The Origins of London Apprentices
London was a city which relied for its continued growth on an annual stream of immigrants from the provinces and from overseas, and large numbers of these came to the metropolis in their teens to enter on formal indentures of apprenticeship. Such young men, and a few women, came from all over the country but there was a tendency over time for an increasing proportion to be drawn from south-eastern England as opportunities opened up elsewhere for young people to learn a trade or start up a business. Nearly two-thirds of our sample, for instance, came either from London itself or from the eastern and south-eastern counties. Despite this, there are representatives from almost every county and from Scotland, Wales and overseas. Opportunities in the provinces might be growing, but London remained the place where the really ambitious youth was likely to seek his fortune and for many trades it was virtually the only place where a satisfactory training could be obtained.
Historians have noted a marked rise over time in the social and economic status of the fathers of young men who took up London apprenticeships. In the sixteenth century, it was possible to find many fairly poor people, such as husbandmen, as the fathers of London apprentices. This became increasingly unusual and, by our period, most apprentices, or at least those likely to end up as independent businessmen, were the sons of yeomen or gentlemen if they were countrymen, while increasing numbers were the sons of urban professional or commercial people or of such 'middling' members of rural society as innkeepers, clothiers, millers and the like.
The most obvious reason for this change in social origins was the increasing cost of a London training. However, the development also reflects the changing attitude towards trade, which was considered in Chapter 1. This can be illustrated by the large number of apprentices whose fathers were described as gentleman, esquire or even knight in their indentures. Nearly a quarter of our sample were the sons of gentlemen and they were
trained for a wide variety of occupations. Ten became drapers or silkmen, eight merchants, six money-lenders or bankers, three tobacconists or tobacco factors, two each became apothecaries, grocers, haberdashers and cheesemongers, and one each was trained as an ironmonger, jeweller, leather-seller, tavernkeeper, silversmith, bookseller, salter, druggist and lookingglass manufacturer. The sons of gentlemen thus permeated the London business world fairly thoroughly, though they tended to be concentrated in such potentially profitable occupations as overseas trade, linen-draping and finance.
Just what it meant when a man described his father as a gentleman in a document is difficult to say, since the temptation to upgrade one's status when beginning a career in a strange town must have been considerable. Lawrence Stone has suggested that most of these fathers were really 'pseudo-gentlemen', that is, moderately respectable urban tradesmen, a hypothesis which leads him into some delightfully unacademic snobbery. 'They were men of limited means, were actively engaged in retail buying and selling, and probably did not own a single acre of agricultural land, certainly not a country house. They had no knowledge of Latin. They did not dream of swaggering around with a sword at their side, and they would have been completely at a loss if anyone had challenged them to a duel. By any sociological definition, they did not count as gentlemen, yet gentlemen is what they called themselves on public documents.
Stone's hypothesis is certainly refuted by those men in our sample who were described as sons of gentry. Only eight had fathers with the urban address which seems necessary of his pseudo-gentry, three in London and its suburbs and one each in Canterbury, Gloucester, Bath, Colchester and Norwich. The remaining thirty-nine had rural addresses, which were scattered much more widely across the country than was the overall distribution of apprentices' origins. Some may well have been sons of 'parish' gentry, rather than the more distinguished 'county' gentry, as Stone also suggests. However, the fact that twelve fathers were described as Esquire suggests that the gentleman label is not quite as trivial as Stone would have us believe. And indeed if none of these fathers were really gentlemen at all, it seems unlikely that there would have been so much contemporary comment on the subject as there was.
The seventeenth century was in fact rather a difficult time for the sons of gentlemen, especially the younger sons. It was then that the practice of primogeniture took a firmer grip in landed society, with the result that few younger sons could look forward to inheriting a landed estate to support them in the idleness to which their elder brothers were destined. There were also more younger sons than usual as a result of increasing total numbers of gentry and improving mortality chances for their children. What was to be done with them all? The obvious solution was either to educate them for the professions or apprentice them to trade.
The preferred solution in a status conscious society was probably to train them for the professions, though the opportunities for those born in the middle decades of the seventeenth century were fairly limited and some professions which would later absorb large numbers of younger sons, especially the army, had hardly been developed at all. Success in the learned professions also required academic abilities, which only a minority of gentlemen's sons were likely to have, a fact of life quite obvious to most parents. The Sussex gentleman, John French, declared in his early seventeenth-century will that if his younger sons were 'not capable of being scholars', they were to be sent to London to be apprenticed, and such an attitude was a common one. George Boddington showed no great signs of learning at grammar school and so was sent by his father to writing school and then put to learning business. Dudley North, destined to be a wealthy Levant merchant, one of the very few who ever learned Turkish and one of the most respected of early English writers on economics, was 'an indifferent scholar' and his 'backwardness at school and a sorry account that the master gave of his scholarship' led him into a merchant's apprenticeship, though his 'strange bent to traffic' which was demonstrated by successful trading with his schoolfellows was an important indication of his vocation.
Dudley North and his elder brother, the lawyer Lord Keeper Guilford, both claimed that they would never have pursued their careers if they had been assured of even quite a small private income: 'I have heard him say more than once that, if he had been sure of a hundred pounds a year to live on, he had never been a lawyer.' But their family 'was not in a posture to
sustain any of the brothers by estates to be carved out of the main sustentation of the honour', and such was the position of many another estate. Gentry estates were particularly hard hit after 1650 as a result of the accumulation of debts in the Civil War and its aftermath, high taxation and low agricultural prices, but the carelessness or irresponsible behaviour of gentlemen themselves was often the cause of their sons having to seek a career in trade. George Boddington's grandfather, for instance, 'waisted a good estate by gayming and was thereby constrayned to sell all he had to pay his debts'. All three of his sons were put out to apprenticeships in London.
This is not to suggest that only the stupid or the sons of the unlucky sought a career in trade. Such careers were increasingly attractive for their own sake, as the status of trade improved and the potential rewards escalated. There is also no reason to assume that the intellectual quality of London businessmen was below the norm of their day. They might not have been particularly good at Latin, but they seem to have had the ability to learn modern languages and to raise the general level of mathematical competence, while their correspondence suggests that they were quite capable of communicating adequately in their own tongue. This was a highly literate class who had spent several years at grammar school or at the new vocational schools which were discussed in Chapter 2. Such an education was often completed by a year or so at writing school in London before they entered into their apprenticeship, typically at the age of sixteen, though the starting ages of our sample ranged from a technically illegal thirteen to twenty. However, before they could start their apprenticeship, they had to decide what occupation they wished to follow, find a suitable master and settle terms, all difficult decisions to make.