UWE academic researches the role of 20th century nannies

Issue date: 26 April 2010

Norland nanny Dr Katherine Holden, a researcher at the University of the West of England is carrying out a study into the emotional and physical labour performed by nannies, au pairs and mother's helps in England from 1900 to 1980.

Some existing accounts of domestic service include nannies, but this will be the first historical study to take a detailed look at the significance of this form of domestic labour and its legacies for the women employed in these positions and the families who employed them.

Dr Holden is looking at a number of sources including the records of training colleges for nannies, but she is looking for more participants to contribute to the study.

Dr Holden says, “I would like to speak 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. I am also interested in the experiences of young mothers who employed nannies at this time.

“The role of the nanny is a very important one, involving strong feelings on both sides. There is also the nanny's relationship to the mother, and I am interested in exploring whether there were tensions in these relationships, and whether the nanny was seen as an employee or a family member.

“In addition I will be interviewing adults who as children were taken care of by nannies, to find out about their day to day experiences, and whether they have stayed in touch. I am interested in hearing their memories of the nanny, what activities they did with her, and how this relationship contrasted with the relationship with their mother.

“Some of the changes I will be exploring include the decline in the number of nannies who lived in and an increase in au pairs and mother's helps after the Second World War. There have also been different psychological views of children and changes in childcare theories during the 20th century which have affected the role of the nanny.

“My own grandmother was a Norland trained nanny in 1914, and her experiences working for Austen Chamberlain's family made me want to find out more about the relationships nannies have with their employers. I have been able to access many historical sources including letters, biographies and the records of nanny training colleges, but I am keen to speak to those who have been nannies, taken care of by nannies or who employed nannies.”

The project, Twentieth Century Nannies: A history of childcare in the home in England, 1900-1980, has been partly funded by a research grant from the British Academy.

Dr Holden can be contacted via e-mail:

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