Mrs Panton, who took the brisk view that a new baby is ‘a profound nuisance to its relations at the very first’, recommended outsourcing childcare to professionals at the earliest opportunity. Working-class women, almost certainly mothers themselves (by the end of the nineteenth century it was estimated that the average working-class married woman aged forty had borne between seven and fifteen children) had for generations been the wet-nurses and nursemaids to yet more generations of children. But as the urban middle-class home began to seal itself off from the world of the poor during the nineteenth century, these women became viewed as less than suitable as primary child-rearers. The enormous expansion in the number of toiling little nursemaids, children themselves, who worked in the middle-class home, were testament to the growing distance between the daily life of middle-class parents and their children: there were 5,937 nursemaids employed in 1851; by 1871 the number had risen to 75,491. But nursemaids were the servants of the nannies; and nannies of a more professional type became increasingly desirable, qualifications beyond childminding being sought after.
The establishment in 1892 of the Norland Institute raised the status of their nursery nurse and nanny to the level of educational mentor and moral guide. The Institute’s first principal, Isabel Sharman, observing that ‘nowhere but in England does the child live such a separate and distinct nursery life’, looked to the teachings of the German educationalist Friedrich Froebel to inject some helpful educational play into the rigid routines of the English child. Recruited among girls not quite academic enough to become teachers, Norland students were always to be considered, at the insistence of the Institute’s founder Mrs Emily Ward, ‘gentlewomen’. They would not eat with the servants and were instructed that on arrival in a new home they should place their silver hairbrushes ostentatiously on their chest of drawers to make evident their superiority to the servants’ hall. Norland nurses did not clean, wipe, launder or sweep: their concern was solely the tending of their charges’ moral and psychological development.* Nonetheless, the work clearly crossed into domestic labour, without this being specific, and Nurse Christine Tisdall in 1895 received a glowing reference from an employer in Edinburgh who praised her abilities ‘to perform the duties of a servant in the spirit of a lady and without causing friction in the household’.
* Norland nurses were also responsible, in 1907, for the first crèche for working class children, enabling working women, mainly from the laundry industry, to leave their children all day in professional care. The first crèche was in Hammersmith, London, at the reasonable cost to their mothers of four pence a child or seven pence for two. When they opened a second in nearby Acton, they had 2,436 attendances in six months.
03 October 2016
Professionalizing Nursemaids, latter 1800s
From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 687-705: