In 1989, María Teresa Turrión Borrallo arrived at Denford Park, a grand country house in the English county of Berkshire. The property, which has a Tuscan-style colonnaded entrance and sits on 120 acres, was then the home of Norland College, an institute widely accepted to be the most prestigious and thorough nanny-training establishment in the world — the go-to place both for students seeking employment with the rich and powerful, as well as for employers anxious that their children be carefully moulded — ideally by someone else — into the next generation of rich and powerful.
Borrallo, who grew up in Palencia in northern Spain and whose “great passion and life” is children, according to an interview with her brother in 2014, packed away her personal clothing in favour of a matronly uniform: knee-length beige dress with a white collar, brown bowler hat with an embroidered N, white gloves and a hairnet to secure her regulation bun. She would wear it daily for the duration. At a welcome ceremony for her cohort, she lit a candle and signed a code of conduct dictating that she would never do anything to harm her “charges”, as Norland calls the children its students work with, or the reputation of the institution. As the flame burnt bright, she became a “Norlander”.
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Norland’s curriculum promised that Borrallo would be instructed not just on sleep and weaning, but also on how to quickly mend a sagging hem, how to identify a dessert fork and other details that cater to the predilections of wealthy or aristocratic families. Her new life would not be easy and would require long hours and curtailed liberties, especially if one ended up, as many Norland nannies would, “living in” with one’s employers. No late-night visits from boyfriends, no hangovers, no spontaneous evenings out. A Norlander who trained in the 1930s described the job as “a little like giving yourself to the Lord”. There would be psychological pressures too, notably the emotional weight of the bond between nanny and child, with issues of pay, servitude, even eventual resignation, in the background of every hug, every bedtime story.
Founded in 1892 as the UK’s first childcare training college, Norland was the brainchild of educator Emily Ward, an admirer of Friedrich Frobel, who invented the kindergarten movement. Ward spotted a gap in the market in the Victorian upper-class thirst for childcare: create trained professionals rather than the illiterate lower-class housemaids who had previously taken on much nursery work. Such women, “gentlewomen” as Ward called them, should be from middle-class families, could charge superior fees and, in turn, would reassure parents that they were providing the very best for their offspring. Essential to this vision was that such women share the “habits and manners of her employer”, according to an official Norland history authored by Penelope Stokes in 1992.
Today, some 30 years after she graduated, you can see Borrallo in full Norland uniform in the background of photographs of the royal family, tending to the needs and whims of the future king Prince George and his siblings, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis. Borrallo has worked for Prince William and his family since 2014 and is referred to by current Norland staff as simply “the Royal Nanny”.
Norland has a tradition of supplying nannies to the aristocracy. Its graduates have worked for the Queen of Serbia, the Infanta doña Beatriz of Spain and the Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. The Grand Duchess Kirill of Russia, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, praised her children’s nanny Marian Burgess for her service throughout the 1917 Russian Revolution. “Weeks of sleepless nights — surrounded as we were by bloodshed, murder and terror — her courage never gave way,” she wrote.
By the time of Borrallo’s arrival in Berkshire, Norland had been grinding out nannies for some of England’s most influential families — the Cadburys, Reckitts, Rowntrees and Rothschilds — for decades. Few Norlanders struggled to find employment. In 1972, a Norland nanny was hired to look after the spawn of Stanley Johnson, including the future prime minister Boris. Their nanny was a “tower of strength who steered the long-haired, eccentric, collapsing Johnson clan through Brussels . . . where our father, Stanley, was one of the first British civil servants working for the European Commission,” Johnson’s sister Rachel later wrote.
Borrallo has become something of an advertising gold mine for Norland, which, in September of last year, admitted 102 women and two men to its new intake. These days, Norland graduates can expect starting salaries of £40,000, which can rise quickly, to over £100,000. They complete their studies across two sites in Bath. (The college left Denford Park in 2002.) They will wear the same uniform as Borrallo (boys are permitted to don trousers and a tweed blazer) and will still light their candles, but certain aspects of their studies deviate slightly from the training of the 1980s to reflect the fact that the tastes of the wealthy are ever-changing.
