The ups and downs of the British Nanny
Not quite part of the family and more than just an employee, idealised and demonised, the nanny has always had a difficult role in family life. Furthermore, in larger households, there was sometimes hostility towards the nanny from the domestic staff as portrayed recently in an episode of Downton Abbey.
The Leigh family lived in a highly stratified household in the Home Counties with an extensive staff, including nannies, nursery maids and a governess. In the Leigh family’s upstairs/downstairs household, during the interwar years, the servants were at war with the nursery. The kitchen staff hated the nursery governess’s pretensions so they left the children’s food on a slab at the bottom of the stairs, blowing a whistle to tell the nursery maids when to collect it. The housemaids refused even to clean the nursery, leaving a girl from the village who was a single mother to do the work they rejected. Relationships between staff inside the nursery could be equally fraught. One nanny was believed to have been forced out of her job by the jealous governess. This departure was traumatic for the child who had adored her nanny but was not allowed to grieve. Another daughter remembered passing the cottage where a former nanny lived on her daily walk but was never allowed to visit her.
The Leigh parents were more distant figures for the children. Their mother was seldom in the nursery. So busy was she with her work as a Poor Law Guardian, finding foster homes for parish children, that one of her daughters thought they must be her children too. The governess had a crush on their father, an explorer, who was often abroad. When he was at home he liked to visit one of the nannies for company in the evening. This was acceptable because nannies and governesses occupied a position midway between servant and family. But social hierarchies dictated that as father and household head, he was not allowed to have tea with his children in the nursery when the chauffeur’s son was present.
It was often hard for the older children to manage these kinds of situations even though they considered them normal. It was only the favoured youngest child who seemed largely unaffected. Her nanny stayed with her throughout her childhood and, although the Leigh parents eventually divorced, she grew up feeling loved and secure.
The Leigh’s domestic tensions and strains were typical of upper and upper-middle- class households in pre-war Britain and could be the cause of much discomfort and heart-break for nannies, parents and children. Yet such stories are rarely remembered. Rather, our image of old-fashioned nannies is focussed on that much rarer bird, the nanny who never left and was always available to the family. We often think of Mary Poppins as the perfect nanny, cast as the ultimate protector of children in the London Olympics’ opening ceremony. But we should remember that, like nearly all real nannies, both in the past and today, she could not always be there for children. In the end she too had to leave.
Originally posted 23 Oct 2013