Was your English ancestor an apprentice? Apprenticeships date back to as early as the 16th century when young boys were formally bound to a master, usually a craftsman, who would teach the apprentice his trade. From 1563, the Statute of Apprentices made apprenticeships mandatory for anyone who wanted to take up a trade. This meant that no one could call themselves a Master of a trade without serving a 7-year apprenticeship.
Commonly, it was the child’s father who would put him up for an apprenticeship. It was more financially feasible for many poor families to apprentice out a child than to raise him. In 1601, authority was given to the Overseers of the Poor for the parish, to locate an apprenticeship for any children who were orphaned or considered a pauper.
Although most apprenticeships were sought within the parish, there were times when the Overseers of the Poor would advertise in the local newspapers as seen below:1
Overseers Apprenticeship Registers
Once an apprenticeship was secured for a child, the Overseers of the Poor would write down the details in an Apprenticeship Register. They would record details such as the date of the indenture, the name of the apprentice, their age, their parents’ names and abode, the name of the Master and his or her trade and residence, and the terms of the apprenticeship (in years). The register would be signed by the Overseers of the Poor and the Magistrate giving consent.
Below is an example of an Overseers Apprenticeship Register for Rothwell, West Yorkshire.2 On 12 October, 1802, 11-year old Sarah Fothergill was apprenticed out to Nathan Nichols, a farmer. Her father was David Fothergill and her mother was noted as dead. The family’s residence was noted as ‘no settled place’. Sarah would be apprenticed to Nathan Nichols for 10 years, until her 21st birthday.
An Order of Indenture would then be created by the Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor and presented to the Justices of the Peace for their approval. The proposed Master will have been interviewed as to his circumstances and character as well as the parents of the apprentice, if they were alive. The Overseers would recommend that the indenture be made.
In the example below dated 12 December 1818, a father, John Hollingrake has put up his son, William Hollingrake, as an apprentice. The order states that “William Hollingrake, a poor child, which its parents are not able to maintain” is proposed as an apprentice to Thomas Sutcliffe, a spinner, of the parish of Langfield, West Yorkshire. The Order of Indenture is signed by the Justices of the Peace and an Indenture is made.3
The Apprenticeship Indenture was a legal document setting out the terms for the apprentice and the master. The age of the apprentice is given and the length of the apprenticeship. William Hollingrake’s indenture states he was 12 years and four months old and would serve as an apprentice to Thomas Sutcliffe until he was 21 years old. Thomas Sutcliffe is to teach William a trade, and “find, provide for, and allow unto his said Apprentice, sufficient wholesome and competent Meat, Drink, Washing, Lodging, Apparel, and all other Necessaries…during all the said Term.” The indenture also states that should Thomas Sutcliffe die within the period of indenture, the agreement would terminate within three months of his death. For the apprentice, they were bound to serve their master and willingly perform his duties and be a “good and faithful Servant”.4
Interestingly enough, on the same day, 12 December 1818, William’s younger brother, John Hollingrake, only 9 years old, was also apprenticed out to John Baron, a weaver. Two years later, on 19 August 1820, Betty Hollingrake, just turned 9 years old, was apprenticed out to Abraham Sunderland, also a weaver. And four years later, Abraham Hollingrake, aged 9, was apprenticed out to James Barnes, a weaver. All were children of John Hollingrake, living in the Parish of Langfield, West Yorkshire.
Some interesting facts on Apprenticeships:
- An apprenticeship was for a period of seven years but many children were apprenticed at very young ages and often spent nine or ten years with their master. The 1563 Act determined that apprentices were bound until they were 24 years old, but this was later reduced to 21 in 1768.
- During the Indenture period, the apprentice could not marry or start his own household. He could not gamble or visit a public house (a place selling alcoholic drinks).
- The Stamp Act of 1709 put a tax on the Indenture and this practice lasted until 1808. Due to this practice, apprenticeship records were recorded more centrally. This is why it is often easier to find records in the period 1700s to early 1800s than after 1808. However, parishes were exempt from having to pay the tax with the result that their apprenticeship records were not recorded or accounted for in any central manner.
- Persons aged 12-20 could not refuse an apprenticeship if a householder of sufficient means demands it, unless they are already apprenticed elsewhere. If they did refuse an apprenticeship, they could be imprisoned.
- The Justice of the Peace was the only person who could break the agreement between apprentice and master. However, many apprentices ran away from masters who mistreated them. These masters advertised in the newspapers for the return of their apprentices. Many times a physical description of the apprentice can be found in the advertisement as seen below.
Below is an example of a newspaper advertisement asking for the return of two apprentices who left their master “without sufficient cause”.5
The information you might find on your apprentice will vary from document to document. You may find the names of the parents enabling you to move back a generation in your research. You will often find an age given of an apprentice, allowing you to calculate an approximate year of birth. You will find the trade learned which may help in distinguishing your ancestor from someone else with the same name. You may learn, as in the Hollingrake example above, more about the family structure, including siblings.
Apprenticeship in the United States
There are several extant records for Indentures and Apprenticeships in the United States. A search on FamilySearch.org for ‘apprenticeship’ in the Keyword search box on the Catalog page will result in a list of over 1,400 hits for both the United States and England. You can refine your search further by entering a location. For example, “Apprenticeship Alabama” will result in 13 hits. The same search terms can be used on the other genealogy research sites to locate records there.
An excellent article on the history of apprenticeship in the United States can be found at the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.
- “Parish Apprentices,” Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette, Yorkshire, 28 November 1801, page 2, col. 3; The British Newspaper Archive, (http://BritishNewspaperArchive.co.uk : accessed 4 September 2018). ↩
- West Yorkshire, England, Rothwell Parish, Parish and Township Records Register of Apprentices, 1802-1809, unpaginated; images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 3 September 2018), images 7 & 8 of 11, line 3, entry for Sarah Fothergill, 12 October 1802. ↩
- West Riding, Yorkshire, England, Langfield Township, Apprenticeship Indentures; images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 3 September 2018), order of indenture for William Hollingrake, 12 December 1818. ↩
- West Riding, Yorkshire, England, Langfield Township, Apprenticeship Indentures; images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 3 September 2018), indenture of William Hollingrake, 12 December 1818. ↩
- “Apprentices Absconded,” Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette, Yorkshire, 12 September 1801, page 1, col. 2; The British Newspaper Archive, (http://britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk : accessed 4 September 2018). ↩