Service without servitude

August 17, 2007

Some time in late 1785, Mary Cant, a Nottinghamshire maidservant, stormed into Sir Gervase Clifton's justicing room to complain that "her master treats her very ill by striking her over the head".

Clifton thought she had brought it on herself because she "gave him provocation by telling him when he told her to dress the Child he might dress it himself for she was busy".

She retorted that the work was too hard for her. Hadn't her master promised he would employ another girl to help her? And didn't she know the work of her place? She knew where its priorities lay - that there were a great many other things to do than dress a baby at the most pressing time of the domestic day.

In February 1810, Thomas Netherton Parker, a justice of the peace in Oswestry, Shropshire, heard Elizabeth Humphries "complain for her wages" against Mrs Jennings of Penylan. "She is to return to her service," Parker determined, "and no deducting for the days which she has been absent from her wages - Mrs Jennings agreed to allow her 1s a week more... for such time as there was not a girl... to assist her in the work."

These young women were not in a semi-feudal relationship of dependence and subordination - and maids and magistrates all knew it. They were properly hired domestic servants who had certain legal rights in employment. Humphries was the one who complained, not her employer, even though it was she, the servant, who had run away (that is leaving a hiring before term or without notice), and the employer had possible redress for this under the same body of legislation.

Legal standing

In such disputes, employers, maidservants and magistrates would refer to the "hiring" or the "the contract of hiring". They did not mean by this exactly what legal historians mean by "contract"; but in this everyday, taken-for granted assumption of an enforceable agreement managing the employment relationship, 18th-century domestic servants constituted one of the first modern labour forces by sheer weight of their numbers and the many contractual arrangements they were involved in.

Medieval labour law and the Poor Laws operated together to afford servants these rights. Although the ancient Statute of Artificers gave magistrates no right to exercise authority over menial servants, it was frequently observed that "they do it every day". And under the Old Poor Law, a person hired to work in a particular place and serving for a year had a claim to "settlement" and consequent welfare benefits. "Earning" a settlement by service was the most common route for women - it certainly produced the most litigation. Servants and employers used this conglomeration of law in the hope of finding some (never very satisfactory) solutions to the tensions and impossibilities of the most common relationship of everyday life.

What the legal theorists said was that the law allowed an employer to purchase the time and energies of a servant to do the work that was really his or hers: dressing the baby, washing its filthy "clouts", preparing dinner, milking the cow, sweeping the rooms and so on. Nearly all waged domestic work in 18th century England was done by jobbing girls such as Cant, working alone, doing everything.

Historical lacunae

There are no young women like these in E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (1963); such working-class women were apparently not present at their own making. Nor are domestic servants to be found in the histories that have attempted to introduce gender into Thompson's account. This is a particularly dramatic omission because most household servants in this period were women - and they were a major part of the workforce, probably the largest after agricultural workers. Their absence was partly a function of the history that Thompson and his interlocutors used when they wrote their own. Domestic servants were eliminated from this story from the moment Adam Smith said their work was not work. In The Wealth of Nations (1776), Smith defined labour in terms of the production of "things", remarking that "the labour of the menial servant... does not fix or realise itself in any particular subject or vendible commodity. His services generally perish in the very instant of their performance, and seldom leave any trace or value behind". Karl Marx used Smith's notion of labour as he contemplated statistics from 1861 showing domestic servants to be (still) the largest group of employed persons. Then he elided their existence and history with irony: servants were "domestic slaves", he said, "an elevating consequence of the capitalistic exploitation of machinery". Overall, "types of work that are consumed as services and not as products... are of microscopic significance when compared with the mass of capitalist production. They may be entirely neglected."

Twentieth-century labour and social historians didn't exactly neglect servants. But the iron grip of Marx's - and Smith's and Thompson's - historical plot has prevented servants being conceptualised as working class or being part of the social structure. Historians used a storyline that never could - certainly never did - contain servants in the first place. Yet the way in which their history has been written deserves new attention from researchers because our own economy is to a great extent a service one, in which most workers do not produce "things".

In the 1970s and 1980s, the new feminist and labour history strived to rescue domestic servants from historical silence, but they preferred to hear Mary Cant speak of physical violence rather than listen to her loud opinions about an inequitable labour regime or notice her effective and intelligent use of a legal system. The historical story of women's oppression deeply inflects much recent sociological study of migrant domestic labour. Accounts are rarely given from the view of the domestic worker, except when a cleaner's or an au pair's experience of exploitation and abuse is requested by the researcher.

In their own voice

We need to look to the places where 18th-century domestic workers chose to speak rather than to our own assumptions about their silence and suffering - to Elizabeth Hands's poetry, for example. In 1789, with the apparent encouragement of her gentry employers, this Warwickshire maidservant published two extraordinary poems satirising them (as well as exploring the edgy business of their servant writing verse about them). We should try to get the measure of the insubordination that her verse implies,. Hands appears to have got away with sustained mockery of bourgeois and gentry manners, laughing heartily at pretensions to literary taste and the mean-mindedness of her employers' cuisine. What were they up to, the Warwickshire bon ton, in letting her get away with it? One day I may have an answer to that; but for the moment I can only suggest that Virginia Woolf's servants would have had a happier time of it if Hands had been there to tell them to write back to her sneering.

Carolyn Steedman's Master and Servant: Love and Labour in the English Industrial Age is published by Cambridge University Press (£45.00 and £17.99). She is wrapping up an ESRC-funded research project on 18th century domestic service; The Servant's Dream will be published in 2008. An international interdisciplinary conference on Waged Domestic Work and the Making of the Modern World will be held at Warwick University in May 2008. For details, see www2. warwick. arts/history/people/ csteedman/ conference/

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