Today’s hirers range far beyond titled society and those with inherited wealth. There are tech billionaires, TV stars, second-generation immigrant magnates, female CEOs who have embraced motherhood alone, later in life. Such clients are likely to have more complex requirements than simply the prestige of a nanny’s training — say, a basic knowledge of global events, perhaps knowledge of the key dates of Islam and inventive ideas for how to put together children’s parties to celebrate such occasions, maybe wisdom on when a child should be permitted to use social media, or the ability to steer them through the complexities of gender identity. The struggle for Norlanders is to be such a modern nanny while still encapsulating the ethos of the institution that, as the uniform alone attests, is undeniably retro.
This is the conundrum Norland’s current principal, Janet Rose, who joined the college in 2016, considers almost daily from her office high up in the college’s premises, a draughty villa constructed in the early 17th century for the Duke of York. “It’s a global world now, and economic status is no longer the preserve of a certain sector of society,” she told me recently. “We need graduates who fit all different types of families.”
On a bright Friday last summer, I travelled to Bath to attend Norland’s annual “Heritage Day”, during which current students gather to show off the fruits of their classes and the history of the college to their families. The event was held at Bath’s Assembly Rooms, a location referenced in more than one Jane Austen novel as a hub for well-mannered young ladies anxious to secure their future, and the promise of respectability, since 1771. There was, as will have been the case at the Assembly Rooms before, a scarcity of young men.
All around me, under the glow of Whitefriars crystal chandeliers, young women greeted each other, their dresses pressed, their buns neat. I watched as one student held a drooling baby in a blue dress on her hip. She bounced the child in easy rhythm, occasionally caressing its sticky face with her gloved hand.
It takes an especially dedicated sort of person to be willing to spend one’s university years, usually the apex of youthful liberation, dressed as a character from Call the Midwife, but the thinking goes that this person would make the ideal nanny. The uniform is, one student explained to me, a “test” — the first step in the shedding of self that is required to make it as a Norlander. While in uniform, Norland students may not use headphones, buy alcohol or talk on mobile phones in public, except in emergencies. They are not allowed to cross the road unless there is a green light. So recognisable are Norlanders around Bath, and so high are expectations of their behaviour, that residents have been known to phone the college to complain if a student has been spotted parking badly or talking too loudly in public.
To gain a place at Norland, applicants must attend an interview day and display meticulous poise. Academic qualifications are less taxing: three Cs at A-level. Fees are £15,000 a year or £18,000 for international students. Some Norlanders I spoke to seemed destined for the calling; their mothers, and their mothers’ mothers, were Norland nannies.
At the Assembly Rooms, Rose, who looks exactly as one would imagine the head of an elite English nannying college to look — bouncy blonde blow-dry, pink lipstick, floral dress — fussed over a display of Norland uniforms through the ages. During the blitz, students wore Norland-branded helmets. Rose gestured towards a Norland cape from the 1890s. “It hasn’t been properly preserved!” she said, pointing to moth damage. “It’s history. The start of early-years education!” she added, referring to Norland’s status as the first UK institution to offer formal training for nannies (or nursery nurses, as they were then called).
Today, unsurprisingly given the cult of the girl-boss, Norland has repackaged founder Emily Ward not just as an educational pioneer but as a radical who championed women’s work by basically inventing the notion of childcare as a profession. Rose, who stressed that Ward forbade Norlanders from hitting children against the norms of her age, believes that Ward has been snubbed in the history of feminism and that her mission remains unfulfilled. Workers in the field are still not seen as skilled professionals, she said, and the job is often viewed as a natural instinct for women, or as mere play. As one Norland staff member put it to me early on in my reporting, “If you’re not very academic at school, the idea is that your best options are hair or care.”
