Merchants of fortune

Gentry sons and apprenticeships in sixteenth and seventeenth century England

Shut off from inheriting the family fortune as a consequence of their place in the birth order, younger sons of gentry families in early modern England were consigned not only to the law, church and the army. They could also be found, in surprising numbers, seeking fortunes –  that they would not inherit –  in the world of commerce.

Economic historian, Dr Patrick Wallis, has looked at the relationship between birth order and the education and training received by these 'surplus' sons in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Sir Thomas Gresham - merchant and member of a gentry familyThis research is part of a larger project looking at how people got skills in the period before modern economic growth – before modern schooling, colleges and big firms which could train people themselves.

Wallis explains: 'This is a world of small workshops, yet we know that this is a period where the economy is growing and people are getting richer. Understanding how people get educated and trained helps us understand how this growth came about.'

He and his colleague Cliff Webb identified a sample of gentry sons from information collected by heralds who visited Bedfordshire, Surrey, Somerset and Westmorland – now part of Cumbria – between 1623 and 1666. These visits were to verify the pedigrees of families claiming to be of the gentry class and thus their right to use a coat of arms.

This data was cross referenced with a extensive database, painstakingly created by Webb, which encompasses all surviving records of London apprentices from the four counties as well as the records of all young men entering university and the inns of court.

The researchers found that almost a third of gentry sons in the sample entered a London apprenticeship, university or spent time at one of the inns of court. Surprisingly as many gentry sons became apprentices as studied at Oxford for Cambridge. Apprenticeship was less common among sons from families in the upper reaches of the gentry but it was an option taken up by more than one in seven sons.

The chance that a gentry son would enter an apprenticeship smoothly increased with his position down the birth order. The youngest of younger sons was treated quite differently to the second or third son.

Wallis says: 'It is surprising how clear an effect the birth order has – until now we haven't been able to see this. Gentry families are acting very strategically and deciding how to train their children according to how likely they are to inherit at a time of high mortality rates. They're sending several of their eldest sons to university and to the inns of court where they'll get the skills that will help them manage the family's lands or be good bureaucrats in government. As you come down the birth order that becomes less likely so they shift over to other strategies such as sending them into trade to become merchants in London.'

The Drapers' armsSir John Lowther of a substantial landed family in the Lake District, for example, paid for the apprenticeship of his brother Robert – a seventh son – to the Drapers' Company. In turn Sir John's third son, Sir William, was apprenticed to his uncle. His second son Sir Christopher also spent some time learning mercantile skills from his uncle in London, although he was not an indentured apprentice.

'There's no doubt about it, these are gentlemen who are entering commerce,' says Wallis. We've always known that there were a lot of people who became apprentices who claimed to be gentlemen, but by working with the information from the heralds visits we can show that actually this was the case.'

However, while apprenticeships were clearly acceptable options for gentry sons, they were not choosing their trades from the full range of London occupations. Almost 90 per cent were bound to masters in one of London's 'Great Twelve' companies or guilds – one of the worshipful companies of mercers, grocers, drapers or vintners  for example.

Wallis says: 'These young men are mostly entering very high end trades. The information we have isn't great but it seems very likely that most of them are going to become merchants or dealers rather than working with their hands. Gentry sons were not hammering out bits of gold jewellery'.

And along with these members of the gentry, Wallis has found that all sorts of people took up apprenticeships.

 'People came from all over the country,' he says. 'There seemed to be very few barriers to entering an apprenticeship as long as you were not extremely poor. Occupations were  more open and fluid than anyone ever imagined.'


Useful links

The Education and Training of Gentry Sons in Early-Modern England| [opens in new window]

For full details of Dr Patrick Wallis' research and publications see his profile in the LSE Experts Directory: Patrick Wallis|