Certain things, tradition suggests, should not be discussed ‘in front of the servants’. In addition, historian Lucy Delap of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge believes we have never been very open in discussing domestic service itself. We may relish its TV portrayal, but a better historical sense of the good and bad sides of servant life, and its modern survival in new forms, has always been more elusive.
The scale of such labour, Dr Delap suggests, is one of the first things to grasp, comprising an “astonishingly high proportion of women’s employment”. In the 1930s servants still numbered around 1.6 million, nearly a quarter of the female workforce, working not only in stately homes, but also in suburban semis.
Do the high numbers reflect many forced into service for lack of other opportunities? This may often have been the case, but Lucy Delap cautions against too bleak a view of servants’ lives. For women escaping, say, the drudgery of life in industrial or agricultural areas, domestic service could offer an escape. Given a good employer it could be a “satisfying”, even “glamorous” job. Accommodation was provided and there were opportunities to save – although that was partly due to long hours and limited time for spending.
Those less fortunate, however, found themselves “unable to assert their rights at work and resist ill-treatment”. Servants could be dismissed instantly for such offences as “defiance of proper orders”, and struggled to find further work if denied an employer’s reference. Some even suffered physical and sexual assault.
The authorities were not unaware of such abuses, suggests Delap. But monitoring and controlling what went on in private homes was difficult. Official enquiries made proposals, but action was “always shelved” because government “never felt it could enforce” protection of domestic workers. The trade union movement also proved reluctant or unable to unionise servants.
That might have seemed irrelevant amid talk of the new “servantless household” after the Second World War. However employment of outsiders – especially women – in the home has far from declined, even if their roles have been given new names, from ‘home help’ and ‘charlady’ to ‘au pair’ and ‘nanny’. Such names, says Lucy Delap, tend to “duck the issue of what such workers really are”. She asserts there has been a “collective refusal to acknowledge the amount of paid domestic labour that goes on”. And work such as cleaning often remains at the bottom of pay scales, and outside the formal economy.
Recruits were drawn increasingly from abroad, ranging from Jews fleeing Nazi persecution to women from countries as varied as Spain, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. More recently, men and women from Poland and other former communist countries have taken many domestic jobs.
They have faced new versions of old pressures – in the past, fear of sudden dismissal, now fear of deportation. Both have led to workers tolerating exploitation. The Overseas Domestic Worker visa, introduced in the 1990s but abolished earlier this year, gave migrant workers a procedure for quitting abusive employers without losing their right to remain. Governments still point to what they say is the difficulty of implementing protection.
Meanwhile, popular fascination with the history of domestic service grows. But a more critical view is not what TV audiences seem to want. The writers of the original Upstairs, Downstairs series broadcast in the 1970s saw themselves as revealing harsh social divisions. Many viewers, it appears, approved nostalgically a time when people ‘knew their place’.
These days, many people see a revived Upstairs, Downstairs and the wildly successful Downton Abbey as offering an escape from contemporary problems – Downton instead of downturn, as the satirists might say.
Chris Bowlby is a BBC presenter, specialising in history
This article first appeared in the October 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine