Tag Archives: history

Content Needed for a ‘Your Stories’ Page

41 dog and pram 400dpi 22.23x13.54cmWe’d love to hear your ‘nanny’ stories and we’d like to publish them on our new ‘Your Stories’ page on the website.


If you have something you’d like to share, whether it’s pictures, advice your nanny gave you, a story about your time and relationship with a nanny, or your work as a nanny, please do get in contact.

The Ups and Downs of the British Nanny

The ups and downs of the British Nanny  

– A History Press Blog Post 

The Holden children with their nanny, c.1925.

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.
‘An old-fashioned nanny’, Harmsworth Magazine, 1900.

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

Was Mary Poppins a servant… or a Lady?

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. 
Servant or a lady
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. Servant or a lady

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

‘Secret Heartache of Wartime Nannies’ Article

Secret heartache of wartime nannies

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: January 14, 2014

Scenes from wartime Dyrham, when the country house near Bath  was used to accommodate evacuees  from  London   Picture: National Trust, Dyrham Park

Scenes from wartime Dyrham, when the country house near Bath was used to accommodate evacuees from London Picture: National Trust, Dyrham Park

Katherine Holden author of a new book on the history of nannies, highlights the pain for children and nannies when they had to part

When we think of the traditional pre-war nanny we often imagine a warm comforting person who was always around, kept on in the family after the children grew up.

But when I looked into this subject more deeply, while researching my book on the history of nannies, I found this was far from the case.

Very few families were rich enough to keep a nanny on when the children grew older, and most nannies only stayed for a few years at most.

Some families coped well with changes of carer. But many children were unable to talk about the heartbreaking pain they felt when their nannies left.

One woman I interviewed, who was never allowed to talk about a nanny who had died of TB, explained: “I can never accept losing people, never. I’m terrible still.”

We know now how important early attachments are for children but we usually assume this must be to a mother. Yet many pre-war mothers from wealthy families were distant figures, often idealised by children because of their absence from the nursery.

The child psychiatrist John Bowlby said that “for a child to be looked after entirely by a loving nanny, and then for her to leave when he is two or three, or even four or five, can be almost as tragic as the loss of a mother.”

Bowlby was an influential figure in post-war childcare debates and has often been blamed for making mothers feel guilty if they left their children. But for upper-middle class children from his background, changes of nanny could be as significant as the loss of a mother.

It was not just the child who found parting difficult, but also the nanny. One nanny shared her agony at leaving a much-loved charge with readers of Nursery World magazine in 1946.

She wrote: “My last charge is nearest to my heart and I can now think of him without the terrible heartache I used to have. I write to him and send him gifts but I never hear anything of him.”

Her letter struck a chord with readers and the nanny was amazed to receive so many letters in response expressing sympathy.

Edith Hunt, a Suffolk nanny in the 1920s, became so attached to one of her charges, who would not let her out of his sight after she had been away for a short holiday, that she had a “nervous breakdown”. Edith wrote: “It was and will always be the worst aspect of looking after other people’s children and the wrench for both nannies and children is almost unbearable at the time.”

When I discussed my findings with my father, Hyla Holden, a child psychiatrist who had been a colleague of John Bowlby in the 1960s, he was not surprised. He had researched the residential nurseries at Dyrham Park, a country house near Bath, now owned by the National Trust, and found similar kinds of heartache.

These nurseries took in babies and young children evacuated from poor families in London.

Like the wealthier people I talked to, whose parents often left them with nannies when they went abroad, these young evacuees rarely saw their mothers. Visits were permitted once a month but some parents came only once a year and a few children did not see them for the whole of the war. Some children forgot their parents and became attached to their nurses.

My father was interested in the longer-term effects for the children of being separated from their mothers.

He knew evacuation saved many lives and that the children at Dyrham had been physically well cared for, but he worried about their emotional health.

Some of the nurses became deeply attached to particular children, despite efforts to prevent this. One nurse wanted to adopt a boy she called “her treasure” and missed him terribly when he went home.

The evacuees my father talked to had hazy recollections of their time in the Dyrham nurseries. But he noted how often the phrase recurred in reports of former nursery children: “After I got home I was always the odd one out”.

At times Hyla felt that he was intruding into an area of great pain in their early lives.

One former resident recalled his desolation when another child who he believed was his brother was taken away and he recalled how the man who collected the boy simply said “he’s not son.”

Not long afterwards he, too, was carried away by two people he did not recognise, who turned out to be his grandmother and older brother. They took him back to an unfamiliar house and a family of strangers.

Further links were revealed between my own and my father’s research when I discovered that some of the staff at Dyrham had trained at Norland College.

This was the premier nanny training college, which is now located in Bath.

Trained nannies usually had to leave their jobs in private houses in 1941 (when women between 18 and 40 were required to do war work) in order to staff wartime nurseries.

I also found that nurseries of this kind played an important part in training student nannies and nursery nurses during and after the war.

However the former nannies I interviewed suggested that the children’s best interests were not always recognised and that the needs of the students often took priority.

Bowlby’s book Childcare and the Growth of Love stressed the importance of continuity of care and was used as a text book in nursery training colleges after the war.

But nannies did not remember his views being put into practice. In some nurseries, a student would be given a particular baby or child to look after exclusively for a month.

She would then move on to a new child. Speaking with hindsight, they felt the children suffered under this regime.

One nanny explained how they practised on the children, some of whom were as young as ten days old and was critical of parents who did not see their offspring “from one year to the next”.

Both my own and my father’s research show the importance of children’s relationships with their nurses and nannies, whether in private homes or residential nurseries.

Not only has former nannies’ heartache been largely invisible, but we have rarely listened to children’s feelings about the sudden disappearance of much-loved carers.

Their history and their voices deserve to be heard.

Nanny talk:

Katherine Holden is a research fellow in History at the University of the West of England.

Her book on the history of nannies explores relationships between nannies, mothers and children in 20th century Britain.

Read more: http://www.westerndailypress.co.uk/Secret-heartache-wartime-nannies/story-20438432-detail/story.html#ixzz2zTdL0G00

Nanny Knows Best Book Launch

Book Launch – Friday 17th January 2014                                                     6pm – 8pm Bristol Literary Event, Free Event

Katherine Holden delves into the lives of nannies in 20th-century Britain to reveal the crucial role they played in many households. 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. Drawing on interviews with nannies, mothers and children looked after by nannies, and considering the influence of the fictional Mary Poppins on the national consciousness, Holden goes beyond the myths to discover where our tradition of employing nannies comes from.

This event is free but booking is advised; please email bristolevents@foyles.co.uk or call the shop on 011 7376 3975.

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