In my PhD thesis (which I finished in 2005 which seems like a lifetime away!) I researched the summary courts of the City of London in the eighteenth century. One of the areas I looked at was apprenticeship because in the 1700s and 1800s magistrates were often called upon to adjudicate in disputes between masters and their young charges. In the City however, these cases usually came before the Chamberlain’s Court and here masters complained about the laziness or disobedience of apprentices, or were counter sued for poor or cruel treatment or for not teaching their employees the secrets of their trade.
Having looked in some detail at the workings of the Chamberlain’s Court and the cases that came before it, this story, from Clerkenwell Police Court in 1860, seems quite familiar.
Edward Howard, a ‘respectably attired lad’ of about 16-18 years of age, appeared before Mr D’ Eyncourt on charge brought by his master. Charles Thompson, a carpenter and joiner, told the magistrate that Edward had been absent from his work without his permission.
Apprentices were bound for 7 years (often from 14 to 21) and they worked for their keep and to learn the craft. In the 1700s they invariably lived with the family as part of the household, so would expect their food, clothes and bed to be supplied in return for their labour. After the Napoleonic Wars ended (with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo) there was a general decline in apprenticeships, especially live-in ones.
It would seem that Edward did live with the Thompsons, but perhaps the constraints of obeying the rules of the house and his master were especially difficult for this young man. This was not the first time he had been in trouble for leaving his work undone and staying away from home, and he had been in court on more than one occasion. The last time he was in front of a magistrate he was warned that a repeat offence would likely result in a spell of imprisonment at hard labour, but Edward seemed not to care.
The carpenter explained that Edward was ‘a very unruly lad’, and had done no work since the 9th July. This was a period of two weeks and Mr Thompson had had enough. The boy was, he said:
‘a very good workman when he pleased, but his general character was that of a dilatory idle lad’. He ‘was of an opinion that unless the prisoner was punished he would never do any good for himself’.
Mrs Thompson seems to have agreed, saying she could not speak up for him or ‘give him the best of characters’.
Faced with this attack on his character Edward responded, as many of the lads that came before the Chamberlain in the 1700s did, with a show of bravado. He told the magistrate ‘with the greatest levity’, that ‘it was all correct, but he did not like his business’.
Mr D’Eyncourt sentenced him to be imprisoned at hard labour in the house of correction for 14 days. He was, he explained, entitled to have him whipped as well but said on this occasion he hoped that a spell in the ‘house’ would be sufficient punishment to affect a change in his behaviour. He was warning him (again) that further sanctions – and physical ones at that – would follow if he didn’t start taking is apprenticeship seriously.
I’m not at all sure that Edward was listening because he was taken away still laughing out loud at his situation in an attempt (real or otherwise) to show that he cared little for anything the courts, or his master, might do to him.
[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, July 27, 1860]