Regency Servants ~ Caring for the Wee Ones, by Sharon Lathan

Regency Servants ~ Caring for the Wee Ones, by Sharon Lathan

Today I bring you the sixth installment of my series on Georgian and Regency Era servants. As noted last week, this entry will conclude the staff members who worked within the walls of the country manor or London townhouse. Next week I shall move outside, as it were, and begin a shorter series of essays on the menfolk who labored in the gardens, stables, and estate lands.

As the finale for this segment of the series, I am hosting a giveaway! Details are at the end of the blog. Yippee!

If you missed the previous 5 installments or need a refresher, the links for each are listed below.

Regency Servants: Introduction and Steward

Regency Servants: Valet and Lady’s Maid

Regency Servants: Men in the Household

Regency Servants: Women in the Household

Regency Servants: Kitchen Staff

Interestingly, I began this series with the steward — one of the few “servants” who were not, in fact, truly servants in the strict definition of the word (see below) — and will end this portion with others who fall into that gray category.

SERVANT (noun)
c. 1200, “personal or domestic attendant,” from Old French; use of servant as “serving, waiting,” present participle of servir – “to attend, wait upon”. A person employed by another to perform domestic duties; a person in the service of another.

Childcare in the Regency Era

Schoolroom 1820


Whole books have been written on the historical trends and philosophies in childcare. In fact, the book I’ve chosen to feature this week covers this topic in exquisite depth. I am fortunate to own a copy of Yesterday’s Children: The Antiques and History of Childcare by Sally Kevill-Davies and reference it constantly when writing anything related to children. The photos alone are worth the cost!

This is a complex subject, but to summarize, the latter years of the 18th century saw an enlightened, rational attitude toward raising children emerge that was completely revolutionary. No longer were infants and toddlers seen as “lumps of flesh” with little or no virtue, or worse yet the receptacles of “original sin” which needed to be beaten out of them. Influential writers such as John Locke and Richard and Maria Edgeworth (among many others) advocated for the rights of children and rejected the old concepts of child rearing for new ideas of freedom, nurture, and natural liberation. Additionally, with the gradual improvements in medical care and obstetrics, the previously held superstitions and fears regarding death (so common with children) began to wane.

A study of all the societal changes would take ages, so suffice to say, families during the Regency Era approached parenthood vastly different from their predecessors. This altering attitude paved the way for the radical swing to embracing everything related to motherhood in the Victorian Era. In 1837 Victoria ascended the throne and ruled while simultaneously, and seemingly continually, pregnant! Unabashedly devoted to her children, Victoria’s example elevated motherhood to a near-sanctified state.

If the rearing and training of childhood by an art (and who can deny that it is so?), it must be learned, practiced and perfected like any other art. ~ Baroness B. M. Von Marenholtz-Buelow in 1855

So, while during the early years of the Regency Era the old philosophies probably held sway to some degree and within certain households, less and less were infants and young children being farmed out, tucked away in attic rooms until “civilized” and proper, given to the wet-nurse, or ignored by their parents. Nevertheless, wealthy parents managing large estates and business affairs, and the demands from Society, needed help raising their offspring. And what about educating the little darlings?

Staff in Charge of the Children

Nurse, or Nanny

Not until the late 1790s did the word “nanny” originate. Possibly derived from the Greek nanna, meaning “aunt”, or the Welsh nain, for “grandmother”, it was an uncommon term during the Regency. Not unheard of, but the term “nurse” was most typical.

Night, by Francis Wheatley, 1799


By either name, she was the primary caretaker of the children from birth to roughly five years, possibly more. Often times, especially if more than one child needed caring for, she was assisted by one or several nursemaids. An excellent nanny (and nursemaids) frequently served a family for years, and often for successive generations. The nature of the job tended to create women quite indulgent and highly attached to the family.

