The system of apprenticeship first developed in the later Middle Ages and came to be supervised by craft guilds and town governments. A master craftsman was entitled to employ young people as an inexpensive form of labour in exchange for providing food, lodging and formal training in the craft. Most apprentices were males, but female apprentices were found in crafts such as seamstress, tailor, cordwainer, baker and stationer. Apprentices usually began at ten to fifteen years of age, and would live in the master craftsman’s household. Most apprentices aspired to becoming master craftsmen themselves on completion of their contract (usually a term of seven years), but some would spend time as a journeyman and a significant proportion would never acquire their own workshop.
Apprenticeships have a long tradition in the United Kingdom, dating back to around the 12th century and flourishing by the 14th century. The parents or guardians of a minor would agree with a master craftsman or tradesman the conditions for an apprenticeship. This contract would then bind the youth for 5–9 years (e.g., from age 14 to 21). Apprentice’s families would sometimes pay a “premium” or fee to the craftsman and the contract would usually be recorded in a written indenture. Modern apprenticeships range from craft to high status in professional practice in engineering, law, accounting, architecture, management consulting, and others.
In towns and cities with guilds, apprenticeship would often be subject to guild regulation, setting minimum terms of service, or limiting the number of apprentices that a master could train at any one time. Guilds also often kept records of who became an apprentice, and this would often provide a qualification for later becoming a freeman of a guild or a citizen of a city. Many youths would train in villages or communities that lacked guilds, however, so avoiding the impact of these regulations.
In the 16th century, the payment of a “premium” to the master was not at all common, but such fees became relatively common by the end of the 17th century, though they varied greatly from trade to trade. The payment of a one-off fee could be very difficult for some parents, limiting who was able to undertake apprenticeships. In the 18th-century, apprenticeship premiums were taxed, and the registers of the Stamp Duty that recorded tax payments mostly survive, showing that roughly one in ten teenage males served an apprenticeship for which they paid fees, and that the majority paid five to ten pounds to their master. In theory no wage had to be paid to an apprentice since the technical training was provided in return for the labour given, and wages were illegal in some cities, such as London. However, it was usual to pay small sums to apprentices, sometimes with which to buy, or instead of, new clothes. By the 18th century regular payments, at least in the last two or three years of the apprentice’s term, became usual and those who lived apart from their masters were frequently paid a regular wage. This was sometimes called the “half-pay” system or “colting”, payments being made weekly or monthly to the apprentice or to his parents. In these cases, the apprentice often went home from Saturday night to Monday morning. This was the norm in the 19th century but this system had existed in some trades since the 16th century.
In France, apprenticeships also developed between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, with guilds structured around apprentices, journeymen and master craftsmen, continuing in this way until 1791, when the guilds were suppressed.