A history of Halesworth, Suffolk, UK, through the ages.


Volume 3


Guilds and Apprentices

In medieval times, the high standards of craftsmanship were maintained by the formation of craft guilds, many of which came into existence in Suffolk during the 30 years between 1349 and 1381. These were widespread across the county, with over 115 Suffolk parishes having at least one guild, and a further 95 parishes with two or more guilds. These guilds were started by the more skilled of the workers, - the master craftsmen. Often each trade had its own guild, and only guild members were able to make and sell goods in the town. Some were connected to the parish church, having a chapel or chantry for which they would pay the salary of a priest. In most towns there would also be a guildhall, which was a centre for the Guild and a number of these have survived. In Halesworth, the Guildhall is the building in the Thoroughfare which now houses four shops and was built about 1475.

Each guild was responsible for the high quality of the work of its members, and it set standards, checked and tested that goods were well made. It also governed hours of work and wages, and most importantly, was the body which controlled the apprenticeships of young workers entering the craft.

In Halesworth, the 'Guild of St. John the Baptist' and the 'Guild of St. Loye and St. Anthony' were linked to the Guild Hall in the Thoroughfare, while in the Church of St. Mary, the South Chapel, now the Lady Chapel, was dedicated to St. Loye or St. Louis, the Crusader French King. These guilds were very important to the townspeople, and in 1503, the will of Robert Albergh left 3s.4d (17p) to the Guild of St. Loye & St. Anthony, and 3s.4d to the Guild of St. John the Baptist.

Earlier, in 1478, we learn that the 'Brotherhood of the Guildhall of St. John the Baptist' holds a messuage (building) and 10 rod of land (1 acre = 160 rods), paying the lord of the Halesworth Manor per annum xiv pence' (7p)'.

Parents paid the master craftsman to train their children as apprentices, and the period of training was generally 7 years. If the apprentice successfully finished his training, he became a 'journeyman' and it was often at this point he received his first pay. He would be several years working as a journeyman before he completed his 'masterpiece' and was then allowed to be taken into the Guild and have his own shop, and in his turn, train future apprentices.

The life of an apprentice could be very hard, often sleeping in the workshop next to his bench. If things got too much for him and he ran away, and he were caught and returned to his master, his punishment would be to have a pair of iron pot-hooks bent around his neck and be whipped. The indenture his father had signed was also very restrictive, as late as 1824 the original style of wording was still in use which had probably survived from the Civil War period. During his period of training, the apprentice ... 'shall not commit fornication nor contract matrimony within the said term, he shall not play cards or dice tables or any other unlawful games whereby his master may have loss with his goods or otherwise, he shall neither buy nor sell, he shall not haunt taverns nor playhouse ... '.

In return the master promised to 'find, provide and allow the said apprentice, competent and sufficient meat, drink and apparel, lodging, washing and other things necessary and fit for an apprentice'. It was also agreed that the master should 'teach and instruct or cause to be taught or instructed' in the craft in question. As not all parents were able to afford the cost of 'binding' an apprentice to a master, some charitable people were often prepared to lay out property or money to ensure an annual income for this purpose. In 1652 James Keeble of Halesworth made available land in Holton called 'Bell's Pightie' from which the annual rents should be split to allow half to be used for the relief of widows in Halesworth, and the other half to bind out poor apprentices. The master or merchant often had his own sign or 'device' to mark on his work so that his property or goods could easily be recognised. Some of these signs have survived to this day, and may be seen - such as the mason's marks at Blythburgh Church.

Of particular interest is the wooden archway of Mansion House in the Market Place at Halesworth. This is to the left of the building with two side posts and the spandrels which form the door head carved with figures and a display shield with symbols. Some suggest that the figure of a man in Tudor dress represents a clerk of works, or architect, and the object he is carrying is a roll of architectural drawings, others believe the symbols in the oak spandrel indicate it was the house of a master mason or master carpenter. One of the important duties of the Guild was to ensure the passing from one generation to the next good knowledge of its crafts. To the outsider, the methods of producing cloth, of carving wood or of moulding silver or gold were real 'mysteries', and this word - mysteries - came into use to describe the training involved. A young Welsh apprentice by the name of John Griffyn bound himself to a master in High Wycombe (Buckinghamshire) in 1400, in order to be 'taught the mystery of weaving'.

But the word has also been closely linked to the religious tableaux and plays put on by the various craft guilds on church festivals in medieval and later times. The plays of York or of Chester for instance have survived to this day. These are known as the 'mystery plays' and they would have been the high-light of many important festive occasions. At times the great excitement of the onlookers overcame their goodwill, so that trouble followed. During an enactment of the mystery plays by the Corpus Christ Guild at Bungay in 1515, five men of the town were later charged with 'having riotously broken down five pageants (named) 'Heaven'; 'All the World'; 'Paradise'; 'Bethlehem' and 'Hell'. For this they were brought before the Star Chamber in London, a court which existed to deal with the offences for which the law had made no provision.

After the Reformation (1540's) the parish guilds were dissolved and the two at Halesworth disappeared and their property, which included the Guildhall and some land, taken by the Crown. The King, Henry VIII, added it to his Manor of East Greenwich so that the rents would come into the Treasury. Among the deeds relating to the property is one dated 1550 which informs us that ...

'At a court held there (Halesworth) the Wednesday in Passion Week in the third year of Edward the Sixth ... a precept was made to the Bailiff there to seize and hold in the hands of the Lord (of the Manor) one messuage bond (property) sometimes (called) Baxters now called the Guildhall ... holden of the Lord of this Manor by the service (payment) of 14d (30p) annual rent ... which the inhabitants of the town of Halesworth for many years have unjustly held as their free land ... And now ... the Lord so therefore having possession ... and of his special grace as on the humble petition of divers inhabitants of the same town, granted the aforesaid messuage and tenement... out of his hands for the sum of five pounds ... to Robert Norton (of Gothic House), John Laurence, Simon Skarlet and Alexander Fylby and their heirs ... for this purpose that the rents and profits of all the said premises are expended ... for the support of the poor of the said town ...'

Later in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the inhabitants of the town turned their attention toward obtaining possession of the Guildhall for the benefit of the town, and in 1585 they succeeded by a deed which granted free use of the Guildhall with the garden and yard, on payment each year of 12p (25p) at the Feast of St Michael the Archangel and at the Annunciation of the Holy Mary each year.

The Guildhall, which was built around 1475, was probably given a new facade in the 17th century, and if one looks above the level of the four shop fronts, the elegant carved cornice below the guttering gives us a good idea of its earlier beauty. The two deeds are printed in full in 'Records of Halesworth' by F.C.Lambert (1934), at which time the property was occupied by Mr.J.S.P.Denny, printer and Mr.R.W.Bishop, watchmaker. 


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