Save the child–give it a truer mother, the domestic nurse, who possesses the equanimity of humble station, whose self-interest is more vigilant and attentive, and (such is the providence of nature) whose attachment often grows more maternal than that of the mother herself. ~ The Belfast Monthly Magazine, July 1811

Along with the obvious chores of feeding and bathing, the nursery staff was expected to instruct the youngsters in proper manners, teach them to walk, potty train, discipline, begin the basics of education, break of any bad habits, take all meals with them, play with them, and above all bestow copious amounts of love and affection. Knowledge of medicine, at least as regarded common childhood ailments and treatments, was also essential.

Additionally, the nurse and nursemaids were responsible for the upkeep of the nursery and schoolroom chambers, and the sewing and mending of clothing. Most helpful was an awareness of children’s literature, games and toys, and the specialized furniture and furnishings that did exist for children.

A child that is much danced about, and much talked to, by a very lively nurse, has many more ideas than one that is kept by a silent and indolent person. A nurse should be able to talk nonsense in abundance, but then she should know when to stop. ~ On the Progressive Development of the Faculties of Children by Elizabeth Hamilton as printed in The Lady’s Magazine, 1802

Side Note on Education of Youths During the Regency and Georgian Eras ~

18th-century school for boys


Bear in mind that in England during these decades there wasn’t a formal, standardized educational system. Government funded public schools did not exist, nor did the crown or Parliament require everyone to receive a set level of education. There were schools run by philanthropic and religious groups that were free for poorer children, and there were numerous private schools for boy and girls of the middle to upper classes. Jane and Cassandra Austen attended a school for girls run by a Mrs. Crawley in Oxford, a one year experience Jane detested. And we all know that Austen’s father, Reverend Austen, supplemented his income by educating boys in his home.

Becoming educated during this time was definitely easier if one had money and the desire to learn. Yet even in this, the options were broad and rules fuzzy at best.

In general, girls were educated entirely at home. A governess was preferred, but again looking to Jane Austen, it was not at all unusual for a genteel gentleman’s daughter to be educated by her parents. If a daughter was sent to a female-ran boarding school, it was usually for a short period of time.

Boys, on the other hand, simply could not arrive in Society without some sort of formal education, for appearances if nothing else! Indeed, it was typical for boys as young as eight to be sent away to boarding schools — the most prestigious the better. However, it was also just as common for a boy to remain at home under the tutelage of a tutor and forego a boarding school entirely, or only attend for a handful of years in prep for University.

Therefore, the following commentary in regards to education are what the “norms” were but nothing was written in stone.


A governess was another “servant” not actually a servant per se. She was always an unmarried, educated woman from an upper- to middle-class family who, for various reasons, needed to earn a living.

The Governess, 1844, by Richard Redgrave


At about age five, a female governess was acquired for both male and female children to begin their formal education. Primary care would continue with the nursery staff while education was administered by the governess — depending upon the family preference — for another three to four years. It was often the case to employ a “nursery governess” for the primary teaching of both children in reading, writing, basic arithmetic, geography, history, and so on during these intermediary years.

While not considered quite yet an adult, a child of eight was deemed mature and responsible enough not to need constant supervision by a nanny, thus moving out of the nursery rooms and into a separate bedchamber on the family wing. A boy’s education was then assumed by a tutor.

Depending upon the breadth of her education, the original governess might suffice for the daughter’s continued instruction. If not, a higher educated, “preparatory” governess would assume the teaching of the maturing girl. Now came the time to focus on advanced concepts in literature, history, languages (mainly French), and other academic studies judged proper for the female intellect, but largely the emphasis would be on etiquette, music, singing, painting, dance, needlework, and other fine arts. Those parents who embraced the philosophy of higher education for their daughters, instruction in advanced academics may be administered by a tutor rather than the governess. Remember, females at this time period did not attend University and rarely enrolled in the few private schools for girls that existed, so their global education was limited. In this, tutors had an advantage.

