"Poor families, and especially poor children, were greatly affected by the apprenticeship system so common in Devon. Even in the last half of the nineteenth century - after the publication of the condemnatory Report on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture (1843) - this system continued to absorb the sons and daughters of paupers.
There were two kinds of apprenticeship - compulsory and voluntary. Neither system was unpopular with poor parents because it was a relief for them when one child left the overcrowded cottage and the table where food was scarce. It was also a method of obtaining settlement. It was popular with farmers because they got cheap labour, and with parish overseers because it furnished an excuse to transfer apprentices to other parishes. Children were bound or assigned to the care of masters till the age of 21 or until marriage. Compulsory apprenticeship did not require the consent of child, parents or masters, and was very general in Devon until after 1843.
In 1802, an Act was passed requiring overseers to keep a register of children bound or assigned to employers. This register reposes in many parish chests. It gives dates of indentures, names of apprentices, of parents and of the yeomen or tradesmen into whose charge they were placed. The terms of apprenticeship were also laid down, together with the names of two overseers and three assenting magistrates. Under the system of compulsory "binding out", employers were allowed to contract out of the obligation by paying a fine of up to £10.
Although parish records furnish a skeleton view of this system, they do not give a clear picture of what happened to boys and girls who were "bound printis" to farmers and tradesmen. The flesh and meaning comes from the Report on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture (1843) in which the employers and employed let their memories dwell on past days. Evidence suggests that many apprentices were quite well treated though some were maltreated. In other words, the apprenticeship system was not bad in itself, having regard to all the factors which governed the lives of poor families.
One employer, a woman farmer, had meals regularly with her servants and apprentices. She taught them the catechism and prayers; gave them a chance to feel at home, allowing them to return to their families for three days at Christmas and for two at Easter. When parents came on a visit they were given some food and a glass of cider. Another farmer, a man, found that apprentices were a plague and an "unruly lot". He did not like girl apprentices to have relatives visit them - "They will have relatives come over to see them on a Sunday and some smart girl will soon make them ashamed of feeding pigs, and girls must feed pigs." He declared that he would never take another apprentice: "I have paid £10 not to have one more than once. People here won't take them. Servants won't live with apprentices."
There were arguments for and against apprenticeship. It was tolerated for a long time in Devon because people had grown used to it. The apprentice was taken from his or her home and family, shunned by regular servants, deprived of formal education and set to heavy labour too early. Many absconded because they found the situation unendurable, but most of these managed to re-establish themselves as respectable citizens in later life. Boys learned a trade, a craft or became skilled labourers. Girls had a thorough training in domestic service, and were not forced (like day labourers and mature women) to go into the fields to dig potatoes, pull mangolds, load dung or weed corn and do all manner of manual work in wet weather or dry. The fortunate apprentice had better food than could be got at home. When things went well (as they often did) a pauper's child indentured to a farmer was as happy and healthy as the offspring of a "free labourer" who had not drawn on the parish funds."