Today, our Midweek Retro A to Z of jobs looks at apprentices, a tradition of training young workers that goes back to the Middle Ages in England.
The first laws governing apprenticeships date to Elizabethan times.
By the 17th century, apprentices’ families often paid a fee to the master when they were taken on and also gave bonds for their behaviour and honesty.
Many apprentices lived in their masters’ households and were given their board and lodging but were rarely paid wages.
In 1527 London freemen were even banned from paying apprentices wages.
Documents recording apprenticeships were known as indentures, because they were cut in half with special indentations so they could be split between the parties and fitted together again to show they were genuine (my own journalism indentures were cut in this way, incidentally).
In Sheffield, the Cutlers’ Company has archives listing apprenticeships that date back hundreds of years listing more than 30,000 people.
Search them by going online at http://www.sheffieldrecordsonline.org.uk/index_cutlers.html
The Cutlers’ Company website says that the company restricted the number of apprentices by insisting they were registered with it.
Following at least seven years of training, an apprentice could opt to become a Freeman, which allowed him to record an identifying mark for his cutlery and train his own apprentices.
From the 19th century onwards, apprenticeships began to be used more widely in cities like Sheffield in newer industries such as engineering where a high level of skill was needed for precision work.
Back in 1962, Sheffield’s “thousands of apprentices” could compete for the Apprentice of the Year title.
Norman Riley, from Kiveton Park, was awarded a trip to Australia for winning the technical section in 1961.
Thirty years later the competition was still being keenly fought.
Sheffielder Mark Sunderland, who worked as an apprentice artificer at steel firm Turton Platts, won the national title.
He received his trophy and £500 from Sheffield astronaut Helen Sharman.
A year later The Star reported that engineering firms were turning their back on apprentices and school-leaver trainees, in favour of university graduates.
In the following years, the paper reported on many attempts to revive apprenticeships, some more successful than others.
As early as 1981, the principal of Sheffield City Polytechnic, Dr George Tolley, attacked the apprenticeship system as “an obstructive anachronism” and called for it to be scrapped.
He added: “Its inflexibility, narrowness and identification of competence with time-serving have been modified to some extent by further education courses.
“But FE has not mounted upon apprenticeships the frontal attack it ought to have done years ago in the name of effectiveness, progress and educational need.”
By December 1995, the Engineering Employers Federation in Sheffield reported that the number of apprentices being taken on was due to treble from the previous year – only from 218 to 301.
At the same time, more young women were starting to become apprentices with local organisations.
Diane Berry, aged 18, from Kimberworth became Rotherham Council’s first-ever female apprentice in 1994.
Described as a “sparky teenager”, apprentice electrician Diane advised other young women thinking of doing the same: “It’s not a man’s world, it’s an equal world.”
A spokesman for the council explained why it had taken so long – they simply didn’t get the applications.