A governess was usually treated with respect within the household, although not always. She perched precariously on the wire between hired servant and employed staff member, the circumstances of her personal situation and background, and the station of the family hiring her, too often dictating how she was viewed within the servant hierarchy. For example, she may dine with the family if her social station allowed and the family requested, but she would never dine with the servants. Being a governess was, in many instances, a literal life-saving occupation for the woman of breeding but minimal funds, but it was a lonely place to dwell.

“…the real definition of a governess in the English sense is a being who is our equal in birth manners and education but our inferior in worldly wealth. Take a lady in every meaning of the word born and bred and let her father pass through the gazette and she wants nothing more to suit our highest beau ideal of a guide and instructress to our children… There is no other class which so cruelly requires its members to be in birth mind and manners above their station in order to fit them for their station. From this peculiarity in their very qualifications for office result all the peculiar and most painful anomalies of their professional existence. The line which severs the governess from her employers is not one which will take care of itself, as in the case of a servant.” ~ Littell’s Living Age, 1849

As a final point, a governess’ employment was limited in terms of being directly dependent upon the age and number of the children. Once they were eighteen and had made their debut in Society, she was out of a job! If she had preformed well, excellent references and recommendations amongst the family’s peers would be given, or perhaps one of her charges would enlist her as an adult companion.


Always male, this man was of the gentleman’s class. As such, his position within the household was on par with the estate steward. University educated, preferably experienced as a teacher from one of the private boarding schools, his job was to educate and prepare the boys during their important formative years. These were, after all, the future leaders of the country! And, their prospects for a superb marriage were dependent upon their personal fortunes, success, genteel manners, and appearance.

Boys as young as eight (or younger in some noteworthy rare exceptions) left the care of their nanny and governess behind for the exclusive world of men. Whether in a boarding school or educated at home, the tutor(s) taught an extensive range of subjects: the sciences, literature, business, history, languages (French, Greek, Latin), philosophy, and religion. So-called extracurricular education was important to males — art, dancing, social graces, music, etc. — although the larger emphasis would have been on sports.

A tutor was paid much more than a governess, but like her, his job was time limited. Unlike the governess, a tutor had greater options for employment and his age wouldn’t become a factor as soon as it would for her. Tutors never stayed on as a companion, males having no need of such a person, but they were often employed to accompany their young man on his Grand Tour. A man learned and experienced in traveling abroad was a vital adjunct for a successful Grand Tour — which was ostensibly all about the educational aspects — and if the tutor had established a comfortable relationship with his student, the journey promised to be a good one.

Yesterday’s Children: The Antiques and History of Childcare

This book describes the changing trends in childcare through the centuries. From the time when the Church, ritual and superstition dictated the way in which children were reared, through the era of Romantic Enlightenment, to our own, more or less, common-sense theories of today, the attitudes of society towards childcare have fluctuated violently, with each generation rejecting the customs of its predecessors. During the 16th and 17th centuries children were seen as little better than animals, full of “original sin” and destined for Hell, while the 18th century saw a more rational attitude gradually developing. Queen Victoria, though personally unmaternal, helped to make motherhood a cause celebre, and by the end of the 19th century “baby worship” was a national pastime. The everyday objects used by mothers and nurses to help raise the children in their care sharply reflect these changing attitudes. From swaddling-bands to cradles, breast pumps to baby-walkers, christening robes to high-chairs, Sally Kevill-Davies’s book reveals the fascinating, amusing and frequently horrifying truth about childcare in the past.

Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres

Between the 1780s and the end of the nineteenth century, an army of sad women took up residence in other people’s homes, part and yet not part of the family, not servants, yet not equals. To become a governess, observed Jane Austen in Emma, was to “retire from all the pleasures of life, of rational intercourse, equal society, peace and hope, to penance and mortification for ever.” However, in an ironic paradox, the governess, so marginal to her society, was central to its fiction-partly because governessing was the fate of some exceptionally talented women who later wrote novels based on their experiences. But personal experience was only one source, and writers like Wilkie Collins, William Makepeace Thackeray, Henry James, and Jane Austen all recognized that the governess’s solitary figure, adrift in the world, offered more novelistic scope than did the constrained and respectable wife. Ruth Brandon weaves literary and social history with details from the lives of actual governesses, drawn from their letters and journals, to craft a rare portrait of real women whose lives were in stark contrast to the romantic tales of their fictional counterparts.

