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Letter from apprentice John Evans, to his attorney in the Lord Mayor’s Court.

​Letter from apprentice John Evans, to his attorney in the Lord Mayor’s Court. Ref: CLA/024/08/056.

Disputes in the Lord Mayor’s Court

Michael Scott, University of Manchester

Among the voluminous proceedings of the City of London Mayor’s Court of London (London Metropolitan Archives CLA/024) there is a little known and rarely researched historical resource: petitions made to the court by apprentices to be discharged from the indentures that contractually bound them to their masters.

Although the court archive was damaged in the Great Fire of 1666 and suffered further losses in the Royal Exchange fire of 1838, substantial numbers of cases survive for over one and a half centuries from 1573 to 1723.

14,271 apprenticeship cases can be found among the proceedings (less approximately 80 cases that are unfit for production) and there are over 2,000 additional cases identifiable through other attorney files and books. Cases provide extensive details useful to historians and genealogists about the circumstances of individual apprentices, their personal background and training that are not available in any other records.

The collection as a whole gives a unique insight, unmatched in any other European resource, into the end of apprenticeship contracts and the reasons for their failure. Details of these cases have been made available by the British Record Society in two volumes published in 2016.

Apprenticeships records from livery companies

Many will be familiar with the apprenticeship records preserved in the collections of the City of London livery companies. From the age of fourteen, apprentices could be bound to a master for seven years or more under the auspices of one of the London companies. They were bound by indenture, which was a legally binding document. Apprentices came from all over the country - between five and ten per cent of all male English teenagers entered apprenticeships in London in the seventeenth century - and they provided the city with a skilled workforce (see Chris Minns and Patrick Wallis, “Rules and Reality: Quantifying the Practice of Apprenticeship in Early Modern England,” Economic History Review 65, 2 (2012)).

Breakdowns in apprentice and master relationships

However, over the course of seven or more years in training a variety of things could go wrong: the master might fail to provide satisfactory instruction, inadequately maintain the apprentice, go out of business, or give unwarranted or even brutal punishment. Sometimes the master died leaving the apprentice in the hands of executors ill-suited to train the apprentice, but unwilling to break off the contract. For the apprenticeship system to work, therefore, there had to be in place effective mechanisms for dealing with breakdowns in the apprentice-master relationship and a standard means of exiting from the terms of the apprenticeship indenture. Although apprenticeship indentures could be dissolved in other civil law courts, the Mayor’s Court was inexpensive and fast (often completing a case within two weeks) and had become the go-to court for apprentices in City companies.

Petitions by apprentices

Most petitions by apprentices begin with a summary of the principal details of the binding: the name and company of the master, the name, trade and parish of the apprentice’s father. Also given are the trade that the apprentice was pursuing, the apprentice’s reason to dissolve the contract, the details of the proceedings, and the final decision of the court. All of these details are indexed in the British Record Society volumes. The index is supplemented with additional details. Many cases initiated from 1661 onwards can be linked to attorney files that contain information on where to locate the master and sometimes the residences of apprentices. This provides a further index of nearly ten thousand London street names and signs.

Surviving case notes

Appendices to the British Record Society volumes include a transcription of the surviving case notes of James Gibson, an attorney working in the Mayor’s Court 1679-1705, that provide background to a range of disputes and a selection of equity cases in which apprentices prosecuted masters for financial recompense after the indenture had been discharged. The index also contains over a thousand cases of apprentice mariners who, although outside the livery company system, could bring cases to the Mayor’s Court if they were bound near London.

Despite the interest and importance of these records, they have rarely been used because of the difficulties in interpreting and accessing them. The cases are scattered among over three hundred large bundles of documents and constitute about ten percent of the cases proceeding before the court. The construction of the cases was unusual: they were presented in the form of a petition to the Lord Mayor and Aldermen and written up in abbreviated French. The bundles themselves are unindexed, lack a detailed calendar and many have no internal organisation either by date or type of case. Most documents show some evidence of fire damage, although in only sixty cases was I unable to decipher the name of the apprentice.

British Record Society  volumes

Alongside the first detailed modern treatment of the practice of the Lord Mayor’s Court, the British Record Society  volumes analyse a wealth of statistical information gleaned from the records. An important advantage of the records is their breadth. The Mayor’s Court archive includes details of apprenticeship bindings where the corresponding company records have either not survived (such as the Woodmongers’ and Soapmakers’ companies) or are only fragmentary for the period covered (such as the Cooks’ or the Painter Stainers’ companies). They allow us to track the relationship between companies and their nominal trades (which turns out to be much closer than expected), the numbers of female apprentices and the role of women in training apprentices, the family backgrounds of apprentices and the different ways in which apprentice-master relationships break down.

The two Mayor’s Court volumes begin a new series by the British Record Society focussing on apprenticeships and freedoms. Work on the project has been greatly assisted by Patrick Wallis and Cliff Webb. Future volumes will include an index of the membership records of the Merchant Taylors’ Company.

Rare survival of a letter from an apprentice

The above image is of a rare survival of a letter from an apprentice, John Evans, to his attorney in the Lord Mayor’s Court. Evans was suing his master Richard White in 1695. ‘Sir, I would desier you to cleare me from my Master for I am a frade that he will kill me if that I stay with him any longer he has bete me so much that I am not able to stay with him he did bete me and made me all of a gore blood and stompt upon me and drag’d me upon downe so much that my mother thought that he had kild me that I am a frade to stay and a grate many times he dus a buse me he stompt upon my beley and bete me after a gros maner and now my mother is dead I am afrade that he will kill me now I have no body to stand my frind now he will not give what he promost me now when my mother was dead he would not give me my cloths to go to the berin I was faute to buy cloths my self and he did lock me up and made me give him forty shillings before he would let me go oute of the roome. I am you servant to command, John Evanes.’ (LMA ref. CLA/024/08/056)

14 January 2015
Last Modified:
27 September 2018