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Apprentices Out of Order

At the turn of 1636, Sir John Lambe was presented with a series of complaints by a group of journeyman printers. Lambe was serving as a member of the Court of High Commission, an ecclesiastical court set up by Queen Elizabeth in 1559, whose duties included some degree of oversight of the early modern book trade. It was in this capacity that Lambe found himself weighing in on a list of what the bibliographer W. W. Greg pithily summarised as ‘Apprentices Out of Order’.

Apprentices in seventeenth century London could be out of order for any number of reasons — they rioted over food and immigration, and were involved in attacks on theatres and brothels. The 1636 petition, however, turns on the rather less colourful matter of employment regulations. Although the Court was supposed to be preventing the publications of ‘seditious books’ and ‘slanderous words or shewings’, since 1586 it had also had the final word on who could or could not be counted as a ‘Master Printer’. As such, Lambe and his colleagues sometimes found themselves intervening in internal trade disputes among the Stationers’ Company, which held the monopoly on printing in England.

The journeymen who submitted their grievances to Lambe alleged that a number of printers’ apprentices were working illegally, in effect taking jobs away from them. As the petition plaintively puts it, ‘the Master Printers have already sufficient maintenance, without Apprentices’ worke, whereas the Journeymen have nothing but their work to maintain themselves and Families.’

It seems to have been a common concern in the printing trade that apprentices, if their numbers were not properly supervised, were a danger to the livelihoods of journeymen. As Graham Rees and Maria Wakely write,

the presence of apprentices … exerted wage-deflationary pressure on journeymen for once they had had sufficient training they could do their senior colleagues’ work, and accordingly reduce demands for the latters’ services.

Apprentices, after all, were cheaper to employ: they were rarely paid wages, beyond food and board. A previous ordinance addressed some of the more experienced workers’ fears by stipulating that a printer had to ‘keep one journeyman at the least for every one apprentice’. It also forbade the use of cheap labour external to the Company’s apprenticeship system, stating the ‘none [shall] be suffered to work in printing that hath not been brought up in that feat and work by the space of seven years at the least.’ Most unsettlingly, the 1583 Commission orders that ‘the laws of the Realm and of the Cities be executed upon such as shall set foreigns on work in that art.’

By 1635, it was clear that many printers were refusing to play ball. Previous efforts to restrict each employer to as many apprentices as the Court found ‘convenient’ and no more had led, in effect, to some printers being kept to a maximum number of employees. One printer, Augustine Mathewes, was supposed to get by with only one apprentice: the petition claimed he was employing seven.

Printers were also getting around the rules by using workers not bound by the officially sanctioned means. Many weren’t even members of the Stationers’ Company, and certainly had not spent seven years learning the trade. Two particularly controversial printers, John Norton and Nicholas Okes, had employed six workmen with no connection to the company, including Richard Mason, a gingerbread maker, Edward Jackson, a butcher, and John Southicke, a garbler (a trade glossed, in a chapter on Norton’s suspect practices by Alan B Farmer, as ‘one who sifts spices.’) The petition does not comment on the quality of any of their efforts in the printing house.

A number of workers in irregular circumstances were identified by Lambe’s inquiry into the journeymen’s complaints. These flat documents mask a great amount of professional upheaval. In the space of this blog, it is not possible to follow up on what happened to the men identified as surplus to their employers’ requirements, or as Lambe has it, ‘More than the number bound by order’: their names include Edward Broughton, George Hawkins and Henry Holden. ‘Henry Preine, a Joiner,’ and Robert Hughes, apprenticed to a scrivener, were also presumably left out in the cold, though they at least had alternative professions to fall back on. One Thomas Stevens was ‘rased out’ of the Company records for ‘purloining his Mistress’s goods and running away’. Not all of these men can have left the printing trade on such clear and unambiguous terms.

In 1637, partly as a result of Lambe’s investigations into the trade, a strict and wide-ranging decree on printing was issued by the powerful Star Chamber, which answered directly to the King. It curbed the number of Master Printers allowed to operate to a small group of twenty men: the dodgy bosses Okes and Norton were not among them. Elsewhere among its provisions were a restriction on the number of apprentices to be bound to any master printer outside the universities — no more than three — and a reinforced protection for journeymen:

in case any Master Printer hath more Employment than he is able to discharge with help of his Apprentice or Apprentices, it shall be lawful for him to require the help of any Journeyman or Journeymen Printers who are not Employed.

In John Donne’s ‘The Sun Rising’, the speaker instructs the sun to stop bothering him and his lover in bed, and instead ‘go chide/Late schoolboys and sour prentices.’ The apprentices in the poem are probably sour because they don’t want to have to get up and go to work. But given the complicated internal politics of the early modern printing trade, it seems they might have a whole host of reasons.


A Companion to Arber. Ed. W. W. Greg. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967. 124-132, 323-334.

Collins, Eleanor C. “Repertory and riot: The relocation of plays from the Red Bull to the Cockpit stage.” Early Theatre. 13.2 (2010). 132-149.

Deazley, Ronan. “Commentary on the Elizabethan Injunctions 1559”. Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900). Eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer.

Donne, John. “The Sun Rising.”

Farmer, Alan B. “John Norton and the Politics of Shakespeare’s History Plays in Caroline England.” Shakespeare’s Stationers: Studies in Cultural Bibliography. Ed. Marta Straznicky. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. 147-176.

McEnery, Tony. Swearing in English: Bad Language, Purity and Power from 1586 to the Present. London: Routledge, 2006. 54-63.

Rushworth, John. “The Star Chamber on printing, 1637.” Historical Collections of Private Passages of State: Volume 3, 1639-40. London: D Browne, 1721. 306-316. British History Online.

And with thanks to Derek Dunne for some extremely helpful pointers.


Guest blogger Richard O’Brien is an academic apprentice/PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham, funded by the Midlands3Cities consortium. He is interested in verse drama and contemporary representations of the early modern period, and tweets as @notrockyhorror