1902 Encyclopedia > Apprentice - Apprenticeship

Apprentice - Apprenticeship

APPRENTICE – APPRENTICESHIP. Apprenticeship (from apprendre, to learn) is a contract whereby one person, called the master, binds himself to teach, and another, called the apprentice, undertakes to learn some trade or profession, and to serve his master for a certain time. The contract is generally created by indenture, but any writing properly expressed and attested will suffice.

The Civilians are silent on the subject of this contract, nor does it seem to have had any connection with the division of the Roman citizens into tribes or colleges. So far as can be seen it arose in the Middle Ages, and formed an integral part of the system of guilds and corporations by which skilled labourers of all kinds sought protection against the feudal lords, and the maintenance of those exclusive privileges with which in the interests of the public they were favoured. In those times it was believed that the arts and sciences would not flourish unless such only were allowed to practice them as had given proofs of reasonable proficiency and were formed into bodies corporate, with certain powers of self-government and the exclusive monopoly of their respective arts within certain localities.

It has sometimes been supposed that these mediaeval corporations were confined to such occupations as are now followed by artisans. This, however, is a mistake. The word universitas is the correct Latin name for any corporation whatsoever; and in mediaeval parlance it was just as proper to speak of the university of smiths or tailors, as of the university of Paris or Oxford. It is, indeed, very probable that, at the dawn of returning civilization, the humbler arts first received the attention and the fostering care of the state; but it is certain that as each lost art or science was recovered, its professors were formed into a university or corporation, composed of such as were entitled to practise and teach, and such as were in course of learning. The former were the masters, the latter the apprentices. Hence the term Apprentice was applied indifferently to such as were being taught a trade or a learned profession, and even to undergraduates or scholars who were qualifying themselves for the degree of doctor or master in the liberal arts. When barristers were first appointed by Wdward I. of England, they were styled apprenticii ad legem-the serjeants being servientes ad legem; and these two terms corresponded respectively to the trade names of apprentices and journeymen. During the middle ages the term of apprenticeship was seven years, and this period was thought no more than sufficient to instruct the learner in his profession, craft, or mystery, under a properly qualified master, teacher, or doctor-for these names were synonymous- and to reimburse the latter by service for the training received. After this the apprentice became himself a master and a member of the corporation, with full rights to practice the business, and to teach others in his turn; so also it would seem that undergraduates had to pass through a curriculum of seven years before they could attain the degree of doctors or masters in the liberal arts. On the continent of Europe these rules were observed with considerable rigour, both in the learned professions and in those which we now designate as trades. In England they made their way more slowly, and did not receive much countenance from our ancestors, who were always jealous of anything savourings of interference with the freedom of trade. Nevertheless the formation of guilds and companies of tradesmen in England dates probably from the 12th century, and it is almost certain that the institution of apprenticeship cannot be of much later date. In 1388 and 1405 it is noticed in Acts of Parliament. By various subsequent statutes provisions were made for the regulation of the institution, and from them it appears that seven years was its ordinary and normal term in the absence of special arrangement. By the 5th of eliz. C. 4, this was made the law of the land, and it was enacted that no person should exercise any trade or mystery without having served a seven years’ apprenticeship. In no place did the apprentices become so formidable by their numbers and organization as in London. During the great rebellion they took an active part as a political body, and were conspicuous after the Restoration by being frequently engaged in tumults. It was probably owing to this circumstance, quite as much as to economical considerations of freedom of trade, that the Act of Elizabeth never found much favour with the courts of law. Soon after the great rebellion we find the apprentice laws strongly reprobated by the judges, who endeavoured, on the theory that the Act of Elizabeth could apply to no trades which were not in existence at its date, to limit its operation as far as possible. Such limitation of the Act gave rise to many absurd anomalies and inconsistencies, e.g., that a coachmaker could not make his own wheels, but must buy them of a wheel-wright; while the latter might make both wheels and coaches, because coachmaking was not a trade in England when the Act of Elizabeth was passed. For the like reason all the great manufactures which have arisen in Manchester and Birmingham in modern times were held exempt from the operation of the statute. Concurrently with the dislike to the apprentice laws which such anomalies generated, the doctrines of the celebrated Adam Smith, that all monopolies or restrictions on the freedom of trade were injurieous to the public interest, had gradually been making their way, and notwithstanding much opposition, an Act was passed in 1814 (54 Geo. III. c. 96), by which the statute of Elizabeth, in so far as it enacts that no person shall engage in any trade without a seven years apprenticeship, was wholly repealed. The effect of this Act has been to give every person the fullest right to exercise any occupation or calling of a mechanical or trading kind for which he deems himself qualified. Apprenticeship, therefore, which was formerly a compulsory, has now become a voluntary contract. It is still, however, the usually avenue to such avocation, because experience has shown that it is the only effectual means of acquiring such a knowledge of the mechanical arts as shall enable a man to exercise them with advantage. In the case of the learned profession, the principles and theories which gave birth to corporations with monopolies, and required apprenticeship or its equivalents, have – contrary to what has taken place in trade-been not only maintained but intensified; that is to say, not only have such bodies retained and even extended in some cases their exclusive privileges, but in general no one is allowed to practise in such professions unless his capabilities have been tested and approved by public authority. Thus, no man is allowed to practise law or medicine in any of their branches who has not undergone the appropriate training by attendance at a university or by apprenticeship-sometimes by both combined. Entrance to the church is guarded by similar checks; and even in the case of education great advances have been made to bring the practice of that art under the like restrictions. In such instances the old principle- now abandoned in trade-of granting a monopoly to those possessing a certain standard of qualification is maintained in greater vigour than ever.

