by Julia Ermert
Updated 11th January, 2015.

This page is part of
Blue Mountains, Australia

"You were going to be married", non-feminist Rosamund scolds Patch. "History and a degree were no use to you. You ought to have gone to college, as my young nurses have done, for training in child welfare and baby craft." (The Song of the Abbey) The Castle certainly kept that college busy, and the

Hamlet Club kept it supplied. Who were these nannies and nurses, what were their duties and how were they trained?

Families once had ‘wet’ nurses and ‘dry’ nurses. The first fed the baby and the second cared for the growing child. Sometimes it was one and the same person, but not often; the wet nurse usually had a baby of her own. The dry nurse could stay in the family for years - Kat Ashley, nurse to Elizabeth 1, was still her attendant and close friend when she became queen. By the 1920s, the term ‘Nanny’ was more often used, although the Abbey mothers seemed to use the names interchangeably. The Castle’s nurse was probably known as ‘Nanny Kentisbury’. A nurse might also be a midwife. Then she would stay for a month, or longer for twins. Joy’s nurse still seems to be there when the twins are 2 and a half months old, and she had already been booked by Jen.

Until the early 1900s, nannies trained other nannies. A girl of 13 began as a nursery-maid, became an under nurse, and finally, perhaps, Head Nurse. The first, and best known, training college was begun in 1876 by a member of the Froebel Society, Mrs Ward. It was Norlands Nursery School, then in London, now in Berkshire. (BBC TV’s ‘Nanny’ trained there.) Mrs Ward intended it to ‘offer a new career to gentlewomen by birth and education.’ Most of the students came from the families of well-to-do farmers and tradesmen. They were a class above the servants, did not share meals, and were advised to display their silver-backed hairbrushes!

At college they studied needlework and cutting-out, cooking, laundry, singing and storytelling, blackboard drawing, painting, nature study and all aspects of child psychology. They were forbidden to hit their charges and learning by play was the thing. The nannies were expected to display moral qualities such as tact and good temper, punctuality and neatness. They had a whole suite of rooms to themselves: day nursery, night nursery, own bedroom, a room for under nurses (like Hyacinth and Lilac) and a pantry.

Mothers might look in for ten minutes around ten in the morning and the children would go down to the drawing room, clean and well behaved, for an hour in the evenings. The nursery staff took care of their food and clothes - including making them. Remember all the knitting Patch did? No wonder Roddy was aghast to hear Rosamund once did all this for him (and by hand?) - ‘That’s nanny’s work!’ (A Dancer from the Abbey) And no wonder Geoffrey had to insist Patch sometimes joined the family - she hadn’t much spare time!

The Countess probably saw more of her children than many aristocratic mothers - so did Queen Victoria, another formidable parent. But when HM and two ladies-in-waiting found themselves alone with the Prince of Wales and Princess Vicky, because the nannies had been sent on a separate train, chaos reigned. The children ran amok in the carriage, screaming, yelling, breaking and spilling. Lady Kentisbury would have coped better. We don’t hear much about Joy’s nannies when the twins are small. Perhaps she found it hard to keep any? But once she begins breeding again, the May Queen Nannies are much in demand. Joy employs first Queen Stripes and then the Garden Queen - and queen Jean is studying hard. The fecund Abbey matrons provide a guarantee of continuous employment. Perhaps that’s why there is a sudden vast improvement in the twin’s behaviour. Although corporal punishment is banned (pity!), the college-trained nannies were quite strict. They would certainly have discouraged baby-talk.

There have always been fashions in baby-rearing. By the 1930s, when the later books are set, if not actually written, the ideas of Truby King were in vogue. His watchword was ‘routine’: no demand-feeding or picking up of a crying baby. There are hints of this in Rosamund’s Victory - poor little virtual orphan Roddy is ‘naughty’ if he cries for his feed early; he ‘doesn’t quite understand’ and must be ‘got into a routine’. Another Truby King obsession was potty-training (maybe EJO didn’t know?). It started at the age of one month (!) with the baby being ‘held out’ every so often.

The Abbey mothers all breast-fed, and Jen feels sorry for ‘bottle babies’ (in Victory) as Ros mixes Roddy’s bottle and then carries it around in the car for half the day. Yet bottle-feeding was considered better in that era - more scientific - and was happily adopted by the upper classes, in lieu of wet nurses. And like queen Victoria, the Abbey Girls seemed helpless without their nannies. There is a lovely domestic cameo as Jen bathes Biddy’s baby (Biddy’s Secret). Biddy is expected to do everything, as does single mother Ros, but the capable Jandy Mac goes all to pieces at the prospect o a new baby plus toddler. She must have had plenty of servants, but must still whisk her daughter away from school at a day’s notice. Then, after two years experience, Littlejan can’t cope with her own baby without a nurse!

Of course, new mothers were treated as invalids for quite a long time. It is ages before Joy will even come downstairs, and Jen is still shaky three weeks after the birth of her third child - or is it the fourth - in Joy’s New Adventure, when she rushes after the twins, who are busy burning down the garden shed. In modern contrast, my friend’s daughter was at the school to pick up her first child, twelve hours after delivering the second-born.

A Head Nurse in the 1930s was paid perhaps 70 pounds a year - now worth about two thousand. The wage was in fact pocket money; everything was provided, including some clothes: aprons, detachable collars and cuffs, caps and even a dress for Sunday-best. A graduate wore her uniform. Norlands had brown and fawn capes. She might also wear a ‘nanny brooch’, a fascinating piece of jewellery with concealed needle and threads for on-the-spot mending. (Any Sydney Abbey Girl can see examples of these at Nerylla’s antique shop at Cammeray.) If Nanny was still with the family in her sixties, she could expect a pension and/or a cottage or flat. If the family couldn’t afford it, one or a number of past ‘babies’ would come to the rescue, or might furnish it for her.

World War 2 altered the whole servant situation, and a Norlands nanny is now the preserve of royalty and rich Americans. A present-day abbey mother is more likely to make do with an au pair - but how would an amateur cope with all those twins?

(This article first appeared in The Abbey Guardian, September 1997.)

Back to main Abbey page and index of EJO items.

Back to Collecting Books & Magazines.