This account of a baker’s apprentice being flogged by his manager illustrates both the precariousness of working life among the young and poor in Victorian Britain and the extent to which the law newly sought to protect them. Prior to the Report of the Children’s Employment Commission of 1843 – and the associated parliamentary acts to curb employer abuses that followed – events such as those described were much more common, and practically impossible to prosecute.
Apprenticeships were an innovation of the Middle Ages whereby young people were taken on by master craftsmen or local government to learn an essential trade and ensure its continuity within the community. Apprentices were generally not paid but given food, lodgings and clothes for the duration of their study. By the Victorian Period, apprenticeships were fixed-term training schemes, usually lasting seven years, for which an apprentice’s guardian paid a premium to enrol their child. While many companies running apprenticeship schemes were honourably intentioned, a significant proportion were run as a disguised exercise in slave labour – with orphaned children being plucked from parish workhouses and induced to work long hours for free, on the grounds that an apprenticeship at least provided an opportunity to learn a trade or business.