Nannies & Governesses

by Ellen Micheletti

In 19th century England, most mothers and fathers of the upper and middle classes approached child rearing in a strictly hands-off manner. As soon as a boy was born, he was taken from his mother and turned over to a corps of wet-nurses, nannies, nursery maids and governesses and eventually shipped off to boarding school. His sister was treated the same, except she was educated at home. For most of these children, Mama and Papa were distant figures to be treated with awe and deference.

]]>Support our sponsorsUpper class mothers seldom breast-fed their children – it was not considered seemly to do so. Queen Victoria strongly disapproved and when she found out that her daughter Alice had breast-fed one of her children, she named one of the cows in the royal dairy, “Princess Alice.” Most children were fed either by a wet-nurse – a woman who had recently given birth and breastfed both her own child and the child she had been hired to feed – or they were fed by bottle.

The children lived on a separate floor or wing of the house and were looked after by nannies and nursery maids. Nannies and maids fed the children, bathed them, and took them out to play and exercise. The mother and father would see the children for a couple of hours a day. Nanny would dress the children up in clean clothing, warn them to be on their best behavior and take them in to see Mama and Papa. Winston Churchill wrote. “My mother shone for me as the evening star. I loved her dearly – but at a distance.” Churchill did love his parents, but he was devoted to his nanny, Mrs. Everest, and kept a picture of her with him all his life.

Sometimes, the hands-off approach of the parents resulted in abuse of the children by a cruel nanny. King George V and Queen Mary (who were then the Duke and Duchess of York) were very much removed from their children with the result that their sons Bertie (the future King George VI, and the current Queen’s father), and David (the future Duke of Windsor) were victims of a mentally unbalanced nanny. This nanny adored the oldest son and did not want to share her precious David with anyone, not even his parents. When it was time to take David in to see his mother and father, she would pinch and jab him until he cried. The Duke and Duchess did not want to be faced with a crying baby and would order him to be removed. The nanny would then cuddle and soothe David.

This same nanny did not like Bertie and would ignore and neglect him. In the afternoon, nanny would take Bertie out in his baby carriage and give him a bottle while wheeling the carriage over rough cobblestones, with the result that he suffered from severe stomach upsets. Finally, a nursery maid got up enough courage to tell the Duchess of York, but the damage was done. Bertie grew up shy, uncertain, stammering and sickly. It was not until he married that he found love and a measure of content.

As children grew up, they lived what we would consider a spartan life. They washed in cold water, slept on plain hard beds, went out to play in cold and rainy weather and were fed a dull and not very filling diet. The experts of the time said children had delicate digestions, therefore, meat, vegetables and fruit were seldom on the table. Instead, children were fed milk, bread, puddings and other bland foods – and not very much either. The same experts said children had small stomachs incapable of holding very much. Oliver Twist’s plea in the workhouse, “Please sir, may I have some more?” was sometimes true for the children of the rich.

When the children were older, another member of the staff began their education. This was the governess. Unlike the nanny and nurserymaid, who were of the lower classes, the governess was from the middle class or even the gentry. Many governesses were daughters of clergymen. A governess was expected to be both intelligent and accomplished, able to teach young children to read and write and young ladies to sing and play the piano, to do fancy needlework, paint pretty watercolors, and speak a bit of French, German or Italian.

A governess’ average salary was between 35 and 50 pounds a year, sometime more, sometimes less, plus room and board. The governess was in an odd social position. She was not quite a servant, since she was a gentleman’s daughter, but she was not a member of her employer’s family and she worked for wages. The governess was often snubbed by the servants and, being of gentle birth herself, she would not want to fraternize that much with servants anyway.

Sometimes a governess would be employed overseas. It was quite the thing to have an English governess and some young women would be engaged by wealthy families who lived in Europe or India. Some governesses even taught the children of foreign royalty. See The English Governess at the Siamese Court by Anna Leonowens for an example.

The governess became a popular figure in the novels of the Victorian era. There were sly governesses like Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, put-upon governesses like Agnes Grey in the novel of the same name by Anne Bronte and the immortal Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Despite the romanticism of those books, real-life governesses hardly ever ended up marrying their employers and living happily ever after. Due to their position in the household – not quite family, not quite servant, many governesses found themselves very much alone – neither fish nor fowl.

In the British Royal family, the children still have nannies, but the governess is a thing of the past. Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret were taught at home by a governess but their children and grandchildren all went off to school. Since most girls do go to a public or private school, instead of being taught at home, the governess has mostly died out as a profession.


Ellen is the editor of the Historical Cheat Sheet and an AAR Editor/Reviewer – you can email her via the link here Find links to all of Ellen’s Historical Cheat Sheet articles at the end of Servants Search our reviews database by Title or Author by Titleby Author’s Last Nameby Author’s First Name Do a more in-depth review search via Power Search

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