The nanny wars

The cut throat business of finding a good nanny.

Features

20 Jun 2015

My pregnancy unleashed a primitive craving. The strength of my yearning left me dizzy: a nanny, I wanted a nanny!

I worked full time, and couldn’t conceive of giving up my riveting professional life. But I also had no intention of having a succession of feckless au pairs raise my baby, or of parking my child at the local crèche. I’d read ‘attachment theory’ and was convinced my child would turn feral without continuous nurturing to replace working mummy.

I kept meeting women who swore by their nannies — dignified women d’un certain âge who hovered lovingly over their charges from dawn till dusk, from Mayfair to Mustique. They were the ones who enforced bedtimes and showed up at the school concert. Crown Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece’s five children had a designated nanny each, I was told in awed tones.

For these rich ladies, upmarket nannies were pearls of great price, worth selling your actual pearls for. My less well-off friends wanted them, too. But there was a problem. The Nanny Wars were beginning.

Now they are in full swing. The flood of Russian, Arab and Chinese plutocrats into London means that finding a Premier Cru nanny, a ‘treasure’, has become a nightmare for the English upper middle classes.

The Sloanes are having to move down the hierarchy of nannies — from the legendary Norland Nannies to less experienced English girls; from the latter to Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans; and, if money is really tight, to Filipinas. If you think there’s casual racism at work here, you may have a point.

Some ‘ladies who lunch’ have cast aside everything they’ve been taught about moral rectitude at boarding school and set about trying to poach each other’s nannies. But I’m in no position to preach.

I was a nanny thief. Or I would have been if I hadn’t been caught. When I was still pregnant, I lured a friend’s cherished sixtysomething nanny to a restaurant. Over lunch I rather meanly pointed out that her ‘girls’ were now in their teens and perfectly capable of looking after themselves. Then, more desperately, that I’d give her the best bedroom in the house. Nanny blinked, looked tearful, and said she’d have a think.

Instead, she promptly informed my friend of my treachery. Nanny remained staunchly loyal to her employer.

I should have known she would. High-end nannies see themselves as members of their employer’s clan. Until recently the grander ones took on the family name, too: the nanny to two generations of Earls of Dartmouth was known as Nanny Dartmouth. Until recently, these women provided a loving presence for their charges while mummy remained a distant figure. Sir Max Hastings remembers his beloved nanny showing him into the drawing room, where his mother was sitting. When little Max burst into tears, the nanny apologised: ‘I’m so sorry, madam, he only does this with strangers.’

Rich parents are more hands-on these days, but nannies are still passed on like the family jewels. Viscount Linley and his wife Serena hired Prince William’s old nanny, Jessie Webb, for their children. They then lent her to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to look after Baby George until a permanent nanny was appointed.

Miss Webb’s transition from one royal household to another was amicable, unlike the bitter quarrels over nannies that have turned swathes of South Kensington and certain country estates into battlefields. It happens on the other side of the Atlantic, too. Anglophile Americans are keen to press their progeny into a Downton cookie-cutter. One website, Modern Mom, asked recently: ‘What’s worse: stealing another woman’s nanny or sleeping with her husband?’

The answer for many busy women is stealing the nanny. She takes care of all that is dull and gross in child-rearing. She is the one to proffer (and then empty) the bag for car sickness; listen to the six-year-old torture the bassoon; bleach the Ribena out of the Rachel Riley sundress.

But a nanny does more than relieve parents of tiresome duties. She confirms their status. Enter the oligarchs, who love the idea of an old-style nanny in a prim uniform barking at the progeny to keep their elbows off the table. As one PR guru advised a Russian show-off, ‘Don’t buy a football club, get your children a nanny. That’s real class.’

One ex-Norland nanny was warned during her training to be careful of foreign social climbers who insisted that she wear her brown uniform. It’s a sign that they only want a nanny as a status symbol. ‘Explain that wearing the uniform makes their children kidnap targets,’ she was told.

Another problem is that many Arabs, Chinese and Russians don’t speak English. A British nanny with a working knowledge of one of these languages can more or less name her own price.

