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In our last post we discussed the life of Susannah Sackree, the nurse to Edward Knight’s children at his Godmersham home. We ought properly take this opportunity to consider what her role in the Knight household most probably entailed….so let’s take a look at the role of the Children’s Nurse in the early 19th century home.
The type of household that could expect to employ a children’s nurse, as opposed to the lesser incarnation of the Nursery-Maid, was one that had an income of at least £2-3000 per annum according to the Hints to the Formation of an Household given in The Complete Servant (1825) by Samuel and Sarah Adams.
The establishment would consist of at least:
Eight Female and eight Men–Servants; viz.- A Cook, Lady’s-Maid, two House-Maids, Nurse, Nursery-Maid, Kitchen-Maid, and Laundry –Maid; with a Butler, Valet, Coachman, Two Grooms A Footman and Two Gardeners.
According to the same source, a Children’s Nurse could expect to be paid between £10-25 per annum. And also had the right to expect to receive perquisites at the christenings of the children in her charge.
The Head Nurse should be expected to be, according to the same book, which was written by two experienced ex-servants,
…of a lively and cheerful disposition, perfectly good tempered, and clean and neat in her habits and person. She ought also to have been accustomed to the care and management of young children as all the junior branches of the family are entrusted to her care and superintendence, confiding in her skill, experience and attention. She usually takes the sole charge of the infant from it’s birth, when the parent suckles it; to assist her in the management of this and the other children in the nursery, she has under nurses assigned to her who are entirely under her control.
The Adams’ give detailed instructions for the day-to-day running of the nursery:
The youngest nurse , or nursery–maid, usually rises about six o’clock to light the fire, and so the household work of the nursery before the children are up, perhaps about seven o’clock, at which time the head nurse is dressed, and ready to bathe and wash them all over with a sponge and warm water; after which they are rubbed quite dry and dressed. This process, when there are several children usually occupies the nurse an hour and a half, when their breakfast is got ready and the children are placed at their meal in the most peaceful and orderly manner. After breakfast, if the weather be favourable, the children are taken out by the assistant nurse or nursery maid for air and exercise, and hour perhaps two, but not so long as to fatigue either of them. On their return, their hands and feet are washed, if damp or dirty, after which they attend to their lessons till dinner time. After dinner if it be fine weather, the children are again taken aboard for air and exercise and on their return again, after having their hands and feet washed, if necessary, they are in due time ,about eight o’clock, dressed and put to bed. The Head Nurse finds ample employment during the whole day in paying due attention to her infant charge in giving directions and in seeing that the whole business of the nursery is properly executed.
The Under-Nurse would attend to the older children in the family, whereas the Head Nurse was always expected to care for the babies:
The Under-Nurse is chiefly engaged in attending to the senior children,and is entirely under the control of the head nurse.She assists in getting them up in the morning, washing and dressing them; attends them at their meals and takes them out for air and exercise, and performs or assists in the performance of all the duties of the nursery, while the head nurse is chiefly engaged with the infant child.
Mrs Taylor, one of my favourite dispensers of advice, in her book, Practical Hints to Young Females on the Duties of a Wife, A Mother and a Mistress of a Family (1816)
give this advice regarding the ordering of the nursery, which would hold good today:
It is an error very prevalent but much to be deplored, that the nursery of all places should be destitute of neatness. Order, cleanliness and regularity have the happiest influence on the human mind and contribute more to keep the temper placid and the head clear, than many people are aware of. “Let every thing be done decently and in order” is a precept that should be extended from our religious concerns to all the affairs of life; and where this invaluable principle is associated with the habits of childhood, it may reasonably be expected to pervade the subsequent conduct, and contribute largely to individual and domestic happiness. Children who are always accustomed to replace their toys when done with; to make no unnecessary dirt of litter; to be punctual in their observance of time and place; will even from the force of habit, practise the same regularity in the more important concerns, on which the prosperity of future families may depend…
Interestingly, Mrs Taylor has this to say about the behaviour of employers to their good and faithful servants:
…let those who are possessed of such a treasure as a good servant, duly estimate their privilege, and be neither too rigid in their requirements, nor too sparing in their rewards. It is poor encouragement to a servant, if she is invariably blamed for what is wrong and never praised for what is right; and some respect should be paid to the feelings of human nature, which will not endure continual chiding, however deserving of it: both praises and rewards should be suitably dispensed; and if, when there is occasion to complain, appeals to reason were more frequent than they generally are, such reproof might have a gradual tendency to improve the character. The old domestic attached to a family, whose best days have been spent in faithful services is a lovely character, and entitled to every indulgence; and when an honest and tractable disposition is observed in the young, self-interest alone would dictate an endeavour to rear a servant of this description, by care and kindness by mingling patience and forbearance with instruction or reproof.
In Susannah Sackree , the Knights had a faithful and well-loved servant who gave service over a period of nearly 60 years. From the affectionate way in which she was written about by members of the family, she was truly, in the words of Mrs Taylor and Lady Catherine, a treasure.