How the maid prayed: servants and religion in the town

by Kate Gibson

The growth of towns as centres of manufacturing and industry, or of fashionable sociability and consumption, was sustained by a small army of servants and apprentices. But how was the experience of religion shaped by the economic and social status of being in service?

The inclusion of servants in family prayer and the spiritual responsibility and authority of masters in loco parentis is well known, but historians have generally not considered that being in service could interrupt patterns of worship. Conduct manuals for servants agreed that their time was a commodity that belonged to their employer, and instructed good servants to conform to the household timetable, including, presumably, time for worship. But, when middling families paraded to church on a Sunday, whose labour ensured that the Sunday dinner was cooked or small children cared for in their parents’ absence? Eliza Heywood, in her manual A Present for a Servant-Maid (London, 1743), stated in her advice to servants on avoiding theft that ‘On Sundays, in the Time of Divine Service, when the Family are at Church, it is very dangerous to open the Door to any one that knocks.’ This guidance took for granted that servants would be left behind so the rest of the family could attend worship. Heywood also specified that ‘In all well-governed Families a Maid-Servant has the Liberty every Sunday, or every other Sunday at least, in the Afternoon, of going to Church’. This suggests that morning domestic duties were more pressing, and did not address the issue of what maids were supposed to do if they lived in a parish with only one daily service.

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Eliza Heywood, A Present for a Servant-Maid (London, 1743) (ECCO)

Although conduct manuals were clear that masters had a duty to ensure that their servants and apprentices attended public worship on Sundays, there was also implicit recognition that this was practically difficult. Richard Mayo exhorted servants to ‘Meddle with no worldly Business on this holy Day, but what is of Necessity’. The anonymously-authored Complete Man and Maid Servant (London, [1764]) instructed housemaids to ‘frequent the public worship of God as often as she has an opportunity’, and Bishop of London Edmund Gibson included in family prayer all those members of the household who could ‘conveniently’ be present. The caveats of ‘necessity’, ‘opportunity’ or ‘conveniently’ were subjective and not specified. Necessary tasks could presumably include childcare, cooking or nursing the sick, but also any task deemed such by the master or mistress. In recognition that servants’ time was circumscribed and that they were in need of specialised religious guidance, some ministers published guides for servants including shorter form prayers to be said on waking and sleeping, to compensate for non-attendance at church or longer family prayer.

Some employers were fully aware of their duty to support their servants’ faith, and the most pious do appear to have prioritised servants’ attendance at public worship above their domestic duties. On one Sunday in June 1810, Anglican York solicitor William Gray had wanted his four-year-old son William ‘to stay from church; but my mother was against any of the servants remaining from Church. I therefore took him with me to St. Maurices’. When staying with her married sister in Nottingham, Independent dissenter Catherine Read was needed for childcare: her sister and brother-in-law ‘having gone to chapel… I am staying to allow all the servants excepting one to be there also.’ Servants’ customary time off also often coincided with religious festivals. In April 1830 Elizabeth Barmby of Scarborough wrote to her aunt in Keighley that ‘This is Easter Monday & as our servant is gone to spend her holiday with an aunt I must go & prepare my Mother’s dinner’.

Morland, Henry Robert, c.1716-1797; A Lady's Maid Soaping Linen
Henry Robert Morland,  A Lady’s Maid Soaping Linen (c. 1765-1782), Tate (CC BY-NC-ND)

There were however, conflicts between allowing servants’ sufficient public worship and keeping the household running. Thomas Eyre, the priest in charge of the Catholic mission in the North East, was called on to give advice to on Catholics working on religious holidays. His correspondent, priest George Hay, worried that ‘Servants & apprentices in Protestant families cannot avoid it’ and referred to the difficulty of persuading his congregation ‘of the greatness of their obligation to keep these days’. In the 1780s, pious Quaker Esther Tuke tried to change the times of the York meeting, a contentious issue that ‘cost me many Hours sleep’. She argued for a greater gap between the morning and evening meetings, not only to combat the ‘heaviness’ and drowsiness of a meeting so soon after a midday meal, but also to prevent them leaving ‘Servants to stay Home & Cook’, and instead be ‘induced to leave none at home but where necessity required their Indisposition or little Children’. Having servants for cooking, cleaning and childcare was a privilege that allowed middling women, such as Esther Tuke, the freedom to attend public worship and to sit on governing and charitable committees such as the Quaker women’s meeting. As Anglican Margaret Gray found when she married and moved into a smaller household ‘looking so far after house matters as with one poorish Servant… has prevented my being able to attend so much as I ought at the Sunday School.’ The growth of female involvement in religious philanthropy is well documented, but what is less often noted is that this agency required the religious choices of their servants to be restricted in turn.


Eliza Heywood, A Present for a Servant-Maid (London, 1743)

[Richard Mayo], A Present for Servants, from their Ministers, Masters, or Other Friends (London, 1787), 10th edn, original 1693.

Anon, The Complete Man and Maid Servant (London, [1764])

Edmund Gibson, Family Devotion: or, An exhortation to morning and evening prayer in Families (London, 1758), 24th edn (original 1745)

Thomas Broughton, Serious Advice and Warning to Servants, More Especially Those of the Nobility and Gentry (London, 1763), 4th edn

Sheffield Archives: MD5690/5, Catherine Read in Radford to her sister at Wincobank in Sheffield, 22 Sept 1831

Leeds University Library Special Collections: BUS/Marriner/6/Box 34, Elizabeth Barmby in Scarborough, to her aunt Clarissa Spencer in Keighley, 13 April 1830

Durham University Special Collections (Ushaw College Library): UC/P13/2/104, George Hay of Edinburgh to Thomas Eyre in Crook Hall, Gateshead, 5 Dec 1798

York Explore Libraries and Archives: GRF/4/4/3/2, Margaret Hey in Ockbrook to Miss Ewbank in Market Weighton, 5 December 1810


2 thoughts on “How the maid prayed: servants and religion in the town

  1. This is fascinating, as I’ve just this week been reading the 1598 _A Godlie Forme of Hovseholde Government_ (R. Cleaver), which chastises heads of households for allowing their servants to miss a church service, come late to a service, or leave a service early. It’s interesting to see that the rule was presented both ways in these later manuals, imploring servants to follow the timetable and not to answer the door during the worship hour; Cleaver’s six pages on servant behavior don’t mention either church services or timetables (those being in the section for masters instead).


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