All civility is required

At some time in mid-April 1647, a note was pasted up on a wall somewhere in London summoning apprentices to participate in political lobbying. The bookseller and collector George Thomason took a note of what it said, which survives as part of his collection of civil war pamphlets and other ephemera:

Fellowe Apprentizes

You are desired on Tuesday ye 20th April at 7 of ye clocke to meet in Covent Garden for ye prosecution of [our?] late pesented petition for Recreation, and yt we may better succeed, all civility is required &c.

(British Library, Thomason Tracts, E.384[12])

As it turned out, Covent Garden was the marshalling point for a march to Parliament to present their petition. Bulstrode Whitelocke’s Memorials has this record of the day:

20 April. Apprentices of London came to the house for answer to their former petition for days of recreation the commons referred it to a committee to draw up an ordinance to abolish all festival days and holydays and to appoint the second Tuesday in every month a day of recreation for all apprentices scholars and servants with limits against tumults disorders and unlawful sports.

As Whitelocke’s note implies, this wasn’t the first action the apprentices of London had taken to try to secure a regular day of rest. On 9 February, a group of apprentices had presented a petition to the Lords and the Commons, complaining that the move away from the holiday and feast days of the Cathlolic church may have been the right thing to purify the English church, but that it had the unintended consequence of depriving the apprentices of “Lawfull Recreations, for the needfull refreshment of their spirit”. This was followed up by a similar petition to the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London two days later. By 13 February, a printed edition of both petitions was on sale at the shop of the booksellers William Grantham and Nathaniel Webb.

Not much seems to have happened in response, which prompted a swift follow-up by another petition at the start of March. This too was printed; however this time it was presented by Alderman Thomas Atkin, the apprentices clearly having enlisted support from the City. This was the Thomas Atkin known as “shit-breeched alderman”, who acquired the unfortunate nickname after his supposed reaction to a volley of musket fire from his own troops. Still, having a City Alderman present it clearly did the petition some favours.  Atkin, Colonel John Venn, and Samuel Vassall (all City grandees as well as MPs) were instructed to thank the apprentices and “take the Petition into Consideration in convenient time”.

Nevertheless, this appears to have been the seventeenth-century’s equivalent of the present-day civil service phrase ” we will consider it in due course”. The apprentices, at least, seemed to have perceived it as an attempt to kick the issue into the long grass (another civil service phrase there…). Their gathering on 20 April resulted in the presentation of a third petition, which finally prompted some more concrete action:

The humble Petition of the Apprentices of London, and Parts adjacent, was this Day read; desiring some Days to be appointed for lawful Recreations.

Resolved, &c. That the Second Tuesday in every Month shall be appointed for a Day of Recreation for all young Scholars, Apprentices, and Servants throughout the Kingdom; and that an Ordinance be prepared, and speedily brought in, to this Purpose.

Mr. Gott, Mr. Reynolds, Mr. Allen, Colonel James Temple, Mr. Weaver, Mr. Ball, Lieutenant General Cromwell;

This Committee, or any Three of them, are to prepare this Ordinance for Days of Recreation, and for suppressing the Observation of Festivals and Holy Days: And are to meet when and where they please.

‘House of Commons Journal Volume 5: 20 April 1647′, Journal of the House of Commons: volume 5: 1646-1648 (1802), p. 148.

Finally on 8 June 1647, Parliament agreed an “Ordinance for the abolition of Holy Days and the establishment of Days of Recreation in lieu of them“. Christmas, Easter, Whitsuntide and other feast days were formally abolished. The second Tuesday of every month was allotted as a day of recreation for apprentices.

However, this didn’t go far enough for the apprentices. On 22 June they presented yet another petition to Parliament, complaining that the legislation was flawed and that it was being disobeyed by their masters. They attached a list of demands to be added to the legislation:

  • That shops should be forced to close every second Tuesday of the month.
  • Apprentices should not be allowed to disobey their masters so long as there was an exceptional reason why they needed to work.
  • Apprentices who abuse a recreation day should be deprived of the next one.
  • Recreations shouldn’t happen outside of eight in the morning and eight at night.
  • Apprentices causing trouble on a recreation day should face the full consequences of the law.
  • Constables should be empowered to take action against apprentices gathering in taverns on recreation days.

An ordinance more or less reproducing these heads was swiftly passed on 28 June.

On the face of it, this is a remarkably swift and effective piece of political lobbying. From start to finish, it seems to have taken the apprentices only six months to achieve their aims. Their lobbying was sophisticated. The apprentices were careful to avoid stigmatising themselves as the “many-headed monster”, seeking to alleviate people’s fears of gatherings of young people by stressing the need to act politely and by calling for punishments for those who abused recreation days. Their petitions were printed, to raise awareness of them and garner additional support. They advertised their demonstrations. They engaged with politicians from the City of London to help push their cause in the Commons. In many respects, these are almost identical to the steps charities, businesses and other lobby groups still use today to influence politicians in Westminster.

It’s interesting, though, to consider whether the lobbying originated entirely with the apprentices. Were they a self-organising group, or did they have help? Apprentices were useful to politicians. At the end of July 1647, for example, Westminster exploded with riots by apprentices and former soldiers, who surrounded the Houses of Parliament and forced both Houses to reverse recent votes agreeing that Parliament would take over control of the militia from the City – the militia had originally been handed over to the City in May 1647, who swiftly began purging it of Independents. It may be that it was politically expedient for City politicians to grant apprentices their demands over recreation days, although the presence of Independents like Venn and Cromwell in the lists of those involved in taking forward the eventual legislation suggests otherwise.

Still, whatever the extent of involvement by Presbyterian grandees, it seems clear that in 1647 apprentices were playing an active and sophisticated role in Westminster politics. That this was considered unnatural and disapproved of by many is made clear by a satirical pamphlet which followed the petitions for recreation days. The Maids Petition purported to be a lobbying attempt by London’s maids to get their own recreation days, mirroring that of the apprentices:

To the Honourable members of both Houses. Or The humble petition of many thousands of the well-affected, within and without the lines of communication, virgins, maids, and other young women not married, &c.

Inside, however, ridiculed the pretensions of apprentices, maids and young people more generally in thinking they could participate in politics, drawing attention instead. It relied in particular on spoof and double-entendre:

… Our surly Madams; who in despite to all bodily respite, will perpetually enjoyn senceless and fruitless motions without intermission.

… We the subordinate subjects of this Commonwealth, doe declare our selves (by reason of the Epidemicall difference) to joyne with the Apprentices of the City of London, not by way of combinatory siding, but downright honestly intending the increase of the City force, approving their locking in the Members untill they made themselves voyd.

… Till then, wee’le remaine your Vassalised Virgins.

The writer was partly using the comparison with their female counterparts as a means of exposing the ridiculousness of the male apprentices making demands on Parliament. But the pamphlet also forms part of a wider genre of texts from the 1640s which ventriloquised the voice of women to mock female attempts to engage in politics. Like apprentices, they would not be put in their place, despite the contempt with which many in power held them. On 24 April 1649, for example, hundreds of women presented a petition to Parliament, calling forJohn Lilburne and other prisoners to be released, and asking that the Agreement of the People be put into place. The Speaker of the Commons, William Lenthall, made it clear that the public sphere was not an arena in which they were allowed to participate, telling them:

You are desired to go home and look after your own business and meddle with your housewifery.

Nevertheless, for a group supposedly so incapable of participation,  it still took a detachment of soldiers holding the protestors back at gunpoint to enforce Parliament’s superiority.

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