Labours Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England

February 25, 2010

Our most likely modern experience of live-in servants is with the nanny, subject of countless horror stories at dinner parties. Working and living in someone else's home puts both employee and employer in an awkward situation as physical and emotional boundaries become ever fuzzier and resentments set in. As Carolyn Steedman shows, the "servant problem" has always been with us, but our view of servants has changed over the centuries. Back in the 1790s, no one felt uneasy about asking the help to scrub floors. With no high-tech household gadgets, servants' duties were endless: food had to be pickled and preserved, bees tended, drinks brewed, clothes washed and mended, rats caught, the family fed and the cleaning-up done.

This imaginatively researched book focuses on a pivotal time between 1760 and 1830 when the number of domestic servants increased dramatically and their employment became formalised by the state. With abolitionists debating human rights in relation to slavery and class consciousness on the rise, questions about servants' status and the nature of their employment were much discussed. Servants were now protected in law. Court cases were brought by disgruntled servants such as Elizabeth Humphries who, in 1810, successfully sued her employer for overwork.

Steedman's central argument hinges on her claim that the development of laws, taxes and hiring agreements for servants informed later employment practices, making them highly influential in the development of modern industrial England.

In historical terms, the problem with servants has been where to put them in society. Until recently, they were invisible in the historical record. Adam Smith, Karl Marx and then E.P. Thompson denied them what Steedman argues is their rightful place in the English working class.

Marx decided that they "may be entirely neglected" for not being "productive". So they fell into a kind of no-man's-land between family household members and workers. Steedman spends the first part of the book laying out her evidence for this disservice to one of the largest (and overwhelmingly female) occupational groups of the working class. She then sets about regaining their labours once lost.

Indeed, Steedman has spent much of her career in the archives bringing the ignored - children and servants - back into history. This book presents the findings of a three-year research project, the aim being that readers will "discover eighteenth-century servants ... as a workforce, and a modern one at that, with women establishing its norms".

Academics and students of social history and literature, as well as biographers, will find this new work invaluable.

She takes us into the world of servants and their employers, such as Hester Thrale and Lord Mansfield, where we read about their relationships as well as the devious techniques used by employers to evade servant taxes.

A fascinating case study allows us a glimpse into the life of Somerset land owner Frances Hamilton, whose intricate records of her servants' duties and her interest in anti-slavery literature display a keen sense of responsibility as an employer.

Anyone who leaves detailed notes on the fridge for those looking after pets and plants will be amused by Hamilton's lengthy "Directions in my Absence", handed out to staff before she took a summer holiday in Wells in 1788. The instructions covered every eventuality, including the exact placing of vines, which were to be moved only between the Chinese gate and the apricot tree.

Labours Lost: Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England

By Carolyn Steedman. Cambridge University Press. 426pp, £60.00 and £21.99. ISBN 9780521516372 and 736237. Published 12 November 2009

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