Service Workers in Victorian England

[The following passage comes from the author’s The Victorian Novel, Service Work, and the Nineteenth-Century Economy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. — George P. Landow]

Service workers span so many fields, interests, classes, genders, and races that taking them together results not in a class but rather, like Marx’s description of the French peasantry, in so many potatoes in a sack. Accordingly, there are few instances of service workers organizing around shared economic interests and across occupations. Cain and Hopkins’s gentlemanly capitalism should not be mistaken for an exception to this rule. Rather, it identifies a particular subset of the service sector—male service workers engaged in the formal and informal administration of the British Empire, for example, finance, trade, or government—tightly linked with the construction and expression of political and economic power. Gentlemanly capitalism and gentlemanliness thus do not provide a single unified discourse that controls and directs other service workers but brings together a number of discourses—including disinterest, independence, useful skills, and natural law—for its own uses. The influence of gentlemanly capitalism meant that these discourses offered ways to locate workers as included or excluded from an emerging source of political, economic, and cultural power. Yet the very inchoate status of service work also opened the possibility that excluded forms of service could take on the power that accumulated around gentlemanly capital.

This ambivalence informs the subject construction of lower-paid clerical male service workers during this period, most especially in the role of a cultural conception of the gentlemanly. Historians such as David Lockwood and Eric Hobsbawm have emphasized that this notion of gentlemanliness led white-collar workers to refuse to identify or organize with industrial labor, regardless of their nearly equal incomes. Lockwood views this response as an effect of personal relationships between employers and clerks, where were

strongly characterized by the exhibition of mutual trust in the form of unwritten, tacit expectations of conduct. In many cases it took the form of a ‘gentleman’s agreement.’ Needless to say, this relationship was often exploited by the employer and great expectations frequently came to nothing. Nevertheless, the clerical notion of gentlemanly behaviour, at least in its lower-middle-class admixture with ‘respectability,’ acted as a powerful social control over an intransigence or insurrection on the part of the clerk. [29]

Women in the Service Sector

We will see below how respectability affected female service workers; in the case of working class clerks, it helped create a tractable workforce by ensuring that workers identified their interests with those of the upper classes for whom they worked. Geoffrey Best describes respectability as largely a question of the appearance of financial independence alongside moral conduct that was ‘in the main an embracing of the established social order, within the reach of all who wanted it and could at the same time afford it’ (263). In Victorian Clerks, Gregory Anderson describes how these notions of independence and appearance inspired working-class fathers to encourage their sons to take up white-collar work with expectations of class mobility. Unfortunately, by the mid-century, such white-collar workers were rarely class mobile and instead formed part of a cheap labor force employed by Britain’s growing number of limited liability companies (Anderson 49). Anderson describes how these thwarted expectations gave rise to the creation of voluntary organizations and business education groups in Liverpool influenced by Smiles’s gospel of success. Because these groups emphasized proper education and personal responsibility for individual success or failure, they tended to increase clerical workers’ indifference to larger economic problems and their connection with other workers (Anderson 78). In this way, working class male clerks constructed their education, skills, and cultural sense of proper conduct to locate their class interests with those of their employers (for extended discussion, see Wild).

By contrast, women in the service sector tended to experience this knot of education, skill, and conduct as a means not for rearticulating service work as a site of agency but rather for pressing them into the service sector for lower wages. This forms part of a longer trend of limiting women’s occupations that Silvia Federici locates in Caliban and the Witch as beginning in the middle ages, but historians of women’s occupations highlight three key factors in nineteenth-century Britain for women’s increased dependence on service sector employment: patriarchy’s definition of the domestic as the proper sphere of women’s work, state regulation of industrial work, and trade unionism’s exclusion of women (see Holloway 23-30 and Levine 17-35). As historians such as Gerry Holloway and Catherine Gleadle note, discourses of respectability were patriarchy’s chief means of directing women into service work from the mid-century forward, dictating the appropriate sphere for women's work; the appropriate kinds of work, modified by class position; and when in a woman's life she was allowed to work, either by social convention or state regulation (see Holloway 15-22, 53-56, 111-12; and Gleadle 104-10, 122-36). This operated in large part through the middle-class notion that marriage was a woman's unique work and her proper occupation was thus her emotional production in the home, a view popularized by writers like Sarah Stickney Ellis.

The ways domesticity directed women into service varied by class. Middle-class women had begun to adopt the domestic as the basis for respectable employment in the first third of the nineteenth century, and by the mid-century had expanded their possible occupations to include other forms of work adjacent to the domestic, for instance as nurses and teachers, as well as the seemingly appropriate ‘light’ work of clerks and shop assistants (see Holloway 108-26 and Gleadle 104-11, 140-53). By contrast, working class women experienced the increased demands of gender norms and respectability through state regulations and trade union exclusion that drove them out of the factories and into service. Feminist historians such as Holloway, Walby, Feurer, and Gleadle have documented how the Factory Acts limited women’s ability to work in factories, focusing in particular on the alliance between middle class reformers and working class men to remove women from better-paid factory positions. Union exclusion further expressed these patriarchal gender norms and kept women from returning to the factory floor (see Feurer 233-60, Gleadle 104-9, and Walby). As a result, even though the number of domestic servants declined over the course of the nineteenth century, working class women became more dependent upon such work (see Lee, “Service Industries” 124). Moreover, they experienced this work and its live-in system as an increase in patriarchal social control, and viewed it as less desirable than other forms of work. However, as the century continued, controls like the live-in system also extended to other service sector jobs occupied by women such as shop work and nursing (see Holloway 110, 119-20).

