Dr. Paula M. Humfrey


Domestic Service for Women in London, 1660 – 1745

By Paula Muriel Humfrey Ph.D.

Thesis, Graduate Department of History, University of Toronto, 2000

This thesis examines the working lives of female servants in early modern London. Domestic service was the dominant form of wage labour for women in the pre-industrial metropolis. While some historians of domestic service have maintained that a term in service was primarily a pre-marital phase of women's lives in this period, it is argued in this thesis that female servants in London could also rely on service as a means of getting income throughout their adult lives despite social strictures against their so doing. Individual servants' stories taken from ecclesiastical and criminal court depositions and parish settlement examinations reveal that despite broad disparity in the work they were hired to do, women in service experienced poverty and its attendant insecurities in common. As a result, domestics sought ongoing work in service despite the prescribed incompatibility of service with marriage and maternity. Women in London service tended to be highly mobile, and because the demand for their labour was market driven, they were able to leave places and take up new ones at their own discretion. At the same time, their mobility generated concern in a patriarchal and paternalistic society. Contemporary writers and legislators stressed that female servants should be better controlled, and manifest these concerns by challenging female servants' virtue and proposing that domestics were enmeshed in London's criminal subculture. Female servants undertook a range of strategies in order to get paid domestic work in an urban society in which that work was always available, but only to women who successfully protected and defended their reputations.