Friday, September 06, 2019

The apprentice

[Illustration from Gammal  koppar (1965) by Per Henrik Rosenström. The caption says: The apprentice holds the bellows pole steady while the master himself inspects the coffee-pot that the lady is leaving to be retinned.* Drawing from the second half of the 19th century, artist unknown.]

Eres maestro de lo que has vivido,

artesano de lo que estás viviendo,

y aprendiz de lo que vivirás.

You are the master of your past,
the journeyman of your present
and the apprentice of your future.


The long comrade read aloud as follows:—‘Mark Gilbert. Age, nineteen. Bound to Thomas Curzon, hosier, Golden Fleece, Aldgate. Loves Curzon’s daughter. Cannot say that Curzon’s daughter loves him. Should think it probable. Curzon pulled his ears last Tuesday week.’

‘How!’ cried the captain, starting.

‘For looking at his daughter, please you,’ said the novice.

‘Write Curzon down, Denounced,’ said the captain. ‘Put a black cross against the name of Curzon.’

‘So please you,’ said the novice, ‘that’s not the worst—he calls his ‘prentice idle dog, and stops his beer unless he works to his liking. He gives Dutch cheese, too, eating Cheshire, sir, himself; and Sundays out, are only once a month.’

‘This,’ said Mr Tappertit gravely, ‘is a flagrant case. Put two black crosses to the name of Curzon.’

(Barnaby Rudge, Chapter 8)


Dickens portrays his Prentice Knights as an absurd piece of compensatory role-play whose hostility to all masters is childish and without justification. In reality there must have been many cruel masters and many apprentices who were grievously ill-treated.

Peter had heard there were in London then --
Still have they being! -- workhouse-clearing men,
Who undisturbed by feelings just or kind,
Would parish boys to needy tradesmen bind;
They in their want a trifling sum would take,
And toiling slaves of piteous orphans make

(George Crabbe, "Peter Grimes")

These workhouse-clearing men were abusing the apprentice system, but even regular apprenticeships were no picnic. In Sweden, says Per Henrik Rosenström, "Hard masters and bullying by the journeymen meant that the lad who got through an apprenticeship was fairly toughened up".

I am not sure if there were ever any apprentice fraternities, but there were certainly journeyman fraternities at one time or another, and -- more clearly in Europe than in Britain -- they were in some ways a forerunner of the trade unions of the industrial age, at least as far as mutual support and insurance were concerned.


* Until 1990 the inner surface of most copper cookware was coated with tin (jam pans and egg white whipping bowls are exceptions). Tin coating allowed food or liquids to be left in the pan after cooking without forming verdigris.  Retinning was required every three years or so. Manufacturers now use stainless steel coating, which is permanent.


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