New novel highlights the plight of North Devon’s Victorian apprentices

The Song of the Skylark by Liz Shakespeare focuses on the true story of the lives of North Devon rur

The Song of the Skylark by Liz Shakespeare focuses on the true story of the lives of North Devon rural apprentices in early Victorian times. - Credit: Archant

Two hundred years ago in North Devon, a young girl stands on a table before an audience of farmers.

‘Mary Mitchell, nine years old. Draws your straws, gentlemen and we’ll see who’s to win this prize’. The child was a parish apprentice, and this method of selection had died out everywhere else in the country, except North Devon.

Local author Liz Shakespeare, who has become well-known for writing books inspired by the history of Devon, has uncovered the true story of one such apprentice.

The Song of the Skylark tells the story of Mary Mitchell, aged nine, and her brother Thomas, who are sent to a remote farm, far from their parents and everything that is familiar to them.

Liz said: “Pauper children in North Devon were often apprenticed as farm workers and had to work long hours without wages. They were not granted their freedom until they reached the age of 21.

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“In effect they were simply used as unpaid servants to their masters.”

In 1843 the editor of the North Devon Journal criticised the practice, referring to it as slavery.

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Liz found numerous documents which helped in her research into parish apprentices, including adverts describing runaway children and warnings that whoever harboured them would be prosecuted.

Liz said: “Many children would have been treated as part of the family, but it is clear that some were not.

“There are reports in the local papers of apprentices being severely whipped, and some ran away from their masters.”

Thomas and Mary work on the farm for five years and their only source of respite is the Bible Christian movement, a local offshoot of Wesleyan Methodism.

Eventually the pair escape the farm but come face to face with the harsh realities of the Victorian justice system – but there is hope.

Liz said: “It was shocking to realise how hard their lives would have been.

“The potato blight which caused the Great Famine in Ireland also hit Devon, and many labourers came close to starvation during the period termed the Hungry Forties.

“I found it a compelling and sometimes difficult story to write, but it has a happy ending!”

The Song of the Skylark can be ordered from for £9.99 and will be sent post-free, or cheques made payable to Letterbox Books can be sent to The Old Post Office, Littleham, Bideford, EX39 5HW. The book is also available on Kindle.

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