As already noticed, Dr. Adam Smith and most of his school strongly disapproved of apprenticeship, but only as it would seem when applied to trade and manufactures. They urged that the institution interfered with the property which every man has or ough to have in his own labour, and interfered not only with the liberty of the workman, but with that of such as might choose to employ him, and who were the best judges of his qualification. They further argued, that such laws tended to restrain competition to a much smaller number than would otherwise enter a trade; that a long apprenticeship, or indeed any at all, was unnecessary even for the nicest mechanical arts; that a few weeks or even days were sufficient to enable a man to set to work in such trades as clock and watch making; and that if the workman was from the outset paid the full price of his work, under deduction of such materials as he might spoil from carelessness or inexperience, he would learn his art more effectually, and be more apt to acquire habits of attention and industry, than by working under a master who had a right to share in the produce of his labour. It was further contended that the whole system of apprenticeship, like that of the corporations of which it formed an integral part, was a mere device by which masters sought to limit the number of entrants into their respective trades, and so enhance their monopolies at the expense of the general public. That there is considerable truth in much of this reasoning is undeniable. At the time when Dr. Smith began to attack the trade corporations, the narrow and vexatious rules of apprenticeship by which they sought to guard their exclusive privileges were, like their privileges, grievous restraints on the freedom of trade. But taking all this in its worst view will hardly justify the sweeping charges brought against the institution of apprenticeship. It is not conceivable that an institution, which for centuries found acceptance in every part of Europe, should have no better justification than the greed of master workmen. The abolition of the laws which rendered apprenticeship compulsory has not, as Dr Smith and his followers thought, led to its disuse. On the contrary, it or its equivalents have been voluntarily submitted to by such men as desired to exercise a trade to a profit; for the public were not long in discovering that the regularly trained artisan was the only one whose work could be relied on. It is not very easy to see why those principles of monopoly, based on ascertained proficiency, which are so rigorously enforced in the learned professions, should not at least have some application in the case of skilled artisans. It is also worthy of notice that the rise of trades’ unions has been coincident with the fall of the old trade corporations-thus indicating that artisans feel the necessity for some more powerful and orderly protection than the mere operation of the blind principle of supply and demand. For these and similar reasons, it is believed that few practical men will in the present day deny the advantages of apprenticeship. No one would probably advocate the restoration of the old guilds with their exclusive privileges; but many would perhaps incline to advise the institution of some order or degree by which, in certain trades, the workman who has passed through a regular apprenticeship may be distinguished from the man who is not so qualified. (F. W. C.)

The above article was written by Francis W. Clark, LL.D., Barrister, Sheriff of Lanarkshire, 1877-86; author of A Treatise on the Law of Partnership and Joint-Stock Companies.

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