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Binding poor children by the Acre: The Origins and Economic Logic of Compulsory Apprenticeship Schemes in Southwest England c. 1670-1750

Recorded on 8 May 2024

Speaker: James Fisher (University of Exeter)

This paper explores a distinctive but overlooked system for organising child and youth labour in eighteenth-century rural England, based on the 1601 Poor Law that empowered parish officers to bind poor children as 'apprentices'. In their 1927 history of the old poor law, the Webbs distinguished three types of parish apprenticeship in the early nineteenth century: bindings to individual masters, batch bindings to factories, and compulsory allotment among ratepayers. The third type is the focus of this study. It was perceived by assistant poor law commissioners as analogous to the labour rate system for adults and therefore criticised for being an ‘undue interference with the market of free labour’. Despite this strong association with the notorious Speenhamland-era policies, a century of historiography has offered no account of this peculiar system.

This paper presents the first systematic study of parish apprenticeship schemes, focused on their early origins in rural parishes through a survey of southwest England c. 1670-1750, setting out their chronology, geography, economic logic and governance structures. Firstly, it explains how from the late seventeenth century parishes increasingly used their powers to compel ratepayers (affirmed in 1697) to take apprentices and developed centralised rotation schemes, binding children as indentured farm servants to each landholder in turn. Secondly, it shows how such schemes were overwhelmingly developed in the wood-pasture regions of western and northern England, and considers the contrasting strategies for managing the labour supply elsewhere in England. Thirdly, it examines the specific parish policies for regulating the distribution of children to landholders, including calculations for the optimum apprentice-to-acreage ratio. Fourthly, it uses the parish of Awliscombe in Devon – which bound one quarter of local children, both girls and boys – as a case study, demonstrating how the leading farmers were able to control both poor relief and the labour supply through their multiple roles as policy-makers, administrators and masters. Overall, it attempts to situate compulsory apprenticeship schemes within the wider histories of the poor laws and the labour market, and considers how such unfree labour systems might be reconciled with narratives about the supposed expansion of 'free' wage labour in the same period.

IHR Seminar Series: British History in the Long 18th Century