There was public hostility to the influx of foreign domestics, however, from many quarters. The National Union of Domestic Workers in 1938 protested that ‘foreign nationals were making the bad conditions in domestic employment even worse’. In the build-up to war, with tension mounting, the refugees began, to many people, to look like the very embodiment of the enemy within – and what is more, they were within the British home itself. Viscount Elibank told the House of Lords that women were well known to be much more effective spies than men: ‘Today this country is ridden by domestic servants of alien origin . . . And many of them are not trustworthy.’ No matter that of the 75,000 Germans living in Britain, 60,000 by this time were Jewish. The Daily Mail led the panic, calling for internment of enemy aliens. ‘We are nicely honeycombed with little cells of potential betrayal,’ warned the paper in April 1939; the ‘paltriest kitchen-maid with German connections . . . is a menace to the safety of the country.’
The government’s internment policy was a muddle. At first categorised as low-threat C-grade aliens, domestics were not included in the first group of foreign nationals to be interned. In May 1940, however, with the tabloids ratcheting up the panic, C-class men were shunted up to B status and herded into holding camps to await transportation to the government’s vast internment camp on the Isle of Man. When the Schotts moved into a more congenial home from the freezing house where they had been working as unpaid domestics, their previous employer informed the police that they were in the country illegally. Sidney was immediately interned and Elsa too was locked up, first in Winson Green Prison and then Holloway, for much of the time in solitary confinement; they were finally sent to the camp for married refugees on the Isle of Man. Women categorised as B-class, particularly domestics working in coastal areas, were forbidden to have in their possession maps, bicycles or vehicles of any kind. Bronka Schneider and her husband Joseph, stranded in the remote Scottish highlands, found the long walks that had been their chief pleasure were now forbidden. They were bitterly hurt when, although they had been given a C-class categorisation, their employers had locks fitted to all the doors, leaving them more or less trapped inside the servants’ quarters.
The panic over the alien in the kitchen turned out to be short-lived, at least in part because the British housewife found herself prepared to take the risk of harbouring a Nazi spy if it meant help with the housework. By the start of 1941, of the 3,000 unemployed refugee women who had registered with the Domestic Bureau in London in November 1940, all but 500 were re-employed. The housewife was to be thwarted however as few of them returned to domestic service. Educated people with languages and clerical skills could now be more productively employed in war work and were much in demand. Mrs Smith, for example, went to work on the German-language newspaper that was run for refugees by the Foreign Office.
14 November 2016
Internment of Foreign Domestics, 1940
From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 3986-4009: