Mom, Sort Of

If you were a member of the aristocratic or gentry classes in the 19th century, it was almost a given you’d have two (or more) mothers: the woman who gave birth to you, and the one (or ones) who actually took care of you. She might be called nanny, nurse, or something else…but she was the one who bandaged cut fingers, gave baths, toilet-trained, administered discipline and hugs as needed, and all the other bits of day-to-day child-rearing that have to be done.

Indeed, outsourcing motherhood might sometimes happen as soon as a child was born. Just as today, not all mothers chose or were able to nurse their infants; baby formula would not be invented until the 20th century, and so a wet-nurse would be found to provide nourishment. Though her mother and daughters all chose to nurse their offspring, Queen Victoria preferred to find someone else to do the same for her large family, generally the wife of a tenant on one of her estates who had an infant of her own and could provide for two (or be willing to outsource her own infant’s care). Prince Albert wrote up strict protocols and procedures for the royal wet-nurses to follow, including rules for their diet, behavior, clothing, and more.

So what did a nanny do? Well, everything: she was, quite literally, the mother, and even children’s actual mothers might follow her dictates on the assumption that a professional nanny must know what was best. Nannies ordered meals for their children, set schedules for meals, naps, playtime, and airings, and with the help of nursery-maids (younger assistants who hoped to achieve nanny status themselves some day) ran the nursery.

Children generally stayed under the exclusive care of a nurse/nanny until about age five or six. In addition to taking care of their bodily needs, a nanny was also responsible for the next level of parenting duties: instilling basic manners and morals in their charges. Most also taught their charges their letters and numbers. At about this time, a governess or tutor would step in, and while the nanny continued to be caretaker, much of a child’s time would now be spent with the governess. At some point between the ages of 8 and 11, a boy would probably be sent off to boarding school, while his sisters would remain under the governess’s rule with perhaps a year or two of school to be ‘finished.’

Salaries for nannies varied, depending on the number of children and the grandness of the household; a nanny in a very exalted household might find herself with a staff of nursery maids, laundry maids, and a nursery footman or two to supervise. Or she might be the sole employee in charge of the children. As room and board were obviously provided, a careful nanny could save much of her salary…which might be necessary, as we shall see. The Complete Servant (published 1825) lists salaries for head nurses at £18-25 guineas, with “perquisites” (tips) at christenings.

What happened to a nanny when “her” children left the nursery? It depended; the younger ones would move on to another position with a new family, perhaps to come back some day and care for the children of their own former babies. Word of mouth was important, and a nanny known to be good would be snapped up fairly promptly. In the 1880s and onward, formal training schools for nurses and nannies opened in London, along with nanny employment bureaus which went on to supply nannies to aristocratic and royal houses across Europe, as the fame of the English nanny spread.

Some employers were generous to their former nannies and provided a pension or even offered a home to beloved former nannies who had reached retirement age; others were forced to fall back on what savings they’d accrued over their careers and live in not-so-genteel poverty.



About Marissa Doyle

Marissa Doyle originally planned to be an archaeologist but somehow got distracted. At long last, after an unsurprisingly circuitous path, she ended up writing historical fantasy for young adults (the Leland Sisters series) and contemporary fantasy for slightly older ones, most recently By Jove from Book View Cafe. She is obsessed by the Regency period, 19th century stuff in general, and her neurotic pet bunny. Visit her at


Mom, Sort Of — 5 Comments

  1. In the Daisy Dalrymple mystery books by Carola Dunn, set in the 1920s, in the later books the heroine is afraid of the nanny hired by her m-i-l for her twins, and seeks excuses to be elsewhere–she’s a journalist who keeps tripping over dead bodies–rather than deal with her.

  2. I think the most harrowing nanny story in period I ever read was Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey. It has that resonance of the real, and demonstrates in unforgettable detail the petty cruelties of an otherwise totally undistinguished “respectable” family. The most interesting is the diary of a nanny in Jane Austen’s time, who was part of the Lennox clan. (But skip the descriptions of Regency era dentistry if you are squeamish!)

  3. I’ve read of a very different system in France, where kids were sent to the country to be reared. I don’t know how accurate that is, but with such differences between two countries so similar, I wonder about how aristocrats around the world handled child rearing.

  4. Jennie Churchill was notably lackadaisical as a mother. Her son Winston got most of his affection from his nanny. In young manhood he learned that the nanny was fallen on hard times and pleaded with his mother to give the nanny a pension.