What Does It Mean?

Apprentices & Journeyment

by Mike Fitton

Mike Fitton is a resident of Bracebridge and an honorary member of the MPSGG. He is very knowledgeable on English research and has spoken at many of the club meetings.

If you lived in England in 1600, and if you wanted a cooking knife or some jewellry, you would have to have it made by a person authorized to practice a mystery.. What does this mean?
My last article described craft guilds. Every craft or trade that required some skill or knowledge was known as a mystery. This word is from the old Norman French word metier, meaning occupation or trade. Only qualified members of the appropriate guild, its operatives, were permitted to work in that trade.


There were four grades of workers. People first came into the trade as APPRENTICES, and had to serve at least seven years in that capacity, starting between the ages of 10 and 18, and continuing until at least 21. More about apprentices later. Having completed apprenticeship, the person became either a journeyman or a freeman.


A JOURNEYMAN was a skilled day labourer, who lived away from his place of work (all the other employees usually lived at the workplace, as did most of the population until the Industrial Revolution). He tended to be hired for specific jobs, although some were employed continuously by the same employer.. His hours were fixed by law. In summer, he worked from 5 a.m. to between 7 and 8 p.m., with not more than 2 1/2hours off for meals and drinking.. In winter, he worked from dawn to dusk. Journeymen looking for work were often found at hiring fairs referred to in a previous article.


A FREEMAN was a person who could work at a trade in his own right. He was also automatically qualified to be a freeman or citizen of the borough or city where he worked and lived, to reside there without restriction and to trade without paying taxes for doing so. As his business flourished, he might be confirmed by his guild as a MASTER CRAFTSMAN. He was then not only fully qualified to carry on his trade, but to train apprentices in his mystery, and employ other freemen and journeymen.


Families involved in trade, or gentry and yeomanry families looking for occupations for younger sons, apprenticed their children to worthwhile masters.. Apprentices were mostly boys, but trades involving weaving and sewing, such as embroidery, included many girls. The master was a town householder at least 24 years old, and normally male. If he died, his widow was admitted to the guild in his place, and permitted to carry on the business in her own right unless she remarried.
The father of the child and the master signed an apprenticeship contract, by way of a multi-part indenture. The names and relationships involved were entered in the guild registers. These contracts are also called bindings.. From 1710 onward, the government imposed a tax on them, which created a central registry naming the persons involved and their places of residence.. However, if less than a shilling was paid to the master to take on the apprentice, no tax was payable, so no entry in the register. This often happened where the master and the apprentice were relatives.


Compulsory binding contracts were abolished in 1814.


Some towns still have records, and the government tax records still exist and are increasingly indexed. If you can find the private papers of a craftsman on deposit at a record office, it may contain several apprenticeship indentures. There are some licence books for journeymen. There are lists of freemen of boroughs at record offices.


After 1600, there was another type of apprentice. Where the Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor considered that the parents of a child under 16 were not able to maintain the child, a boy until aged 24 or a girl until aged 21, they could make the child a POOR APPRENTICE. These officers chose a master, who was then compelled to take the child as an apprentice. To be fair, masters were selected in rotation. The master of every ship of some size was also obliged to take a poor apprentice. Many of these children were simply used as servants rather than taught a trade. If the parents refused to permit this, their poor relief payments were docked. Records are in the Vestry Minutes and the documents of the Overseers in each parish.

This article first appeared in the April 2001 newsletter, Volume 17 - Number 1