Nits, Nazi bombers and lovers under the bed: Memoirs of the remarkable woman who devoted 62 years to Britain's most exclusive nanny service
01:44 GMT, 9 June 2012
They say you can never truly love a child that isn’t your own, but that goes against all my instincts.
As a nanny, I have loved children born to other women all my life and every child I have ever cared for I’ve adored with all my heart.
Many I would have laid down my life for: in fact, on some memorable occasions — when I fled to air-raid shelters, clutching my charges to my chest — I very nearly did.
Kind and caring: Brenda Ashford with three of her young charges. 'Even when children were naughty, I made sure not to crush their confidence,' she said
There’s little I haven’t come up against since I began my training as a Norland nanny in 1939.
Bombs, Spitfires battling German planes above my head, freezing winters, disease, adultery, deserters: there was never time to be bored.
And when you’ve trained under the doyenne of Britain’s oldest nanny school, Hitler and his armies truly hold no fear.
But I never dreamed when I graduated from the Norland Institute, aged 18, that I’d still be looking after babies when I was 80 —– which surely makes me Britain’s longest-serving nanny.
I’ve cared for nearly 100 children over the years — if I never married or had a child to call my own, it’s because there were simply too many babies who needed my love.
The one thing that’s motivated me above all else is the desire to replicate my own happy childhood.
Apart from that, my recipe for child-rearing contains a large helping of love; a dash of stability, routine and respect; a sprinkle of fun and imaginative games.
I’m also adamant that certain basic rules be followed. Never put out your tongue, never bite your nails or clean them in public, and avoid all other repulsive habits including spitting, cursing or using vulgar language.
This may make me sound like the most terrible disciplinarian, but that’s far from the case.
Even when children were naughty, I made sure not to crush their confidence. Yes, they’d be told off, but in the same day they’d also get plenty of encouragement.
Childcare trends come and go, but children will always thrive on affection and love. That’s all I did. It’s not so complicated — and it always works.
Growing up in a large house in Effingham, Surrey, my sister, three brothers and I were never short of playmates or ideas for keeping ourselves occupied.
Then, when I was eight, my mother gave birth to her final child — my brother David.
Helping hand: The wartime nursery in Redbourn, Hertfordshire, was brimful with evacuees. Most of the 30 children, aged three to five, had to be bathed, dressed in nursery overalls and fed
As far as I was concerned, it was love at first sight: I fed him his bottles, helped bathe him, changed his cloth nappies and spent hours singing him lullabies. I’d already found my calling.
On leaving school, I longed to become one of those girls in a uniform and cape, pushing a big coach pram round London’s smartest postcodes. But it seemed unlikely I’d ever be admitted to the Norland Institute, housed in an imposing Regency terrace, which took on only clever young ladies of genteel birth.
My father, who had a wholesale knitwear business, had recently gone bankrupt, and the course was expensive. Still, I went for an interview — and, to my astonishment, I was awarded a bursary that covered all my fees.
So what was so special about the Norland It had been founded by a teacher in the Victorian era, when obedience took precedence over affection and children could expect to be caned, or thrashed with a slipper.
But Emily Lord had radical ideas for her time: she rejected the need for physical punishment and created the Norland motto: Love Never Faileth.
In other respects, the school was quite old-fashioned. All the rooms were named for Victorian virtues — including Gratitude, Sincerity, Tenacity, Integrity and Patience. (The first male accountant was assigned an office called Chastity.)
My uniform was a cloak and a fawn, long-sleeved dress with stiff detachable white collars and cuffs, plus a white apron. Cosmetics were strictly banned and stockings were made of wool.
Our rooms, beds and belongings had to be spotless for daily inspections; even our toothbrushes weren’t allowed to contain a trace of old toothpaste. Windows had to stay open, even on the coldest days.
‘Fresh air makes for healthy living,’ we were told.
‘Our first lesson, girls,’ announced our teacher, smiling angelically, ‘is to learn how to clean a loo properly.’
Every girl looked horrified. Where were the adorable children and the strolls in Kensington Gardens
Instead, we were given a bottle of disinfectant and a brush. So for three months, we scrubbed lavatories until they shone. Down in the chilly stone basement, we also had to scrub the Norland’s fleet of Marmet prams daily, wax their soft leather bonnets and remove any trace of dirt from the wheels.
Pram parade was at 3pm sharp, when we lined up the polished prams on the lawn in a semi-circle for inspection.
