Policy Papers

‘Yes ma’am’: domestic workers and employment rights

Lucy Delap |

  • RSS Feed Icon

Executive Summary

  • Domestic servants have long been historically remembered as workers who suffered under the arbitrary whims of their employers. Historical sources suggest that servants were beholden to their employers in complex ways.
  • The twentieth century is commonly understood as witnessing a transition to a more democratic, egalitarian society in Britain, in which social deference and hierarchies of authority were eroded. Modern domestic workers are imagined to be empowered by modern social relationships, and no longer need suffer the indignities of the 'cap and apron'.
  • However, the gains for servants were not always clear. As categories of traditional, live-in workers such as the housemaid, cook and general servant declined after 1945, other kinds of work expanded, such as the au pair, cleaner, nanny and mother's help. Domestic workers became more likely to be employed on an informal or casual basis and thus lacked basic employment rights.
  • Even when formally employed before 1945, servants had fewer rights than other workers. Crucially, servants were unable to freely change jobs, since employers could legally refuse to provide a reference, making it extremely hard to find further work.
  • Contrary to the glamorous world presented by TV dramas such as Downton Abbey, for many British domestic servants, their vulnerability was exacerbated by the social and sexual stigmas attached to their 'dirty' work, their youth, their migrant status, and the relatively large numbers who were orphans.
  • Contemporary domestic workers remain equally vulnerable through stigma, informal employment, migrant status or lack of English language skills.
  • Historical and contemporary evidence suggests that where workers lack the right to a minimum wage, agreed conditions of work and the ability to change employment, they are likely to suffer exploitation.
  • Recent changes in government policy have meant that migrant domestic workers are more vulnerable to exploitation, spanning people trafficking, physical and sexual abuse, long hours, and low or no pay.
  • The abolition of the Overseas Domestic Worker visa (ODW) in 2011 is a particularly retrograde step that makes it hard or impossible for non-EU migrant domestic workers to change employer.
  • In broader terms, the exclusion of domestic workers from current British health and safety legislation denies them protections accorded to other workers. British employment regulation should explore 'light touch' models of inspection which can make it easier to regulate workplaces that are also private homes.

Conditions in British domestic service

Downton Abbey has presented a world of intimate, glamorous servant-keeping, where above and below stairs love affairs and dramatic twists have gripped ITV viewers. The series is historically well-researched, but presents a very partial story of domestic service in Britain. Employment was predominantly in households with just one or two servants, whose lives were far from glamorous. Downton encourages us to see servant-keeping as a thing of the past, adopting a nostalgic historical gaze into what viewers are encouraged to see as an obsolete society of class gulfs. In reality, servant-keeping is less removed from contemporary British society than viewers might think, and its real history has a powerful relevance for the lives of today's domestic workers. In late nineteenth and twentieth century labour markets, domestic service in private homes made up an astonishingly high proportion of women's employment. Though many had been predicting its demise in 'modern' homes since the 1890s, domestic work remained a stubbornly large employer, with 41% of the female workforce employed as servants in 1891. This dropped to 24% in 1931, but remained the largest single female employment sector, with around 1.6 million servants. By the interwar years around one third of these servants were non-residential. But their employment conditions remained similar to those of Victorian servants, with very limited time-off and low rates of pay. National Insurance benefits had been available to some workers from 1911, but domestic servants were one of the last groups to be included, in 1938. Employers still insisted upon uniforms that some found stigmatising, and required servants to call them 'sir' and 'ma'am'. The spread of labour-saving technologies within British homes was slow, and the housing stock continued to feature the basement kitchens and flights of stairs that made them so labour-intensive. If houses were modernised, servants were often forbidden from using the inside bathrooms, restricted instead to outdoor toilets, and basin washes in their attic bedrooms. Coal fires, kitchen ranges, laundry dollies and scrubbing brushes were still the predominant tools of the trade.

