7. The Apprenticeship System

The advent of the factory system began to bring about the end of traditional apprenticeship, and the special relationship that a journeyman had once had with his employer, the Master of the trade . William Wilkie's sons, William the Second, and John, were apprenticed as wrights during the early 1840s, possibly to their father, as journeymen as well as masters could take on apprentices .

The apprenticeship system had been established in England in 1563 under the Statute of Artificers that stated that every craftsman had to learn his trade for seven years under a responsible master. It was reasoned that “until a man grow into 23 years, he for the most part, though not always, is wild, without judgement and not of sufficient experience to govern himself”. After the age of twenty four he could marry, set up a business, or become a journeyman for hire . The value of the apprenticeship was domestic, educational and economic, and for centuries was regarded as “the school of England”. The advent of the industrial revolution and the new work practices of the nineteenth century destroyed this traditional apprenticeship system and replaced it with “a laissez faire chaos by no means to the advantage of the uncared for youth of the land” .

The new mill owners of the nineteenth century were willing to take on adult workers who had not served a seven-year apprenticeship, especially after the old apprenticeship laws were modified under pressure from the factory owners in 1814 . Because of this the fledgling trades unions, or societies, petitioned to have the seven year rule enforced in an attempt to protect their fully qualified members. Mill owners retaliated by offering to defend any worker prosecuted for not having served a full apprenticeship.

When William Wilkie the First began his apprenticeship, probably around 1805 or 1806, his intention would have been to progress in his trade and eventually become a master of the trade with his own workshop and his own apprentices. But the changing conditions of industry had so reduced prospects for journeymen to achieve this status that many felt compelled to form combinations, or unions, in order to protect their positions .

In Scotland Trades Guilds had developed prior to the 1600s. They first represented merchants and later master craftsmen. Membership of a Guild was achieved through apprenticeship and the payment of an entry fee. It was these Guilds that attempted to protect the privileges and skills of craftsmen such as wrights .

Perhaps ironically it was a petition presented to the House of Commons by the Master Millwrights in London in 1799 against a “combination” of their own journeymen which led to the passing of the Combination Act of 1799 prohibiting the formation of any union of workers seeking to increase wages or decrease working hours. The journeymen Millwrights had combined in an attempt to force an increase in wages and to prevent non members of their association from obtaining employment. Master Millwrights had “often been obliged to submit” . After refusing to pay increased wages the masters were faced with a strike by the journeymen.

Despite the anti combination laws workers continued to form societies or unions and pressures general reform led to the repeal of the Combination Act in 1824. The Act that replaced it allowed for comparative freedom for the unions and led inevitably to outbursts of union strike action seeking better conditions. New laws were introduced in 1825 to reimpose some control over the activities of the unions . These new combination laws allowed employers to exploit workers with virtual impunity, supported by the law. For many workers it seemed that the only way to achieve reform was through violence . It was an excess of violence from members of the Scottish Spinners Union during the 1820s and 1830s that lost the union movement much needed support .


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