Publication date: 4/2/2013
As a nanny, Brenda Ashford was a natural. Attending London’s prestigious Norland Institute in 1939, her report card for 3 months of training showed Very Goods for Needlework, Cookery, Nursery Management, Child Psychology, Nature Study and Children’s Games.
Ashford shares her experiences helping several generations of British children become happy, healthy adults in her vivid, unpretentious and funny memoir A Spoonful of Sugar: A Nanny’s Story. She remembers the praise of a generous instructor for her care and attention feeding a baby:
“Me. Brenda, a natural? A warm glow of happiness spread through me. I could scarcely wipe the silly smile off my face.”
She writes fondly of Norland Institute, whose founder Emily Ward was inspired by educational theories comparing children to plants in need of nurturing to grow. Recognized by starched black uniforms and flowing capes lined with red silk, Norland nannies were trained to exceed the highest standards of wealthy Brits. Ashford was hired by families who would have been perfectly at home on the set of Downton Abbey, one of her favorite BBC television shows.
A vivid image on her first visit to Norland in London’s Notting Hill:
“Little girls in smart smock dresses walked in a crocodile to school; boys in sailor suits ran along, clutching boats to sail on the Serpentine in Hyde Park.”
In the chapter on Nanny Boot Camp, Ashford recalls the work she dreaded the most as a Norland novice: the laundry. Without the convenience of a spin cycle washer or a dryer, she and other apprentices would plunge their arms into vast sinks of hot soapy water and would scrub clothes until their hands were numb.
“The laundry room was fiercely hot, and soon all our faces were flushed red from the heat. Three big copper boilers, heated by gas flames, dominated the room; and all the sheets, pillowcases, napkins, clothes, and nappies went in there to be boil washed.”
Ashford writes of the experience of wringing the wash on a huge mangle requiring super strength to turn and then hoisting the clothes onto ceiling beams to dry. “This was easy work in comparison to the ironing.”
Once everything was scrubbed, cleaned and polished and after pram parade inspections, apprentices sat for lessons on etiquette or attended practicals on the medicinal purposes of ginger, Dr. Bow’s liniment, castor oil and other cupboard remedies. Norland apprentices learned that olive oil rubbed onto the scalp treated dandruff. They learned that Eucalyptus oil drops in hot water can be inhaled for colds. And, they learned that an ounce of warm water quiets babies and relieves wind.
Heartwarming sections of the book titled Nanny’s Wisdom appear at the end of each chapter. There, Ashford shares recipes for queen of puddings and fresh cream butter as well as valuable cleaning tips:
“Try this for removing mud and grease stains from white fabric: boil the article of clothing in a large saucepan with a chopped-up lemon. The lemon and high temperature bleaches the stain, then wash as normal in a washing machine.”
Despite the sweetness of Ashford’s recollections, A Spoonful of Sugar is no light read.
Her personal nanny story is a primary source on mothering styles, the education of young women in Britain and the choices available to women at different socio-economic levels.
Not just nostalgic scrapbook memories from a plucky Mary Poppins in retirement, the memoir serves as a rich source of women’s microhistory from the 1930s to the present.
The book can be mined for details on post-Victorian parenting in wealthy British society, the plight of wartime evacuee children from Bethnal Green and the structure of day nurseries for working East End mothers during World War II.
A Spoonful of Sugar by Brenda Ashford is a highly worthwhile read for British microhistory and nostalgia enthusiasts on the sixty-two-year career of an elite Norland nanny.
Category: Nonfiction, Memoir