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In 1855, in the seaside town of Tramore, County Waterford, Patrick Murphy, an apprentice to the local blacksmith was summoned by the magistrates to appear in court. He failed to appear.

Patrick’s absence from court is unsurprising given that he was being summoned to court for running away from his master. As an indentured servant Patrick was bound to his master for a number of years’ service, and had few rights. Patrick’s fate is played out in Findmypast’s Petty Session Order Books.

The Petty Sessions were the lowest courts in the land presided over by local magistrates, generally drawn from the landlord class. Patrick’s story reveals a new aspect of life in mid-nineteenth century Ireland, the restricted life of an indentured servant.

In the nineteenth century even those with a moderate income or small business would expect to keep a servant. It was an age of expensive materials, but cheap labor. Pay was minimal and time off to visit family was infrequent. The relationship between servant and master had well defined boundaries. Patrick, as indentured servant, would receive no pay and would be expected to work long hours for food, clothing and a place to sleep. Apprenticed to a blacksmith he was learning a valuable trade although as a young apprentice he would have been expected to do all manner of menial tasks, and was the lowest member of the household. We can surmise that something about the life of an apprentice blacksmith did not suit the young Patrick as September 1855 was not the only time he ran-away.

The following year, 1856, there is another court summons. “For that the defendant on the 2nd day of September ‘56 did unlawfully run away from the service of complainant where he was bound by indenture as an apprentice to remain for a number of years as yet unexpired, contrary to the form of the statute”.

The statute referred to is the 1715 Servants Act, still in force 140 years later. The purpose of the act was twofold, to protect the servant – particularly in relation to unpaid wages, and to protect the employer, or master, from a servant’s bad behaviour or quitting service without notice as Patrick did.

The stark judgement of the court in this case was “the boy ordered to return to his master”. The reference to ‘boy’ is our only clue to Patrick’s likely age. How might a child find themselves in service? The act states:

“That the minister and church-wardens of every parish… may and shall have power … to bind out… any child they find begging within their parish, or any other poor child within the parish, with the consent of the father, if living, or the mother if the father be dead, to any honest and substantial… housekeeper or… tradesman that will entertain such child as a menial servant, till such child arrives to the age of one and twenty, or to any credible tradesman, as an apprentice to his trade, till such apprentice be twenty four years old compleat.”

Perhaps Patrick may not have been so young after-all. The statute bound him to unpaid service until the age of 24. So while he may have been picked up from begging in the street or removed from his destitute family at a young age and running away because he was homesick, it is also possible that he was a young man chafing at the obligation to remain with his master until he was twenty-four years old. There was no escape. Not even his master’s death would end his servitude. Patrick’s service could be ‘enjoyed’ by those named in his master’s will. Indentured servants lived at the beck and call of their masters and could not marry without their permission.

In March 1857 Patrick can be found in Findmypast’s Irish prison registers. Now aged 18, Patrick has been imprisoned for running away. Repeated court summons have not dented his determination to escape servitude. In prison he serves a month with hard labor. From physical description of him in the prison register a picture emerges of this young man: sallow skinned, grey eyes and black hair, standing at just five foot four inches tall. His education is recorded as ‘None’ meaning he can neither read nor write.

Patrick’s defiance of the master-servant relationship brings an otherwise unrecorded life out of obscurity and anonymity and places him in front of us as a young man determined to escape his circumstances. The Petty Sessions Order Books give us a view of his life which goes far beyond names and dates.

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Were your ancestors servants or masters in Ireland?Wikimedia