The early modern ‘sickie’

It’s been calculated that sickness absence costs the UK around £10-12 billion pounds every year. We are fortunate to live in a system where our employers usually foot the bill for reasonable sickness absences and generally don’t, at least to our faces, take Scrooge’s line of complaining about paying a day’s wage for no work. But how many of these lost days are through genuine sickness? One recent survey puts the estimated figure of non-genuine sickness in 2010 at an astonishing 30.4 million lost working days, costing the economy £2.7 billion pounds. There are probably many deep and wide-ranging socio-cultural argument to be made about the causes, rights and wrongs of ‘pulling a sickie’, but this is clearly not a small problem.

But what about sickness absences in the past? Before the late nineteenth century there was little in the way of support for workers unless their employees were particularly enlightened or charitable. Aside from a few notable exceptions, workers could simply expect to be docked pay if they did not turn up for work. The net result of this was probably (although I’m not arguing from statistics here) that more people simply went to their jobs for symptoms that might today lead to a day in the house with hot tea, some mild medication and (hopefully) a little bit of sympathy.

In fact, it wasn’t actually until 1983 that statutory sick pay was introduced. So does this mean that our early modern ancestors, for example, had no conception of the sickie? One source I found whilst researching for the book suggests not. Just so’s not to cause myself any copyright issues here, this example can be found on p. 130 of Physick and the Family.

In a book of 1724 notes and accounts belonging to Thomas Foulkes of Holywell in Flintshire, I found a few references which seemed to suggest that he had some suspicions about his maid Margaret. In January of that year, he noted that ‘my mayd Marg’t Jones fell sick this day, and next day did not gett out of bed’. Bearing in mind the ubiquity of sickness and the likelihood of being afflicted with something for the majority of the time, this is not particularly unusual.

But Foulkes, to put it bluntly, was keeping his eye on Margaret. The following week she went AWOL, “rambling home to her mothers” without telling Foulkes she was going. On the fifth of October she “fell sick and lay in her bed until the 8th, and then went home…”. On the one hand it’s possible that Foulkes was just diligent in keeping records. But the suggestion here, especially in his pointed comments about her continued trips back to her mother, is that he was suspicious of whether her symptoms were entirely genuine, and was building up ammunitition when the offences got too many.

We shouldn’t necessarily assume, then, that the ‘sickie’ is a modern phenomenon. Even despite the potential loss of pay (and other references even suggest that some early modern employers paid their servants when sick), the lure of a day at home has clearly got too much for some of us right down the centuries!


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