- The Experience of Domestic Service for Women in Early Modern London
Perhaps one of the most striking differences between English society in the early modern period and the twenty-first century is the ubiquitous presence of servants in the former. Service was by no means a new phenomenon in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the classical and early medieval worlds contained numerous individuals enslaved in servility, while the great houses and monasteries of the high and later Middle Ages required large numbers of domestic employees to function. Ms. Humfrey is concerned with a crucial later period in the history of servants within a very specific environment, namely the growing English (and after 1707, British) metropolis. Her primary sources begin with a very well-written overview of the historiography pertaining to domestic service in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, a field dominated by historians such as Peter Earle and Tim Meldrum, although ongoing work by Amy Erickson may change perceptions of contemporary women’s work.
In London, the largest city in Europe at this time, domestic servants were crucial to the economic vibrancy of the age. That so many of these servants were women is particularly significant, and Ms. Humfrey, drawing on the work of Carolyn Steedman for a slightly later period, keenly places servants back in the working class. In addition, she overturns a common misconception that all female servants were adolescents and young women making shift until marriage. For many, domestic service was not a stage in the lifecycle, but a form of work, perhaps even a trade which might be pursued for many decades, or dipped in and out of as necessity required. [End Page 98]
The excellent primary sources themselves fall into two categories. The first three chapters provide cases in which servants gave evidence through depositions to the Court of Arches during the periods 1667–1675, 1690–1706, and 1715–1735. In the final two chapters are the statements given by women in service who were seeking to claim residence in the parish of St. Margaret Westminster from 1718–1725 and 1726–1735.
These sources, as Ms. Humfrey emphasizes, have their own strengths and weaknesses. In many ways the material from the Court of Arches is the richer of the two since depositions provide more detailed, personal narratives, although we might take their accuracy cautiously, as Natalie Davis, Laura Gowing, and others who have discussed “fiction in the archives” remind us. Moreover, since the Court of Arches handled appeals, the households described were wealthier than average, although sometimes economically fragile. At best, depositions provide useful insights into household politics, a topic explored in significant detail by Bernard Capp, whose When Gossips Meet (Oxford, 2003) is strangely absent from the Introduction.
Depositions show how servants had to negotiate their place and sometimes were caught between conflicting obligations to masters and mistresses. The stifling lack of privacy is evident too; illicit sex is spied through holes in walls and doors, the sexual indiscretions of the master of the house become evident when the unfortunate maidservant is made to clean his dirtied shirts in private. They tell the historian much else, too: what material objects were to be found in the household, the layout of the domestic environment, and even something about how servants spent what little free time they had.
By contrast, settlement examinations are more formulaic, detailing a number of key issues that mattered to those interrogating the women whose lives they preserve, although they lend themselves easily to quantification. Settlement examinations reveal how long women had been resident in a particular household and parish; their marital status, plus in the case of wives the whereabouts of their husbands; how much they were paid, and how long they were contracted for. What comes through with stark clarity from these sources is that length of residency was often brief, and the experience of marriage must have been very different in a period of high mortality rates when divorce was nearly impossible. Perhaps clearer than in the depositions, in which some...