As part of the process of a Guild Apprentice becoming a Guildman, each is required to write an essay on an aspect of the City of London or of the Guild which may be of interest to members.

George Mann is an Apprentice, whose Master is Guildman Brian Welch.

Leaving before their time: a study focusing on contemporary understandings of early departure from City apprenticeships in premodern and early modern times


This paper intends to serve as a light review of contemporary historiography on the subject of City apprentices’ early departure in premodern and early modern times. With the current Guild Master giving discursive capital to the topic of apprentice retention, this paper reflects on our understanding of this very topic in early modern City. Wallis (2008) has drastically altered contemporary historians’ perspective on how apprenticeships – through the guilds – in premodern and early modern London might have worked. Although records are patchy at best, it seems that until the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century dropout rates were at least forty per cent. Several factors are likely to have contributed to this predicament: weak enforcement of apprentice-master contracts by the guilds; statutory legislation binding guilds to set apprenticeships for at least seven years (as of 1563) which masters and apprentices might have informally ignored; break down in apprentice-master relations; apprentices prematurely leaving the guild or London to set up their own enterprises. Resulting from Wallis’s study, contemporary understandings of how such a seemingly inequitable relationship could function have developed. Firstly, Wallis has given historians traction on how apprenticeships brought about forms of advantage to masters and more specifically, how they possibly rendered any economic advantage given their apparent inefficiency.


Leaving before their time: Establishing the fundamentals

Surprisingly, non-agricultural apprentices represented a fair proportion of the labour force in premodern Europe. Humphries (2003, p.81) estimates that they accounted for up to 10% of the labour force potentially up to the eighteenth century. The formation of guilds, through which apprentices could serve their apprenticeship to gain adequate training and craft exposure to then trade as a freeman, often was the result of craftsmen and merchants joining together to form a merchants’ guild that prohibited non-members from trading in the town’ (Wiesner-Hanks, 2012, p.38).   It is widely agreed within the historiography upon the matter that craft guilds were first established in the twelfth and thirteenth century across many of the major cities in Western Europe (Wiesner-Hanks, 2012, p.38). Their significant functions were as follows: rationalisation of the sales and production of specific products as well as regulation of the working environments within craft workshops and their acquisition of raw materials along with the standards of production. In short, guilds served a regulatory purpose upon a given trade or craft yet had the potential to fulfil a greater spectre of roles at various times for various individuals. One such role that this paper will focus upon is the guilds’ educational role for apprentices within the City of London, in premodern times and how this relationship was equitable for both the master and apprentice.

Leaving before their time: High departure rates in premodern London City Guilds

As has been established, guilds were a commonplace fibre within the City of London during premodern times. Davies (1975, p.5) asserts that ‘access to seats of learning’, for example guilds’ formation, continuation and purpose, resulted from ‘the configuration of London as a metropolis’. Given the growing importance of London and the resultant flourishing of the City, how come guilds reported ‘loss of 40-60% of apprentices’ whilst London’s economy and the guilds managed to continue their fruition (Davies,1975, p.7)?

There are several possible reasons early departure within a climate of guild success and City prosperity. One such explanation is apprentice death, sickness or disability, which Wallis suggests, could have been as high as 10%[1]. Risks of injury to apprentices seem self-evident considering the exposure to possible dangerous tools and working environments.[2] Likewise, high mortality rates relative to modern measure were often due to the interplay of poor health and hygiene. For example, the plagues of the late premodern and early modern era typified this very condition (Wiesner-Hawks, 2006, p.414). It is important to note the slight nuances in these factors with death and sickness more likely to be caused by factors more external to the apprenticeship and disability possibly resulting from the apprenticeship itself. Even with an allowance of apprentice drop out at 10% because of the factors addressed above, there is still a margin of between 30-50% of apprentice early departure unexplained. This is a situation outlined by Ben-Amos (1991) as a systemic trend across cities in England and true from the Sixteenth Century until the end of the early modern era.

