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At the time of the 1841 census, one of my ancestors in Nottinghamshire, England was undertaking his apprenticeship with a tailor. A decade later, on the 1851 census, my ancestor is recorded as a "tailor (master)". The apprenticeship must have been completed by 1846, when he married (age 22). Unfortunately his marriage certificate (1846) and son's birth certificate (1848) only give his occupation as "tailor", so there are no clues there as to whether he was a master at that time.

I am trying to understand this ancestor's "professional" life between the completion of his apprenticeship and 1851.

What was the process for becoming a master tailor? On completion of an apprenticeship in the 1840s, could one immediately become a master, or was there further qualification required (such as admission to a guild)? I understand that often tradesmen would spend a period as a journeyman after their apprenticeship, but I am uncertain whether this was traditional or even compulsory.

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My personal belief is that the answer depends on time and place - in particular, what local laws and customs applied. In an area and era controlled by trades guilds, there would be very tight controls in place, though I am not sure about exactly when an apprentice who had passed the test of producing his "master piece", would be admitted as a master. I think that an essential part of it may have been - when he could afford the fees. But in such an era and area, one would certainly need to be a member of the Guild before using the title of Master.

The converse to the formal guild status is seen in a couple of my relatives. GG-GF Purcell was recorded as a "Master Bootmaker" when he died at the beginning of the 1900s. I have seen no evidence that he ever employed anyone. I suspect that at the end of his life, he was just doing odd repairs for anyone who came to the door and his son has given his father the dignity of the "master" title on his death certificate just for the status.

GG uncle Bates was described as a Master Window Cleaner when volunteering for the Army in 1915. So far as I know, there was no Guild of Window Cleaners in Crewe in 1915 - I suspect that this simply means that he was self employed.

My suggestion is that outside the era and area of the Trade Guilds, "Master" simply means "in business for oneself".

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  • Thanks Adrian, perhaps I was reading too much into the use of the title master. Though in my case he was calling himself a master by age 26, only 5 years after his apprenticeship. It would be great if we could find some evidence that supports your last statement. – Harry Vervet Nov 1 '15 at 15:39
  • The general usage of "master tailor" (i.e. "in business for oneself") or the usage specific to your ancestor? I suspect the general may be difficult to pin down as it is, in a real sense, an informal extension of the Guild-type concept. It's only with specific instances that I have come to that conclusion. In your ancestor's case, you need to look at censuses, to see if you find the "employing n men" phrase anywhere; or in Directories to see if he ran a business. – AdrianB38 Nov 1 '15 at 16:28
  • I meant general usage. In my case, he is noted as a master tailor on the 1851 and 1861 censuses as well as his death certificate, and he is listed in a couple of directories. While he has a household servant in 1851, I have not found any specific indication that he employed anyone in the trade. – Harry Vervet Nov 1 '15 at 17:01

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