I learned how to knit children’s woollies, how to make a smock dress and how to wash endless nappies. At other times, we’d gather in draughty rooms for lectures on neatness, punctuality, speech and ‘moral tone’.
It may seem hard to believe, but I didn’t have the faintest clue that war was about to break out. As long as prams were pristine, our uniforms impeccable, that was all that mattered.
This Hitler chap, whom I’d vaguely heard of, wasn’t about to stop the pram wheels rolling. And, indeed, he didn’t.
My final term of training took place in a mansion — lent to us by the owners — in Hothfield, Kent.
To practise on, we had all the children from the state-sponsored Bethnal Green day nursery, who’d been evacuated from the East End.
It was easy to forget we were in the middle of a war. Coach prams were lined up like soldiers on parade in the driveway, and excited little children tore round the grounds like mini tornadoes.
The Bethnal Greenies, as we called them, talked in rhyming slang — which none of us could understand. For most, the fresh air, fields and wildlife of the countryside were completely alien.
‘Are you having a lovely time’ I asked Elsie, a five-year-old with blonde curls.
‘Not arf,’ she said, wiping her runny nose on her sleeve.
‘We saw a cow being milked afore. Knows where the milk comes from’ Her blue eyes grew wide.
‘Only from a ’ole in its bum.’
Meanwhile, I was also looking after newborn babies. In return for cooking and cleaning, unmarried mothers were invited to lodge at the mansion and hand over their offspring to us.
The winter of 1940 was the coldest in 45 years. But even the sub-zero temperatures didn’t stop all the babies being taken for their daily dose of fresh air. There’d be rows of cots in the thick snow, each with a rosy face peeking out from a nest of blankets.
Before receiving my Norland certificate, I had to complete a year in a private home — so I accepted a post looking after two adopted brothers, aged 12 weeks and two.
Their mother, Iris Beaumont, whose chauffeur-driven, navy-blue Rolls-Royce was a familiar sight in her Surrey village, knew exactly what she wanted.
‘You’re to wear your uniform at all times,’ she said. ‘Cook will bring you tea in the nursery at 4pm prompt, when I shall also visit. There may be a war on, but there’s no need to let standards slip.’
So each day, I’d don my freshly starched uniform and take the boys out in the pram. But by May 1940, I was seldom straying too far from the Anderson shelter at the bottom of the garden.
A trainee nanny at Norlands Training College in Chislehurst, Kent
One day, the sirens sounded and I ran there with the boys as usual. As bombs thudded perilously close, I settled them into tiny bunk-beds and told them stories about my childhood.
Eventually, both were fast asleep. It was then that curiosity got the better of me. One little peek wouldn’t hurt, surely…
Outside the shelter, I looked up to see a staggering drama. Our boys in their Spitfires had intercepted a German fighter plane, and they were right on his tail. Livid flashes leapt across the sky as the planes soared over my head. The noise was ferocious. In all my 19 years, I’d never felt so alive, terrified or excited.
The sight of the red, white and blue circles on the wings of the Spitfires stirred something in my soul. One soared down so low, I swear I could see the outline of the pilot’s face, full of determination.
Seconds later, the German plane took a hit and burst into an orange ball of flames. Then I saw a parachute and tiny figure drifting down into a nearby field.
Just then, a piece of stray shrapnel whistled past my face and landed with a thud in the shelter door, just two inches from my head. Adrenaline was still pumping through my veins when Mr Beaumont came storming up, his face scarlet with rage. But I was saved from the worst scolding by his wife, who was running up the garden path, pulling on her mink coat.
‘The Jerry’s landed in next door’s field,’ she panted.
‘We’re off to make a citizen’s arrest.’
But he was spared this fate: he landed in the middle of a cesspit and was killed.
After my year with the Beaumonts, I became a fully qualified Norland and it was time to move on. But none of my experience had prepared me for running a wartime nursery.
Redbourn in Hertfordshire was a sleepy village that had lately been swamped by evacuees.
Each morning at the nursery, there’d be a stream of bleary-looking mothers clutching grubby-faced toddlers. Then, most of the 30 children, aged three to five, had to be bathed, dressed in nursery overalls and fed.
After that, a typical day went something like this: administer cod liver oil, comb 30 heads for nits, check 30 bodies for lice, prepare prams.
