Back to Incorporation of Surgeons and Barbers of Edinburgh, 1505-

Apprenticeship Indentures, 1653-1872

From the earliest days, well-supervised training through apprenticeship was a fundamental concern to the Incorporation. Originally from this College’s inception in 1505 the only examination available was that for the full 'Mastership' [Fellowship], essentially a process of master and apprentice. Not all those qualified however, and between 1581 and 1786 around 160 master surgeons became members of the Incorporation. The duration of an apprenticeship would generally be between five to seven years. In the 17th century for instance, over 600 apprentices were bound to master-surgeons of the Incorporation.

When an apprentice was bound to a surgeon, a formal indenture of apprenticeship document was prepared. Although the system of apprenticeship dated back to the early days of the Incorporation, the earliest “indenture of apprenticeship” document in the archive is that of the notorious Patrick Cunningham, apprenticed in 1661 to one of the leading apothecaries of the day, James Borthwick. Although Cunningham never qualified, he performed unauthorised surgery when he undertook bloodletting on two notable individuals, consequently involving the Incorporation in costly litigation. This, and other incidents, led to the separation of surgery and pharmacy in 1682 (Cunningham was apparently practising as an apothecary by the 1680s).

Although similar in content to conditions stipulated by other craft incorporations, as you will see, apprentices were bound by some rather strict ‘ethical’ conditions, particularly relating to their social lives, such as being forbidden to "reveal his masters secrets...nor go to Alehouses or Taverns or be a Haunter of debaucht or idle company nor to tipple or drink with any company...nor play any Games whatsoever". They were also warned about the "raising of any Tumults, or Uproars within the Town of Edinburgh". Penalties were laid out for apprentices who contravened the rules. For instance for the “fylthie crime of fornication and adulterie” a further three years would be added to the length of apprenticeship.

Look out for some familiar masters and apprentices, such as Charles Bell (who was apprenticed to his elder brother John), John Lizars (also apprenticed to John Bell) and Robert Liston.


*Further reading: Helen Dingwall, A famous and flourishing society: The history of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, 1505 – 2005 (2005)