprenticeships

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When the Poor Laws were first introduced, the word "Apprenticeship" was borrowed from the English language in an attempt to give dignity to the disgraceful state of near-slavery into which the children of the poor were consigned.

Today, when the word is used, we think of a period of training targeted at learning a trade or craft and this is what the word meant in the 16th century before it was debased. When the village Vestry sent out an apprentice to a master, they were trying to avoid having to pay for the upkeep of children born to paupers, The duties to which the apprentice could be assigned were stated only in the vaguest of terms - "husbandry" or "house-wifery" being the commonest. In practice, these all-embracing terms could be used to compel the child to perform all and any task required by the master. There are records in Devon of children as young as 5 being put out as apprentices, the period of apprenticeship lasting until the individual's 21st birthday.

Local newspapers in Devon's archives show how common it was for apprentices to run away; columns of stern adverts detail names, ages and general appearance and advise the legal penalties which could fall on anyone hiding a run-away apprentice.

At the basis of the scheme was the elaborate legal document by which the child (like the parents, a non-consenting partner to this agreement) was bound. Couched in the elaborate legal style of the past, the format did not change for centuries and was standard throughout the country. This document relates to a little girl called Ruth Knight and her master, Edmund Boger of St.Budeaux - in all particulars other than names and dates, it is identical to the documents which bound our own ancestors:


A Domestic servant's Indenture of Apprenticeship in 1732:

The Indenture made in the twelfth day of September in the Sixth year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord George the second by the Grace of God of Great Britain France and Ireland King Defender of the Faith, etc., Annoq. Dom. 1732 Witnesseth that James Knighton and Jacob Lawrence Churchwardens of the Parish of St.Budeaux in the County of Devon and Mary Ffortescue Widow and Thomas Pollard Overseers of the Poor of the said Parish by and with the consent of His Majesty's Justices of the Peace for the said County whose names are hereunto subscribed, have put and placed, and by those Presents do put and place Ruth Knight a poor Child of the said Parish, Apprentice to Edmund Boger of St. Budeaux aforesaid Yeoman with him to dwell and serve from the Day of the Date of these Presents until the said Apprentice shall accomplish her full Age of twenty one years or be married according to the Statute in that Case made and provided During all which term, the said Apprentice her said Master faithfully shall serve in all lawful Business, according to her Power, Wit and Ability; and honestly, orderly and obediently in all Things demean and behave herself towards her said Master and all his during the said term And the said Edmund Boger for himself and his Executors and Administrators doth Covenant and Grant to and with the said Churchwardens and Overseers and every one of them, and every of their Executors and Administrators, and their and every of their Successors for the time being, by these Presents

That the said Edmund Boger the said Apprentice in House-wifery shall teach and instruct or cause to be taught and instructed And shall and will, during all the term aforesaid, find, provide and allow into the said Apprentice, meet competent, and sufficient Meat, Drink and Apparel, Lodging, Washing and all other things necessary and fit for an Apprentice And also shall and will so provide for the said Apprentice, that she be not any way a Charge to the said Parish or Parishioners of the same; but of and from all Charge shall and will save the said Parish and Parishioners harmless and indemnified during the said term

And at the end of the said term, shall and will make, provide, allow and deliver unto the said Apprentice double Apparel of all sorts, good and new (that is to say) a good new Suit for the Holy-days, and another for the Working-days.

IN WITNESS whereof, the Parties above said to these present Indentures interchangeably have put their Hands and Seals the Day and Year above written.

Sealed and delivered in the presence of

Thomas Stephens

George Voisey

Edmund Boger

We whose names are subscribed Justices of the Peace of the County aforesaid (Quor: unum) consent to the putting forth of the said Ruth Knight, Apprentice, according to the Intent and Meaning of the Indenture abovesaid.

John Elford

Thomas Pyne



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