Stanford University News Service



CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (650) 723-2558


STANFORD - Urban youth were the creators of style even in 16th and 17th century London, Stanford University social historian Paul Seaver says.

Young London apprentices of that era "behaved very much like modern urban youth," he said, shocking their elders with their dress, leisure and work habits.

Laws to prevent them from playing football in the streets, dressing like "gallants" and behaving rowdily at local pubs and markets apparently didn't work very well, Seaver concludes, because the same complaints kept coming up in court records for decades and decades.

Seaver spends most of his summers in London bent over the handwritten records of that city's judicial system, which was embedded in 12 great "livery" or merchant companies, 50 to 70 manufacturing and trade guilds and the city disciplinary system. The history of British working classes, long ignored, gets more attention today, Seaver said. For instance, he recently was asked to give a paper at a British conference concerned with factors related to the rise and fall of national productivity.

The period he studies is one of rising productivity, migration and population. In 1400, London was not even among the 10 largest cities in Europe. By 1700, it was a manufacturing and trade center, second in size only to Constantinople.

Deaths exceeded births in London, but adventurous youths from the countryside flowed in, replenishing and expanding the city's work force, he said.

"Shakespeare always has Welsh characters," Seaver said. "His London audiences must have heard Welsh speakers all around them, because Wales was very poor in his time, and the records show a stream of Joneses and Williamses coming to London to seek their fortune," Seaver said.

Many of the men from Wales and elsewhere came as indentured apprentices to masters in guilds, and were barred from marrying until their apprenticeships were complete. Young women came as household servants. Together they created a population bulge of single 15- to 25- year-olds.

"In the countryside, they were part of a biological family, working for their parents until they inherited their parents' farms. In London, they met at the pub or alehouse. They talked together, formed loose associations and celebrated May Day and Shrovetide together."

"They created a new popular consumer culture, consuming things like clothes that, when they became masters with families of their own, they wouldn't be able to afford."

Apprentices were to dress "within their station" in a canvas doublet, a wool shirt without a collar, linen underwear, two pairs of stockings and a "bowl" cap over short hair.

"In fact, so many of them had trunks with much finer clothes that a law was passed forbidding them to have a trunk or store one at someone else's house where the master couldn't see it," Seaver said. "The law itself suggests how they got away with it."

Gallants donned satin or velvet and shirts with "falling bands; in other words, the long collars that you see in 17th century portraits," he said. "There are constant complaints in the record about apprentices with long hair. Only gentlemen were supposed to wear their hair long."

Urban youth were not merely mimicking the landed gentry however.

"It's clear that the gallant is a London invention. Real gentlemen in the countryside didn't dress like that," Seaver said. "The youth were trying to be on the cutting edge of fashion, and they made the fashions that the countryside then imitated."

A peddler in one of Thomas Heywood's plays remarks to a London haberdasher that "our country girls are a kin to your London courtiers, every month sick of a new fashion." When he wants to order fashionable yellow garters for young married countrymen, the city haberdasher puts him down by saying that the garters have been "used long in London."

London's young were also chastised for inappropriate recreation, Seaver said. Complaints are made about their playing cards, dicing, dancing, fornicating, fencing, bowling and playing football in the streets. Football is cited in the court records as the cause of the apprentice-led Shrovetide Riots of 1628, he said.

In April 1580, the Lord Mayor of London wrote that the city's new theaters were leading to "great corruption of youth with unchaste and wicked matters, occasion of much incontinence, practices of many affrays, quarrels and other disorders and inconveniences." For over two centuries thereafter, apprentices promised in their indentures not only "not to commit fornication" but also not to "haunt taverns or playhouses."

Records from courts in the second half of the 17th century, however, provide ample evidence that "apprentices continued to dress above their station and to engage in pastimes such as dancing, fencing and theatergoing," Seaver said.

"When he was brought into Bridewell (a well-known London jail and disciplinary system) in 1627, Thomas Allen wore satin hose and doublet, which must have struck the governors as particularly offensive in an apprentice to an oatmealman," Seaver said.

"Four months later, another apprentice, Richard Walker, was brought into Bridewell for drawing a rapier and menacing his master. What an apprentice was doing with a rapier, a gentleman's weapon, is never explained, nor whether the apprentice had been to fencing school; however, the court thought the apprentice might be 'distracted.' "

Discipline was usually meted out by the guilds, which weren't as concerned as modern employers with workers' loafing on the job, Seaver said. Work schedules were still irregular in most trades and, besides, they had larger worries, such as fishmongers and their apprentices getting into brawls and splattering customers with fishtails and water, vintners adulterating wine with raisins, and plumbers stealing water with illegal hookups. The guilds were especially concerned with theft and embezzlement, shoddy workmanship, verbal insults and violence by apprentices, and by many of their masters, as well.

"Apprentices were sometimes fined, but more often whipped, for their various 'misdemeanors and disobediences,' " Seaver said. "But just as often, the apprentice was 'pardoned in expectation of better behavior.'

"The object was not so much to increase productivity as to create an 'honest' and 'civil society,' to turn a wayward youth into a reliable citizen."

-kpo/urban youth-


This is an archived release.

This release is not available in any other form. Images mentioned in this release are not available online.
Stanford News Service has an extensive library of images, some of which may be available to you online. Direct your request by EMail to

© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300.