But there aren’t many of those around. The Little Ones London agency, spotting a gap in the market, supplies bilingual nannies and promises their employees’ ‘discretion’. This is crucial to some Russian parents, who throw parties where trophy English celebs gobble Beluga from sculpted ice boats. A rogue nanny could make a fortune from the gossip columns.

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And this brings us to a delicate question. According to the nanny grapevine, a few oligarchs (not the vast majority) think hiring a certain sort of nanny grants them droit du seigneur. Says a source in the business: ‘Oleg from Omsk isn’t going to spend 60 grand a year — that’s including all the extras, including use of car — on a Plain Jane in sensible shoes. Even if his hands don’t wander he wants to feast his eyes — and bawl out the poor girl every time she puts a foot wrong.’

The Sloanes look down on such outrageous treatment of ‘staff’. And it annoys them to see foreign children being wheeled around Kensington Gardens by Mary Poppins in the Rolls-Royce of prams, the Silver Cross, which carried the future Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, Prince William and now Prince George.

These things don’t come cheap. Norland Nannies, founded in 1892, are flesh-and-blood proof of parents’ income: they charge between £34,000 and £65,000 gross, depending on educational level. It tells you a lot about modern London that business is thriving, though the customer profile has changed.

Abbey Searle of the Norland Agency says: ‘Our nannies’ heightened profile has meant that demand has remained constant. As for our students, we have never had such a high level of applicants. This year, we are training 70 nannies, as opposed to 60 last year. And for September 2015 we have 80 enrolled.’ It helps that Prince George’s Spanish nanny, the elegant and slender Maria Teresa Turrion Borrallo, is a Norland graduate.

Some Sloanes have been heard to mutter that, if Norland isn’t careful, it’s going to lose its reputation as the Eton of nanny agencies. But then they’re bitter at being priced out of the market.

There was a time when a Marlborough-educated Army officer living in South Kensington could promise his wife a Norland nanny (or something similar). Today he’s more likely to live in Battersea and if he has £50,000 to spare, he’d rather spend it on renovating the cottage in Wiltshire.

The next step down is to go for English-speaking girls from ‘the colonies’. The more snobbish parents avoid the term ‘au pair’, though that is what they are. An Australian friend tells me: ‘Your typical Aussie girl thinks the idea of being a nanny is ridiculous. But she’ll go along with it in return for the cheap accommodation and free holidays in Europe. I even knew one nanny who had a cash-in-hand arrangement that allowed her to sign on in the UK.’

I don’t take such a cynical view. The Aussie and Kiwi nannies I’ve met are breezily cheerful and practical — far more likely to know how to change the wheel on a car than Miss Poppins.

There are other options. An agency called Manny Poppins offers CRB-checked male nannies who tend to be good at sport. To quote GQ magazine, what could be more appealing for a mother than ‘someone who will not only make the children’s macaroni and help with homework, but teach them football and fight off any muggers?’

Then there’s the humble and gentle Filipina, favoured by well-off liberals who rhapsodise about the ‘child-centred culture in the Philippines’. Though that’s not the only consideration. To quote a contributor to a right-on parenting website, ‘£400 a week gets you 24/7 care and those who have outstayed their visa are cheaper still.’ Nice.

Some yummy mummies (or mummies-to-be) have taken to attending Catholic churches in Kensington where the congregation is full of devout young Filipinas. But there’s one potential hazard. When Mummy and Daddy are out, some Asian women talk to the toddlers in their own language. There’s a horror story doing the rounds of an English three-year-old who, on her first day at kindergarten, spoke to the other children in Nepalese.

Almost every discussion about nannies, whether over the dinner table or online, reveals an undercurrent of anxiety. And it’s an anxiety about foreigners — not just foreign nannies but also the overseas buyers who now buy one in five houses in affluent parts of London and are also colonising public schools. Top-flight nannies have joined the long list of things that Sloanes once thought were theirs by right — the old school tie, the house in SW1, the bespoke suit — but are now out of their price range.

Hence the nanny-poaching. But, believe me, I’m not advocating it. Not only did I fail in my greedy mission; the friend whose ‘treasure’ I was trying to steal hasn’t spoken to me since.


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