Was Mary Poppins a servant… or a Lady?
Nanny Knows Best author, Katherine Holden, reveals the changing status of the British nanny in this article published by The Lady magazine.
In 1910, when army officer’s wife Joan Kennard was looking for a nanny (children’s nurse) for her two young sons, one of her first considerations was whether or not the nurse should be ‘a lady’. And she was decidedly against the idea. Joan had consulted Mrs Boucher, owner of an agency supplying nannies to the upper and middle classes throughout the early and mid-20th century and, as Joan explained in a letter to her mother, her chief concern was that Mrs Boucher was trying to foist lady nurses on her. She was determined to resist to the last if she could.
In the end, she was forced to give in as no other suitable applicants appeared. She was reassured, however, by the fact that, although the nurse on offer called herself a lady, as a quiet-looking, middle-aged farmer’s daughter (an occupation on the borderlines of gentility) she would not give them any trouble.
Lady nurses became increasingly common at the turn of the 20th century as more ‘respectable’ women with limited education needed to work to earn a living. In the big houses they had nursery maids to assist them with childcare, and servants to do the cleaning and washing.
Finding reliable servants became more difficult as the century progressed, however, resulting in an oversupply of ladies wanting to be children’s nurses but fewer maids available to wait upon them. The ‘trouble’ to which Joan was referring plagued nanny employers throughout the century. This was the lady nurses’ belief that they should not be expected to do any housework.
Advice columnists tried to clarify the difference between ordinary children’s nurses and lady nurses. In The Lady in September 1905, a correspondent was advised that a lady nurse ‘does not clean her nurseries, nor carry up coals, water or meals’. Yet many employers ignored this advice and informed applicants that, in addition to childcare, they would be doing light or slight housework, or that no other servant was kept.
Some advertisements indicated that a lady was either preferred or not objected to, or that applicants should be ladylike. These were coded references to the fact that they might be expected to do some work not normally performed by ladies.
Most nannies had more humble origins. Employers were particularly keen to have country girls, believed to be healthier and a better influence on the children than girls from the city. While the majority of nannies worked alone or with one other servant, in the bigger houses they started as nursery maids and often worked their way up to become head nurse or nanny. This was a good career move as the status of a head nurse was higher than that of other servants. They had a closer relationship with the family and, if they worked for the aristocracy, might have direct contact with the rich and famous at parties, and also in the drawing room when they brought their charges down to see their parents during children’s hour.
Annie Turrell, head nurse for the Bankes Family at Kingston Lacy in Dorset during the early 1900s, was in this situation. One of seven children, her parents had been farm labourers from Essex living in a cramped cottage, and she moved far away from her childhood home to find work. One of her charges remembered her parading majestically behind the pram with nursery maids in tow, but she left soon afterwards for an even better position.
Although never considering herself a lady, Annie was employed to look after the young Lord Portarlington, heir to Emo Court in Ireland. Here she was in an enviable position, in sole charge of an only child with a nursery maid and a host of other servants to wait upon her.
While many families continued to recruit country girls like Annie, concerns were often expressed about the rough manners and values transmitted to upper-class children if they were not looked after by ladies. It was for this reason that in 1892 Emily Ward founded the first nursery-nurse training college, the Norland Institute, which raised the status of nannies into a profession and recruited only the daughters of gentlewomen.
But, while there was high demand for their services, many mothers felt uncomfortable with this new breed of modern nurse whose social status, like that of the less welleducated lady nurses, was rather too near their own. A mother, Joan Bateson, writing in Nursery World magazine in the 1920s, wondered ‘What should we call her? Where ought she to feed? Will she hate your friends, or will she want to know them? If you are smoking, do you offer her a cigarette?’
Few women wanted to be servants after the Second World War and many mothers were desperate to find nannies who were willing to muck in with the chores. In correspondence columns, nannies and mothers debated whether or not housework should be included in addition to childcare, and what the job should be called.
Trying to cope with ‘rations, coupons, housekeeping, sickness, etc’, one mother longed for a ‘jolly, understanding, honest-to-goodness soul who is not too superior’ and asked readers to invent a title for the type of helper she required.
By the 1950s, advertisers and employment agencies rarely linked the word ‘lady’ to nannies, even in The Lady magazine, and nanny agencies today never mention the word. Yet terms such as ‘quality assured’, ‘fully screened’ and ‘staff of distinction’ suggest that in the 21st century the lady nurse may still not have entirely disappeared.
Images sourced/copyright: The Lady Magazine.
Nanny Knows Best: The History Of The British Nanny, by Katherine Holden, is published by The History Press, priced £18.99. http://www.lady.co.uk/people/features/3306-was-mary-poppins-a-servant-or-a-lady