This completes the final installment in my Regency Servants series for the final entry on the inside staff members.
Next month I’ll turn my attention to the workers who kept the stables and grounds in order.
Lots more to come!
For the present, share your thoughts and questions with me to be entered into the GIVEAWAY!

In each of my 6 essays I have highlighted one or two excellent books on the topic presented that week. Some of those books are out of print or only available to read on Google Books and other online sources. Fortunately, a few of them are currently available! The following will be awarded based on a random drawing from those who comment or ask a question. I can’t guarantee prizes, but IF you have a preferred choice of book, note it with your comment. I’ll pick winners later this week with the announcement on Saturday.

  1.  Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres, by Ruth Brandon (Kindle eBook OR print used *may not be available in print new)
  2.  Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Careme, the First Celebrity Chef, by Ian Kelly (Kindle eBook OR print used*may not be available in print new
  3.  They Also Serve: The Real Life Story of a Lifetime in Service as a Butler, by Bob Sharpe (print only available)
  4.  Up and Down Stairs: The History of the Country House Servant, by Jeremy Musson (Kindle eBook OR print used *may not be available in print new)
  5.  The Housekeeper’s Tale: The Women Who Really Ran the English Country House, by Tessa Boase (Kindle eBook OR print used *may not be available in print new)
*click for Amazon purchasing and novel information*
*click for Sharon’s website and blog*
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[…] be distant was facilitated by help. Nurse was the more common term for nanny in the Regency era (Regency Servants ~ Caring for the Wee Ones, by Sharon Lathan by Sharon Lathan on Austen Authors), and this woman would be charged as the child’s primary caretaker from birth until age five […]


[…] Regency Servants: Caring for the Wee Ones […]

Natalia F
Natalia F
March 13, 2021 1:40 PM

It’s so sad to think that it was practically like winning the lottery for an upper-class child to have loving parents back then instead of it being what was typical!

September 3, 2018 2:21 AM

It always seems sad to me that parents would practically ignore their children until they were older. They totally miss the bonding with the child and the child with the parents. I would think it was hard for the child to then love or trust them. Happy that all changed!

Donna Krug
April 26, 2017 3:39 PM

Thank you for such wonderful essays on servants, governesses, childcare, housekeeping. Your research is a learning experience for me as things were run in Regency England.

Becky Dempsey
Becky Dempsey
March 27, 2017 9:43 AM

This is fascinating. I think the Governess one would be my favorite book but they all look like they’d be interesting

Zoe Burton
April 27, 2016 9:06 PM

My first thought: now I know why teachers are so poorly-valued and underpaid even today! I had never considered the history of teaching and teachers before, but I can now see the connection to present-day circumstances. This was a great post, Sharon! Very informative!! 🙂

April 27, 2016 4:51 PM

Nice post and quite interesting. Great giveaway.

April 27, 2016 4:50 PM

What a great giveaway. Thank you.

April 27, 2016 4:49 PM

Thanks for the post and giveaway.

Jennifer Redlarczyk
Jennifer Redlarczyk
April 26, 2016 9:26 PM

Love this post as I’m always wondering about the help. The giveaway looks awesome. Thanks so much. Jen Red

April 26, 2016 11:06 AM

I’d like to add my thanks for such an informative series, Sharon. The life of a governess sounds as though it could have been a very lonely if you were employed by the wrong family – unable to socialise with either family (apart from the children) or servants. Thanks also for the giveaway. If I’m lucky enough to win, I’d like the book about the housekeeper, please.

