Coercing British women and girls into domestic service, 1918-1928

Elmarí Whyte explores how British women and girls were coerced into domestic service in the 1920s, and the role of working-class parents in that coercion. This post is based on an article that appears in the 2020 issue of Lilith, available now on open access here.

Manchester-born Irene Hudson told her mother that her stepfather was making sexual advances towards her. Her mother’s response was to slap her, accusing her of lying. The second time Irene brought it up earnt her another slap and her first job in domestic service.

The British government went to great lengths to encourage and even coerce women into domestic service after World War I. Their unlikely ally in this, at times, were working-class parents. Domestic service, especially the kind where servants “lived in”, provided not only an income but board and lodging for those working-class girls whose families could no longer afford to keep them. To parents, it also offered a means of ‘curb[ing] a daughter’s liberty and thus protect[ing] her moral health’.

British women left domestic service in droves during World War I. They tasted the freedom and independence of work in munitions factories and in roles that would otherwise have been filled by men. After the war, working-class girls and women would not unquestioningly slip back into accepting the subservience of live-in domestic service. The occupation was becoming one of last resort. That their war work qualified many British women for unemployment benefits for the first time would see them compelled to take up domestic employment nevertheless.

Three-quarters of a million British women lost their jobs within a year of World War I ending. As many of them were drawing unemployment benefits, the government was keen to see them employed in domestic service. This diminished their cost to the state, while aiding attempts to return to pre-war domesticity and consolidate erstwhile gender roles that had been so markedly challenge by the war.

The British government linked women’s unemployment with domestic service and training through the Central Committee on Women’s Training and Employment (CCWTE). During the 1920s, the CCWTE’s working focused on group training for domestic service. Their work stood alongside that of Employment Exchanges and, later, Unemployment Assistance Boards. Employment Exchange officials could—and did—withhold unemployment benefits to induce claimants to take up positions away from home.

Promotional photograph for the Market Harborough Domestic Training Centre, Leicestershire, ca.1929. National Archives, Kew.

The government was under substantial pressure from the print media and the middle class to push more women into domestic service. That pressure saw the government launch an investigation into the ‘Supply of Female Domestic Servants’ in 1923. Much of the resultant report focused on responding to claims that working-class women had been exploiting the unemployment benefit system when jobs in domestic service were plentiful.

The push into domestic service did not only come from the government or the middle class, it sometimes also came from working-class parents. They were usually driven by financial and practical reasons. With many a male breadwinner not returning from the war or returning in a state unfit for a job that would earn them a regular income, every family member over the compulsory school age had to earn what they could. What domestic service offered that most other jobs did not was room and board under relatively respectable circumstances.  For some parents, however, the socially-isolating nature of the work and “living in” presented an opportunity to curb a daughter’s potential for moral misdeeds.

For many working-class parents struggling with the effects of the new social influences of the 1920s on their daughters, domestic service was the answer. While Anna Bradley welcomed the restrictions of ‘live-in’ service, preventing her getting ‘into mischief’, Mrs Sandys’ mother used to ‘threaten’ her with service for that very reason. Mrs Sandys, who grew up just outside Manchester between the wars, saw her mother eventually carry out those threats. Reflecting on it, Mrs Sandys felt that she was sent into service as a ‘punishment’ for being a ‘tomboy’ and not responding ‘very well’ to discipline at home.

Occasionally, the threat to a daughter’s ‘moral health’ was not from outside sources, but from within the family home, as Irene Hudson’s experience indicates. In her later interview, the language Irene used to describe the situation was vague, euphemistic, and indirect, but its inference of sexual harassment and abuse by her stepfather was clear. She described the ways he disguised the sexual with playful physicality towards her that still inflicted pain. While her mother’s response of sending Irene into domestic service might seem like punishing Irene for her stepfather’s behaviour, it did remove her from immediate harm. In interwar Britain, many women, like Irene’s mother, could not afford to lose the income and nominal protection of a husband.

Economic reasons were primary in working-class parents pressing their daughters into domestic service. Moral concerns, however, played their part in the preference of mothers—as the gatekeepers of their children’s morality—for domestic service over other occupations. Gendered ideas around morality combined with the gendered nature of domestic service to produce a solution for working-class parents concerned for their daughters’ moral wellbeing. Sexual vulnerability was inherent to residential domestic service, yet that did not prevent some parents from treating domestic service as a deterrent to immoral behaviour.

The role of working-class parents in facilitating the perpetuation of domestic employment after WWI was likely small but clearly some did aid the British government’s attempts to coerce women and girls into ‘hated domestic service’. While the government made decisions for working-class women as one homogenous group, parents’ decisions were based on the specific circumstances of their family and their daughter/s. Their decision-making was informed by working-class economic realities and gendered moralities that were worlds apart from the government’s motivations.

Dr Elmarí Whyte was recently awarded her PhD by the University of Queensland. Her doctoral thesis considered the domestic service of white women in Australia and Britain from 1911 to 1951.

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