‘Domestic Service in Australia’ by B. W. Higman

Reviewed by Maree Murray

© All rights reserved.

This book is a useful and impressive addition to scholarship in Australian History. It is useful in that the area of address, domestic service, is previously under-explored; it is impressive in the comprehensive treatment of this subject.

In addition to providing for those interested in the history of domestic service, this work should appeal to scholars of labour market functioning. In particular it offers a thought provoking sectoral analysis of domestic labour, demonstrating how class and gendered patterns influence, and are influenced by, labour market features. Domestic Service in Australia adds much to our knowledge of life in Australian homes and households.

B. W. Higman is the William Keith Hancock Professor of Australian History at the Australian National University and former head of the History Program in the Research School of Social Sciences. His book addresses the topic of domestic service in European-settled Australia, i.e. from 1788 to present. Higman’s maternal grandmother and great aunt both worked in domestic service and the book is dedicated to them. However their employment was not the catalyst for this study. Higman relates that a Jamaican influence was of import; upon moving from Australia to Jamaica the author was struck by the presence of domestic servants, in marked contrast to their ‘absence’ in contemporaneous Australia. In the 1960s Higman had left a nation of relatively few paid servants for one where servants were far more obvious and significant. The author’s interest in labour studies is indicated by previous research on slavery, and domestic service in Jamaica.

Those familiar with Australian historiography, particularly labour and gender analyses, would be well aware of the dearth of published material on domestic service. As Higman notes in his preface, before the 1970s domestic service and servants were usually ignored in Australian and other historiography. The characteristics of domestic servants were not attractive to disciples of either the ‘Great Man in History’ or the ‘Great Events in History’ schools. While this book pleasingly considers male and female domestics, domestic servants were most often women and as such their history was oft neglected. Similarly, the intersection of this female predominance with the low profile of domestic servants in industrially-organised labour influenced their scarcity in the more traditional annals of labour history. The development of women’s and feminist history in the 1970s expanded the terrains of historical scholarship; Beverley Kingston’s landmark study, My Wife, My Daughter, and Poor Mary Ann: Women and Work in Australia (1975) offering a pioneering chapter on women in domestic service. Others have since made further contributions, but Higman’s is the first major monograph devoted to the history of domestic service in Australia.

The consideration of the place of both women and men in domestic service is a useful feature of this work. Higman’s research initially focused on the male domestic but shifted to the broader occupational history of domestic service. The methodology of his project is well-explained, main aspects of the occupation such as ‘recruitment’, ‘work’ and ‘rewards’ are utilised as central organising devices. Higman avoided a strictly chronological narration, as the key features of domestic service changed slowly, if at all. The study is well served by this approach, although the decision not to feature illustrative personal narratives may disappoint those who enjoy their leavening effects. In this, Domestic Service in Australia can be viewed as a work that neatly complements others that have ventured into the home and private lives, such as Penny Russell’s ‘A Wish of Distinction’: Colonial Gentility and Femininity and Spaces in Her Day: Australian Women’s Diaries of the 1920s and 1930sby Katie Holmes.

However, the chosen methodology, along with the extensive research and analyses does allow Higman to present a comprehensive and very sound occupational history, which also stands easily on its own merits. Comparisons with other national patterns are informative, offering fresh perspectives so as to highlighting Australian experience. The appendix on measuring the servant population is a valuable inclusion and the extensive bibliography is another strength. Indeed the appendix, bibliography and chapter notes are exemplary, providing useful departure points for scholars of home life and domestic labours in Australia. The production is mostly of the high standard expected from MUP, with the old world feeling evoked by black and white inclusions and figures adding to the ambience of the book. Minor production curiosities such as the bold type of ‘home’ in ‘Australian homebeautiful’ [sic] and the inclusion of pictures under the ‘Figures’ listing are a little disappointing, detracting from an otherwise impressive production standard.

The book has many strengths and little weakness. Some may occasionally glimpse a curious ambivalence, or even antipathy, in Higman’s attitude towards domestic service. The judgmental tone of phrases such as, ‘Ida escaped into school-teaching’ can be disconcerting, especially as the book highlights the varied experiences of service, not only the harsher aspects. The gender analysis throughout could, perhaps, be more perceptive and extensive. What does it mean, particularly for women, if recent patterns of domestic service are stagnant or even, to use Higman’s phrase ‘in retreat’? Why is this? What implications are there for the performance of the domestic workload? Does the decline in domestic service combined with the greater proportions of women in paid employment mean that many women now work, albeit in different ways, just as hard, and as long hours as did their mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers? Higman only very lightly canvasses this. He imports Kingston’s notion of ‘a great irony in egalitarianism’ to suggest that one effect of more egalitarian class relations in recent decades is that of more women undertaking further unpaid domestic work in the home, in addition to their increasing amounts paid work.

Egalitarianism of class relations, the book’s explanation of the decline in domestic service and the peculiarly Australian patterns, does not accompany, or allow, a parallel, gendered egalitarianism. The inequity of gender relations is a complex, disturbing and difficult subject, in theory and practice. Just ask any exhausted homemaker who struggles to manage unpaid domestic household labour with demands of their paid employment. Although the bibliography lists work by Bittman and Baxter amongst others, indicating an awareness of research on domestic work in the private sphere, Domestic Service in Australia does not substantially engage with considerations of domestic and unpaid labour, particularly with regard to gender. This is one area where further explorations may have added an illuminative complexity.

This book does take the understanding of domestic service in Australian history much further. Yet this there is still a way to go. Domestic Service in Australia leaves the reader wanting more, not in a ‘still-hungry’ fashion, but in a far more positive way. Higman’s erudition whets appetites for further exploration of this important and interesting area. For instance, his inclusion and brief consideration of recent patterns in domestic service is enticing. While Higman correctly notes the lesser significance of current domestic service, further deconstructions and explanations of trend lines beckon. Although Higman can confidently conclude that ‘the long-term retreat of domestic service stands unchallenged’ it not yet clear how significant domestic service is in the lives of highly paid women in Australia. Is this form of labour in ‘retreat’ in their upper middle-class homes? And why does domestic service appear to be the domain, at least in major cities, of recent, and particular immigrant groups? What underlies the refrain of Eastern Suburbs’ matrons, that Korean couples make the best house cleaners? Higman demonstrates an awareness of these patterns but does not answer these specific questions. Yet the power of this book is manifest in providing solid foundations so that these and other questions may be more confidently explored in the future. Skilful use of the vast material Higman has accessed means that the exploration of these narrower areas may now proceed, based on a firm knowledge. He has successfully constructed, to use his words, ‘a broad framework for further special studies’. Higman is to be congratulated, as this book could well serve as a base or a guide for future explorations in the history of domestic service and occupational history. It is an intriguing, inviting and at times, surprising study. Australian historiography is all the richer because of it.


Maree Murray is a senior lecturer at the University of Wollongong. Research interests include labour studies, particularly child labour and unpaid labour, gender and equity. She is currently researching patterns of child labour in Australia and England. University of Wollongong.

B. W. Higman Domestic Service in Australia, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2002. pp. xvi + 358, $49.95 cloth.

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