Other explanations for early departure include decay of master-apprentice relations, wilful early departure, or the guild-driven minimum fixed term apprenticeship being informally ignored by both parties to the contract. Wallis discusses some of the most prominent reasons apprentices gave for wanting separation from their masters. These include: ‘excessive correction, abuse, lack of training, and failing to supply food or clothing’ (Wallis, 2008, p.843). Contrarily, masters complained of: ‘apprentices running away and refusing to return to their service, being drunkards, attacking them or their family, or embezzling money from the shop (Wallis, 2008, p.843). Smith (1981) also explains how there was often a mis-match, particularly in the eighteenth century, between the ideal apprentice-master relation and the reality of this situation the former proceeding the latter may have led to a predicament where misrepresentation resulted in early departure. Evidently, deterioration of master-apprentice relations occurred, with common causes, and resulted in early departure. Another factor was guild driven minimum fix-term apprenticeships. Hovland explains this phenomenon as ‘a response not to the needs of training but to the perceived necessity to control competition and the number of freeman working in the city and crafts’ (2006, p.21). Subsequently, the ‘seven years (minimum fixed term imposed by the guilds) did not conform, therefore, to the length of time it took to train an apprentice’ resulting in early departure driven by either the master, apprentice or both parties due to the remainder of the term being insignificant to the further training of the apprentice (Hovland, 2006, p.21)[3]. Hovland (2006) presents primary sources indicate gaining city freedom before the seven-year term minimum fixed-term was rarely achieved. She suggests that when the apprenticeship term and training required did not coincide in duration, early departure, without obtaining freedom, would occur. Significantly, this would come about as an informal arrangement between master and apprentice; Hovland (2006) demonstrates this in Table 1 (cited in Bibliography) as the figures currently available indicate that early freedom was rare and yet not all apprentices required the full minimum fixed-term to adequately learn the skills of the trade[4]. Additionally, the regulatory powers of the guilds were enacted infrequently to sanction actions that sought to circumvent the established institutional norms that theoretically governed the nature of the apprenticeship arrangement (Ogilvie, 2005, pp.27-28, 32-33). Finally, apprentices might wilfully depart before gaining freedom as observed by Minns and Wallis because ‘completion was only one of several possible outcomes of corporate apprenticeship in (…) English cities’ (2012, p.558). With the reasons why apprentices left before they achieved their status as freemen was achieved given some explanation, this paper will now turn to discuss how apprenticeships could have been economically beneficial given their high rate of incompletion.

Leaving before their time: Explanations

Multiple explanations have sought to answer the ways in apprentice training was structured however most of these seem to be flawed. Wallis (2008) reviewed many of the proposed models for how apprenticeships could have been structured, grouping three homogeneous, and characterising theories: firstly, apprentices required training before their work had value, secondly, apprenticeships sought to establish basic skills at the start of their training and thirdly training was acknowledged to be at direct cost to the master but indirectly providing privilege through the maintenance of guild monopoly over trades and crafts. The first two theories have been challenged on the grounds that, as records suggest, often specific craft and trade related training did not occur until the apprentice had served a portion of their apprenticeships. Wallis characterises this as the move ‘from unskilled to skilled work’ as a mechanism through which masters could retain some financial advantage from the low-skilled incumbent apprentice in the short-term (2008, p.848).[5]

Obviously, the value of such work was less than that of more skilled work but it refutes the assertion that apprentice work was not valuable until receipt of significant training. Moreover, masters sought to off-set the high early departure rate of apprentices by gradually training apprentices, starting with less resource intensive methods such as allowing apprentice observation rather than direct instruction which was likely to have followed in the latter years of the apprenticeship (Wallis, 2008, p.849). Continual training throughout the apprenticeship and minimal direct contact throughout the apprenticeship as discussed above, presents a distinctly different interpretation of how apprenticeships were structured than that suggested by the second model because fundamental training was not often isolated to the beginning of the apprenticeship, if it even did occur at that point. Similar to what has been discussed, regarding short-term cost pay back through apprentice endeavour in unskilled labour for their master, the last assumption that apprenticeships were always a source of sunk-cost for masters is contested by Wallis (2008).

Wallis’s complete proposition of how apprentice-master relations worked responds to his critiques of other explanations and address further descriptive clarity supported by primary materials. In short, given the high departure rates of apprentices before the end of their apprenticeship, the accepted model of master-apprentice relations in economic terms should be re-considered. It seems more appropriate to construct our understanding of these relations around four key principles that drove premodern apprenticeships through the guilds in England. Firstly, apprentices provided valuable labour throughout their apprenticeship. Secondly, training was not as expensive as previously thought by historians because it was distributed in a piecemeal fashion over many years, while not interfering too much with the masters’ productivity. Thirdly, apprentice training occurred through observation while they also were engaged in valuable work. Finally, explicit training was infrequently given and often end-loaded in the apprenticeship to prevent loss of ‘trade secrets’ through early departure. In sum, Wallis’s explanation gives greater analytical parsimony as to why masters entered into arrangements with apprentices because his model suggests that apprentices were not the costly upfront investment that historians had previously inferred.

Leaving before their time: Methodology and principles

When considering the respective models, theories and interpretations that surround our current understanding of London’s City Guilds and the apprenticeships which these institutions facilitated in premodern London, it is important to note the due limitations of our understanding as well as the sources we must utilise. Wallis makes it very apparent that there are limited source records which can develop our understanding (2008, p.839).Therefore, our current understanding could easily be skewed due to the available sources giving a partial picture of the situation. Also, this study has sought to deal with the guilds rather than particular guilds with the obviously implication that between guild trends may have varied. Moreover, the period of study has been purposefully vague as well to give a broad impression of the content covered.

