Apprenticeship in Early Modern London: City apprentices in the 16th and 17th centuries
Paper by Patrick Wallis and Christopher Minns
Given at Barnard’s Inn Hall on January 26, 2012
Overview: The prospect of an apprenticeship attracted thousands of youths to the guild masters of early modern London. Where did apprentices come from, what became of them in the city, and how did this system impact shape the development of Europe’s largest city? The presenters will draw on their recent research to illustrate the economics of craft apprenticeship, and the interaction of this training institution with economic change prior to industrialisation.
Introduction: I saw that in the programme our lecture was categorized as ‘London’; ‘History’; and ‘Unusual’. I’m not sure what we did to deserve that last description. Hopefully, you’ll find it interesting, more than unusual.
Apprenticeship is a very appropriate subject for a lecture here in Gresham College. Thomas Gresham was himself an apprentice – unusually enough, for he had also spent time at Cambridge, and his respect for university learning is apparent in the professorships he endowed here at Gresham College. But in 1535 he was apprenticed to his uncle, John Gresham. As he explained, this was in order to obtain the practical skills he needed as a merchant: “I need not have bynne prentisse for that I was free by my Father’s coppye: albeit my Father Sir Richard Gresham being a wyse man, although I was free by his coppye, it was to no purpose, except I was bound prentisse to the same; whereby to come by the experience and knowledge of all kinds of merchandise.”
It is this kind of practical apprenticeship – in trades as well as crafts, for the sons of labourers as well as the sons of knights – that we will discuss tonight. Our ambition this evening is to convey some of the realities of apprenticeship – and dispel a few myths and easy generalisations along the way.