The Circus

The Circus


18th C


For hundreds of years a huge workforce in Britain was employed in domestic service. As many as one eighth of the total population of London worked as sevants in 1770 when the Gainsboroughs occupied No. 17 The Circus.

Families with annual incomes similar to the artist's family would be expected to employ at least two female servants and a laundry maid. Male servants were much more expensive and therefore the number of men employed raised the status of the employer in the eyes of society. About that time it was considered necessary to be earning an income of £500 - £600 a year to retain more than one male servant. As a rough guide the conversion rate of sterling in the 18th C and the 21st C is approximately £1 = £60.

Using this rate Gainsborough would have required a yearly income today of £30,000 - £36,000 to employ a footman, a figure demonstrating the fact that the gap between rich and poor has decreased markedly in the interim, as a much higher income would be needed today to cover the cost of running a household plus paying the salary of a footman or a butler at current rates.

Gainsborough appears to have employed a footman only after he left Bath and had been living in London for three years. In that year, 1777, the painter was cursing his unidentified footman for refusing to go out to deliver a parcel because the man was terrified of being pressed into service in the Navy at the time of the American War of Independence. The British Government, strapped for cash, then introduced a tax of a guinea for each male employed. By 1780, however, families with business interests had learnt to evade this tax by passing off their male servants as apprentices. Nevertheless, this highly resented tax was retained in a modified form until 1937.