For some closing remark, it seems appropriate to return to the present. The driving principles of the guilds and our understanding of them may have changed over time but much of the essence of these institutions has not. Despite the emphasis not being placed upon the maintenance of craft and trade monopolies, the emphasis on education is still there with a master advising an apprentice where necessary. Additionally, the master remains the introductory face of the guild, for the apprentice, teaching him or her procedures, history and opportunities offered by the institution. Similarly, once bound to a master the expectation remains for the apprentice to honour the duration of their apprenticeship until gaining City freedom. Sadly, in present times, as stated by the current Master of the Mercers, retention of apprentices from binding until freedom is roughly 50% however comfort should be sought in history given that this is certainly not a recent phenomenon for the Guild of Mercers and the institution managed to continue functioning. While admitting to be presenting a solution from a teleological perspective, greater enforcement of guild regulation in premodern guild was likely to have improved retention of apprentices throughout their apprenticeships. Perhaps there is the possibility for such a solution to the contemporary apprentice fallout, though such a proposition is open to the charge of using an ‘out of sample’[6] foundation it still opens up an avenue for exploration as it is likely to have solved a similar situation in the past (Silver, 2012, p.43).




Ben-Amos, I. K. (1988). Service and the coming of age of young men in seventeenth-century England. Continuity and Change3(01), 41-64.

Ben‐Amos, I. K. (1991). Failure to become freemen: urban apprentices in early modern England. Social history16(2), 155-172.

Davis, L. N., & McCallon, E. (1975). Planning, Conducting, Evaluating Workshops. A Practitioner’s Guide to Adult Education.

Hovland, S. R. (2006). Apprenticeship in later medieval London,(c. 1300-c. 1530) (Doctoral dissertation, Royal Holloway, University of London).

Humphries, J. (2003). English apprenticeship: a neglected factor in the first industrial revolution. The economic future in historical perspective, 73-102.

Minns, C., & Wallis, P. (2012). Rules and reality: quantifying the practice of apprenticeship in early modern England1. The Economic History Review,65(2), 556-579.

Ogilvie, S. (2005). The use and abuse of trust: social capital and its deployment by early modern guilds. Jahrbuch für Wirtschaftsgeschichte/Economic History Yearbook46(1), 15-52.

Pelling, M. (1994, March). Apprenticeship, health and social cohesion in early modern London. In History Workshop Journal (Vol. 37, No. 1, pp. 33-56). Oxford University Press.

Rappaport, S. (1989). Worlds Within Worlds. Cambridge University Press.

Schwarz, L. (1987). London Apprentices in the Seventeenth Century: Some Problems. Local Population Studies38, 18-22.

Silver, N. (2012). The signal and the noise: Why so many predictions fail-but some don’t. Penguin.

Smith, S. R. (1981). The ideal and reality: Apprentice-master relationships in seventeenth century London. History of Education Quarterly21(4), 449-459.

Wallis, P. (2008). Apprenticeship and training in premodern England. Journal of economic history68(03), 832-861.

Wallis, P., Webb, C., & Minns, C. (2010). Leaving home and entering service: the age of apprenticeship in early modern London. Continuity and change25(03), 377-404.

Wiesner, M. E. (2006). Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789 (Vol. 2). Cambridge University Press.




Table 1: Examples of terms for which apprentices were indentured in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Samples under 7 years 7 years 8-10 years 11 years plus
Apprentices in Letter Book D, 1309-10 7% 57% 30% 6%
Male Apprentices in Letter Books and Mayor’s court c.1275-1497 1% 36% 46% 17%
Tailor Apprentices, 1486-93 0% 50% 46% 4%
Skinner Apprentices, 1496-1515 0% 21% 66% 13%



With acknowledgements to Brian Welch for his continued support, advice and encouragements throughout my apprenticeship and Stephanie Hovland for her guidance with producing this piece to note my freedom and Julia Tucker for selecting me to have this unique and enriching experience.


(Hovland, 2006, p.22- for internal citations please refer to source)

[1] Through combining the findings from Rappaport (1989), Ben-Amos (1988), Schwartz (1987) and Pelling (1994).

[2] Such seemingly self-evident causes of injury-from dangers relating to apprenticeships- however are hard to prove, if assert at all, due to limited record of such occurrences.

[3] Apprenticeship fix terms did vary across time, guild and region although seven year minimum fixed term was a common apprenticeship length.

[4] This is similar to the occurrence of early binding of apprentices which seems to have taken place later in the history of the guilds in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. This arrangement allowed apprentices to start their apprenticeship at an earlier age presenting the possibility for them subsequently to practise their trade, in their own right, at an earlier age with certified freedom status despite this arrangement formally violating both guild regulations and the law (Wallis, Webb, Minns, 2010, p.398). Likewise, there is substantial evidence that masters often ‘evaded’ the rules on apprentice terms by allowing apprentices to be absent and infrequently present during their terms to respond to circumstance (Minns and Webb, 2012, p.558).

[5] Such ‘unskilled’ work might have included tasks such as sweeping the workshops.

[6] A predicament whereby one sample is used as a direct comparison in order to form prediction.


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