In the UK, childcare is a largely unregulated, messy industry. Various professionals operate alongside each other, some with training, some without. Some, like Norlanders, make good money, most do not. There are babysitters, childminders, au pairs, nannies. Demand is considerable: a 2018 Department of Education survey found that in England “formal childcare”, meaning nurseries, nannies or clubs, was used by 62 per cent of families with a child between the ages of 0 and 14. Norland has made its success through a mixture of educational rigour and branding: cutting through this confusing web of options to provide an obvious choice to those with a generous budget. Numerous reputable childcare training courses exist, but Norland has the real gloss, the association with the powerful. One current student told me that Rose instructs Norlanders they are “not babysitters, but brain architects”.
The first time I met Rose, the news was dominated by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. I’d enquired if any of her nannies’ jobs had been affected by the sanctions targeting Russian oligarchs. She waved away the question, telling me that wealth alone wasn’t enough to secure a Norlander. “We would never have let our Norlanders go and be Hitler’s nanny,” she said. My eyes must have briefly widened: “We don’t ever discuss clients,” she added, quickly. “That’s why I gave a historical example.”
At Heritage Day, Rose was feeling buoyant. The college was celebrating its 130th anniversary and demand for a Norland nanny was higher than ever: 14 potential jobs available to each graduate. (A Hampstead mother told me that Brexit had decimated the wider nanny supply.) “Early years is the route to world peace,” Rose said as she led me towards the tea room. “Imagine if someone had got a Norlander to Putin, or Trump!” she continued, casting her eyes about for agreement. “It’s about empathy, self-regulation, the cornerstone to everything.”
Norland students have a full schedule and are expected to be on site, in uniform, by 9.30am each day. Alongside academics, today’s syllabus includes cooking on a high-end Aga range, cyber security (provided by military intelligence officers) and self-defence. After three years of study, Norlanders graduate with a university degree in childcare. This surprises people who presume that the college is some kind of finishing school, rather than a place to research a thesis on how to talk to children about climate change or the effects of music on brain development (two topics of some of the dissertations I viewed).
At our first meeting, Rose had been keen to tell me how Norland challenges stereotypes about who and what a nanny is. She explained that the college offers bursaries (81 per cent of its students come from state schools) and wants to admit more students of colour, as well as male and non-binary applicants. (Even so, at the classes I attended, students appeared overwhelmingly female and white.)
After graduating, some Norlanders will stay in the UK, mainly in London, living in the basements of town houses or paid-for apartments in Highgate or Kensington and Chelsea (“Nappy Borough”, as one Norlander put it). Others travel — New York, Dubai, Monaco — in teams of staff, shepherding children across continents from second home to third, fourth, fifth. Some work alongside two or three other Norlanders, providing 24-hour care to children while their parents broker peace deals, say, or make movies. I heard talk of one former student who makes a six-figure salary and works only two weekends a month helping a father care for his children as a requirement of his divorce settlement. (Norland would not confirm specifics of employers and takes an approach to discretion that sits somewhere between the paranoid and the performative.)
One of the first visits I made to Norland was in January last year for a lecture on etiquette by Katherine Lewis of Debrett’s, the manners and behaviour coaching company. Lewis told me that she sees parallels between Debrett’s and Norland. Both are heritage organisations trying to adapt to a fast-changing world without losing the very thing that makes them prestigious: their link to the hierarchies of the past.
Lewis told students that it takes just seven seconds to make a good impression. The world of the wealthy, she suggested, is full of opportunities for devastating faux pas. “Dining can be a minefield,” she said. She walked the students through a list of difficult foods: peas (“a nightmare”), asparagus (“even the queen would eat it with her hands”). Confronted by a langoustine, she noted, it is perfectly acceptable to ask your host, “What is the best way to eat this?”
Table manners are important but, Lewis said, temperament is everything. Norland nannies must radiate capability and independence while simultaneously projecting total compliance. They must proffer wisdom without the merest hint of impertinence. Unless they are actively dangerous, parents’ directions must be followed; the client is always right. The atmosphere that Norlanders strive to conjure within domestic settings is one of overwhelming pleasantness.
