Research Thursdays: A Brief History of Apprenticeships and Training

I love research. As a writer this is a good thing. We research plane crashes, medieval medical treatments, and many other things. If anyone saw our internet history they’d be thoroughly disturbed. (Unless they were another writer or knew about our work in progress!)

My granddad was an RAF apprentice. He lost his eye on his first day, and had a glass replacement which he’d take out to freak me out. (It didn’t work, I thought it was cool.) They don’t let you fly planes with one eye, so he became an apprentice electrician instead!

Apprentices had to follow strict rules, including no drinking or gambling. This got me thinking. How did apprenticeships start? Where did these rules come from? I’ll cover that in today’s post.

gambling and drinking banned for apprentices.jpg

I’ll also write about school and training in my works in progress. Both are very different!

What is an apprenticeship?:

An apprenticeship is on the job training for young employees. Today that training includes day release to college to complete qualifications. Apprenticeships are more common in the UK than America, and apprentices are paid a fraction of our national minimum wage.

What were the first apprenticeships like?:

In the UK apprenticeships started in the thirteenth century, with the medieval craft guilds. Parents paid guild master craftsmen to teach their children a trade. Young people rarely got a choice of trade: It depended on the connections their parents had. They could be an apprentice in anything from shoe making, to carpentry or brickwork.

To become a master craftsman you had to submit an example of your best work to the guild for approval. Sons of guild members were given the best positions, and guilds were often powerful and monopolised trade. In 1563 a parliamentary act, the Statute of Artificers, fixed prices, laid out conditions for training, and aimed to curb the guilds power. It also forbid those who hadn’t completed an apprenticeship from working a trade.

Apprentices started age 10 or 12, and training could last up to seven years. They moved in with the master and his family, and became his legal responsibility. A master could have three apprentices at once, and he was responsible for their education and moral conduct, as well as teaching a trade. Good behaviour was expected by apprentices even outside work.

Image: Guild Hall.

By 1601 there were two types of apprenticeship: Parish and Skilled. Parish apprenticeships were for the poor and were in occupations considered lowly, like farm work or serving a household. Skilled apprenticeships, like carpentry, were for the rich.

By the early nineteenth century apprenticeships were less popular, due to poor conditions in factories and exploitation of apprentices, and in 1814 the 1563 act was abolished. No longer legally bound to their masters, apprentices were paid for the first time. In 1878 the City and Guilds Institute was founded to standardise training, and the number of apprentices rose.

By the early twentieth century there were, on average, 340000 new apprentices each year. A third of boys in the 1960’s became apprentices when they left school, and they were common in the new industries like plumbing, electrical work and shipbuilding. But by 1990 there were only 53000 new apprentices each year. Trade jobs were less common, education after 16 was more common, and the apprenticeship system was frowned on for offering poor training.

Interlude: Apprenticeships in film:

In How to Train Your Dragon, main character Hiccup is apprentice to Gobber, who runs the forge and makes weapons. His father is too busy being chief to look after Hiccup, and Gobber is supposed to keep him out of trouble. He doesn’t succeed, but Hiccup learns a lot about making things and uses these skills often in the film!

hiccup apprentice forge
All right, I admit it, I just wanted an excuse to sneak How to Train Your Dragon into a post, since I’ve been watching it for my Author Toolbox post next week!

Modern Apprenticeships:

In 1993 the UK introduced modern apprenticeships to try and increase the number of people in work based training. Apprentices would be paid a wage and work towards qualifications. In 2009 the National Apprenticeship Service was introduced to regulate apprenticeships, and small businesses were offered incentives to hire apprentices age 16-24.

Apprenticeships last at least a year, with a 30 hour minimum work week, and must provide learning and qualifications. If the apprentice doesn’t have qualifications in English and Maths, they have to study those too. Most work full time hours for low pay, for up to 4 years.

Conditions are much better for modern apprentices. They aren’t legally bound to their bosses, and there are no laws against drinking or gambling! By 2015 there were 2.4 million apprentices.

Learning and training in my stories:

The history of apprenticeships is fascinating, particularly medieval guilds. (I’m always more interested in medieval history!) Imagine leaving home aged 10 to live with the family of a complete stranger and learn a trade. This concept has a lot of potential for stories.

In my two works in progress training and education are approached very differently.

Tales from Dragonspire:

Tales from Dragonspire pic
The map in this image is a scribbled draft!

When young people reach a certain age some get a dragon and some don’t. Those who get a dragon have riding lessons, and after they graduate they’re apprenticed to dragon riders with the same type of dragon to learn to farm, provide water, or go on trade missions. Those who don’t are apprenticed to those without dragons: Bread makers, Blacksmiths, etc.

If you don’t get a dragon you can apply for any apprenticeship, but those with dragons are limited by the type of dragon they’re bound to. Each dragon has unique abilities. Fire dragons are useful in the forge. Earth dragons are good farmers. Wind dragons make great scouts.

My main character, Arckia, is dragon-bound but hates dragons. When he’s forced to leave his village after he fails classes, he ends up in a world of trouble.

Merlin: Second Chance at Destiny

Schools in Arthur’s world are divided into two tracks, practical and academic. Students are placed in each track based on grades and performance, so they study what they’re more likely to succeed at. 

Arthur’s father knows his son will succeed him one day, so because of his influence and power Arthur, despite his inability, is stuck in the academic track. Maths. English. Science. History. He’d rather learn practical skills, like crafting and fighting. He feels trapped. His grades are terrible, and his father is constantly disappointed in him.

Short story:

I also mentioned apprenticeships in my recent Sunday Scribbles story, about a boy kicked off his apprenticeship for gambling and drinking. He takes a test to become an apprentice in the Den of Thieves, whose rules are very different!


‘I’ve been watching you for some time,’ Anna said, as she strode across the floor and behind a large desk covered in maps. She pulled a jewelled dagger from her belt and twirled it between her fingers. ‘You’re good, but good enough to join us? That depends.’

James strode towards the desk. ‘Depends on what?’

Anna used her dagger to point at a building in the warehouse district. ‘Inside is a diamond chalice. Steal it. If you succeed, we’ll talk. If you fail, you’ll leave this city. Do we have a deal?’

scales divider copy

Thanks for reading!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this latest insight into the research behind my writing, and I’ve inspired some story ideas or provided some useful insights 🙂

Regardless of whether or not your characters are still in school their education and training will have shaped who they are, so it’s worth thinking about their circumstances.

Have you completed an apprenticeship, recently, or a long time ago? How does training/school work in your stories? Let me know in the comments!

Past posts in the series:

How to Light a Candle in the Middle Ages.

Roses: What’s in a Colour?

Allergies: A History of Treatments.


  1. wow, that’s great info you have up there, all with dates and stuff- i sucked in history back in school, but i like it now.
    i have some apprenticeship in my book, or the suggestion of one, but it doesn’t really feature before book 3.

    Liked by 1 person

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