Matron and the nursery assistants

John and a friend with a Rainham Hall nursery nurse during the late 1940s

During the Second World War, with many men away fighting there was a shortage in Britain’s workforce. The government, via local authorities, set up war-time nurseries (such as one in Rainham Hall) to allow mothers with young children to go out to work. Rainham Hall was requisitioned by the Essex County Council in 1942, and the nursery was in operation from 1943-1954. Local women played a vital part in the World War Two effort.

While researching war-time nurseries for our current exhibition, 'Remembering the Day Nursery at Rainham Hall', our lead volunteer historic research, Jenny Collett, discovered a great deal about how nurseries were set-up and about the women who were in charge day-to-day: the matron and the nursery assistants.

Making a war-time nursery

Setting up nurseries from scratch, during a war, was not straight-forward. Many in Government doubted whether they were needed at all. Surely the best place for small children was “at home with Mother”! Eventually, the shortage of labour won the “war of the nursery”. The Ministry of Labour decided which areas needed nurseries. The Ministry of Health organised their setting up. The Board of Education oversaw educational play. County and Borough Councils actually ran them. The Government paid for the nurseries, but the war-working mothers had to contribute 1 shilling a day for each child.

By October 1940, only 14 war-time nurseries were actually open. The Ministry of Health was accused of delaying decisions and disputing the need for them. Mothers campaigned for nurseries in war-industry areas, including Chelmsford. The Minister of Labour wrote directly to County Councils for their assistance. In March 1942, Hornchurch District Council received a deputation of women demanding a nursery. Rainham Hall was one of the 1,559 new war-time nurseries opened by November 1944 to look after more than 71,000 infants of war workers.

Despite the disagreements, the Government wanted to create well-run nurseries, based on up-to-date child-care ideas of happy, healthy children. Helped by private nursery associations, they listed staff and training needed, selected toys and set out ideal diets for infants. With goods in short supply, plywood furniture was standardised to reduce timber use, without compromising comfort. Everything from pans to nappies had to be sanctioned by the Ministry of Supply and bought from designated companies. This was a brand new venture for the State, in which, for the first time, the wellbeing of the under-fives was seen as important to the national future.

Matron and the nursery assistants

In October 1942 Essex County Council advertised in the Chelmsford Chronicle for a Matron and two trained nursery assistants for the new Rainham Hall war-time nursery. The Matron’s salary was £200 a year and a nursery assistant’s £135.

Miss Rhoda Violet Carter was the first Matron. She was 40 years old and came from Middlesbrough, Teesside. She must have been a State Registered Nurse to get the job, but we know nothing of where she trained. Matron Carter probably resigned from this post when she married in early 1944. When she died in 1954 she was living in Loughton, Essex.

Matron Carter was certainly in charge, but she was helped by a Deputy Matron. A Certificated Nursery Nurse oversaw two or three Nursery Assistants and a similar number of Probationers and Helpers who were studying for the new National Society of Day Nurseries’ Diploma or Child Care Reserve Certificates. Probationers and Helpers were often girls aged between 15 and 18 years old.

We wish we knew more about the staff at the Rainham Hall nursery. Nursery attendees tell us Mrs Hart was the Matron in the late 1940s. From local newspapers we know Nurse Dorothy worked here in the early 1950s and the Matron was Mrs E. Walker. More recently, some photographs were handed in showing Miss Esme Withers, as young lady, looking after the children. Imagine the stories the staff could share – are there any living former employees out there?