Lewis’s coaching included a demonstration on how to avoid an overzealous kiss on the cheek without making a scene (lock your elbow at your side when they try to pull you in by the hand). “Small talk should be kept on neutral ground,” she said. Subjects to avoid: “Politics, sex life, gossip, judgmental comments, religion, money, social class.” Lewis praised, at length, the skill of deflection, using the example of conversing with ardent far-right supporters and espousing the breezy firmness of the phrase, “It’s not an opinion I share.”
A few months later, I returned to the college to watch a cooking class led by Norland staffers Penny Lukins and Kate Hunt, both in pink aprons. Their syllabus includes cheese scones, Viennese Whirls and a full roast dinner. “Some nannies will be expected to cook all their child’s meals, others will be tasked with making instructions to a chef,” Hunt told me. “Sometimes the vegans really struggle with filleting the fish,” she sighed. “But they must learn.”
I chatted with two students making a bean and butternut squash curry. One, a particularly peppy student, told me that she plans to go to America, as “that’s where the money is”. “They love the idea of a British nanny,” she said. The other told me that she’d recently completed a holiday job accompanying a celebrity family to Ibiza, where she had been on-call 24 hours a day. I asked how she got on with the kids. “We’re told to say ‘children’ here, not kids, ” she replied, elegantly sidestepping the question.
In a nearby classroom, students were completing a sewing class, making a small toy which they called a “fabric friend”. Two students, Claire and Millie, sat together, stitching carefully. Claire almost went to Cambridge to read history but decided that she wanted to work with children. She loves watching them discover, loves being witness to their firsts. She and Millie live together and relax by watching Downton Abbey, she said. The Christmas before, Claire had completed a short temp job, spending four days with a family in a castle with 15 members of staff and what felt like 60 bedrooms. One day, she had to present the children, dressing them formally and introducing them by their full titles, ahead of high tea with extended family. It had been a crash course into the rarefied world in which some Norland charges live. But what Claire realised, she told me, is that no matter the status, the wealth, of the family, the children tend to be alike. All they really want is affection, time, someone who is always there to hold them and notice them. “Kids are just kids,” I said. “Yes,” she said, nodding. “Children are just children.”
A notion that resurfaced repeatedly during my time at Norland was that of “professional love”. You may be a child’s main companion, even a “proxy parent”, as Norland calls those who look after children alone for long stretches, and you may come to feel that you are part of the family, but you must always remember that this is not your real life. Embedded in your relationship with the child should be the certainty that one day you will leave. The extent to which either child or nanny could ever truly prepare for, or normalise, this parting loomed large over my conversations with students, despite the onus Norland puts on self-control, and the kind of emotional restraint synonymous with many British institutions, most obviously the royal family. Many of them confessed to tears on finishing placements and concern for how the child would cope without them.
Throughout my reporting, my mind often returned to an early Zoom lecture I’d sat in on, with Lynne Kenney, an American paediatric psychologist, hired to speak on “executive functioning and self-regulation for young children”. Some of her recommendations had been amusingly specific — play Bach to calm overexcitement; furnish a child with an Apple Watch to encourage exercise — but she’d also spoken more generally about contact time. I’d asked what advice she would give to Norlanders working with parents whose routines rarely factored in bedtimes, routines that revolved around a certain distance or formality between parent and child. Her answer surprised me. “It brings me back to when I used to work with children who are traumatised and didn’t have access, for one reason or another, to their parents that much,” she said. She would recommend, she continued, that the nanny be as “mindfully present” as possible. “Really being there with somebody who is listening means a lot to their development,” she said. “Little morsels of these moments can add up to attachment.”
