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The initial impulse behind the foundation of the Merchant Venturers was to give the city’s new community of overseas merchants the capacity to defend its common interests in an era of severe economic constraint. What from the perspective of economic history was little more than an effect of large and impersonal social processes soon became a social force on its own. The merchants who brought the Merchant Venturers into being transformed their relations with one another from a mere feature of the economic environment into an active shaper of their world. Like the beaver whose dam-building creates a habitat to suit its form of life, they remade their social landscape. We can perhaps best see the effects of these changes by looking closely at what happened to the patterns of social mobility in Bristol in the years following the Society’s foundation.

The phrase “social mobility” can refer to two very different social processes. In communities that highly value an individual’s or a family’s command over goods and services, change in real wealth is the primary criterion. Here a person—before recent times usually it would be a man—might improve his position in society simply by increasing his income or the number or worth of his possessions while remaining in his particular social niche or occupation all his life. As he goes from being a poor or middling farmer, shoemaker, or lawyer to a rich one, he ascends the social ladder. In other kinds of community, however, social recognition and deference are granted principally according to social rank, defined as the place held in a fixed hierarchy of social stations assigned by birth or career. To move upward in this form of society it is necessary to marry well, thereby improving family bloodlines and connections, or to rise in rank by changing career or acquiring honored office. But even the most status-conscious societies maintain a close link between wealth and social position, since an individual’s social standing helps determine his access to wealth, and fulfillment of his social obligations requires material resources. If wealth is wisely used, moreover, it offers increased opportunity for improved status, if not for the individual, then for his posterity.

Sixteenth and early seventeenth-century Bristol was a hierarchical society in which legal and quasi-legal distinctions such as those between freemen and non-freemen, ruler and ruled, were of crucial significance. But, because it was a commercial city, its inhabitants were also deeply concerned with the acquisition of wealth. Indeed, the achievement of social rank was founded as much on the accumulation of money and possessions as on birth: as successful individuals or families increased their wealth, they were often able to move upward in rank. Unfortunately, direct study of patterns of social mobility based solely on accumulated capital or liquid assets is impossible. We can, however, use an individual’s occupation as a useful guide to his place in the social order. Not only did a man’s occupation define his economic role, it helped shape his social connections and his chances to achieve both riches and recognition. Hence, occupational mobility can serve as a general, if limited, indicator of social mobility more broadly construed. Admittedly, we shall be using a rather crude instrument to accomplish this goal. Occupation alone can tell us very little of any particular individual’s life history. Knowing whether an early modern Bristolian identified himself as a grocer or weaver, merchant or wiredrawer, cannot help us to predict his actual achievements accurately. But such information in the aggregate gives some insight into the relative chances the members of particular groups had to acquire wealth, status, and power and how these chances may have changed over time. Provided we want no more than a general estimate of the overall pattern of mobility and a general sense of the direction of change, this technique seems worth pursuing, even though the aggregation of our data, with its tendency to lump dissimilar cases into common categories, necessarily exaggerates some features of the story while flattening others. Allowing for these shortcomings in our method, what can we determine about the relative openness of Bristol’s social structure before and after the foundation of the Merchant Venturers?

The study of occupational mobility in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries necessarily begins with the institution of apprenticeship. In conjunction with training a young man in the skills of his chosen trade or craft, it established him within the network of business relations in the trading community. For merchants, this process took place in the actual course of trade, as the young apprentice, after receiving the rudiments of training in his master’s household, was allowed considerable opportunity to make his own judgments and decisions in the marketplace. In nearly every other trade, however, apprenticeship also involved both a social and an economic aspect. Under the protection and discipline of a master, young men were not merely trained in the techniques of a craft but were sent on errands to buy raw materials, to settle debts, and to bring finished goods to customers, or, alternatively, were left to look after the shop for short periods while their masters saw to these tasks. If they were to fulfill their purpose as servants, it could not be otherwise. Just how a particular individual was used depended on his years of service, his trustworthiness, and the nature of his craft. Among retailers, the apprentice’s contacts were more likely to be with customers frequenting the shop than with merchant suppliers; among craftsmen, they were more likely to be with the middlemen and other manufacturers in the chain of production with whom his master ordinarily dealt. In these ways service as an apprentice helped to establish the economic opportunities the young man might later have as a master in his own right and also set him in a social network that affected both his future livelihood and his way of life.[59]

The institution of apprenticeship was also tied to occupational mobility in a much more direct way. In many urban families, children stayed at home only until they were old enough to find places in the service of others. This was more than a consequence of the peculiar fact, often remarked upon by foreigners, that the English sent their children at an early age to be raised as apprentices or servants outside the family.[60] It was also the result of hard economic realities. Many fathers and mothers died young, leaving their children orphans who had to be placed with strangers if they were to survive and find livelihoods of their own. Even when one or both parents remained alive, it was often impossible for the family to employ all its children within the household or provide them with formal educations in the professions or set them up on the land. Since many other households simultaneously found themselves needing extra labor to manage their affairs, a regular system developed to exchange children between families in both urban and rural communities. Although, as we shall see for Bristol, many sons simply followed in their father’s footsteps when pursuing their livelihood, many others did not, either because they were unable to or because they had been placed elsewhere to better themselves. In effect, there was a market for their services, conditioned by the individual family’s ability to employ its own children, the supply of and demand for servant labor in particular industries, and the economic and social connections of the people involved. Where premiums were charged for taking on the care and training of young men, as they often were in lucrative trades such as that of overseas merchant, the ability of the family to pay the going rate was a factor. Seen in the aggregate, the resulting distribution of occupations reflects in a concrete fashion the state of the labor market at any particular time and the differences between periods encapsulates the changes in that market. In so saying, however, we note only the fact of movement. We need not assume that a young man’s father or guardian necessarily sought the best possible service for him, although surely many—probably most—did so, since it was in their interests and those of their kin that each member of the family be placed where he could do the others the most good.

