Domestic Employment

Many statutes were passed in order to regulate conditions of employment. Throughout the century parliament passed statutes regulating the relationship of masters and servants, aimed at ensuring that servants received the wages due to them and behaved circumspectly towards their employers, for instance 6 Anne, c. 13; 2 Geo. I, c. 17. Agricultural and domestic servants made up the greatest single element of employment in the eighteenth century.

To be in service was a way of life and, by eighteenth-century standards, often a desirable one, for a good employer offered a sheltered and structured social environment in which servants orbited round ‘the family’. Food and board were provided, and there were often additional benefits. For the ambitious, the spectrum of employment offered by a great landlord was wide, with salaries and perquisites varying accordingly.

These career opportunities were endorsed by the speed with which publishers seized on a potential market. For aspiring servants there were numerous books and pamphlets including E. Lawrence’s Duty of a Steward to his Lord (1727) and J. Mordant’s The Complete Steward (2 vols, 1761). In 1744 Freeman’s Dublin Journal was advertising a treatise entitled A Present for a Serving-maid: or the sure means of gaining love and esteem:

This small treatise is so well done and so much approved of by the nobility as well as the gentry and trading part of England that many thousands of them have already been sold; Landlords making presents of them to their tenants; Parents to their children, Mistresses to their servants and the governors and directors of all charity schools to the girls, obliging mistresses to teach them to read this book, as it will better qualify them for Service of any degree, than any other instructions that can be given them.

It was being sold at half price – sixpence stg – ‘for the good of the public’. Domestic service was one of the principal openings for poor girls in the eighteenth century, and accordingly this was one of the main objectives of their education.

Obtaining a satisfactory position was not always easy, and many dangers awaited the unsophisticated. In the country or the provincial towns, the most usual way of hiring servants was at the ‘statute’ or ‘hiring’ fairs, usually held in May and November. In the cities farmers’ children were reputed to make the best servants, while city–bred servants were the least desirable. This demand, coupled with the reported attractions of city life, encouraged migration into the towns. If a previous arrangement had not been made, new arrivals were often found by those who, with good or often ill intention, waited to hire new arrivals at the inns where the stage–coaches ended their journeys.

Many servants changed their position fairly frequently. For this character references were essential, and the trade in forged references reached such heights that it was the subject of an act of the British parliament in 1791. The most usual method of changing employment in the cities was through Register or Intelligence Offices to which both prospective employers and employees paid a fee for an introduction. For instance, in 1717 a London office required 3d from both parties.

Some offices offered an annual rate: for example, in 1780 the London General Office offered to supply employers ‘with any servant they may want’ for 2s the first year and 1s thereafter; servants applying for ‘upper’ positions paid 1s 6d and for other places 1s. Probably the most unfortunate were the servants in a small household where much was expected of them and they did not have the companionship of the larger establishments.

It was an understood obligation that long and faithful service was rewarded by some kind of provision in old age. This varied with the rank of the servant. For example, in 1775 Lord Rochford wrote to Lord Lieutenant Harcourt asking for ‘a little sinecure place of £50 or £60 for an old servant that has lived with me these thirty years. I have now no way of providing for him but keeping him myself which will be a great charge on me.’

In 1796 John Beresford wrote to his friend William Eden, now Lord Auckland, that ‘we have been in great distress at the death of Madame de Meyrol … I really regarded her with affection.’ Madame de Meyrol had been governess to Beresford’s daughters and had lived with them for more than 25 years. Lord Auckland replied with an immediate expression of sympathy:

We are domestic enough to enter fully into the whole ground of your affliction for the death of Madame de Meyrol. There are many comforts in having a numerous family and a numerous establishment connected with it; but the scale of discomforts bears some weight occasionally.

Some employers took care of their servants by leaving them legacies in their wills; for instance, when the formidable Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough died in 1744 she left £15,000 to her lady’s maid and £200 a year each to her butler, housekeeper and head housemaid. Most legacies were not as spectacular as these, but they could be considerable and sufficient to secure a comfortable old age. Occasionally the ambitious servant of a powerful politician might embark on a successful career as a minor civil servant, and some eminent careers began in secretarial or tutorial posts in great houses.

Servants’ wages at all levels varied considerably. An important source of income, often equalling wages, was the vails or gratuities given to them by parting guests on virtually every occasion. For instance, after a dinner party when a guest was about to leave, the servants arranged themselves in two lines flanking the door and tips were given in accordance with the status of the servant and the rank of the host.

The impecunious often found it cheaper and more comfortable to dine at an inn than with a friend, as servants had methods of making guests whose generosity did not meet their expectations regret it. Some porters of stately homes levied a toll on their visitors, and in the absence of their owners these homes could sometimes be visited by tipping the servants. Although this system continued into the nineteenth century and remnants of it still exist today, its gradual decline began during the reign of George III, when sometimes tips would be pooled and the mistress of the house, or her representative, would divide them among the servants.

As egalitarian views developed, spreading from the artisans to the servants, vails or tips were considered to undermine the employer’s authority by giving the servant an independent source of income.