In The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny, first published in 1972 and reissued in 1993 and 2014, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy notes that “probably the vast majority of those, in all spheres, who had governed or influenced our lives during the last hundred or hundred and fifty years had been brought up by a Nanny”. (The “fall” in the title refers to the shift away from domestic servants, from the second world war onwards, rather than any decline in demand for childcare.) Winston Churchill’s nanny was Elizabeth Everest. He tended to her on her deathbed, calling her his “dearest and most intimate friend during the whole of the twenty years I had lived”. Robert Louis Stevenson, in the dedicatory lines of A Child’s Garden of Verses, refers to his nanny as “My second Mother, my first Wife, / The angel of my infant life.” Over time, as Norland’s employer record demonstrates, the British nanny became a great export. The Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov had English nannies (Miss Rachel, Miss Clayton, Miss Norcott). They were the reason he learnt to read and write in English, before Russian. More recently, Jacob Rees-Mogg famously hired the same nanny who had raised him to care for his children.
Gathorne-Hardy links the strong moral code instilled by nannies with various areas of English society: “the incorruptibility of the Civil Service, the respect for the rule of law, the acceptance of and obedience to the State.” And, he adds, “the attitude and behaviour of the Nanny were as much, or more, a result of the society which rules an Empire, as that society was a result of her.” Indeed, with Nanny back home, the English were free to explore and colonise. Her existence also offered psychological freedoms, the reassurance of stability and the notion of superiority that comes with being raised by someone who, despite not being a blood relation, was enraptured by one’s own development and dreams.
The extent to which nannies have bolstered the status quo — and, in turn, shaped the abilities of those who lead our country to empathise or connect — is being acknowledged now, as the UK government faces increased scrutiny for presiding over one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world. To employ someone who can help bear the load of one’s children is a freedom, and it creates opportunities that lead smoothly to more freedoms: better incomes, career progressions, independence from the family unit, to be an individual.
There are debates to be had, of course, about parental presence and connection, but during my reporting, I often found myself returning to a simple question: could Stanley Johnson have become “one of the first British civil servants working for the European Commission” without a Norlander? And in turn, more complex ones: could his son have become Boris Johnson, bloviating commentator and one-time prime minister of Britain, without one? What would he have been like, temperamentally and as leader, had he been raised differently, without the encouraging hand of an employee never far away?
Come June, and the end of the academic year, I asked final-year students where they saw themselves in the future. Many expressed a desire to stay in London, for the company. “All of my friends are nannies,” one said. Another hoped her employers would have an older child, “so I have someone to talk to”.
Loneliness is something that Norlanders are coached to accept as part of the job. “They become Norlanders because they love children, and yet often families will expect them to give up their own lives, and their own chance of having children and their own relationships,” Julia Gaskell, Norland’s head of careers and consultancy told me. Gaskell, who trained at Norland in the 1980s, runs the Norland agency, which has existed since the earliest days of the college to connect graduates and alumni with employers and to negotiate contracts, manage disputes and even blacklist unsuitable families. Gaskell recalled speaking to a Norlander who had been a career nanny. “She said to me, Julia, now I’m 50 I regret it, I haven’t had children and I haven’t had a meaningful relationship. We both cried, because how awful, to get to 50 and realise that that was a mistake.” Still, Gaskell said more brightly, “she has two homes”.
Each year, Gaskell gives third-year students a lecture titled Working and Living with Families, in which she lays out some of the stranger requests they may face. “There are some nannies whose role is to make sure that the latest Gucci children’s range is in the house for the children to wear, the day it’s released,” she told me. She also prepares students for household rules, which can be surprising. “You can’t presume, for example, that you can use the swimming pool,” she said sombrely. Most of all, she emphasises the importance of diplomacy. “If you go on dad’s private yacht while mum and dad are divorcing, you tread a very fine line,” she told me. “You accept cosmetic surgery, a Chanel handbag . . . ” She trailed off, raising her eyebrows. “There’s a difference between a present and a bribe.”
Gaskell tries to motivate students with reminders about the job’s benefits. “I got to travel. I went to restaurants. I met Princess Diana. I earned a huge amount of money, and I had my own flat in central London,” she said. What’s more, she tells students, in your role as a day-to-day guide and teacher you will help form your charges’ future: their values, their temperament. And given the tenacious grip on power of the wealthy, you likely will be shaping people who will, one day, shape the world. Is that not something to feel proud of?