Apprenticeship was the most formal type of “fostering” arrangement for children, if it may be so called. In most urban places apprenticeship already had a long history in local custom before the passage of the Statute of Artificers in 1563 incorporated it into national law. What makes it an especially useful institution for our present purposes is that its administration depended on the use of written instruments, called indentures, which in Bristol were carefully enrolled in the central city records kept at the Tolzey. The earliest of these records survive from 1532. These indentures typically name the father of the apprentice, giving his occupation, and the young apprentice’s new master, giving his occupation as well. Using these indentures in their enrolled form, we can glimpse the overall patterns of occupational mobility in Bristol from one generation to another by comparing the occupations into which the sons of Bristolians were apprenticed with those of their fathers. In studying this material we need to look, as it were, at both the outward and the inward traffic in apprentices. To which trades were fathers in particular industries most likely to apprentice their sons? From which trades were those in particular industries most likely to have attracted their apprentices? For our purposes the more important information is the former, since it tells us in some measure about the ways the life chances of members of particular groups were affected over time. Records for two ten-year periods have been chosen for this purpose: 1532–1542 and 1626–1636.[61]

Let us take the history of the leather trades as an example, counting those engaged in leather production together with those who used the finished product to make such items as saddles, aprons, and gloves. In the period from 1532 to 1542, some two hundred and seventy-six men were apprenticed in Bristol in these industries, of whom sixty, just under a quarter, were Bristolians. From 1626 to 1636, two hundred and ninety-three men were apprenticed in the same industry, of whom ninety-five, nearly a third, were Bristolians. Given the fact that Bristol’s population had grown by at least 25 percent between the two periods, however, the difference in the total number of apprentices in these industries represents a net decline in demand for apprentices of 20 percent or more. This fall was sharpest in the crafts engaged in leather production itself; between 1532 and 1542, one hundred and fifty men were apprenticed there; in the period from 1626 to 1636, the number had fallen to one hundred and three men, which, in light of the population growth, means a real fall in the demand for apprentices in this sector of the economy of something in excess of 50 percent. The slack was taken up largely by an increase of more than 100 percent in the number of shoemakers apprenticed in the city, as we might expect in response to its own population growth and its growing role as a center of regional trade in the west.[62]

Turning now to the Bristol-born apprentices in the leather trades, we find that in the 1530s and 1540s the fathers of almost 50 percent of all these apprentices were themselves involved in the manufacture of leather or of leather products, and just over 63 percent of those Bristolians in the leather crafts who apprenticed sons in this period put them out in the leather trades. In the 1620s and 1630s the rates were somewhat lower, with both figures at about 46 percent, which almost certainly reflects the diminished demand for labor in these industries rather than increased social mobility. In addition, an impressive percentage in each period were apprenticed not merely in the industry but in their father’s specific occupation—shoemakers’ sons to shoemakers and whitawers’ sons to whitawers. These same data also yield a second significant result. In both periods the sons of leather craftsmen apprenticed outside their father’s own industry were placed largely in the minor crafts or in the noncommercial sectors of the economy, not among the large-scale entrepreneurs. Between the two periods, however, the proportion of leather craftsmen’s sons indentured in the most lucrative trades had become smaller. In the period 1532–1542 it was just over a third; in the 1626–1636 period it was only about 5 percent. This fall is perhaps indicative of the declining position of the leather industry in Bristol, which left its members less able to support the capital requirements of overseas trade and large-scale commercial dealing, demands which themselves may have been growing in this period. It suggests an increasing gulf between the leather trades and the merchants and leading retailers of the city (Table 12).

12. Bristolians in the Leather Industries
(Production and Secondary Use), 1532-1542 and 1626-1636
  1532–1542 1626–1636
  Sons[a] Fathers[b] Sons[a] Fathers[b]
  No. % No. % No. % No. %
Source: 1532–1542: D. Hollis, ed., Calendar of the Bristol Apprentice Book, 1532–1565. Part 1: 1532–1542 (Bristol Record Society 14, 1949). 1626–1636: Bristol Record Office, Apprentice Book, 1626–1640, ff. 1r–333r.
Leading entrepreneurs
  Merchants 3 5.00 2 2.60     3 3.13
  Major retailers 5 8.33 5 6.49 3 3.15 12 12.50
  Soapmakers, chandlers             3 3.13
    Total 8 13.33 7 9.09 3 3.15 18 18.75
Textile industries 7 11.67 8 10.40 13 13.68 5 5.21
Leather industries 38 63.33 38 49.35 44 46.32 44 45.83
Metal industries 3 5.00 1 1.30 14 14.74 5 5.21
Building trades     3 3.90 6 6.32 4 4.17
Shipping and related trading and port activities 2 3.33 12 15.58 10 10.53 8 8.33
Woodworking         3 3.15    
Food production 1 1.67 7 9.09 1 1.05 7 7.29
Professional and service trades                
Gentlemen, esquires             1 1.05
Miscellaneous 1 1.67 1 1.30 1 1.05 4 4.17
    Total known 60   77   95   96  
    Total unknown     12       4  
      Total 60   89   95   100  

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