The first effective movement against vails came from Scotland in 1757. A decade later the system had been largely eroded, though not without considerable opposition from the servants, who did not consider rising wages an adequate compensation.

The incipient ‘unionism’ found in other occupations was also present among domestic servants. Defoe complained about it in the first quarter of the century, and in the final quarter the London diarist Farington noted ‘that footmen by combining together now make a stand for conditions. The plan is by subscribing each a certain sum weekly, those who are out of a place receive from this fund a weekly allowance till they are engaged upon prescribed conditions.’

Servants tended to combine over objectives such as tips or the employment of foreign, particularly French, servants, against whom there were specific campaigns in 1744 and 1795. Refugees from the French Revolution included servants whose job opportunities had been severely restricted by events in their native land.

Servants had their allotted places in a predetermined hierarchy divided into upper and lower servants. At the top of the hierarchy stood the land steward or agent, who might in certain cases deputise for the landlord in his absence and very often represented his interests in local government. Immediately below him were those whose claims to gentility, such as secretaries, governesses and companions, might entitle them to special consideration.

Within these groups and those below them, many fine distinctions indicated the servant’s precise place in the hierarchy. The household staff were headed by the house steward or butler, then the housekeeper, valet and lady’s maid. Both the butler and the housekeeper in a large establishment would have their own servants – at Carton the housekeeper’s maid ranked as a upper housemaid. The housekeeper enjoyed the status of a married woman and was always addressed as ‘Mrs’ regardless of whether or not she was married.

On one occasion Lady Kildare gave the following description of the best butler they ever had: ‘knows the town and everybody in it … is sensible, intelligent, sober, observant, civil to everybody, always in the way, in short quite a treasure.’ In 1761 the Kildares were in London for the wedding and coronation of George III. Lady Kildare appointed a housekeeper for Carton and wrote to the Marquess, who had not yet arrived, that:

This morning I had a long conversation with Mrs Clarke, our new housekeeper. She seems a sensible, notable, genteel sort of woman; not fine, but just the manner to create a little respect from the under-servants …We are to give her £25 E. the first year, and £30 E. if we approve of her afterwards. I told her the allowance for tea and sugar and that for strangers’ servants when at Carton …

The number of servants employed in an establishment varied with the actual requirements, the social standing or the ambitions of the family. One society lady declared in 1796 that to live comfortably in London without ‘pinching economy and pitiful savings’ she required three men and four women servants, and this was precisely the staff that Edward Westby employed in 1798 to run his house in York Street, Dublin, for his family of four. In the same street the Earl of Roden (1100) required 12 servants – four male and eight female.

As eighteenth-century landlords moved from town to country or their various estates, their servants moved with them except for a skeleton staff that was usually kept in each of a landlord’s residences. Sometimes in his absence an agent or land-steward might live in the great house.

Foreigners visiting the British Isles often commented on the number of unliveried servants. Upper servants wore their own clothes and – as servants were considered to be indicative of the prestige and consequence of their employers – were encouraged to dress well, often wearing their employer’s cast-offs. By custom, if the master died, the valet was entitled to his wardrobe, and the lady’s maid was similarly entitled to the mistress’s. For lower servants in public view, such as coachmen and footmen, spectacular liveries were often provided.

Among the liveried servants the coachman – the equivalent of the modern chauffeur – ranked highest. He was responsible for the safety of the family, and made a major contribution to its appearance on social occasions. Coaches and horses were often extremely valuable and correspondingly highly prized. A great nobleman would have a number of coaches for various purposes, including a magnificent ornately decorated state coach that would be used for important public occasions. In some respects horses and carriages were not unlike automobiles today, and a number of distinguished public figures as well as lesser mortals died in riding or carriage accidents.

Servants often shared the entertainments of their masters, accompanying them on the hunting field, or keeping their places at the opera or theatre until they chose to arrive, when the servant moved to the gods for the remainder of the performance. Servants purchased their own accessories, such as perukes and dress shoes. Regardless of their degree, maidservants wore no uniform and usually dressed as fashionably as their means would allow.

Large establishments absorbed, and required, a vast army of servants, who were also a status symbol: Dr Samuel Madden, in his Reflections (1738), pointed out that ‘we keep many of them in our houses as we do our plate on our sideboards more for show than use, and rather to let people see that we have them than that we have any occasion for them’; more than 70 years later Wakefield observed that ‘an incalculable waste is occasioned, and servants are frequently kept because their masters have not the funds to pay their wages.’

Mrs Delany, the well-connected wife of the Dean of Down, lived comfortably and unostentatiously, although she entertained a wide circle of socially prominent friends. Her household costs and responsibilities indicate how an upper middle-class or semi-aristocratic household operated. In 1758 she wrote to her sister that:

The Dean has now settled my allowance for housekeeping here at six-hundred a-year, which I receive quarterly, and out of that pay everything but the men’s wages, the liveries, the stables, wine cellar and garden, furniture and all repairs.

It has been estimated that of the c. 150,000 population of Dublin in the 1790s, 18,415 were employed as domestic servants (11,954 women and 6,461 men – male servants were taxed). These, of course, were sustained by a supporting economy of goods and other services.

