A Maidservant's Lot
R.C. Richardson describes the fortunes of young women driven by poverty into domestic service in early modern England. A number fell victim to predatory masters and ended up with illegitimate children, only to be ejected form households into penury or, worse, executed for infanticide.
The life of a maidservant in early modern England was one fraught with perils, with young girls often prey to the advances of their lustful masters. In 1693 the London newspaper The Athenian Mercury carried the story of a manservant who, with his employer’s active encouragement, married a maidservant in the same household only to discover that she was already pregnant with the master’s child. The employer said he was grateful to have ‘such cracked ware [taken] off his hands’ and gave financial compensation to the couple. Most maids made pregnant by their employers were not so fortunate.
Servant-keeping was a ubiquitous and defining feature of society in the 16th to 18th centuries – around 60 to 70 per cent of 15 to 24-year-olds, the majority of them female, were employed in domestic service, even in poor households as pauper servants. Most of them lived, worked and slept in close proximity to their employers, sometimes in the same room. Privacy, even in great houses with features such as corridors and backstairs, was often impossible to achieve. Poverty was an endemic aspect of life in service. There were many like the ‘poor maid’ in a 1567 Canterbury court case who possessed ‘nothing but her personal apparel and 16 shillings a year wages and no other goods’.
Maidservants, therefore, were often precariously positioned, both physically and economically. This made them sexually vulnerable to the whims of their masters and other men of the house as well as to lodgers, guests, manservants and apprentices. Some would-be maidservants newly arrived in London were procured by pimps or by patrons of disreputable labour exchanges almost as soon as they set foot in the capital.