Unruly Apprentices

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many criminals recorded in works such as Alexander Smith’s History of the Highwaymen (1714), and Charles Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen (1734), as well as his Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735) were said to have begun their criminal careers as unruly, or idle apprentices. The notorious Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) is said to have been apprenticed to a carpenter, but being of a wicked disposition fell out with his master, and began cohabiting with a prostitute, Edgeworth Bess, and thereafter commencing a criminal career.[i] Even when discussing Robin Hood, the authors cited above, in a complete break with the existing historical tradition, state that he was originally apprenticed to a butcher, but ‘being of a wicked, licentious inclination, he followed not his trade’.[ii] (Not a single Robin Hood text, from the medieval period to the eighteenth century, records the famous outlaw as having been a butcher, and eighteenth-century accounts are unusual in this respect).[iii] The figure of the idle apprentice received its most famous artistic representation in William Hogarth’s series of paintings entitled Industry and Idleness (1747).

The First Plate of Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness (1747). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One of the reasons why the idea of the unruly apprentice became a worrying figure was because, by going against his master, the delinquent youth was effectively signalling his intention to revolt against, not only his employer, but also the state and divine providence, ‘the concept that invokes hierarchical orders which support eighteenth-century life from the arrangement of the Cosmos to the distribution of wealth among the social classes’.[iv] The noted critic, John Richetti, for example, argues that the idle, or the “revolted apprentice”, ‘embodied furtive and unnatural longings for disruptive revolt […striking out] against social and moral restraints, against any sort of control from an external source’.[v] Moreover, when a certain criminal is represented in literature as having shunned hard work in his youth and preferring to follow a life of crime, this trope allowed the reader to view the felon’s criminality as part of an enduring strain of wickedness in the boy’s moral character, which early signs were present when he was young.

There were several factors which could induce initially virtuous young apprentices to fall into a life of criminality. First among these was the apprentice masters who, it was reasoned by some writers at the time, often failed to act as a moral guide for the youngsters. Often it is the dissolute habits of masters themselves which were assumed to have an adverse effect upon the minds of impressionable youths. For example, The Criminal Recorder; or, Biographical Sketches of Notorious Public Characters (1804-10), says that,

The evil habits of masters are in a great degree the means of corrupting apprentices. No sooner does an apprentice advance towards the last year of his time, than he thinks it incumbent on him to follow the example of his master by learning to smoke. This accomplishment acquired (according to his conception), he is a fit associate for those who frequent public houses.[vi]

Visiting public houses in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was not, and still is not, a marker of potential criminality of course, but the same writer goes on to argue that, although the master may visit respectable public houses, the apprentice, in order to avoid meeting with the master on a night out, must necessarily visit those places to which he knows that his master will not venture, namely, places of ill-repute where the apprentice ‘meets with depraved company’.[vii]

It is through frequenting such places of ill-repute that the youth first becomes ‘ensnared’.[viii] A major factor in apprentices’ fall from grace is when they first become acquainted with prostitutes in these low public houses, as The Criminal Recorder writes:

Having arrived at the age of puberty, and meeting with profligate females in those haunts of idleness, his passions become inflamed. The force of evil example overpowers him. He too becomes depraved – Money must be procured to supply his wants which are generated by depravity. Aided by the facilities held out by old iron shops, he pilfers from his master to supply those wants, or associates himself with thieves, whose acquaintance he made in the progress of his seduction.[ix]

It will be recalled that this is how the criminal career of Jack Sheppard began, through meeting a prostitute, at which point in his biography Daniel Defoe exclaims:

Now was laid the foundation of his ruin![x]

Sometimes thieves and prostitutes could collaborate together in robbing people to supply their wants, through a system known as the ‘buttock and file’. The woman would entice a respectable passer-by into a dark alley with the prospect of sex. Then her male partner would emerge out of the shadows, usually deal a blow to the gentleman, and rob him.

Yet the idea of the unruly apprentice who shunned hard work and became a criminal was very much a metropolitan idea. Fewer accounts of criminals from outside London record their having been apprentices initially. Much of this was down to the nightlife temptations that were on offer in the capital, which, combined with apprentices’ youth, could be a recipe for moral disaster. As the fictional Memoirs of George Barnwell (1817), based upon an earlier play entitled The London Merchant (1731), records:

The juvenile mind is constitutionally sanguine; and the imagination wanders into wild and fanciful expectations, before its exuberances have been repressed by reason, and its dangerous heat tempered by experience. In the critical season of youth, before prudence and judgement have assumed the sceptre in the bosom, fancy is too apt to “riot in pleasure,” and to revel in visionary delights, the offspring of its own ardour, and which, unless seasonable correctives are applied to keep them in check, may ultimately lead to practical excesses of the most unprincipled nature and dangerous tendency.[xi]

If not constantly on his guard, the unsuspecting apprentice could find himself drawn into the criminal underworld. The account of Robert Crouch, a footpad, in Johnson’s Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals, tells the story of how he was initially apprenticed to a butcher in Newgate Market,

But as soon as he was out of it he addicted himself to gaming, drinking, and whoring, and all the other vices which are so natural to abandoned young fellows in low life.[xii]

And it was women, gaming, drinking, and crime that would, it was supposed, eventually lead the apprentice to the gallows, just as happens to Hogarth’s Idle Prentice at the end of his story. John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), references, references ‘Marybone and the Chocolate Houses’ as being the ‘undoing’ of the highwayman, Captain Macheath.[xiii]

Frontispiece to The Memoirs of George Barnwell (1817). Author’s Collection.

