William Hogarth's "Servants"

William Hogarth’s “Servants”

One case that came before magistrate William Bromley in Warwickshire in the late 17th century showed the pressure that servants could be placed under by their masters.

In 1695, Anne Wilcox, servant to Thomas Avery in Kenilworth, had appeared as a witness at a trial. The initial prosecution had been brought by Avery against a local surgeon, Mr Smith, although the reasons for the prosecution do not survive.

The trial, at the Warwickshire Lent Assizes, had involved Anne positively identifying Smith as a man she had met on an earlier occasion, whilst out on her own.

However, on 27 July 1695, Anne approached William Bromley and admitted that she had committed perjury at the trial.

She said that Avery had put her under substantial pressure to identify Smith, even though she had never met him.

She had told Avery that “she durst not do it, nor would not”, arguing to her master that she risked ruining her reputation by saying in court that she had been alone with Smith – “many wifes’ heads would turn and wind her”.

Avery, though, told Anne that it was “no sin” and pressured her until she gave in – presumably she feared that she would lose her job if she refused her master his request.

Her conscience had soon afterwards pricked her, though, and she had subsequently reported her master – and herself – for falsely swearing against Smith.

On 9 August 1695, the magistrate formally discharged Anne from her service with Avery, noting that she was leaving her employment having accused her master of making her commit “wilful and corrupt perjury”.

Anne was not punished by Bromley for committing perjury, but perhaps he was being charitable, seeing that she was being punished in other ways – her position was untenable and she had lost her job as a result of her conscience.

Avery also refused to pay Anne the wages he owed her – and later had to appear at Quarter Sessions to be forced to settle with her.

He, however, appears to have got away with his attempts to frame the surgeon – apart from the loss of a servant who had been loyal enough to him to risk losing her reputation.

Source: The notebook of William Bromley of Baginton, Warwickshire Record Office CRO103.