The destination for history

Women and domestic service in Victorian society


In 1891 it was estimated that, country-wide, more than a million – that is, one in three women between the ages of fifteen and twenty - were in domestic service; kitchen maids and maids-of-all work (sometimes referred to as ‘slaveys’) were paid between £6 and £12 a year. ‘Tweenies’, maids who helped other domestics, moving between floors as and when they were needed, were paid even less.

There was a tax on indoor male servants – and their wages were considerably higher – so only the wealthy could afford to employ them. Women servants were cheap and generally more easily dominated and kept in their place. However, the close proximity of mistress and maids – interdependent yet still strangers under one roof – often led to squabbles and petulance – especially if the mistress’s expectations were too high and the maid was overworked and probably feeling alienated and homesick.

Despite the potential for violent outbursts only a comparatively small number of murders were committed by servants, pushed to the limit of their endurance by the drudgery of menial work, extremely long hours and meagre pay – that, and harsh treatment at the hands of their employers, sometimes led to retaliation and, in some cases, to murder.

The mistreatment of servants was commonplace, and young maids were especially vulnerable to being sexually exploited. Once hired, they found themselves in households in which a strict and unbreachable hierarchy below stairs ensured that they stayed on the lowest rung of that society. In 1740 Mary Branch and her mother were executed for beating a servant girl to death and, on the gallows, she admitted that she had considered all servants as ‘slaves, vagabonds and thieves’.

In addition to severe chastisement in their place of work, tragically, many young women in domestic service were severely punished by the law, sometimes with their lives, for giving birth to illegitimate babies. Very often, in sheer desperation, they disposed of these new-borns in privies, ditches and on dung-heaps – and when found out, were tried by male judges and jurors. Although some were treated mercifully, others were hanged for their actions.

The briefest study of court records, the Newgate Calendar, contemporary newspaper reports or similar publications clearly illustrates the extent of the violence regularly meted out, not only to servants but also to women and children, by fathers, husbands and lovers. The ineffectual, amateur and largely unaccountable law enforcers, who were open to bribery and corruption; the ducking and diving to dodge the law in order to make some sort of living, one way or another; illiteracy, which made record-keeping random and incomplete; the frequency of premature death of women in childbirth, and the high mortality rate amongst infants – all these factors helped to mask and conceal criminal activity, even murder. 

The alternative to a life of domestic drudgery for many women, ranging in age from those in early pubescence to those well past middle-age, was prostitution, especially for those females raised in institutions and without family support. Some were unable to find husbands to support them, whilst others may have been unwilling to become a chattel for life. Domestic service was a precarious living, as girls could be sacked immediately for breaking house rules or committing some other misdemeanour. Once employed, young women would arrive with their boxes, containing their work clothes and undergarments, possibly a Bible and perhaps a few personal mementos of their lives before entering service. If a maid displeased her mistress, her box might well be retained after dismissal – possibly to make up a deficit from real or imagined thieving. However, without a box and a ‘character’, a written recommendation or reference, it was extremely difficult to find another position.

Without the prospect of further employment some servants chose to become prostitutes; others, whilst still in domestic employment, would sometimes offer themselves in return for trinkets and small gifts – these were known as ‘dolly mops’. A few cases have been recorded of a client frequenting a brothel only to be confronted by either his cook, his children's nanny – she had ample opportunity to attract admirers whilst pushing infants in perambulators through London’s parks and pleasure gardens – or a parlour maid, supplementing her meagre wages with a little 'dolly mopping’ on the side. The mutual embarrassment can be imagined.

The number of prostitutes working in London in the nineteenth century was estimated at many thousands but it was impossible to arrive at a true figure. With so many prostitutes at work in the city, prospective clients could purchase catalogues listing the women – and their specialities - available for hire, in Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies and other similar publications. Those at the top of the pile, sometimes referred to as either ‘gay’ women or ‘unfortunates’, paraded in their brightly coloured clothing - but without hats - around the theatres along the Strand, Haymarket, and Covent Garden; the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens were also extremely popular for business. But many more, women who were perhaps less appealing, were reduced to standing on murky street corners and wandering the dark alleys between the squalid tenements in the poorer districts of the city, plying their trade as best they could, and, as often as not, vulnerable to violent attack.

According to a report written in 1899 by The National Vigilance Association, entitled Inquiries Concerning Female Labour in the Metropolis, many young girls fell victim to agencies falsely luring them – including many from Germany – with the promise of domestic employment, only to find themselves forced to work in one of the city’s many brothels – such as Mrs Harris’s establishment in Great Tichfield Street, in Central London. Especially targeted were the droves of young, naive girls coming into London from the countryside, or from abroad; they were frequently preyed upon by procurers employed by the brothel keepers. In 1731, Mother Needham, notorious for trafficking young country girls into prostitution, had been put in a pillory at the corner of St James Street and Park Place and pelted with rocks and other missiles for a period of two days, after which she died of her injuries.

The report also published lists of names and addresses of bonafide householders throughout London who were offering work for domestic servants. Christians of every persuasion attempted to address the problem. Midnight Mission Meetings were arranged in premises in the Strand to coincide with prostitutes leaving the theatres, music halls and taverns at midnight. In return for giving up their way of life, they were offered light refreshments, some intensive sermonising and a twelve-month rehabilitation in a Lock Asylum, learning to perfect their needlework and housewifery skills. It was noted by an observer at one of these meetings that this option was seldom met with any enthusiasm.

Many similar charitable schemes were launched in London to rescue these girls. The Female Servants’ Home Society was one of many; also The Female Aid Society, established in 1836. It provided three ‘safe’ houses and, with a certain sanctimonious censure, graded the rescued women in the following manner: one in New Ormond Street, Bedford Row, catering for ‘young, friendless servants of good character’; a second house in Southampton Row for ‘respectable servants out of a place’; and thirdly, a house in White Lion Street for ‘the fallen’. It was estimated that The Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants also helped to protect some 8,000 'slaveys' by vetting households offering work.

And of course, from 1840 until shortly before his death in 1898, William Gladstone and others like him were making nightly forays through the city streets, gathering up ‘fallen women’ in an attempt to save them from degradation and disease. 

By Kate Clarke

Sign up for our newsletter

By this author

show more books