Of course, this was the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and when it came to discussions of the luxuries and vices of the town in the public sphere, there was inevitably some class-based hypocrisy at play. The poorer classes might become criminal through indulging their passions at womanising, drinking, and gaming, but the sons of rich aristocrats, or rakes, which did the same, were rarely condemned as criminal. There are further comparisons to be made between the rake and the idle apprentice, one of them being the fact that neither could hold down a job, although of course the sons of the aristocracy had inherited wealth to fall back on. The image of the aristocratic rake is a recurring one throughout the eighteenth century. For example, in issue two of Joseph Addison’s Spectator magazine, one of the members of the fictional coffeehouse club is Will honeycomb, a man who is

Very ready at that sort of Discourse with which Men usually entertain Women. He has all his Life dressed very well, and remembers Habits as others do Men. He can smile when one speaks to him, and laughs easily. He knows the History of every Mode, and can inform you from which of the French King’s Wenches our Wives and Daughters had this Manner of curling their Hair, that Way of placing their Hoods; whose Frailty was covered by such a Sort of Petticoat, and whose Vanity to show her Foot made that Part of the Dress so short in such a Year. In a Word, all his Conversation and Knowledge has been in the female World.[xiv]

In his memoirs, William Hickey (1749-1830) records how he partook of the entertainment of the town, debauching one or two young maidens in the process.[xv] Generally seen as a bit of a cad, this type of man pursued the same pleasures of the town as the idle apprentice, but of course he was not condemned for it.

So what could be done to turn the unsuspecting eighteenth-century apprentice away from a life of crime, and inculcate respect for virtue, religion, and authority? One of the reasons that so many criminal accounts appeared in the eighteenth century is because, at a time of great public concern about the apparently ever-rising crime wave, they were intended as moralist texts. A person was supposed to read the account of the criminal and take lessons from his life. As Johnson in the preface to Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals states,

My intention in communicating to the public the lives of those who, for about a dozen years past have been victims to their own crimes, is to continue to posterity the good effects of such examples, and by a recital of their vices to warn those who become my readers from ever engaging in those paths which necessarily have so fatal an end.[xvi]

Other solutions proposed by the author of The Criminal Recorder include stopping all apprentices’ wages, and making the apprentices entirely dependent upon their masters for food, drink, and lodging. To do otherwise is to ensure that the apprentice falls into a life of crime.[xvii]

Around the beginning of the nineteenth century, as the industrial revolution continued, the number of apprenticeships drastically declined. But instead of the unruly apprentice, public fears towards the emerging idea of the juvenile criminal. From the 1830s onwards, it would be figures such as the Artful Dodger and the Wild Boys of London, homeless pickpockets with no master, and eventually the hooligan from the late nineteenth century, that would be society’s cause for concern.


Header Image: Illustration of Jack Sheppard from The Criminal Recorder 4 Vols. (London: Cundee, 1804-10). Author’s Collection.

[i] Daniel Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’ in Defoe on Sheppard and Wild, edited by Richard Holmes (London: Harper, 2004), p. 4.

[ii] Alexander Smith, A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, edited by Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1927), p. 408.

[iii] Stephen Basdeo, ‘Robin Hood the Brute: Representations of the Outlaw in Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography’ Law, Crime and History 6: 2 (2016), pp. 54-70.

[iv] John Richetti, cited in Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Late-Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 45.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] The Criminal Recorder; or, Biographical Sketches of Notorious Public Characters 4 Vols. (London: Cundee, 1804-10), 3: 11.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] The Criminal Recorder, 3: 11-12.

[x] Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’, p. 5.

[xi] The Memoirs of George Barnwell; the Unhappy Subject of Lillio’s Celebrated Tragedy (London: Sherwood, Neely & Jones, 1817), p. 7.

[xii] Charles Johnson, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals, edited by Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1927), p. 439.

[xiii] John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera 3rd Edn. (London: J. Watts, 1729), p. 5.

[xiv] Joseph Addison, ‘Number Two’ in The Spectator, edited by Henry Morley (London: Routledge, 1891) [Internet <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/12030/12030-h/12030-h/SV1/Spectator1> Accessed 9 April 2017].

[xv] William Hickey, Memoirs of a Georgian Rake, edited by Roger Hudson (London: Folio Society, 1995), pp. 27-52.

[xvi] Johnson, Remarkable Criminals, p. 1.

[xvii] The Criminal Recorder, 3: 12-13.