Servants in interwar Britain were still expected to be on-hand at the convenience of the employer, and found their lives closely surveilled. In particular, many faced restrictions on what they could do or buy in their spare time. Mrs Stone worked as a housemaid in Essex between the wars: 'I remember that with my wages that I had saved, Mother bought some light blue check material and made me a costume, a full skirt down to the ground with a bolero, and a white blouse dotted with pink roses. I went to church on Easter Sunday morning, when the Vicar's wife walked in dressed in a costume almost identical to mine. The next morning I was sent for and told I was dressed far above my station in life.'

Stigma and vulnerability

The status of servants was low and they were expected to defer to their social 'betters'. 'Dirty' jobs such as cleaning toilets, changing nappies, and scrubbing floors all lent themselves to an association with degradation. The tasks of servants were also linked symbolically to the sexual realm; dirt was equated with immorality and promiscuity, and servants were often subject to unwanted attention from other workers such as tradesmen and delivery boys, or from employers.

Age exacerbated the vulnerability of domestic servants. With some as young as 12, they were often unable to assert their rights at work or resist ill-treatment. Indeed, servants were encouraged to think of their workplace as their home, and to feel love towards employers, who often claimed they were like parents to their employees. If a servant was asked to work late, or mind a child while scrubbing the kitchen, they were expected to put the family's needs first. Many young servants did work for kin or family friends. The blurred boundaries between kin and servant sometimes made for friendly, informal working conditions, but could also lead to excessive demands. The myth of familial belonging exerted a great deal of emotional pressure on young women to put their employers' needs ahead of their own. Some young women were resistant to the indignities of domestic service, and those in urban and industrial areas could opt instead for factory, retail or clerical work. Many, however, found they had few options. In remote and rural areas poverty might require them to leave home and earn a living. The pressure was greater during the recessions of the 1870s and 1880s, the early 1920s and the early 1930s. Residential service still offered an easy way to support family and save for marriage. For some, it proved a good job. Servants' accommodation and food was paid for, so despite their low wages and long hours, some could save money. Mrs Newman, who had been placed as a kitchenmaid by a Lambeth workhouse in the interwar years recalled: 'my wages were to be £9 a year... I wondered when hearing this how I would ever spend such a vast sum. Incidentally my first month's wages bought me twelve yards of unbleached calico at 6 ¾ a yard, total cost 6/9, which I made into underclothes, and joy of joys trimmed with lace. Such luxury I had never dreamed of until now... next month I bought a pink French sailor hat for 4/11 which was most unsuitable but which I thought glorious.' Another servant to a childless couple noted that 'I was well cared for as if I were their own child.'

When migrating from a distance, however, it was hard to know which employers would be kindly. Having left their communities and kin, there was little servants could do if a job turned out to be abusive. Mistresses sometimes actively chose those servants who could not easily appeal to their families for protection and support. One employee of a servants' employment agency reported that, 'the country girl was more docile, quieter and ready to do what she was told even if she didn't like it very much.' Londoners, on the other hand were perceived as more 'uppity'. Another solution to the problem of establishing the authority of employers was to employ foreign servants, reputed to be 'more tractable than English servants', as one late-Victorian household manual put it. Tractability was, of course, achieved through the lack of other options for these relatively vulnerable workers. Employing families often 'sponsored' the migrant servant by loaning her travel costs or supplying a uniform, which was then paid back through deductions from wages. This could make it extremely difficult for servants to leave employers to whom they were indebted. Some found that their debt was added to by deductions for breakages or other charges that left them permanently beholden.

