The candidates for The Apprentice (BBC1) tonight may think they work hard to earn their laurels to win a place at Alan Sugar’s side. But during the late 18th and 19th centuries, the term ‘apprentice’ was synonymous with a life of unremitting toil and hardship. Workhouses, especially those in London, overflowed with pauper children, and the Poor Law authorities were legally obliged to find employment for these children as apprentices. The idea was to stop them being a burden on the parish rates and, the theory went, to equip them to earn a living. Thousands of children were carted hundreds of miles from London to Lancashire cotton mills to be apprenticed until the age of 21.
Writer Robert Southey visited ‘one of the great cotton manufactories’ around this time, and watched the pauper apprentices at work. His guide explained: ‘…here the parish, which would else have had to support them, is rid of all expense; they get their bread almost as soon as they can run about, and by the time they are seven or eight years old bring in money. There is no idleness among us: - they come at five in the morning; we allow them half an hour for breakfast, and an hour for dinner; they leave work at six, and another set relieves them for the night; the wheels never stand still.’
Many children worked as ‘piecers,’ joining together broken threads on mule spinning machines. They walked up to 20 miles a day doing this job. Smaller children or ‘scavengers’ crawled under the machinery to pick up waste cotton from the floor. At Bolton, they earned around 2s per week.
In practice, when the children finished their apprenticeship, they often found themselves out of a job. It was cheaper for the master to employ another child apprentice than to pay a grown-up’s wages.
Image: Mule Spinning Room, 1860s. Charles Knight’s Pictorial Gallery of Arts.