As John Burnett points out in his introduction to The Annals of Labour,

Throughout the nineteenth century and until the First World War domestic service constituted the largest single employment for English women, and the second-largest employment for all English people, male and female. Yet it is a largely unknown occupation. No Royal Commission investigated it or suggested legislative protection of the worker; no outburst of trade union activity called attention to the lot of servants, as it did to that of the building workers, the cotton-spinners and the dock labourers. . . Immured in their basements and attic bedrooms, shut away from private gaze and public conscience, the domestic servants remained mute and forgotten until, in the end, only their growing scarcity aroused interest in "the servant problem." [emphasis added]

Many reasons offer themselves to explain why the life of a servant, the only option for many unskilled young women, became increasingly unpopular by the later part of the nineteenth century:

  1. Whereas factory work was often intensely social, the life of domestics, particularly in middle-class households with few servants, was often terribly lonely.
  2. Whereas factory work offered young girls many opportunities to meet, be courted by, and marry fellow workers, servants had virtually no chance to meet young men.
  3. Whereas young women who worked in factories had both the money and freedom to dress as they pleased, by mid-century female servants had to wear that "outward and visible sign of servility" [171] — the uniform.
  4. Finally, whereas men and women in factory work had Royal Commissions, parliamentary committees, social activists, and unions to take up their cause, leading to reduced working hours, servants had none; and as a result, they worked far longer hours than factory workers.

Indeed, as Burnett explains,

The hours worked in domestic service, unregulated by any legislation, were undoubtedly longer than in factory work. It was calculated in 1873 that a house-maid's day extended from 6 A.M. until 10 P.M., during which she had two-and-a-half hours for meals and an hour-and-a-half in the afternoon for needlework, a total of four hours "rest." This meant twelve hours of actual work, longer by two hours than a factory woman's day. On Saturday, when the factory hand worked two hours less than usual, the servant worked longer, and on Sunday, when the factory worker could rest completely, the servant was still required to work almost a normal day. Eighty hours of actual work a week, against fifty-six for the factory worker, may well be a fair estimate for the late nineteenth century, and must have been exceeded in many single-handed households.

Related Materials


John Burnett. The Annals of Labour: Autobiographies of British Working Class People, 1820-1920. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1974.

Last modified December 2001