top of page
  • Writer's pictureMaggie Davies

Sexual Exploitation in the 18th Century Workplace

Nellie eyes my shape.

'Sweetheart let you down?' One of the babies on the bed starts grizzling and she scoops it up, not unkindly. 'I suppose you knows you could call the law down on the rogue responsible? To make an honest woman of you?' She grunts. 'Though it probably needs an angry father behind you to make that happen.'

'The man has a wife living.'

'I bet it were a gentleman. They consider maidservants like sweetmeats. To be fingered and devoured.' She gives a disgusted sigh. 'A poor man can be whipped for stealing turnips for his starving family. A poor woman transported for lifting a silk handkerchief so her child can have shoes in the snow. But toffs can tumble an innocent girl, get her in the family way, then saunter away. Smirking.'

The Servant, Maggie Richell-Davies

The sexual exploitation of women by their employers is nothing new, but at least today powerful men can be called to account for what they do. In the past, the great and supposedly-good did what they wanted and largely got away with it.

The book I have written - inspired by a visit to London's Foundling Museum, with its tales of betrayed and abandoned women - is a work of fiction, but comes depressingly close to fact.

Eighteenth-century London was a place of great wealth, but also desperate poverty, and historians estimate that as many as a thousand babies a year were abandoned on its streets.

It was the sight of unwanted infants abandoned in gutters and on dunghills that motivated retired sea captain, Thomas Coram, to raise funds for a place where they could be provided with the future their (largely unmarried) mothers could not provide. It took him seventeen long years to accomplish his dream, which was eventually realised through gaining the support of a group of ladies of rank, headed by the Duchess of Somerset. It was their influential signatures on The Ladies' Petition, presented to George III in 1735, that finally brought the Foundling Hospital into existence.

Perhaps it is being a writer of fiction that makes me wonder how many of those society women were motivated by guilt, or even anger, at the sexual peccadilloes of their own husbands and sons.

Though many of the Foundling Hospital's admissions came from the poorest parishes, their records show that 'considerable numbers' also came from St James Westminster and St George Hanover Square, parishes with large households employing numerous servants. Taken with the fine clothing and hand-crafted tokens left with these infants, this suggests that in addition to being the product of unmarried mothers (with a few the offspring of women of social status who had dallied where they shouldn't) most were born to those employed in high-status establishments. One tiny square that caught my eye, exquisitely embroidered with M.D. - my own initials - on what looks like silk, suggests the downfall of a lady's maid rather than some unskilled and illiterate girl from the slums.

That being a poor and unprotected female held dangers for the unwary is famously illustrated in Hogarth's Rake's Progress, with one print showing a London bawd lying in wait for girls arriving by coach in the capital, seeking honest work but being tricked into a whore's life in a brothel.

Even in respectable households there could be importunate footmen or, less easy to fight off, predatory masters. The diary of Dr Johnson's friend Boswell writes of a discussion the two men had about infidelity. They agreed that a wife who strays commits the terrible sin of risking foisting another man's child onto her husband - while a man who gives way to sexual temptation is simply driven by his needs and should be forgiven.

'...if, for instance, from mere wantonness of appetite, he steals privately to her chambermaid, Sir, a wife ought not greatly to resent this."

The double-standard is not surprising, yet I was shocked that the position of the maid - and lack of any consideration that she might have been unwilling to be used of in this way - fails to get a mention. She represented nothing more than a convenience and had she become pregnant would likely have been dismissed without a character.

The education and training provided for children by the Hospital governors was designed to prepare them to become useful citizens. The boys destined for an apprenticeship or sea service. The girls for domestic service. It is telling that steps were taken to protect the latter from ending up in the predicament that might have befallen their mothers.

"No girl is apprenticed to an unmarried man, nor to a married man, unless the wife has seen the girl and given her concurrence in the application."

We are incredibly fortunate to live in a more enlightened age.

As a storyteller with an interest in history, rather than a historian, I am indebted to research sources including Gilliam Pugh's London's Forgotten Children, and to Dan Cruickshank's racy but scholarly romp through the underbelly of the eighteenth century capital, The Secret History of Georgian London. I would also urge anyone within reach of London to visit the Foundling Museum, which has recently re-opened its doors to visitors, and also provides a wealth of information on-line.

33 views0 comments


Helvetica Light is an easy to read font, with tall and narrow letters, that works well on almost every site.

bottom of page