Monday, 5 September 2011

Repeal of the Statute of Apprentices

A recent visit to the Guildhall Library proved interesting; my long-standing client who is working on printers' unions in the early nineteenth century had asked me to look at a unique printed source (ref: Bside 20.32; no title - it turned out to be an administrative document) mentioned in an article published in 1931 in the Economic History Review.

The article was about the final repeal of the apprenticeship clauses of the Elizabethan Statute of Apprentices in 1814. Eager to be done with the thing were the coming men of nascent laissez-faire capitalism; standing out for retention and an extension of the Statute was an array of mechanics, who had constituted a working committee to formulate their arguments and then formally petition Parliament. London workmen were the driving force behind the initiative, but contacts with other tradesmen in provincial cities and towns were clearly extensive, and appeals to join the cause were even made to the masters. The essential grievance of the mechanics was straightforward: youths and men who had not served a full seven-year apprenticeship were flooding the labour market and driving down wages; not too difficult to see why the various forces involved lined up as they did on this one, and we know who was on the winning side - the race to the bottom had begun.

The document under consideration was the work of the aforementioned mechanics' committee, and several things about it are striking. Firstly, they raised a considerable sum of money (£987 8s 4d to be exact, over £500 of which was raised from tradesmen in the provinces) to finance their activities. Secondly, they must have been terrified of possible legal repercussions under 'the lash of the Convention or Combination Act', as they felt it necessary to seek counsel's view on the legality or otherwise of their proceedings (the cagey - and expensive (£177 22s 5d) - response from Mr Serjeant Shepherd? The committee and its fund-raising activities were legal, just). And thirdly, T. K. Derry, the author of the EHR article, seems to have known all about the 'enormous condescension of posterity', what with his casual and high-handed dismissal of the mechanics from the historical stage. (By way of a belated riposte, it might be worth mentioning that he was a careless transcriber who got an important quote wrong. Historians! Never trust 'em ...)

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