British Nannies and the First World War

As we commemorate the centenary of the Great War, it is hard to imagine that there remain archives still unexplored by academics.  New diaries from soldiers and nurses appear adding further layers of richness to an existing narrative, but it is rare to discover a completely new voice.  However, in an archive at Norland College, Bath, the correspondence between a class of educated Edwardian women and their alma mater develops the experience of women during the Great War in a new direction.

The first Norland Institute probationers pose for their class photograph, September 1892

The Norland Institute nanny training college opened its doors in September 1892 and by the outbreak of war had become an influential global exporter of British culture. The English nanny was considered the height of childcare practice across Europe. Norland children’s nurses were installed at royal nurseries in Russia, Germany, Spain, Hungary and Greece as well as in lesser aristocratic families. Furthermore, imperial territories employed British nannies in colonial officers’ homes.

Around the world, children were being raised the English way on nursery rhymes, parlour games and most importantly for British diplomacy, speaking English. Where Norlanders did learn the mother tongue of the family employing them, they did not speak it with the children in their charge.

The Institute’s founder, Mrs Emily Ward was a progressive educator keen to improve the experience of Britain’s children raised in private nurseries.  Her nanny training institute gave birth to a new profession for generations of young women.  Her recruits came from a range of backgrounds:

  • Beatrice Todd was the daughter of a clerk at the Ecclesiastical Commissions Office; she worked for Prince Heinrich of Prussia;
  • Kate and Jessie Fox listed their father as a ‘gentleman’ in the admissions register; Kate became nanny to the Greek royal family;
  • Ianthe Hodges, who went on to care for several generations of the Earl and Countess of Dudley’s family, was the daughter of an ironmonger in London’s East End.

Whilst a female domestic servant’s annual wages ranged from £12 to £28, a newly qualified Norlander could earn £24 rising to £100 for the highest profile royal nannies with board, lodging and travel on top.

The nannies’ letters are a rich resource and reveal surprising details for the period:

  • Full royal titles could be dispensed with after the first months in the nursery, but were strictly adhered to in correspondence with Norland Institute.  Mrs Ward readily name-dropped her client list.  She considered it good marketing technique pre-War, when she deemed print advertising in ladies’ magazines beneath her.  Ladies’ publications could be read by anyone, but word-of-mouth advertising meant that the reputation of her girls reached only those who could afford them.
  • Relationships between mother and nanny often crossed boundaries of etiquette, in one instance revealing gossip of a court affair.
  • The frequency of correspondence is impressive, particularly between Kate Fox

    Nurse Kate Fox with Their Royal Highnesses, Princesses Olga, Elisabeth and Marina ‘Baby’ of Greece, c. 1910.

    and Princess Nicholas of Greece.  The two women wrote almost daily before the War and continued their correspondence throughout the conflict despite the obvious difficulties.  Mostly their letters went back and forth via diplomatic bags thus circumventing the censor.

  • Descriptions of life in the refugee camps in Holland arrived ahead of official reports or journalists’ articles.
  • The letters are plainly descriptive with little emotion.  Even accounts of escape from enemy territory in the first months of the War are devoid of emotion.  Nurse Gladys Pinson witnessed the arrival of German troops into Antwerp having survived the bombardment.  Her letter notes the officers riding horses with flowerpots in their saddle-bags, but with no sense of fear.

The nurses’ letters span the entire war, ranging from stories of escape from Germany in Autumn 1914 and later Athens as Greece joined the conflict in 1916, to opinions on who started the war and the morality of conflict.  By late 1917 – as there appears to be no end in sight – the nannies’ letters move on to the need for Britain’s upper-class families to do their bit for the war effort and maintain their family sizes; by Armistice they are concentrating on ‘after the war’ and the future of their Institute.  One socialist nanny, influenced by events in Russia, requests a committee of nurses to run Norland.

Many nannies working with families in friendly territories remained in their posts throughout the war reporting their news to the Institute.  In Russia, Nurse Marian Burgess stuck with the Grand Duke and Duchess Kirill throughout the revolution, fleeing with them to Finland.  Her letters from 1914 are full of vigour rallying her sister nurses to do their bit for the war having witnessed the endeavours of Russia’s aristocratic ladies.  By 1918 she was surviving on Red Cross parcels in exile with the Kirills where she died from Spanish flu.  The Grand Duchess’s annual testimonial reporting on Marian’s conduct and service included her letter to Mrs Ward describing Marian’s funeral in the snow at a remote chapel.

Women’s narratives from the Great War have largely come from working-class munitions girls or upper-class ladies volunteering as nurses in France, with a smattering of VADs’ memoirs to bridge the class divide. The addition of the Norland nurses’ letters and descriptions of their experiences, now offer a new perspective from a very different class of young women.  They were educated girls, sitting at tables alongside politicians and titled families, reporting home in the most innocuous manner on their way of life in Europe’s war-torn, privileged households.

The ‘Forget-me-not’ day nursery for day children and residents, Norland Institute, Pembridge Square during the war.

Cite : British Nannies and the First World War (http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/?p=3680) by Louise Heren (http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/author/louiseh/) licensed as Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/uk/)

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About Louise Heren

Louise Heren is a documentary television producer, who has recently returned to the University of St. Andrews to research a PhD investigating male violence in interwar Scotland. Her latest book British Nannies and the Great War: how Norland coped with Conflict and Childcare in the Great War is based on the letters found at Norland College during filming for a documentary series.
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