Indentured Servitude in 19th century Limerick
Limerick Ireland, 29th of January, 1812. Edmond Ryan is a wanted man. One could not legally employ Edmond, nor give him shelter. His crime? Edmond, an indentured apprentice, quit his job without his employer’s permission. Edmond’s employer, or his temporary owner, George Hickey, threatened to prosecute anyone who helped Edmond.
Two hundred years ago in 1812 Limerick, there were documented accounts of indentured servitude still in practice. Although at the time in Limerick it was apparently referred to as “indentured apprentice”. This indicated that these boys would, after serving their time, have the ability to escape poverty and be skilled in a trade. Even so, the life of a full time unpaid servant was not for everyone and runaways were common. These runaways were reported in the local newspapers in a very amusing fashion. This can be seen in two separate classified ads that were submitted to local the local newspaper, The Limerick Evening Post, in 1812.
First, on 29 January 1812:
I caution the Master Coopers of Ireland against employing Edmond Ryan, my indentured apprentice, who eloped from me (two years of his servitude being unexpired) as I am determined, upon his apprehension, to prosecute him according to the law, as well as those who have harboured or employed him. – George Hickey-> An Apprentice wanted – One who can procure good bail and is determined to be no Night Walker.
It is interesting to note how George Hickey, the author of the classified, ended his report with a want advert for another apprentice; “one who can procure good bail”, which at the time meant a good reference from a previous employer. It seems as if George Hickey’s experience with indentured servitude just might have turned him off the practice.
Second, on 5 February 1812:
This is to give notice to the Master Taylors of this city and elsewhere that Samuel Monsell, my indentured apprentice absconded from me (three years servitude unexpired) on the 20 Jan without just reason whatsoever and has not since returned to his business. Should he persevere in doing so I am resolved to prosecute him and all who harbour or employ him according to the law. – James Regan
This particular classified is interesting as James Regan, the author, can’t seem to understand why someone, who was no better than a slave, would have any reason to not like the situation they find themselves. While yes, this indentured servant Samuel Monsell was most likely paying dues for some crime, he was still legally bound to work for, and be subject to his “owner” and it can be assumed that these servants would feel obligated to do anything requested of them for fear of legal repercussion.
History of Indentured Servitude
The historical practice of indentured servitude is one in which a person is legally contracted to work for a specific period of time in exchange for transportation to foreign soil, food, clothing, lodging and other necessities during the term of indenture. Indentured servants contracts could be bought and sold, could not marry without the permission of their owner, were subject to physical punishment and realised their obligation was legally enforced. Transportation as an indentured servant, served as both a punishment for both major and petty crimes in Ireland from the 17th century until well into the 19th century. This exile was an essential component and thought to be a major deterrent to crime, though the numbers of those transported would dispute this claim. Transportation was also viewed as a humane and productive alternative to execution, which would most likely have been the sentence for many if this practice had not been introduced.
Indentured servitude was non-discriminatory, including both men and women, though usually confined to those under the age of 21. Many of these servants came from workhouses and were the poorest on the social ladder for whom a life with guaranteed food though no pay would have been a light at the end of a bleak tunnel. The lucky ones were indentured to tradesmen as apprentices, similar to Oliver Twist in Charles Dickens’ classic novel; these would have the skills at the end of their term to find their way out of poverty. A large number were used as farm labourers and domestic servants, manual menial labour with little or no opportunity to escape from the serving class. Others who were in the penal system required the convicts to work on government projects such as road construction or building works and mining.
Fortunately for some, a servant who had served part of their time might apply for a “ticket of leave”, permitting some freedoms, such as the right to marry and raise a family. Indentured servitude continued until the early 20th century though at a vastly reduced number than in the century before.