The Care of the Poor - The Indentured Apprenticeship System in South Benfleet Parish

from the early 18th to the early 19th centuries

Before the Welfare State, the ‘social services’ were administered by the Church. Alongside the provision of Poor Houses, was the Indentured Apprenticeship system, whereby poor, often orphaned children were furnished with a trade to set them up in life.


List of Apprenticeship Indenture
Parish of South Benfleet


Writing on this subject, the Local Historian, the Late Harold Priestley comments,

‘Through the offices of the Overseer of the Poor, those who could not fend for themselves were cared for from cradle to grave …. although the allowances they received  were meagre, their quarters squalid and their treatment sometimes harsh and unjust.’ (Priestley, History of Benfleet, Modern Times, p. 90).

He goes on to admit that, ‘Apprenticeship could be an evil system because overseers were often not too choosy as long as a child could be removed from their care and the parish’s expense’. Priestley describes, (ibid., p.142) how there was discontent with the indenture system, and ‘brawls and minor riots,’ as, ‘such a long apprenticeship, (ten years in some cases) at a very low wage virtually stopped many a young man from marrying and setting up a home’.  In 1777-8 a law was passed, which required all apprenticeships to be completed by the time the apprentice was twenty-one years old.

Among the Matson Papers, I found a fragile, faint pencilled copy of a list of Apprenticeship Indentures for the Parish of South Benfleet, (again, probably saved from a decrepit document or Vestry Book by the Churchwarden, Mr. Matson) which I typed before it became completely illegible. The first entry is for an Ollife (Olive) Thursby, whom Harold Priestley, (without the benefit of having seen the whole entry, which refers to Ollife as ‘her’), speculates as referring to an ‘Oliver’ (p.143 Modern Times). It is highly likely that the little girls who were indentured, probably became little more than household drudges.

One wonders what befell sisters Susannah and Mary Sparrow, 7 and 8 years old in 1714/15, and sent to separate masters. Their only escape would have been to make a reasonable marriage.

There are a dozen entries on this list, and I am hoping that it may be of interest to those building Family Trees. The surnames of Thursby; Moss; the two Sparrow sisters; Chapman; Laveall; Joe; Garnish; Brett; Laurence; Hockley; and Thorrington occur.

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