How Last Century’s “Servant Problem” Became Today’s “Labour Shortage”

This article accompanies Maia Silber’s article “The Servant Problem and the Colour Line: Race, Class, and Domestic Labour in the Transvaal Colony, 1902–1914” in History Workshop Journal 93, where it is currently free access.

This past November, Conservative MP Fiona Hodgson proposed that the U.K. offer a temporary visa route for foreign au pairs to address the country’s childcare shortage. Mocking the idea, her peer and prominent Brexit supporter Peter Lilley countered that Parliament would be “left open to ridicule if the only exception we are prepared to make is to help us deal with the servant problem.”

Since reports last summer showed the U.K. facing its greatest labour shortage since 1997, employers’ complaints have often echoed those of early 20th-century mistresses who lamented a lack of cheap, compliant servants. Dismissing a nexus of structural factors that have diminished the ranks of willing hires—not least, the disproportionate rates of death and disability among “key workers” during the ongoing pandemic—employers express outrage at recruits’ insolent refusal to work on their terms.

But if today’s labour shortage debates resembles discussions of last century’s “servant problem,” they’re also a product of that earlier conflict’s resolution. Politicians such as Hodson want to bring in foreign service workers because they know that the white, British women who once comprised the industry’s labour force now won’t work for the low wages and poor conditions it offers. As I argue in my recent article in issue 93 of History Workshop Journal, that’s not because they’re inherently less easy to exploit than migrants and workers of color. In the early 20th Century, British domestics actively leveraged the advantages of their whiteness against the disadvantages of their class and gender.

They made the “servant problem” a matter of race.

A century ago, as the historian Laura Schwartz has argued, the employers who lamented servants’ disobedience were not entirely imagining the source of their woes. With new employment opportunities opening for working-class women in factories and department stores, many did leave domestic service while others organized for better treatment within it. Yet another group looked to the Empire’s outposts to seek the status they lacked in its metropole. The South African Colonisation Society (SACS) advertised the merits of service in the Transvaal Colony with a Johannesburg worker’s letter its magazine, The Imperial Colonist: “The work is very light with having a black boy do all the rough work.”

Illustration by George Belcher, Punch (20 January 1926)

The society’s London-based leaders recruited British women to exert their civilizing influence on a colony where men outnumbered women and Black Africans outnumbered white settlers. They promised recruits that colonial service was merely a training ground for marriage to a prosperous land-holder, more a resort-like waystation than a job. But the Transvaal government had different ideas. Hoping to push Black Africans out of service and into work for the colony’s gold mines, colonial officers saw working-class British women as a cheap new domestic labor force. While they also hoped that migrants would eventually marry and bear white children, they protested when they did so before paying off the debts they owed for the cost of their travel to Johannesburg.

Transvaal employers meanwhile, didn’t expect white servants to merely pass on orders to Black ones. At a time when the colony’s Black domestic workers were themselves rising up in protest, the SACS had promised employers that their recruits were chosen for docility and compliance. Unsurprisingly, those clashing promises spurred resentment on both sides. “From the moment [your servant] arrives in Africa and discovers that there is another class (the native) subservient to her own, she becomes a Personage in her own eyes,” one handbook addressed to the “lady settlers” of South Africa promised. Like their counterparts in the metropole, settler women began to complain that their employees were presumptuous, insolent, and unwilling to work.

Domestic workers protested, too. Promised high wages and easy living, they objected when they found themselves bound in debt to low-paying positions in remote locations. One British servant, twenty-one-year-old Eleanor Humphreys from Lancashire, arrived at her assigned employer’s home in the rural town of Elandsfontein only to leave that very night. She went to work for her father, who had previously migrated to the colony, at a restaurant he owned in Germiston; other women abandoned their stations for better-paying jobs in hotels, bars, boarding houses and brothels. White women were leaving domestic employment en masse, reported one Johannesburg-based correspondent for The Times: “No more private service for us is their cry.”

Servants’ disobedience created a problem for colonial officials in both Johannesburg and London. Were British migrants cheap workers who needed to be disciplined and controlled, or mothers of the imperial race who deserved special and treatment and protection? Domestic servants didn’t wait around for colonial officials to resolve this contradiction: they used their racial status to insist on better treatment. One worker, Alice Shurville, a chimney-sweep’s daughter from Oxfordshire, took her employer, the diamond magnate John Dale Lace, to court when he fired her without paying her final month’s wages. On the stand, her lawyer chastised Lace for “discharging a girl 6000 miles from home, and throwing her on the streets without a penny in her pocket.” Worse, Dale had paid his Black and white servants the same rate.

When the Afrikaner Het Volk Party seized power in the Transvaal Colony in 1907, it ended most government aid for the migration of British domestic servants. Five years later, SACS leaders testified before a government commission that a third of their charges had left service and made “good marriages… rather above the class they would marry in England.” Black men continued to comprise the majority of the colony’s domestic labor force until the Second World War, when Black women took their place. By then, the numbers of white British women employed in private residences in the metropole had diminished greatly, too. But domestic labor did not disappear from the U.K.: it re-emerged in the form of cleaning and childcare services performed outside the home, almost always by migrant women and women of color.

Today’s domestic labour force and today’s “servant problem” are a product of that transition. After decades of suffering low wages and poor treatment, a large portion of Britain’s service workers are now shut out of the country’s borders entirely. Politicians are caught between a white labour force that won’t accept the terrible working conditions they fought to escape and many Brits’ resentment for the migrant labour force still compelled to work under those conditions. But if we “solve” the servant problem by merely substituting one exploited labor force for another, the process will only repeat itself. The solution is neither to keep migrants out nor to let a select group in on contingent terms, but to fight for the rights of all service workers across lines of race and nation.


One Comment

  1. Hello Ms Maia Silber,

    As a blood relative of Alice Shurville I would be interested to know the source of your information on my Great Aunt Alice. She was the sister to my Grandmother Florence Bartley (Nee Shurville). My own research is in genealogy. I have at least one photo of Alice Shurville taken in South Africa with someone whom I believe to be her Mother in Law (surname Stork) I would certainly appreciate any help that you could give me and would certainly be willing to exchange any information that may help you in your research.

    Terrance Bartley

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