The final occasion at which Norlanders congregate is their graduation ceremony. Last year’s event took place at a soulless conference centre in Newport, south Wales. The proceedings lasted two days and featured a number of different cohorts. (Some ceremonies had been delayed owing to the pandemic.) “Remember,” Rose told graduates from the stage, “you are the crème de la crème”. I thought of Muriel Spark’s novel, and her character the teacher Miss Jean Brodie, who used this catchphrase both to flatter and discipline her coterie of favoured pupils.
Most graduates were women and most wore dresses, most of which were floral. Most also wore heels, and most of those were beige and high, but not too high. I found it impossible to recognise the students I’d previously met now that they were out of uniform. I watched as identical twins walked on to the stage, one after the other, to accept their degrees. They wore matching tight-fitting cream dresses and had curled their dark hair into loose waves. They paused to get a photo together, holding their degree scrolls like wands. Families watched from a balcony above. At one point, a baby began to cry but was swiftly soothed.
On the first day of the graduation, the valedictorian, Hannah, who wore the unwavering smile of a weather forecaster, told the crowd, “Every tantrum shaped us into who we are today.” Afterwards, she told me that she had left a course in psychology at Exeter university to join Norland. “A lot of my friends graduated university with amazing degrees, from Oxford and seriously good places, and really struggled to find a job, and it did make me feel incredibly lucky,” she said. She was now living in Fulham, sharing a house with two other Norlanders; they all worked for families a short walk away. “Quite often,” she said, “I’ll be with my charge in Waitrose, and I’ll bump into a friend from Exeter and they’re really struggling.”
In one of the breaks between ceremonies, I ran into Liam, one of the first men to graduate as a Norland nanny, in 2019. (The first ever male student, Michael Kenny, joined in 2012 but left to become an apprentice at a Bath hardware store.) Liam was there to watch his girlfriend, also a Norlander, graduate. He wore a suit and a pin that proclaimed one of Norland’s mottos: Love Never Faileth. Many people find male nannies “strange, full stop”, Liam said. Those who hire male nannies tend to have sons, he said. When he’s out with his charges, people assume he’s their father.
On my trips to Norland, male students were like shooting stars; I’d see a flash of tweed blazer in the corridor amongst a mass of dresses. Since Liam, there have usually been one or two male students per intake, sometimes none. Of the others I spoke to, two came to Norland from a background in children’s sports coaching, and one after his plans to join the army fell through. They had that specifically measured boisterousness of children’s TV presenters: always animated, never unpredictable.
By the middle of the second day and the third ceremony, I had heard the choir sing “What a Wonderful World” — “I hear babies cry, I watch them grow” — three times. I had met a student who had let her charge scribble colourful doodles in crayon all over her white graduation dress. I had eaten what felt like a thousand finger sandwiches. On stage, Norland’s guest speaker Helen Moylett, an early-years education expert, announced that “every few seconds a baby is born into the world”. How they will fare, she said, is based on how they are treated, loved, cared for and the inclinations and patience of whoever gives that care.
When we talked afterwards, Moylett told me that she had spent her career working in inner city areas with very poor children. “Apparently half the cabinet have a Norland nanny,” she said. “Well, of course they have, because they know the best when they see it, and they can afford to pay for it.” She gestured at the graduates. “They are being paid more money than I’ve ever seen in my life, and you think, that’s great, but then ordinary people should be able to access quality care.”
All around us, graduating nannies took selfies and bought Norland memorabilia: teddy bears, mugs, Nanny diaries. They looked as happy as anyone should be on their graduation day, basking in the performance of the rite of passage.
Later, back in the hall, I watched as a father, bald and clad in a tweed blazer, sat entranced as his daughter walked forward to collect her scroll. He wept as she smiled from the stage, letting his eyes close for a moment as applause filled the room. It was impossible to tell if it was simply pride he was feeling or something more nuanced. As she descended, I wondered where she would go next, and whose baby she would soon hold and care for and love, professionally.
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