For the English and Scottish upper and middle classes, the closest sources of culturally and ethnically 'other' servants were Wales and Ireland. Welsh and Irish servants were widespread in British homes, although those who were Roman Catholic encountered discrimination that could make it hard to gain a good position. Catholic servants, it was believed, would be likely to entertain their family or friends in the kitchen, might steal food, and would certainly want to go to Mass at inconvenient times. Nonetheless, in 1915 a reader of The Queen magazine recommended Irish servants to other readers as less status-conscious than English servants and more likely to take on additional tasks. Irish servants, far from home and mostly from poor backgrounds, were unable to refuse the requests of employers because they could not risk being sacked, especially during recessions. As one migrating servant wrote of the 1930s, 'you daren't be out of work'. Women who had grown-up in institutional homes - the workhouse, or charitable institutions such as Barnardos children's homes - also commonly worked as servants. Some such institutions provided oversight of the working conditions of these girls, who might be as young as 14 and were often orphans, but many did not. Lacking a home to return to, or parents to scrutinise conditions, these young women were as vulnerable as migrant workers. Mrs Stone, when accused of dressing above her station, had bravely answered: 'My Mother chooses my clothes, perhaps you will go and see her'. But those raised in institutions had no such recourse. One orphan servant with measles found that her employers were so desperate to get her out of the house and avoid contagion, they rang a bell continuously outside her door, making it impossible for her to recuperate. Only a doctors' intervention enabled her to return to the workhouse to recover.

Servants and the law

While the high demand for servants at various points in the twentieth century gave them some resistance to exploitation, the legal framework governing their employment remained punitive. Insubordination and 'defiance to proper orders' were legitimate legal grounds for instant dismissal. One female servant sued her mistress for her wages at Shoreditch County Court in 1913, after she was fired for 'answering saucily' and 'slapping things all over the place'. She lost her case; unable to prove her word against that of her mistress. The ability of mistresses to withhold references or give a bad 'character' was key to keeping the balance of power on the side of employers, making servants reluctant to give any cause for complaint. Even during times of relatively high-demand, servants were well aware that any lack of compliance could lead to the sack. Mistresses had to provide one month's notice, or wages in lieu of the notice period, but crucially, they were not legally compelled to provide a reference. Few servants could gain another job without this. Jean Rennie, a cook in service in the 1930s, told of being sacked in London without a reference, after having had the nerve to admit to her mistress that she was a writer. Her subsequent destitution, despite her skilled status and high demand for cooks, makes clear the obstacles to those who left an employer on bad terms. Servants and reformers continually demanded changes to the character system, to compel mistresses to give a written reference that was subject to the usual libel laws.

It is clear that where workers can neither easily change jobs nor protest their conditions, a proportion will always suffer abuse. The nature of the private home as a workplace made abuse more likely because the tasks undertaken were intimate, often with no witnesses. Many servants resisted abuse, but the young, the migrant, and the orphaned were less able to do so.

Servantless homes?

The profile of domestic workers in the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first has changed somewhat. There are fewer orphans and young teenagers, but many more migrants working in British homes. This shift became clear from the middle decades of the twentieth century. Jewish refugees in the 1930s were commonly admitted under domestic worker visas, and many found their employers had little patience for their lack of domestic knowledge, or sympathy for their previous traumatic experiences. Few stayed long in domestic service once full employment during the war gave them alternatives.

Post-war full employment and demographic change continued to keep the young British-born servant in short supply. Middle and upper class households turned instead to newer categories of domestic worker such as the cleaner or the au pair. These workers were often informally recruited and lacked employment rights. One 1960s survey of au pairs in Hendon noted that, 'They think of themselves as students, as typists, as glamour girls, but not as domestic workers... [Yet] if their employers wish to regard them as servants they have no protection. They are, legally and actually, in the same position as old-fashioned 'servants' were.' Older, married Irish women were strongly represented amongst cleaners. Numbers can only be estimated, but memoirs, the press and women's magazines from the 1950s to the 1970s suggest that affluent households continued to feel entitled to domestic assistance, despite widespread media talk of 'servantless homes'. A 1964 survey of members of the British Federation of University Women found that over 90% of respondents employed domestic help, ranging from a residential servant to mother's help or au pair. European refugees, economic and political, continued to work in British homes after the war, and from the 1970s Spanish, Portuguese and Italian women or couples were common as residential domestic workers in elite homes. There were also small numbers of Filipina, Malaysian and Sri Lankan women who worked mostly for London-based households. One employer noted in 1978 that 'I have a girl who comes from - Indonesia? No, Philippines, that's it! She has two days off from her family where she's working, so she comes those two days,' displaying no concern for her employee's lack of rest days.

