Tea by The Nursery Fire: A Children’s Nanny at the Turn of the Century by Noel Streatfeild

Now this was a lovely idea: an author beloved by generations of children, towards the end of her life, telling  the story a much-loved figure from her own childhood. The story of her Gran-Nannie.

Emily Huckwell was born in Sussex in the 1870s, the daughter of a gatekeeper and his wife. They were poor, though not the poorest, they did their very best for their children, and they were a happy family.

Like her mother, and her grandmother, before her Emily went into service at the ‘big house.’ She became a ‘maid to the nursery,’ running hither and thither, doing whatever jobs might be needed to keep things running smoothly for Nanny and her young charges.

Nanny saw potential in Emily, and she supported and guided her.

One day, quite instinctively, Emily went to the aid of a visitor who had torn her dress, mending it quickly and invisibly. That brought her the offer of a new job, in a new house.

Emily took it!

And so she became a nursery maid. She found herself working with a disagreeable Nanny, but she coped because the children loved her and she loved them, And in time she became Nanny. And finally Grand-Nannie, when her children brought their own children to stay.

It says much for her that one of those children would, so many years later, tell her story, built from known facts, family memories, and just enough imagination to hold things together.

Noel Streatfeild sets out Emily’s life simply and clearly. Had I not known it was a memoir I could have quite easily believed it was fiction.

The story moves along nicely, with just enough details along the way to illuminate lives and times. I saw how things were for Emily’s family, for the staff in the houses where she worked, for the children in her nurseries. I didn’t see the bigger picture, or how they really felt.

There was a hint of a lost love, but I couldn’t quite understand how the bright young woman became the old, faithful servant.

But this was a child writing of her Grand-Nannie, so maybe that was right.

It leaves this as a charming, light read for adults, and an accessible book for children.

And the ending – with the men Emily had raised and their sons who had visited her insistent that her coffin would not be taken to church by cart, that they would carry her on her final journey – underlines what it is above all else.

A loving tribute to a remarkable woman.