Many of the apprentice records held by Warwickshire County Record Office relate to paupers. The parish had to care for children when their parents died or became unable to support them. The usual solution adopted was to apprentice the children, ostensibly to learn a proper trade but all too often this was but a fiction, and the children were used as cheap, unskilled labour.
Parishes were keen to abdicate responsibility for the future support of such children, so they often farmed them out to another parish. For example an early 19th century register of Bedworth pauper apprentices shows that few of the children were placed in Bedworth itself: most were bound into the textile trade in Warwickshire or Leicestershire, whilst some were sent as far away as the Black Country or Derbyshire.1 The indentures had to be executed by the child, their parent – if living – the master and the parish officers (churchwardens and overseers of the poor); the indenture was then approved by two Justices of the Peace.
Very young children apprenticed
In 1675 the churchwardens and overseers of the poor placed William Wood, son of Margaret Wood of Knowle, deceased, a poor person of the town, as apprentice with Job Whitehouse of Tipton, Staffordshire, ‘naylor’ [nailer]. The child being sent such a distance away from his home was only six years old at the time. Witnesses to the document included John Wilkinson, minister of the chapel, who presumably condoned such practices.2
Children apprenticed to factories
From the late 18th century onwards the poor law authorities apprenticed child paupers to factories (some local, but some a long way away). Benjamin Smart, a Quaker, owned the cotton-spinning factory at Rock Mills, Milverton. He wrote to a correspondent at Halford about suitable girl apprentices. Smart wanted girls who were healthy, active, clean and free from vermin and any natural or accidental defect. They would be bound until they were 24 years of age.
The premium was £5, a large sum in those days. For an extra £5, dresses and clothing would be provided by Smart. He did not want boys, but could find places for one or two at the Iron Foundry if they were stout and active and 15 or 16 years of age; otherwise light made and active boys with slender fingers could be found places in watchmaking.3 Quakers had a good reputation as decent employers, so these paupers were probably treated well, but other factory owners drove their workers hard and such children were sometimes treated as slave labour.
Girls apprenticed until they married
Elizabeth Davis of Alcester, aged 10, was apprenticed to Michael Morrall of Studley, a needlemaker. She was apprenticed until she reached the age of 20 years, with ‘or day of marriage’ added to the standard form. 4
Boys apprenticed to chimney sweeps
In 1812 John Sloan, a poor boy of Nuneaton aged 11, was bound as apprentice for five years to William Wykes, a chimney sweep of Coventry. The indenture laid down more provisions than usual. Wykes had to provide the child with clothes suitable for climbing chimneys and once a year a separate ‘compleat suit of cloathing’. John was to be thoroughly washed and cleansed of soot at least once a week, not to have to ply for trade before 5am or after noon (in the summer) or before 7am (in the winter). He was not to be forced to climb a chimney which was on fire and to be treated ‘with as much humanity and care as the nature of the employment of a chimney sweeper will admit’.5
Legislation in the 1830s began to address the problem of child chimney sweeps by stating that no child under the age of 10 should be employed. In 1840, after a public campaign highlighting the fact that such children frequently developed cancer, indenturing of child sweeps was forbidden by law. Even so the system lingered on – because only children could climb up small chimneys – and remained a scandal until the last quarter of the 19th century.
This article is based on material from several Warwickshire County Record Office exhibitions.
References (all Warwickshire County Record Office)
1 Bedworth Apprenticeship Register 1802-21, reference DR 225/341.
2 Knowle Apprenticeship Indenture, 1675, reference DRB 56/142/1.
3 Letter from Benjamin Smart, 31/03/1814, reference DR 362/50/2-3.
4 Alcester Apprentice Indenture, 1807, reference DR 360/79/129.
5 Nuneaton Apprentice Indenture, 1812, reference DR 280/83.