The 1980s saw a rise in employment of domestic workers, both migrant and British-born, as recession and social inequality constrained employment choices for low-paid and unskilled workers, while high-earners in the booming South East continued to maintain demand. Polish workers of both sexes featured prominently as illegal domestic workers in the 1990s, and continued after Polish employment in Britain became legal from 2004. Their new legal status marked an important change, however. No longer facing arrest and deportation, Poles were able to use domestic service as a 'toehold' occupation, gaining experience and language skills before moving on into jobs that reflected their often-skilled status.

Contemporary domestic workers

The structural vulnerability of servants revealed by the historical record bears strong resemblances to that of present-day domestic workers. High numbers of domestic workers who had contact with the London-based support group Kalayaan had experienced physical abuse and long hours. Emotional abuse has also proved common. Like the servants of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many contemporary domestic workers are manipulated to think of themselves as 'pseudo-kin' of their employers. A Tanzanian domestic worker, Mrs Mruke, was awarded substantial damages in 2011 for having been trafficked and held as a domestic slave in a bungalow in Harrow. She had worked almost continuously, without pay, and slept on the floor. Made vulnerable by her lack of English, she had been told in a letter written in Swahili that she had to obey her mistress, and moreover, 'you must do your work with love and show your love to the children.' The emotional ties of domestic work are complex, and many domestic workers, past and present, have felt combinations of love, loyalty, frustration and boredom in their work. What is clear, however, is that a strong sense of oneself as a contracted worker, with rights and protections, is needed to counterbalance the potential for abuse that go with the often intense emotional bonds between domestic workers and employing families, and the location of this work in private, intimate spaces.

The 2011 International Labour Organization's (ILO) Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers recommended that states ensure limits are set on long hours and overtime work is properly paid. The British government refused to sign, protesting that it was too difficult to implement such protection for domestic workers and that their basic employment rights were already guaranteed. However, in Britain, health and safety legislation, and much of the regulation governing working time, does not apply to domestic workers. This is despite high levels of stress symptoms, burns and other minor injuries, and chronic back and shoulder conditions being reported in surveys. Those defined as 'family workers' are exempt from the minimum wage; the historical record suggests that these distinctions are sometimes hard to discern and can lead to abuse. Where employment rights do apply, a recent survey by Nick Clark and Leena Kumarappan suggests that they are poorly enforced.

It is clearly difficult to police the conditions of workers in individual homes; no one wants to see fire exit signs placed over doors in private dwellings. But as the 2011 report 'Service Not Servitude' has argued, existing models of inspection for small employers, or voluntary/consensual inspection regimes experimented with in Ireland and Finland, can prove workable. In Britain, the experiences of social services or more recently, Ofsted, in inspecting the homes of childminders to ensure a safe working environment is one model of low-key inspection that could be applied to employers of domestic workers. Inspection can usefully focus on education and constructive change, rather than punitive measures. And government agencies such as the UK Border Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and HM Revenue could work more closely with unions and advocacy groups to ensure that domestic workers are documented with contracts and pay slips, paid the minimum wage, given paid holidays and breaks in their working day, and that National Insurance and tax deductions are made on their behalf. Past British governments have done little to achieve these kinds of reforms; the 1923 enquiry into domestic service sponsored by the Ministry of Labour had concluded that voluntary rather than State action was most appropriate. Compulsory reference-giving, as practised in Continental Europe, 'would involve formalities and the introduction of a bureaucratic element which would be very distasteful to both parties.' The government subsequently concentrated their effort on the provision of training for prospective servants. The state-sponsored training courses and centres of the early to mid-twentieth century were rarely attractive to young women, and those who were trained tended to opt for institutional rather than private domestic service. It has long been recognised by British reformers that European governments were much more proactive in regularising work conditions and formalising the employment of domestic workers. British unions and pressure groups frequently issued charters calling for better conditions, but without state backing, these remained unenforceable. Union organisation failed to reach and unite the disparate and isolated workers in this sector, despite the efforts of grassroots organisers. The valuable work of contemporary groups like Kalayaan or Justice 4 Domestic Workers must be matched by legislation that can regularise domestic workers' employment conditions.

