Sunday, November 16, 2014


I've been thinking about family history; and gathering together various archives. This was among my father's effects; I'd seen it before but not for many years. It's the indenture binding my great-grandfather, James Smith, as an apprentice painter and paper-hanger in Kirkcaldy, Fife, north of Edinburgh. He started working for Gilbert Heron when he was 13, though the apprenticeship began later. He was my father's father's father. 

He died in 1893 when he was forty, so my father and his sisters never knew him and my surviving aunt knows nothing about him. We have no photos of him but we do have his signature and the signature of his father, also James Smith, several times on this document. I never even met his son, my grandfather, who died in February 1950, some months before I was born. 

This grandfather was also James Smith, though he invented a middle name for himself; and my dad was James Smith as well - though with a middle name. My parents reserved James for my brother's middle name and it's also Grandson's middle name. Family trees become a bit confusing if everyone has exactly the same name!

Here's an extract from the document, with some omissions and some added punctuation for clarity: 

James Smith Junior Binds himself an apprentice and servant to Gilbert Heron and Son and partners in the business and trade of Painter and Paper Hanger for the space of six years complete from the Eleventh day of February Eighteen Hundred and sixty seven.

The said apprentice shall faithfully, diligently and honestly attend his masters’ service by night and by day, workday and holiday, in all things lawful and honest and that he shall not absent himself therefrom without leave first asked and obtained, and if he do in the contrary, that he shall not only forfeit and lose his wages for the time he shall be so absent, but shall also, after the expiration of the said period of six years, serve two days for each day’s absence.

The said apprentice shall abstain and refrain from all idle and improper company and from every other custom and exercise that may in any manner of way divert him from his said Masters’ employment.

He shall work at the rate of three shillings per week during the first Year of said apprenticeship, Three shillings and sixpence per week during the second Year, Four shillings per week during the Third year, Four shillings and sixpence per week during the first portion of the Fourth year, Five shillings and sixpence per week during the remainder of said Fourth year, Six shillings per week during the Fifth year and Eight shillings per week during the Sixth and last year of said apprenticeship.

The apprentice’s father, James Smith Senior, being bound to provide him (the said apprentice) with a Putty knife and to uphold the same during said apprenticeship, and in case the said apprentice be at any time without said putty knife it shall be in the power of the said masters to provide the same for him and to retain the expense thereof from the sums due to him.

I hope that working with Mr Heron was jollier than the impression given in this document, and that young James never forgot his putty knife. I salute you, Great-Grandpa.


  1. Life was often hard in those days......teenagers these days don't know how lucky they are, do they!

  2. I'm trying really hard to imagine anyone ever considering signing such an indenture, or even abiding by the rules. I'm failing. Quite a different life that I am glad to have escaped.

  3. What a wonderful document to have in the family archives. The night and day, work-day and holiday restrictions seem particularly harsh.

  4. I'm sure he did a better job than the decorator who has just hung all the paper upside down in a room in my brother's house. He hasn't the heart to tell him because he was a strange and nervy individual with 'issues'.

  5. Wow. That's amazing. It's hard to imagine that it would take SIX whole years to learn about paint and paper hanging -- that seems like an awfully long time. Perhaps it was more technical back then haha.

    Part of me thinks we should bring that system back though. It might fix what's ailing a lot of wayward children.

    And I wish we would find out that we're related. My mother's family was from Kirkcaldy.

  6. Wonderful document. One of my ancestors on my father's side came to America as an indentured servant and when he'd served his time he married another former servant.

  7. Anonymous5:14 pm

    My ex-husband had a similar document, it was his own apprenticeship when he started training to be a precision engineer. I don't think that he was as restricted as your relative and the pay would certainly have been greater.

  8. My father's indenture as an apprentice plumber from the 1920's forbid him from playing cards or visiting a public house - a little difficult for the grandson and great-grandson of a publican whose uncles snd aunts also ran pubs!

  9. It sounds almost like taking religious vows, poverty, chastity and obedience! The putty knife detail is particularly quaint.

    This kind of family history is made much more real and interesting when there are these kind of solid objects, what beautiful copperplate writing.

  10. A wonderful family treasure for you all...But a glimpse of a world I'm glad I didn't inhabit.