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History from below stairs: domestic service in Britain & Ireland, 1650-1850 - HIS00126M

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Catriona Kennedy
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2022-23
    • See module specification for other years: 2021-22

Module summary

From the lavish retinues of liveried staff kept by the most affluent establishments to the single ‘drudge’ employed in more modest households, domestic servants were a ubiquitous feature of social and domestic life in the long eighteenth century. Domestic service was the single largest category of female employment throughout this period and as many as sixty per cent of the population aged 15 to 24 may have been employed in this role at any one time. Servants and the ‘servant problem’ were a constant subject of debate and discussion as masters and mistresses lamented that domestics were venal, dishonest and incompetent and not as good as they used to be. Yet, at the same time, the virtuous heroine of one of the greatest literary successes of the age, Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela (1740), was a servant, whose virtue was rewarded with marriage to her master.

In this module, we will draw on the rich and expanding scholarship on the social, cultural and literary history of domestic service and a diverse array of contemporary writing about, by and for servants, as well as visual representations, court records and other archival material. Among the questions we will consider are: How should we understand the evolving relationship between servants and their employers in this period? Were they part of the extended household family, or agents on the labour market with a clear sense of their contractual rights and obligations? What did masters and mistresses think and feel about their servants and vice versa? How might the inclusion of domestic service and servants change how we write the histories of the labour and the working class? How did the master-servant relationship inform thinking about social, political and racial hierarchies in this period? And, in this unequal relationship, could servants wield power?

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Spring Term 2022-23

Module aims

The module aims to:

  • Develop skills of source analysis and interpretation;
  • Assess a range of source material and relevant secondary works; and
  • Develop students’ powers of evidence-based historical argument, both orally and in writing.

Module learning outcomes

After completing this module students should have:

  • A critical appreciation of the history of domestic service in the long eighteenth century and how this relates to broader themes including work, gender, domesticity and the social order. - An ability to analyse the relationship between the lived experience of domestic service and the representation of servants in the cultural imaginary.

  • A nuanced understanding of a broad range of source material – literary, polemical, autobiographical, visual – relating to domestic service in this period.

Module content

Teaching Programme:

Students will attend eight weekly two-hour seminars in weeks 2-9.

Seminar topics are subject to variation, but are likely to include the following:

1. The family, the household and domestic servants.

2. The ‘servant problem’.

3. Migration, mobility and ‘life cycle’ service.

4. Sexy footmen and vulnerable maids: gender and sexual relations.

5. Scribbling servants: servants’ reading and writing.

6. Theorizing domestic service: politics, economics and the law.

7. Servants in rebellion: eighteenth-century Ireland.

8. Servants/slaves, race and empire.


Task Length % of module mark
4,000 word essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Students will complete a 2,000-word formative essay, due in week 6 of the term. They will then submit a 4,000-word assessed essay for summative assessment in week 1 of the following term.

For further details about assessed work, students should refer to the Taught Masters Degrees Statement of Assessment.


Task Length % of module mark
4,000 word essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment, students will receive oral feedback at a one-to-one meeting with their tutor and written feedback consisting of comments and a mark within 10 working days of submission. Tutors are also available in their student hours to discuss formative assessment. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

Bridget Hill, Servants. English Domestics in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Timothy Meldrum, Domestic Service and Gender, 1660-1750. Life and Work in the London Household (London: Routledge, 2001).

Carolyn Steedman, Labours Lost. Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Kristina Straub, Domestic affairs: intimacy, eroticism, and violence between masters and servants in eighteenth century Britain (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009)

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.