P.S. It might have been me who Teresa referred to earlier as I did put the message, and a link, on Goodreads yesterday, in Sophia Rose’s Austenesque TBR Challenge Group.

Trudy Timkovich
Trudy Timkovich
April 26, 2016 6:01 AM

Thank you for this I interesting series! A highlight to the people behind the scenes that made the house and estate run.

Rose Fairbanks
Rose Fairbanks
April 25, 2016 10:54 PM

Thanks for this post and the series! In my years since finding JAFF I have done a lot of research (frequently at your site) but having this series handy would have saved me some time! And, of course, it reminds me of what I loved about JAFF (and from your pen at that)!

April 25, 2016 7:16 PM

I have really enjoyed this series of blogs!!

April 25, 2016 7:10 PM

Sharon, thank you for this fascinating series! It has been very informative. 🙂

evamedmondsEva Edmonds
April 25, 2016 4:08 PM

I have learned so much from these blogs and am looking forward to the blogs on the outdoor servants, which I do not know as much. I would like the Governess or Cooking for Kings ebooks. Thank you for the giveaways.

Cortney Stewart
Cortney Stewart
April 25, 2016 3:43 PM

This was such an interesting series, especially after reading Jo Baker’s Longbourn.

April 25, 2016 3:19 PM

My first comment here, but I’ve enjoyed this series! And the idea of late 19th century baby worship has amused me since I’ve seen it referred to in Barchester Towers!

You’ve mentioned that governesses were unmarried – what about a widowed woman (without children, of course)?

Teresa (Broderick)
Teresa (Broderick)
April 25, 2016 2:51 PM

I’ve only just discovered this site from mention of the giveaway on GoodReads. Wow! It’s fantastic. I love the Regency era. Well, I know now what I’ll be doing tomorrow. Plenty of reading here to be done. Would love to win any of the books as I love research.

Teresa (Broderick)
Teresa (Broderick)
April 25, 2016 3:42 PM
Reply to  Sharon Lathan

Hi Sharon, ignore second posting. Didn’t find this one in time. It didn’t say on GR. Just that Austen Authors had a giveaway and it was for a non-fiction book. Hope that helps.

April 25, 2016 1:50 PM

I always wondered why the parents didn’t seem to care about their children and then the children were supposed to respect them at a certain age! With no nurturing or love from the parents it had to be hard on the kids. I think I would like to read the book on the governess. Thank you Sharon!

Teresa Norbraten
April 25, 2016 1:00 PM

I love this series. Very, very interesting. Regency books always have the main characters be Lords and Ladies, but I am never sure if their representation of the Staff is correct. Now I will know – especially if I get one of the books!

Joana Starnes
April 25, 2016 11:30 AM

Thanks for this wonderful series of posts, Sharon, it was absolutely magical and I’ve learned so much! Fascinating, all of it!

Mary Campbell
Mary Campbell
April 25, 2016 10:12 AM

Thanks so much for this Regency Era series. I always learn some fact from all of the ausrenauthors’ books I read, but your series fully explained any questions that needed further commenting. Also, thank you for the giveaway. Nos. 1 or 5 would be my preference.

April 25, 2016 8:51 AM

I am always amazed at what you bring out about the Regency era. I never fail to learn something new. Thank you for sharing this, Sharon.

April 25, 2016 8:12 AM

Sharon, Your research is amazing. Thank you so very much for expanding my understanding of the Regency era. It is very generous of you to share your time and knowledge.

April 25, 2016 6:16 AM

quite a fascinating topic. It sort of gives credence to Lady Cat’s statement to Elizabeth. Thanks and I would definitely loved to be entered into the giveaway.

Debbie Fortin
April 25, 2016 5:37 AM

Thank you for this overview of the caretaking of children. I have been enjoying the series. As I already have the 4th and 5th books listed, I would like to be entered for any of the others. Thank you for the generous give away.

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