Apprenticeship evidence from Stationers’ wills, 1600–1641

Joe Saunders, University of York

I give and bequeath to William Leeke Stationer sometime myne apprentice, in respect of such paines as he is to take as one of the Overseers of this my wyll the… somme of Twentie shillings”

In September 1602 this bequest was put into the will of Francis Coldocke, Stationer of Saint Faiths, London in the presence of the same William Leeke. This transaction between master and former apprentice is indicative of the intergenerational nature of the early modern livery companies of the City of London. The Company of Stationers, to which Coldocke and Leeke belonged, had at this time theoretical control over most of the print trade in England. Stationers’ apprentices usually learnt from their masters the arts and mysteries related to the making and selling of printed goods for the length of about seven years. Bookselling, in the case of Leeke and Coldocke.

Stationers’ wills are excellent sources for the study of early seventeenth century apprenticeships. Showing them to have been relationships of multifaceted value, simultaneously social and economic, formal and personal, intimate and institutional. Apprentices, however, were also bound by their Company and the labour market, highlighted here through comparison of probate and freedom rates.

A woodcut print showing a man making paper; his apprentice carrying away the finished sheets.
A papermaker and apprentice. Woodcut by J. Amman. 1568 (Wellcome Trust).

Apprenticeships served both an economic and social role within early modern guilds, formally establishing a mutually beneficial relationship. This bond was economic with the exchange of payment and cheap labour in return for training and formal access into the trade. They were also social affairs. Apprentices became part of their master’s household and submitted to their authority in return for room, board, and a duty of care. Of course, in practice the principle often broke down; not all training was adequate, not every apprentice served their full term, apprentices were notoriously unruly, and they could be maltreated by masters. Yet overall, the system prevailed, and apprenticeship remained the primary method of entrance into livery companies in this period.

Early modern apprenticeship attracts considerable scholarly attention. In recent years this has been expressed most notably by the collection edited by Maarten Prak and Patrick Wallis Apprenticeship in Early Modern Europe (2019) and Laura Gowing’s work on women in seventeenth century livery companies, Ingenious Trade (2022). My own research on early seventeenth century Stationers’ last wills and testaments reveals these personal, transactional relationships between master and apprentice and the finely balanced institutional system they existed within.

Wills are wonderfully intimate insights into apprenticeship. Sometimes they contained gifts of money from masters to current and former apprentices. These were tokens indicating affection as well as providing tangible help to young tradesmen. In very rare instances, apprentices were even gifted the tools of the trade by their masters. Wills could be mechanisms to attempt to extend the apprenticeship contract beyond the testator’s own life, requesting that an apprentice stay on and obey their mistress. To ensure this, bequests could be withheld until the completion of the apprenticeship. Alternatively, wills could explicitly sever the apprenticeship bond, discharging the apprentice upon the death of the master, though sometimes with money given to bind them to a new one. As with Leeke, former apprentices might have become trusted friends and equals and so be placed in positions of responsibility as witnesses or overseers. Wills also show how testators could value the apprentice system more widely, with some requesting that their own kin be put into apprenticeships, with money given to enable this.

Taking a wider view, wills can also be used as demographic evidence of Stationers’ Company apprenticeships and how this system was used to regulate the labour market. From records of apprentices attaining ‘freedom’ of the Company, becoming members themselves, published in the London Book Trades Database there were 334 newly freed Stationers (with a further two translated from other companies) across the period 1600–1641, an average of eight a year. A detailed comparison between career entrances and exits might be attempted using parish registers, extant texts, and company records to measure the death and retirement of members. In lieu of such substantial and time-consuming research however, death rates can be initially gauged from the number of wills, as it is known from other studies that around a third of early modern English people left a will. Almost all Stationers’ wills of this period were proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC), the highest probate jurisdiction in England. Altogether, 109 wills of Stationers or their widows were proved in the PCC in the years 1600–1641, an average of 2.6 per year. If we take this to be a third of actual mortality we have a rough estimate of 7.8 Stationers’ deaths per annum.

Stationer Freedoms and PCC wills proved, 1600–1642. 2-year moving average.

The similarity between eight Stationer deaths and eight new Company freedoms annually is a striking correspondence for the whole period. This also broadly correlates over time. Periods of higher will proving (and therefore mortality) relate to a higher number of freedoms, while the inverse also appears true. The exception was during the plague of 1625 when there was exceptionally high mortality and no freedoms, as the Company was unable to function properly, and it would have been impossible to predict who would live or die.

This research is ongoing, more accurate measures of death rates will be explored, a better consideration of rates of retirement and the position of widows and others who operated in the trade without formal entry to the Company also need examining. However, within the Stationers’ Company in the period 1600–1641 while apprentices would have been freed partly according to their abilities and the desires of their masters, freedoms were also organised at a Company-wide level. New freemen stepped into dead men’s shoes. This would have maintained the membership of the Stationers at a steady rate, according to the perceived capacity of the Company and the trade to absorb new members. This highlights how the apprenticeship system, in addition to its social and training functions, was carefully controlled by the Company to regulate entrance to their organisation and the labour market.


About the author: Joe Saunders is a part-time PhD student at the University of York researching a social history of the print trade in England c.1600–1650, primarily using the wills of members of the Company of Stationers.


3 responses to “Apprenticeship evidence from Stationers’ wills, 1600–1641

  1. I am writing upon the archive of the Purchas family of Wensleydale & in the late 16th and early 17th century they were Brewers in Cambridge.
    The Ambrose (II) Purchas who was apprenticed to a Brewer in London in 1611 was rather older than the norm and I wondered if you had evidence of apprenticeships of 24 yrs or older among your Stationers?

    I found Patrick Wallis’ LSE Research Paper from 2009 which gives me hope that a 28yr old apprentice might be possible and note your ref to his 2019 book above.

    A long shot but perhaps older apprenticeships have cropped up in your research.

  2. Hi Fiona, this sounds like a fascinating project. Patrick’s work is very interesting and useful. I’m afraid I don’t have any examples of apprentices of that age that have come out as part of my research so far. Not to say that exceptions to the rule didn’t occur as Patrick notes.

  3. Hi Joe, thanks. There has to be an answer somewhere to the problem of the two brewers named Ambrose Purchas in Cambridge and the one date of the apprenticeship to the brewers company, that make Ambrose (II) to old.
    Another baptism date is required as children were often given the name of a child who had recently died.
    I’ve learnt quite a lot about apprentices in the last few week trawling through the research papers etc!

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