Nanny Knows Best – a fascinating cultural history of the iconic British Nanny

Issue date: 26 November 2013


'Nanny Knows Best: the History of the British Nanny' book cover

In Nanny Knows Best: The History of the British Nanny, Dr Katherine Holden, a Research Fellow at UWE Bristol, delves into the lives of nannies in twentieth century Britain to reveal the crucial role they played in many households.

From interviews with nannies, mothers, and children looked after by nannies, to the influence of the fictional Mary Poppins on the national consciousness, Dr Holden goes beyond the myths to discover where our tradition of employing nannies comes from and explores the ways in which it has and has not changed over the past century.

Published by The History Press, Nanny Knows Best is interwoven with personal stories from a variety of families and domestic situations. Dr Holden examines the tensions between nannies, parents and children and the changing role of the nanny over time from wet-nurse to servant to dispenser of advice. 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. In larger households, there was sometimes hostility towards the nanny from the domestic staff as portrayed recently in an episode of Downton Abbey.

Dr Holden says, “I was influenced by a desire to understand how my parents' upbringing by nannies had influenced their lives, and therefore indirectly my own. My own grandmother was a Norland nanny in 1914 and her experiences made me want to find out more about the relationships nannies have with their employers.

“The title Nanny Knows Best, has several different meanings explored in the book: our common longing to be looked after by a kind maternal figure who knows what's best; the rivalry between mother and nanny and the nannies' desire to tell mothers what is best for their children; and the mothers' needs for the help of professional carers to support them in bringing up their children and give expert advice.

“The book explores these and many other aspects of the dynamic between nannies, mothers and children over time and in different kinds of household. It gives space to the viewpoint of each party creating a unique multi-dimensional view of a much neglected relationship.

“It is no coincidence that current portrayals of nannies such as Super Nanny, Jo Frost, and the latest TV expert nanny, Kathryn Mewes, 'The Three Day Nanny', are modelled on the image of Mary Poppins, a character embedded in the national imagination. They knock on the door of a chaotic family who need help with their unruly children, sort out their problems as if by magic, give them order and routine and leave them promising to come back.

“For children the idea of a Mary Poppins-style nanny who provides love, stability and firm boundaries but also invites them into a world of magic and adventure is both reassuring and exciting. But the reality for most children has always been that their nannies are not there for ever. Like Mary Poppins most nannies prefer short term work and can't afford to get too attached to the family they are working for or they would never have a life of their own.

“I spoke to women who worked as nannies, especially in the 1930s and 1940s. This was a very significant time of change, and many nannies were called out of domestic service to help with the war effort. There was also a decline in the number of nannies who lived in and an increase in au pairs and 'mother's helps' after the Second World War.

“My interviews showed me how important the role of the nanny is, involving strong feelings on both sides. I explored relationships with the mother, whether there were tensions, and whether the nanny was seen as an employee or a family member. To delve a bit deeper into these questions I also interviewed women who had employed nannies and adults who, as children, were taken care of by nannies, to find out about their day to day experiences, and whether they stayed in touch. I asked them about their memories of the nanny, and the differences between the nanny and the mother.”

During the 20th century, different psychological views of children and changes in childcare theories have affected the role of the nanny. Nanny Knows Best explores these changes. It shines a light on the 'other lives' of real nannies and brings to the fore their essential contribution to childcare both in the past and today.

Katherine has also written a blog for the History Press, entitled, The Ups and Downs of the British Nanny, and The Nanny Knows Best Facebook page can be found here.

A book launch will be held in Bath on 6 December at BathRoyal Scientific and Literary Institution, 16-18 Queen Square, at 18.45.

Katherine Holden is a Research Fellow at the University of the West of England and the author of The Shadow of Marriage: Singleness in England 1914-1960.

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