The apprentices, raw and inexperienced to begin with, were an important part of any workforce. Young, willing and usually uncomplaining, they worked for seven years from leaving school until they were 21 years old on low wages until the apprenticeship was completed, and then a further period of "improving" followed before a lad got a man's wages. Local family firms frequently saw their workforce through life virtually from cradle to grave.
But what was it like for a youngster starting out in his first job, often the butt of practical jokes or even bullying by the older men?This week, the last in this series on Lakeland industry, old people recall those early days at work, and what was expected of them when they first arrived as little more than general dogsbodies. This was how it was for one fourteen-year-old at a local engineering works in 1921:
"As the youngest of lads in those days, you didn't do a lot of engineering, you did a bit, but you had to brew the tea and sweep up and all this. All the fellas used to have cans in those days, and we used to have sticks with notches so you could put two cans on, so when you'd brewed the tea, you could carry them round. You used to boil eggs. It sticks in my mind, the most eggs you used to boil in one go was sixteen.
"Boil sixteen eggs at one go! We used to have distribute them out. We started at eleven o'clock. You'd go round, two of us, two of the youngest apprentices. You'd go around and collect all the cans and bring them into the smithy. There was an elderly chap there. He used to look after the saws and such like, and he used to boil the kettles. And we used to go round and get all these and take them into the smithy, and nearly everybody had tea tins that had tea in the top and sugar in the bottom in two halves..."
There were pies to warm up in the smithy fire, which sometimes got accidentally charred; and the egg orders could be very complicated for a young lad:
"Some of the fellas used to say when they gave you eggs to boil, 'I want one hard and one soft, and if they're not one hard and one soft, you know what you'll get!'.They used to put the wind up you, but they were only pulling your leg, you know."
Another favourite leg-puller, which never failed, was the struggling bar:
"Everybody went through this after you'd been there a few weeks, perhaps you'd be helping one of the chaps and he'd say, 'Oh, we're stuck, we want the struggling bar for this job...go into the smithy and ask George'.....so he used to go on and see George, 'So and So wants the struggling bar.' 'Aye, aye, me lad, now let's see. I'm not sure whether so-and-so hasn't got it down t'shop'
"So he used to go down there and ask, 'No, no, I took it back, it's up the steelhouse there,' he'd say. So you'd go back and tell George and he'd say, 'Oh, he must have brought it back, I didn't know.' You'd go up there, and there was a bit of steel about that long and round and the whole essence of the joke was, it was a struggle for a lad to lift it, and then you used to lift it and struggle out, up the shop, where the chap was that said he wanted it... and then he'd say, 'I don't think we want it, but Joe will want it...' And then before long it dawned on you. It was quite a joke was this business of carrying the struggling bar.It was rather a good name, wasn't it?"
Few lads left home during the years of apprenticeship; the idea of moving out of the family home and finding a flat or house of their own away from the discipline of their parents would have been out of the question:
"We usually had a new apprentice every year, and they would have to serve at least seven years. We'd almost as many apprentices as joiners. They lived locally, aye. Usually when a boy was within his last year at school, if he fancied becoming a joiner or a waller or something of that nature, or a painter, the parents usually approached either someone local or someone in Ambleside to see if there was an apprenticeship available, and more often than not they could be accommodated within the area."
So a position was found, and the apprentice was paid, rather than the lad actually having to pay the master for his apprenticeship:
"Within my ken the pay, I think, when I first remember, the pay was seven (shillings) and sixpence, and it usually went up by half a crown increments per year until he was out of his time at the end of the seventh year, and then whatever wage pertained at that moment in time. But you see, invariably they were at home with their parents, there were no off-comer apprentices in those days. So that really all the apprentices, whether they were at the gunpowder factory, or at the quarries or within the joinery or building trade, they all lived at home, so the question of whether they had sufficient money to pay their board, it didn't matter!"
Apprentices were required to be uncomplaining, whatever the task and a father in a family firm could be just as demanding of his apprentice son as any foreman. This is how one apprentice undertaker made his first, and probably only mistake, at the tender age of twelve:
"... after the corpse had been laid out they put a plate of salt on the breast of the corpse, and whether it was to dispel sin or evil spirits, I've no idea. But I can remember my father telling me that soon after he started work at the age of twelve, he went with my grandpa to a house where a farmer had died.
"They took the coffin on a horsedrawn wagonette and when they got to the door, they were met by the farmer's wife, and my father took one end of the coffin, the butt end, and my grandfather the head end; and when they got in, the lady said, 'I've put a lamp upstairs on the chest of drawers, and I wonder if you'd give him a shave when you're up there, he'll look better.' So my grandpa said, 'Well, fetch us a razor and some hot water and soap up'; and so they went upstairs and my father was feeling mortally scared as you can imagine, his first experience. When they got on the landing, the lady said, 'Oh, he's in t'bedroom on right.' So my father had to open the door and they went in.
"They placed the coffin by the side of the bed, by this time the lady had arrived with the soap and razor and hot water, which she put on the chest of drawers, and then left my grandfather to close the door. And he immediately got hold of my father by the scruff of the neck and his breeches' backside, placed him up on the bed and said, 'Now John, tha' might as well shave him; tha'll never learn other,' and in doing so my father knocked the plate of salt off the corpse, which went down behind the bed. And he said he was ready for running miles by that time...
"But at the end of the session when they put the body in the coffin and trimmed up the shroud and the linings, he went downstairs and the farmer's wife said to my grandpa, who by this time was enraged with my dad: 'You could do with a glass of rum?' 'Aye', he said, 'I don't mind,and I'll have a drop of new milk in it.' And she said, 'What will l'all lad have?' Grandfather's reply was 'Nowt'.
"He drank his rum and they left to come across the main road, and my father burst into tears. My grandfather said, 'What's to do with thee?' and my father said he was scared, and he wasn't going with him again. No consolation from my grandpa, but a bat across the ear, and the words, 'Tha'll do as tha's telled!' And that was my father's baptism as far as undertaking was concerned. Well, of course, he always said that after that he never worried again and during his lifetime, I suppose he must have conducted probably five or six hundred funerals."
To some, apprenticeship must appear to have been little more than exploitation of cheap young labour; to others it was a worthy training for a life's work. Few apprenticeships are left today - but then there are few craft trades left to offer them.