The situation of migrant workers requires more specific reform. Jewish refugee domestic workers in the 1930s, accepted into Britain on 'domestic permits', found opportunities to change jobs were painfully limited, until the outbreak of war created strong demand for them in industry and clerical work. British trade unions had largely opposed the entry of Jews on domestic permits, and did little to support them. The historical record is clear that setting limits on changing employment exacerbates the vulnerability of migrant domestic workers, while conversely state inspection and regulation can turn domestic work into a secure means of entering the labour market for migrants. When the Overseas Domestic Worker (ODW) visa was introduced with cross party support in 1998, it gave migrant domestic workers the chance to quit abusive employment, and stay in the country to find other domestic work. Those working for diplomatic families were always excluded from the ODW visa and, although many of these workers lacked the freedom to testify about their experiences, those who did reported levels of abuse and trafficking that greatly exceed those experienced by workers with an ODW visa. Since the abolition of ODW visas in 2011, all migrant domestic workers have had similarly unprotected status to those working for diplomatic families, and all must obtain a visa through the sponsorship of an employing family. If a job proves abusive and they leave, they will face deportation, forcing many to stay with abusive employers. The history of domestic service in Britain suggests that migrant servants have long faced vulnerabilities, and that abuse is likely unless specific action is taken to ameliorate their status and rights.


While the institutional and legal framework under which domestic servants worked earlier in the twentieth century left them open to exploitation, it is important to remember that not all servants found the job unpleasant. Domestic service produced many different kinds of workplaces, ranging from well-paid and secure work, historically represented in Downton Abbey, to highly abusive positions. There is no need to equate domestic work automatically with enslavement and exploitation. However, it is also clear that working in private homes, especially for resident domestic workers and for migrants, creates conditions that are ripe for exploitation to occur. The UK government's record runs entirely counter to its commitments to end human trafficking, and their refusal in 2011 to sign up to the ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers is indicative of a lack of commitment to enforcing the existing rights of domestic workers. Servants in the previous century and domestic workers in Britain today have all requested legislative reform and better enforcement of existing measures to protect themselves. Despite much agitation and debate in the mid-twentieth century, no legislation was ever passed to compel references to be given, minimum wages to be paid or maximum hours to be set. Nonetheless, historical and contemporary European policy initiatives have shown that reform is possible, given the political will.

Further Reading

Jean Rennie, Every other Sunday: the autobiography of a kitchenmaid (Arthur Barker, London 1981)

Tony Kushner, 'An Alien Occupation: Jewish Refugees and Domestic Service in Britain, 1933-1948' in Werner Mosse (ed.), Second Chance: Two Centuries of German-speaking Jews in the United Kingdom (Tubingen, 1991), pp.553-78

Pooley, S. 'Domestic servants and their urban employers: a case study of Lancaster 1880-1914', Economic History Review, 62:2 (2009), pp. 405-29

Selina Todd, 'Domestic Service and Class Relations in Britain 1900-1950', Past and Present (2009) 203 (1), pp. 181-204

Phyllis Palmer, Domesticity and Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920-1945 (Temple University Press, 1991)

Lucy Delap, Knowing Their Place: Domestic Service in Twentieth Century Britain (Oxford University Press, 2011)

Fiona Mactaggart MP and Mathew Lawrence, Service not servitude: protecting the rights of domestic workers

Nick Clark and Leena Kumarappan, Turning a Blind Eye: the British State and migrant domestic workers' employment rights (Aug 2011)

Related Policy Papers


Papers By Author

Papers by Theme

Digital Download

Download and read with you anywhere!


Sign up to receive announcements on events, the latest research and more!

To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

We will never send spam and you can unsubscribe any time.

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