Lucy Delap

Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Cambridge and Deputy Director of History & Policy

Domestic workers, feminism and historical child abuse

Lucy Delap studied philosophy and social and political sciences as an undergraduate at Cambridge University. She worked for two years for the Institute for Public Policy Research before enrolling on a cross-faculty M.Phil programme and completing a PhD on feminist political ideas in Britain in the early twentieth century. Working in a multi-disciplinary environment encouraged her to think historically. ‘You can only understand contemporary feminist theory if you think about the historical moment at which it was produced,’ is a theme she remembers from discussions with teachers and colleagues. This naturally led her to feminist history and to the question: how did feminists think about these things earlier?

History is always quite open to multi-disciplinary perspectives because it is such a broad canvas. We are always thinking about Philosophy in the past, or Architecture in the past, or Feminism in the past, or whatever our subject may be. So it’s intrinsically multi-disciplinary; that is one of the things that makes it so attractive to policy makers. It’s not a narrow field, where we are saying our narrow expertise can be brought to bear on this particular question. We can address every question, because History itself is boundless in its range.’

She joined History & Policy soon after it was founded and spent several years as an editor, reviewing policy papers by other historians, before writing her first paper in 2012, on domestic workers and employment rights. She was appointed Reader in Twentieth Century British History at Kings College London and Director of History & Policy in 2013. She is now a Fellow of Murray Edwards College and Lecturer in Modern British History at Cambridge University.

This case study illustrates how historians can provide insights for policy makers on highly sensitive issues, such as the Department of Health investigations into Jimmy Savile’s activities on NHS premises, and historical child sexual abuse.

‘One of the major learning journeys for me has been to try to start a policy intervention with a specific policy problem and only move into the history when you have demonstrated there is some kind of historical analogy that is relevant, rather than starting with the history. That’s quite a job really, to get yourself into their shoes and understand what matters to these policy makers? What does the world look like from their perspective?’

Domestic servants

Delap starting thinking that there was a policy aspect to her research when working on her second book, a history of domestic service. She realised that keeping servants in the first half of the twentieth century, before the Second World War, had strong parallels with the employment of domestic workers fifty or a hundred years later:  

‘You get the same kind of debates about how intimate should you be with your employer, or your nanny or your cleaner or your au pair; what do you owe them as an employer; what are the limits to the nature of relationships; is this like having a kin relationship or is it very much an employer relationship? There’s also the same sense of entitlement amongst middle class women in the early twentieth century and the late twentieth century of: “I shouldn’t be doing this myself, I should be able to devolve this work.” So that project evolved into something which led me back to the contemporary world.’

Being aware of the contemporary relevance of an issue can help us understand the past better, and vice versa. It is all too easy, for example, to be critical of Edwardian servant-keeping as paternalistic, uncaring, or exploitative, while being complacent about contemporary practices, such as not paying national insurance contributions, holiday or sick pay to domestic workers.

There has always been a close connection between domestic work and migration from less affluent areas within Britain or from overseas. While Delap was working on her book, the terms of the British domestic visa were changed. Rather than being able to move from one job to another, foreign domestic workers coming to Britain from outside the EU were tied to a single employer. If they lost their job for any reason, they were deported. In the early twentieth century the situation had been very similar, for different reasons. Delap had found many examples in her research of servants being atrociously treated by their employers, because they were unable to withdraw their labour, or move to another job without their current employer giving them a reference:

‘If for any reason you didn’t like your post or they didn’t like you, you were really stuck. You were absolutely a victim of your employer’s willingness, or unwillingness, to give you the reference you needed to get your next post. So basically the policy analogy was: if you make it very hard or impossible for servants to change jobs, then you will inevitably get exploitation.’

She wrote an H&P policy paper on the issue, arguing that the domestic workers’ visa needed to be restored to its previous state, to allow foreign domestic workers to change jobs, rather than be deported. She sent the paper to Kalayaan, the domestic workers’ support organisation who were already campaigning on the issue, and organised a joint event with ‘Justice for Domestic Workers’, the domestic workers’ union. She had no hesitation in taking a partisan stance, as she felt the historical evidence showed clearly that, in a low-wage environment with real power differentials between employer and employee, exploitation was almost inevitable. Foreign domestic workers in modern Britain were vulnerable and in need of support. But the impact she could have as a historian, though useful and appreciated, was limited:

‘I think the domestic workers’ organisations appreciated having a new argument, a new angle they could use for publicity purposes; they liked the fact that I was re-tweeting their material and adding my own little historical dimension to freshen it if you like. Certainly they were very grateful for that. So that was very interesting. But what demonstrable policy impact was there? It was just an extra event, as part of their campaigning.’  

The Jimmy Savile Inquiry

Delap’s work for the Jimmy Savile Inquiry originated from History & Policy’s contact with the organisation Verita, which advises organisations in healthcare and other highly regulated fields on undertaking reviews and investigations of complex, sensitive issues.

‘This was a good example of how History & Policy had opened up a channel. One person had set up a connection and other historians can benefit from that. The connection was already there. History & Policy was a credible and trusted outfit and Verita contacted us to say that they were assisting Kate Lampard’s inquiry on the offending of Jimmy Savile on NHS premises.’