Then: playtime; boil-wash everything in sight; fill bottles; prepare lunch; clear up; get children down for naps; break up fights; clean up; order weekly food; issue means-tested invoices; story time; playtime; watch out for Doodlebug rockets; change 30 children into day clothes; scrub nursery from top to bottom; draw black-out curtains.
The role of such nurseries is often overlooked, yet we enabled hundreds of thousands of mothers to go to work — in the fields, in factories and as ambulance drivers.
Some found time for other activities as well. One married lady sent her baby to the nursery — and it was only when I took it to her once to be breastfed that I noticed something strange under her wrought-iron bedstead.
It was a pair of legs encased in army fatigue trousers. Neither of us said a word: I simply handed over the baby and scampered back to work.
It turned out she was having an affair with a deserter — and by the end of the war, she’d produced five babies. What on earth would happen, we all wondered, when her husband returned from the front
Meanwhile, I was having battles of my own. The cause was Gladys Trump, a cleaner from the East End, who’d insisted on accompanying her 12 children to Redbourne.
An imposing woman — though only 5ft 2in — she had beady eyes that glared at you through the smoke from her ever-present cigarette. Still, to her credit, she’d got herself a job in a local munitions factory.
The first time she brought in Jimmy, aged five, I mentioned he’d be having a bath like all the other children. She reacted as if I wanted to boil him alive.
Pushing her face so close to mine, she hissed: ‘E’ll catch ’is death a cold. I’m tellin’ yer, he ain’t ’aving no bath, or yer’ll ave me to deal wiv.’
With that, she cackled loudly, revealing a row of rotten brown stumps, before stomping off. I wasn’t about to be scared off, so Jimmy got his bath.
When I saw his body, I gasped. His scrawny torso was covered in blisters. His skin was almost brown by ground-in dirt and he smelled terrible.
Afterwards, I dressed him in clean nursery overalls.
‘Fanks,’ he said, with a sniff. The next morning, Gladys was waiting.
‘Ow dare ya,’ she hollered. ‘Whodya fink you are He aint never had a barf in his life. He don’t need a barf now. Keep yer ’ands offa ’im.’
‘I won’t make any apologies for bathing your son, Mrs Trump,’ I said, trying to keep my cool.
‘Well, I’ve put a stop to yer little game so I ’ave,’ she replied.
Minutes later, we discovered all Jimmy’s clothes had been sewn together with big, ragged stitches so he couldn’t take them off. They took a while to unpick — but he still got a bath.
And so the battle raged on. Each morning, Gladys sewed him into his clothes; each morning, we cut him out. A few days into this, we had a visit from the Redbourn nurse and midwife, Sybil Trudgett, known as Trudge.
Not the slimmest of ladies, she was a familiar sight pedalling through the streets on a tank-like bike. I told her about Gladys.
‘What am I do’ I cried. ‘She’s impossible.’
‘What you have to realise is that she’s raised 12 children more or less single-handed in a tiny two-bedroom flat in the Peabody buildings in Stepney.
‘Picture the scene, Brenda — 13 of them in a dirty tenement flat. There are children everywhere, sometimes naked from the waist down to save on washing.’
I felt my attitude towards Gladys soften. After all, she’d kept her family together in the most miserable of circumstances.
‘She loves those children with an intensity you and I could never understand,’ said Trudge.
‘They’re her life! Why do you think she’s here She’s doing her best.’
‘But a bath,’ I protested weakly.
‘The only bath they have is filled with coal,’ she continued.
‘Besides, Gladys doesn’t wash her children, because she genuinely believes they’ll catch their death of cold.’
Shame washed over me. How could I have been so judgmental
Suddenly, I recalled the Norland’s insistence on lining up babies’ cots in the snow. Wasn’t that also bizarre But the intention had been sincere — just as Gladys had genuinely believed that baths were dangerous.
I may have been narrow in my outlook when I joined Redbourn nursery — but, thanks to Nurse Trudge, I left it with a broader perspective and far more compassion. The ways of the world, I learned, aren’t always what you expect.
Remember the woman who’d had five babies by her lover When her husband came home, he simply forgave her. Not only that, but the saintly man raised all five as his own.
Adapted from A Spoonful Of Sugar by Brenda Ashford (Hodder & Stoughton, out on June 21, 12.99.
2012 Brenda Ashford. To order a copy for 10.49 (including p&p), call 0843 382 0000.