In sum, the different kinds of work available to women reveals servility’s continued influence on the perception of service sector work. Women were pressed into the modes of service work that could not be delinked from the physical body and either rarely produced alienable commodities or produced items that were not understood as alienations of labor power (such as raising children, cooking dinner, washing laundry, housecleaning, and so on). Further, the gendering of this work locates it as dependent and open to exploitation by making it seem a mere double of a wife’s work in the home. The ‘marriage bar’—the use of marriage as an excuse by employers to dismiss women workers after marriage—actively ensured that many women’s positions in service were reserved for young single women (though laundry work was a key exception). Some historians have argued that this displacement into the domestic sphere opened new spaces of female hegemony and social production given women’s control of household management and finances (see Nenadic 122-54, Armstrong 1-27, and Fortunati 157-76). However, the economic effects of the marriage bar ensured a female workforce with low wages and little bargaining power since employers used marriage to force experienced women to leave their places, effectively creating a reserve service work force that drove down wages for both genders (see Holloway 108-17 and Gleadle 108). For this reason, single women's rights in the workplace became a source of agitation during the century's latter half. By contrast, married women confronted an additional hurdle to joining the workforce with the cultural and racially motivated anxiety that working women were responsible for Britain's high infant mortality rates (see Holloway 77-91, and Gleadle 45-47, 133-35).

In fact, sexual reproduction constituted a key form of women's work through the period, and it was used to exclude women from the workforce and to increase men's wages to support families. By contrast, prostitution—problematically servile and dependent in its explicit linkage of work, body, and vulnerability—could provide limited autonomy for some working class women. As Judith Walkowitz writes in her study of Victorian prostitution, such work was not a death sentence but rather one of the few transitional occupations available for women concentrated in regional metropolitan economies (22). Prostitution’s connection with metro economies highlights its status as another of the Victorian era’s service sector jobs, and Walkowitz locates the ‘1860s and 1870s… [as] the high point for the prostitute as an independent operator’ (24). Moreover, as David Bennett illustrates, such sexual work was discursively coded as unproductive, from casting the prostitute as ‘a prototypical conspicuous consumer’ to the ‘prevailing view … that prostitutes shared with criminals the hereditary character of “unproductiveness,” which itself was “anti-social” and hence “a form of criminality”’ (99). Much as new discourses constructed new forms of self-conception for men and women in service and professional work with the rise of the male invisible industries, they also addressed and formed prostitution during this period. It is no accident that the Contagious Diseases Act was also an innovation of the 1860s as it combined these disparate discourses of consumption, unproductive labor, sexuality, patriarchy, and capital.

These manifold forms of service work, then, reveal how the Victorian era experienced service work and its ambivalences as social and personal experiences of dependence and creation—of domination and self-construction—in an environment saturated by finance and the emergent professions. Central to this moment is the relation of one’s body and one’s intellect to external forces of domination. Independence, useful skills, and professional disinterestedness mitigate the threat of domination by creating or maintaining something separate from the work-relation. However, gender norms and racism place these mitigating factors out of reach for women and minorities engaged in service.

Related material


Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

Bennett, David. ‘Libidinal Economy, prostitution and consumer culture.’ Textual Practice 24.1 (2010): 93-121.

Best, Geoffrey. Mid-Victorian Britain 1851-1875. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971.

Cain, P.J., and A.G. Hopkins. British Imperialism: Innovation and Expansion, 1688-1914. New York: Longman, 1993.

Darwin, John. The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System 1830-1970. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation. Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004.

Feurer, Rosemary. ‘The Meaning of ‘Sisterhood’: The British Women’s Movement and Protective Labor Legislation, 1870-1900,’ Victorian Studies 33.2 (1988), 233-60.

Fortunati, Leopoldia. The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital. 1981. Trans. Hilary Creek. Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1995.

Gleadle, Kathryn. British Women in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

Joshua Gooch, ‘On ‘Black Friday,’ 11 May 1866,’ BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History, ed. Dino Franco Felluga, Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. 16 December 2014.

Holloway, Gerry. Women and Work in Britain Since 1840. London: Routledge, 2005.

---. ‘The Service Industries.’ The Economic History of Britain Since 1700: 1860-1939. 2nd Edition. Ed. Roderick Floud and Deirdre N. McCloskey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994: 117-44.

Levine, Philippa. ‘Consistent Contradictions: Prostitution and Protective Labour Legislation in Nineteenth-Century England,’ Social History 19.1 (1994): 17-35.

Lockwood, David. The Blackcoated Worker: A Case Study in Class Consciousness, 2nd Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Robb, George. White-Collar Crime in Modern England: Financial Fraud and Business Morality, 1845-1929. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Nenadic, Stana. ‘Middle-Rank Consumers and Domestic Culture in Edinburgh and Glasgow 1720-1840,’ Past and Present 145 (1994): 122-54.

Walby, Sylvia. Patriarchy at Work: Patriarchal Capitalist Relations in Employment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Walkowitz, Judith R.. Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Last modified 4 January 2020