Undermining Apprenticeship: City, Law and Growth in early modern London

Undermining Apprenticeship: City, Law and Growth in early modern London

Wallis, Patrick

London School of Economics, Department of Economic History Working Papers, No. 154 (2011)


Successful apprenticeship is often explained by effective contract enforcement. But what happened when enforcement was weak? This paper reveals that within early modern London, England’s dominant centre for training, the city’s court provided apprentices with near automatic exits from their indentures, and allowed them to recover a share of their premium, reflecting faults and time served. Between 3 and 8 percent of apprentices received court discharges. Easy dissolution was a response to unstable contracts. By supplying a straightforward mechanism to cut legal ties, the city reduced the risks surrounding apprenticeship and facilitated London’s rapid expansion.

London’s dramatic growth from marginal northern European city to global metropolis was one of the distinctive transitions in early modern history. The city’s expansion was underpinned by a complex of factors, many of which were perceptively sketched out by Tony Wrigley several decades ago. One of the most significant mechanisms facilitating the flow of people into the city was apprenticeship. London’s field of attraction was vast. Between five and ten percent of English teenage males entered apprenticeships in the city in the seventeenth century. Apprenticeship’s demographic importance was matched by its economic significance in reproducing the skilled workforce of the nation’s largest centre for manufacturing and trade.

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