When I started my apprenticeship as a Silversmith, (having just completed a one year pre-apprenticeship course at the Central School of Arts and Crafts) I was fascinated with the new life I found myself in. Being in the company of ‘men’ as opposed to ‘boys’. The ‘men’ of all ages who formed the workshop silversmith team used to enjoy teaching not only the practical skills of the job, but also telling stories of life and the ‘good old days’ when the parents of the ‘boy’ as the apprentice was called had to pay the master for the apprenticeship.
This was still common practice until at least the early 1900’s. Recently I had the good fortune to be introduced to an old gentleman who had been a machine gunner in the First World War (he also had some fascinating tales to tell) His father had bought him an apprenticeship at Vauxhall Motors as an apprentice coach builder. Vauhall Motors were then still at their factory in Vauxhall, London.
This practice of paying the master for teaching the trade had died out completely until now when there seems to be the early signs of a revival of the practice.
During the time of my apprenticeship it was common practice to run errands for the men and make the tea etc. I was told (true or not) that in the old days the boy would sleep under the bench and also run errands. One of which was getting the pint beer mug (which hung from a large hook under the man’s bench) filled up at the pub next door. One of the errands I found most embarrassing was having to go to buy condoms from a discount stall in Leather Lane, which sold them cheaply. Another errand was to go to the betting shop to put bets on for the plater who assured me he could beat the bookmaker.
Boys would often be sent out on fools errands such as a jar of ‘elbow grease’ and can I have a ‘long weight/wait’. Much to the amusement of the men who couldn’t wait for the boy to return to have a good old chuckle as it reminded them of their early days in the trade.
What an introduction to the life of adults for a young and naive John Campbell!