The Life of an Apprentice

A set of documents has recently come into our possession relating to the apprenticeship of one Edward Gray to William Comyns, head of the well-known silversmithing firm of William Comyns & Sons as an ‘apprentice polisher’. Individual documents are common enough but a set such as this one throws light on what it meant to be an apprentice at the end of the 19 thcentury.

From around the 12th Century, the apprenticeship system operated in Great Britain to provide members of a trade with training to fit them for their craft. They were ‘bound’ to an established practitioner who became their ‘Master’. Originally this meant that the apprentice lived in the master’s house, though by the nineteenth century this was no longer necessarily the case. It was held that the skills for success in the chosen trade were transferred not only through lessons, observation and copying but also more generally, by a kind of osmosis involving for example, the contacts made during an apprenticeship. The effect of those 7 formative years on the life of any craftsman is such that knowledge of his history often throws much light on his work and his products.

In the City of London, the apprenticeship system was overseen by the various crafts through their ‘Livery Companies’— Edward Gray’s documents were issued by the Goldsmiths' Company. The first is the official ‘Indenture’, recording the apprenticeship of Edward Gray,son of William Gray, coach labourer, to William Comyns as a ‘silver polisher ... [for a period of] 7 years ....on the 6th day of November [1894].’

This document (unchanged since medieval times) sets out the duties not only of the apprentice but also of his Master:

The said Apprentice his said Master faithfully shall serve, his secrets keep, his lawful commands everywhere gladly do. He shall do no damage to his said Master nor see it done by others… He shall not waste the goods of the said Master… He shall not commit fornication, nor contract matrimony within the said term. He shall not play at Cards, Dice, Tables nor any other unlawful games… He shall not haunt Taverns nor Playhouses, nor absent himself from his Master’s Service, by Day nor Night unlawfully’.

The said Master[shall instruct] his said Apprentice… by the best means that he can, shall teach and instruct…;finding unto his said Apprentice, Meat, Drink, Apparel, Lodging, and all other necessaries according to the custom of the City of London’.

Fig 1  

Accompanying the vellum certificate from Goldsmiths’ Hall are two copies of a tripartite indenture between Edward Gray and William Comyns (see figure 2). Presumably, given the rest of the material, these are the copies to be kept by Gray and his father. They are more specific and deal with the details of the arrangements between Master and Apprentice. In this document, Comyns agrees to:

     ‘pay the said Edward Gray the sum of Seven shillings per week the first year, eight shillings per week the second year,      nine shillings per week the third year, ten shillings per week the fourth year, twelve shillings per week the fifth year,      fourteen shillings per week the sixth year, and sixteen shillings per week the seventh year.’


Fig 2

     ‘The hours of labor [sic] to be from eight of the clock in the morning till half past seven o’clock in the evening;      Saturdays from seven in the morning till one o’clock in the afternoon. Breakfast before coming. And the said      WILLIAM COMYNS will not be responsible for any loss of time through illness or neglect’.

Fig 3

Prior to signature, the Saturday working hours were altered to ‘eight o’clock in the morning till four o’clock in the afternoon’. The other alteration is the change from ‘be responsible’ to ‘pay’.

Accompanying the foregoing documents was a certificate in compliance with the ‘Factory and Workshop Act, 1891’permitting Edward Gray to be employed in a workshop though under the age of sixteen:

Fig 4

With the Factory Acts Certificate was the requisite certified copy of his entry in the Birth Register:

Fig 5

In earlier times, permission to trade within the bounds of the City of London was only given to those who possessed the Freedom of the City. With this Freedom came many rights (including driving sheep over London Bridge) and privileges, so at the end of his apprenticeship, Edward Gray took the opportunity to claim his Freedom. The vellum Certificate dated 9th April 1902, still with its original red cover, is shown here:

Fig 6

and the receipt for the one guinea fee has also been kept meticulously:


Fig 7

It has unfortunately not proved possible to follow the career of Edward Gray beyond this point. The papers of Messrs William Comyns are not available and there were a surprising number of men working in the city of London in the early 20 thcentury, bearing the name of Edward Gray.

Luke Schrager


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