UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS? Experiences of female servants in England, 1550-1650

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Date:
06 Apr 2018

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Contrary to the depiction of televised historical dramas like Downton Abbey, service was not an experience that always confined women to a life below stairs in their employers’ homes. According to a new study of sixteenth and seventeenth century England, female servants spent only around 50% of their time inside the home. Their working and social lives took them into the streets, fields, marketplaces and a variety of other spaces.

The research by Charmian Mansell of the University of Exeter, to be presented at the Economic History Society's 2018 annual conference, finds that around 60% of 15-24 year olds were employed in rural and urban, rich and poor households across the country in exchange for wages, bed and board.

These women were not simply employees – they were also important members of the communities in which they lived. In addition to the work tasks they performed outside of their employers’ homes, they visited their neighbours and friends, attended parish events such as markets and fairs and were embedded in community affairs.

While some women faced vulnerability and subordination within their employers’ households, other servants enjoyed the support and friendship of their neighbours. This was by no means a golden age for women in service; but the new research demonstrates the need to assess women’s work in the past on its own terms.

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Despite women’s increased participation in the workforce, women in 2014 still carried out on average 60% more unpaid work (including cooking, cleaning and childcare) than men. The gender division of labour attracts considerable attention today and the domestic nature of women’s work is assumed to have a longstanding history. Cleaning, cooking, washing clothes and childcare are thought to have made up the bulk of women’s paid and unpaid work.

This conception of women’s work is tied to ideas of female economic and social vulnerability and oppression in the past. The female domestic servant depicted in televised historical dramas like Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs corresponds with this view of women’s work. We picture her moving silently around the household of her upper-class employers, lighting fires, making beds and doing laundry, and confined to a life below stairs.

The new research shifts the focus to sixteenth and seventeenth century service and to servant-employing households of various levels of wealth. It shows a very different pattern of female service. Around 60% of 15-24 year olds were employed in rural and urban, rich and poor households across the country in exchange for wages, bed and board.

Domestic tasks were a more prominent feature of service in the households of the wealthy, where specific roles such as dairymaid, cook and chambermaid were more common. But in smaller households, there were fewer requirements for such specialisation or for this type of work.

The workloads of most English women in service between 1550 and 1650 were not made up of what we might classify as domestic chores. Witness statements from early modern church courts detail female servants reaping barley, brewing beer or ale, picking apples, fetching wood and running countless errands. One servant was even involved in the sale of pigeons in Basingstoke in 1631.

As evidence of these work activities suggest, service was an experience that did not confine women to their employers’ homes. Female servants spent only around 50% of their time inside the home. Their working and social lives took them into the streets, fields, marketplaces and a variety of other spaces.

These women were not simply employees – they were also important members of the communities in which they lived. In addition to the work tasks they performed outside of their employers’ homes, they visited their neighbours and friends, attended parish events such as markets and fairs and were embedded in community affairs.

While some women faced vulnerability and subordination within their employers’ households, other servants enjoyed the support and friendship of their neighbours. This was by no means a golden age for women in service; but this research demonstrates the need to assess women’s work in the past on its own terms.

ENDS

Charmian Mansell
University of Oxford

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