History & Policy put together a one-day workshop with nine historians giving presentations on a varied set of issues including NHS cultures, psychiatric hospitals, fund-raising practices, human rights legislation and media and celebrity culture:

‘All the kind of things that made sense of how Savile had been able to be a very prolific and quite open abuser of children, without anyone holding him to account.’

Delap’s contribution to the workshop was based on her university teaching on paedophilia and moral panics over child sexual abuse. She felt the Inquiry would benefit most from a broad synthetic overview, rather than a narrow research-driven account:

‘It was a good example of an occasion where multiple perspectives from historians working together could provide something quite extraordinary. Kate Lampard’s report commented that they had heard some of these things before, but bringing them all together into one big picture really changed the way they thought about Savile, the way they understood what a celebrity could get away with.’

In her ‘Lessons learned’ report, published in February 2015, Kate Lampard listed all the historians by name and detailed the contribution each had made to the Inquiry’s understanding of the issue.

‘That’s all there, documented, in her report, which is incredibly helpful for us because it demonstrated solid impact. We can say: our research fed in, via this seminar, to this policy-making discussion.’

Historical child sexual abuse

When the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, IICSA, was announced by the Home Secretary in 2014, Delap and two colleagues she had worked with on the Jimmy Savile Inquiry - Louise Jackson and Adrian Bingham - applied for and were awarded an ESRC urgency grant.

‘We had to get our application in four weeks after the announcement and we got the answer from the ESRC four weeks later, so it was a very compressed process. We started doing our research in the archives only to find that the Inquiry was delayed, due to two earlier chairs having being rejected after doubts were raised as to their suitability in the media. This was frustrating for us, as we were meant to finish the project in July 2015. By the time we were ready to report and publish some History & Policy papers, there still wasn’t really an Inquiry on the ground to talk to. So we extended the project to September.’

Discretion was hugely important while they were working on the project, but many policy fields are sensitive, and in Delap’s view, when working on a project like this, historians have to accept that they may be told they have to work in a discreet way. Furthermore, they could not guarantee in advance that their work would achieve any specific impact on policy, or even, as the Inquiry was at such an early stage when their project ended, that their input and findings would be formally considered and acknowledged in the Inquiry’s final report:

‘Whenever you are applying for funding that might involve a public engagement, a public dialogue, or a policy element, you have to be quite open-minded about what work you find you are eventually able to do.

We published a nice History & Policy opinion piece, which also went out on The Conversation, looking at a Savile-like case in the 1920s. That resulted in an invitation to go on the Today Programme. Now that’s not a policy engagement but it does help make you a credible person to talk to, because policy makers can see that you are somebody who has spoken out publicly on the issue. I also did a piece on Channel Five News, after the police announced a number of lines of enquiry they were pursuing under Operation Yewtree. Our historical angle was to say that Savile was unique in some ways, but the culture of the powerful being able to offend with impunity is not unique. There was a very similar case in the 1920s, when a hospital fund-raiser was also able to gain entry to a world in which he could abuse young children.’ 

Although the ESRC project has now finished, Delap has continued to work with local organisations on historical child sexual abuse issues. In September 2015 she ran an event for specialist music schools, looking at their history of child sexual abuse and lack of safeguarding. She was invited to talk to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, and the St Mary’s Sexual Assault Referral Centre in Manchester.

‘Those presentations provided a chance to talk to grass roots practitioners about historical dimensions of sexual assault and how people disclose child sexual abuse, and have led to another invitation to talk to the Sue Lambert Trust, a charity supporting survivors of sexual abuse in Norfolk.’

In general, despite adversely affecting some of her academic work, such as having to postpone working on a book, her policy work has been a positive experience, providing opportunities for ‘learning from my colleagues, pushing myself into an area I probably wouldn’t have been in’.

‘Sometimes historians in the policy world have to look for the appropriate opening. In this case it was already on the table. This is about ‘historic’ child sexual abuse; therefore the relevance of history is absolutely plain. Usually History & Policy papers are saying: here is the contemporary policy problem and here’s how looking at the history helps us understand the contemporary problem. In our case, because the policy problem was a historical problem, we were just saying: here is the history.’


Based on her policy experience, Delap suggests that:

‘History can provide valuable insights for policy makers through showing the big picture, rather than focussing on the intricacies of individual cases.’

  • Historians have to start by understanding the policy makers’ needs and interests and be willing to tailor what they do to the needs of policy makers.

‘In other words it’s not about disseminating your research. It’s about addressing a policy problem.’

  • Working collectively, sharing writing and archival research and being part of History & Policy, can amplify historians’ policy impact.
  • Historians seeking to have an impact on sensitive policy issues need to be discreet and completely trustworthy and able to work in a very flexible fashion.
  • Policy engagement is a long process.

‘It’s something you keep doing across your whole career. You build up relationships and you build up forms of expertise. If you are interested in policy engagement, don’t be disheartened by the fact that some of your policy avenues turn out to be dead ends. You just have to keep going.’

Further Reading

Related Policy Papers

Related Opinion Articles

Published on:


  • Lucy Delap is a lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Cambridge and Deputy Director of History & Policy. She works on gender, labour and religion, and her current research focuses on masculinities and political activism in the late twentieth century.

About Us

H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Read More