Urban Employment

The guilds, with their hierarchical structure of masters, journeymen and apprentices, dominated the urban corporations and the economic structure of the towns. As the economy developed, the number of craftsmen increased. As the aristocracy of labour, they were a potential focus of the economic or political unrest that broke out from time to time throughout the century. Parliament made considerable efforts to control combinations and strikes.

It was estimated that there were at least 16 strikes between 1728 and 1759; in 1758 the weavers of the Liberties went on strike for over three months. The building of the Customs House in the 1780s was particularly fraught with strikes and violent behaviour. Recessions, not surprisingly, triggered riots and combinations, and the cry ‘we want work’ often took on a radical dimension. Urban radicalism had been a feature of Dublin throughout the century.

Although Dublin’s size put it in a special category, workers with radical views were also to be found in Cork, Belfast and in other towns with industrial activity. Irish combinations have a long history of attempts to impose closed shops, administering oaths, and demanding from their members’ adherence to compulsory regulations and forced contributions. These combinations had a network of fraternal connections throughout the country.

Furthermore, secret societies were a feature of the eighteenth century at all levels. The most influential of these was the Freemasons. Freemasonry affected all levels of society, either directly through its lodges or indirectly through providing, by its real or imagined ritual, a model for other societies, and one that in certain parts of the country could overarch the sectarian divides.

As the country’s industries developed, larger groups of workers were collectively employed in the various enterprises. One of the reasons for parliament’s repeated support of Robert Brooke’s ill-fated cotton enterprise at Prosperous, Co. Kildare was the hope that it would attract some of the Dublin weavers from the Liberties and thereby reduce a potential concentration of unrest. During a recession, when an industry either failed or had to cut back its workforce, sizeable bands of disaffected workers were laid off and made idle, often with no hope of alternative employment.

This was particularly the case in the 1790s – a decade of credit shortages and falling living standards. There were large-scale economic crises in 1792–3 and 1797. These economic problems were blamed on the French war and the British merchants’ greed; but, while events and policies may have exacerbated the situation, its roots were more deep-seated and enduring: they lay in the industrial revolution then gathering force in Britain.

Between 1791 and 1798 inclusive masters, journeymen and apprentices were suffering from the common problems created by recession. Moreover, they disliked the French war and felt that parliament was failing to provide protection against English dumping which was threatening their livelihoods. There were at least 27 bankruptcies among those listed as members of the United Irishmen in 1793 – prior to 1792 at least a further eight members had been bankrupt.

Records of other transactions, such as mortgages, suggest further commercial instability.

This would have been more than sufficient to provide effective vertical linkages between the middle-class United Irishmen and working-class movements of discontent, particularly given the spread of views and opinions in the printed media made available through reading societies.

The radical press was not slow to respond to these manifestations of urban unrest. Traditionally, the masters were hostile to combinations, and in Belfast, Samuel Neilson, formerly a successful woollen draper but in 1792 editor of the radical Northern Star, was swift to condemn ‘the very bold and daring spirit of combination’ that was then abroad. But the Dublin National Evening Star adopted a different stance, declaring that ‘of all the combinators, the combination of the rich against the poor, of employer against the industrious workman, is the most dangerous.’

Irish industry still operated under the hierarchical guild system, which offered under certain circumstances a vertical linkage between social groups. When this happened a chain of influence and leadership could be established, especially as apprentices often lived in their master’s household during their training.

The urban working class had to a considerable degree mastered techniques of organisation. Embryonic friendly societies ostensibly existed to offer some protection for their members in adversity, but occasionally their activities blended with the myriad clubs formed for political discussion or seditious purposes. Furthermore, the trade combinations were capable of a high degree of speedy protest organisation. For instance, there were an estimated 2,500 shoemakers in Dublin, and in 1795 they were reputed to be able to muster 2,000 of these within 40 minutes.

During the 1790s the urban radicals developed the technique of funeral demonstrations, which subsequently played such a large part in nationalist ritual. The first of these was the funeral of Edward Dunn, a clerk in the Church Street foundry of the United Irishman, Henry Jackson. The foundry, part of Jackson’s large iron-making business, was a hotbed of sedition. In 1793 Dunn had been imprisoned and pilloried for uttering seditious expressions in a public house. He had been released shortly after. In 1797 he died of natural causes.

A further wave of bankruptcies and unemployment occurred in 1797, and Dunn’s funeral at the beginning of April was used as a display of Defender solidarity, the mourners wearing green ribbons and handkerchiefs – wearing distinctive insignia was another part of the ritual statement made by these demonstrations. The next, and even larger funeral, was held a few weeks later on 30 April. It mourned an even less significant individual, a millwright called Ryan. It was quite clearly a demonstration of strength and a mechanism for collecting money and recruits.

In fact these funeral demonstrations may have backfired on the United Irishmen-Defenders, as the government banned future processions of a similar nature and, alerted to the size of the problem, set about effectively controlling the capital. Although the roots of the United Irishmen and the Defenders were very different, the chameleon nature of Defenderism is shown in its ability to link rural and urban economic disaffection and give them a common political focus in hostility to widely defined ‘British government’.