On the history and resurgence of British servants

by on November 30, 2013 at 7:35 am in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

After World War II, commentators predicted that the welfare state would conspire with electric appliances to kill off domestic service. By 1947, 94 percent of households surveyed employed no help, and between 1951 and 1961 the number of domestic servants halved. However, Leth­bridge’s story ends with a twist. Since 1978, household expenditure on domestic service has quadrupled, bringing the absolute number of domestics in London back to Victorian levels, according to some estimates.

That passage is from a Leah Price review of Lucy Lethbridge’s new book Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain From the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times.

Rahul November 30, 2013 at 7:53 am

Is the 1950 decline pan British & the recent rise a London phenomenon?

prior_approval November 30, 2013 at 9:21 am

And now for the real trick question – how many of the people in London actually employing the servants are actual UK citizens, and how many of the actual servants are UK citizens?

Somehow, I doubt the numbers are really all that reflective of the Victorian era.

dearieme November 30, 2013 at 9:23 am

Friends of ours, with two demanding careers and three children, employ a nanny. Another couple switched to both working part time, which is an obvious alternative. Neither couple lives in London, nor lives anywhere near the grandparents. Of course, some people cope by burdening their work colleagues but I’m not sure that one is supposed to mention that.

Our house, which was built in the 20s, had a servant’s bedroom. You can tell: it’s the room without a bell-pull.

Ed November 30, 2013 at 10:15 am

Seems to be that the prevalence of domestic servants is largely dependent on a given location having a wide disparity in incomes. That’s why nannies and maids are common in New York or London, but not Omaha or St. Louis. Unlike in Victorian London, in this day and age, a large factor in the disparities in income is the recent immigration status of the servants. In Victorian times in was entrenched social class system.

Then and now, domestic service is a good way for someone with few assets or skills to quickly acquire an income and livelihood. Anyone who has looked into the salaries of legally hired nannies in this country knows that domestic service can be a rather well paying job, all the more so that it often includes room and board as a benefit.

FC November 30, 2013 at 1:11 pm

Cooking, childcare and gardening aren’t skills?

ditto November 30, 2013 at 7:40 pm

The only skills recognized on this blog are coding, engineering and law. Everyone else is a ZMP. And if you work in the public sector you are lower than a ZMP. The free market is god – gardeners should pay their employers for the right to toil in the grass of the wealthy and wonderful. Nannies should pay to change the diapers of the princes and pricesses. Chefs are worth a small wage but cooks should be replaced by robots and prepackaged foods.

Hot Pots December 3, 2013 at 5:40 pm

Poor ditto. That prepackaged food came from a manufacturing plant that processed actual foodstuffs into something tasty and nominally edible, but most importantly with a shelf life, and with aseptic packaging, so that your lawyers can’t sue for food poisoning. But somebody grew or raised and processed that food, and amazingly enough, they weren’t coders or engineers or lawyers. In fact, there are lots of folks, real people, who believe that we could probably exist as a species without either coders or lawyers, although engineers can prove useful. But unless you are into soylent green, and you personally intend to kill, butcher and eat your fellow human beings, maybe you might want to consider that farmers, and food processors, have some marginal utility value.

Guest November 30, 2013 at 12:32 pm

Why do nannies earn twice as much as caretakers of the elderly?

dearieme November 30, 2013 at 1:53 pm

It’s less awful to wipe a baby’s bottom.

Thor November 30, 2013 at 8:51 pm

Something to try…

Put an ad out for a nanny, and then during the interviews, explain that your “child” is mom or dad, who is entering their second childhood.

Also: wouldn’t it be EASIER to be a “nanny” for a Senior? I mean, for one thing you can easily leave them in front of the TV* without any complaints by your employees (which is definitely not the case with children/infants).

* And you really only need the Weather network.

Riz Din November 30, 2013 at 12:53 pm

John Kay has just written a great piece in the Financial Times about the London property market and how more and more property in London can be described as a positional good. The increasing demand for domestic servants will be complementary to this.

Steve Sailer November 30, 2013 at 3:45 pm

1978 was the last year of Labour domination, with unbelievably high marginal tax rates. In contrast to today when London attracts the foreign rich, back then it repelled even the native rich: A large fraction of British rock stars were tax exiles.

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