What Did You Do When You Were Young?

At least 60% of people in late Tudor England spent their youth as a servant in someone else’s house. Gentlemen’s sons spent their youth in formal schooling, their daughters in learning housewifery from their female relatives. The more wealthy Yeoman followed the same pattern. Many middling urban families, a few yeomen and the occasional gentry’s younger son opted instead for apprenticeships. At about the age of 14 or 15 these boys and very occasionally girls, left home and came entirely under the care and control of their master. Apprenticeships cost money. No one took an apprentice for free. Different trades were able to charge different fees. Good, wealth making trades such as the Goldsmiths and high status trades such as merchant adventurers charged considerably more. So apprenticeships were limited to the better off or well connected especially urban, families. Everyone else, for whom formal schooling, apprenticeship and home education among female friends and relatives were not possible, youth meant being a servant. Most servants were “servants in husbandry” living in rural households, their work agricultural. Only a small minority were purely domestic servants. Young men and women from about the age of 14 took service on yearly contracts (they weren’t strong enough to be much use until this age). They gave their labour and obedience to a master in exchange for lodgings with the master’s family, food and wages, sometimes clothing as well. Once the contract was agreed they couldn’t leave until their year was up unless they could convince a magistrate that their very lives were in danger. On the other hand, they couldn’t be sacked until the year was up either. Most people moved around a fair bit in the twelve or so years until they married. The average stay with any one master being two years though of course some stayed longer and some moved on quickly in search of better conditions or wages.

Boys and men did all forms of agricultural work depending on their strength, skills and the needs of the master – looking after and driving horses carrying the highest status and pay. Men also did some of the heavier work about the house. In grander houses men served food, attended the master, ran the buttery, pantry and kitchens too. Girls and women were not restricted to the house but regularly worked in the fields, harvesting, weeding, herding animals, indeed almost anything except plowing, reaping and the care of horses. Dairy work, laundry, brewing, poultry keeping and much of the gardening were all tasks particular to women. Dairymaids could command higher wages in many parts of the country. Once young men and women married (on average at 25 for women and 27 for men) they stopped being servants and set up their own homes. For the lucky ones a mix of small inheritances and their savings were enough to farm on their own account, some had a trade to supplement their smallholdings, and be independent. Maybe even employing their own servants one day. But many had to rely on wages as day labourers to survive and bring up their children. Whilst they were servants young people were subject to their masters discipline and masters were repeatedly told that they were responsible both for the physical and moral welfare of their servants and were enjoined to beat the disobedient or lazy youth. The standard of living for servants however was often much higher than that which they had enjoyed as children or would again once married. Food was plentiful if plain, masters sometimes going short themselves in order to feed their servants for fear of getting a reputation for poor fare which would make it very hard to get servants again. Wages gave servants the possibility of small luxuries such as chapbooks and ballads, ribbons and laces, which, once married, would be beyond their means.

Examples of typical annual wage rates for Northamptonshire in 1560 : The best servant at husbandrie that taketh whole charge of a farm no more than 33s 4d plus 6s 4d for his livery and 5s for his boots. The common servant at husbandrie that can plow and threshe no more than 20s and 5s for his livery. The best woman servant that taketh charge of the whole house keeping not more than 20s and 6s 4d for her livery The common servant of meaner sort not more than 10s and 6s 4d for her livery.

Written by Ellen, 1997