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Hidden Toil at the V&A

Hidden toil is an interactive digital tour of the hidden labour of the slave trade, the enslaved, and domestic servants in the collections of the V&A.

The project was supported by King’s College London as part of the 2014 Collaborative Innovation Scheme for Early Career Researchers.  It is a collaboration between Dr Bronwen Everill, Department of History, Dr Lucy Delap, Department of History and University of Cambridge, and the V&A Museum.

The V&A is a museum rich with examples of the role of 'hidden labour' in the production, consumption, and maintenance of elite material culture in the modern world: the labour that produced the exotic tropical goods used in the sugar bowls and cotton clothes of the 18th century; the labour that washed those clothes and polished those silver sugar bowls; the labour that generated the wealth of the British elite abroad in the 18th century; the labour for serving lavish 19th century dinners or cleaning 20th century homes; and even the labour that keeps those materials clean today.  

Hidden Toil is a discovery ‘trail’ which aims to uncover the role of African labour in consumer goods from the eighteenth to twentieth century. Using a digital format, a self-guided tour of the V&A considers the place of domestic labour – enslaved and wage-based – in the production, purchase, and maintenance of the elite household objects on display at the museum.

The virtual tour is hosted on History Pin, allowing other users – including King’s and V&A students, as well as those who are unable to access the museum in person – to add to the collection of materials using the search the collections website and providing their own analysis.   


This bite-sized podcast explores the first of the objects in our digital tour: Venetian Trade Beads. These beads were part of the slave trade with West Africa. 

Hidden Toil of Sugar and  Tobacco

Dr Bronwen Everill, King's College London

The second podcast looks at the labour that lay behind the sugar bowl and tobacco box in our digital tour.  These items were part of a revolution of taste that resulted from plantation slave labour.

Hidden Toil of 'Am I Not A Man?' Beer Jug

Dr Bronwen Everill, King's College London

The third podcast describes the rise of "ethical branding" as people in the eighteenth century became more concerned about the types of labour producing their consumer goods.

Project Team

This project is in collaboration with the V&A Museum, the Department of History and Culture at King's.

Dr Bronwen Everill

Dr Bronwen Everill completed a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship in the Department of History at King's College London in 2010 and now works as a Lecturer in History Cambridge University. Her current project is looking the transition from the slave trade in the Atlantic. She is the author of Abolition and Empire in Sierra Leone and Liberia (2013) and The History and Practice of Humanitarian Intervention and Aid in Africa (2013). 

Dr Lucy Delap

Dr Lucy Delap is Lecturer in History at Cambridge University and the Director of History & Policy. She works on gender, labour and religion, and she is currently working on late twentieth century masculinities, and the history of child sexual abuse. She is the author of Knowing Their Place: Domestic Service in Twentieth Century Britain (2011).

Jo Banham  

Jo Banham is head of Adult Programmes in the Learning Department at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Her publications include a two volume Encyclopaedia of Interior Design (1995), a Dictionary of Artists' Models (2001) and various books on William Morris, Victorian Design, and Historic Wallpapers.

Edwina Ehrman 

Edwina Ehrman is a Fashion and Textiles Curator at the V&A. Until 2007 Edwina was the Senior Curator of Fashion and Decorative Arts at the Museum of London. She is the curator of the current exhibition Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear and until 2013 she was the lead curator for The Clothworkers' Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion. Her publications include a multi-authored book titled London Couture: British Luxury 1923-1975, which she co-edited with Amy de la Haye (V&A Publications, September 2015). 

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