Women, babies and bombs: How day nurseries contributed to working women’s lives during WWII

In researching content for the exhibition Working for Equality: the fight for fair pay and equal rights which explores women’s struggles for equality in the workplace in Barking & Dagenham in the first part of the 20th Century, there have been many interesting stories uncovered.

One of these was the formation of Day Nurseries in WWII, which allowed women with young children to go to work in greater numbers than had been seen before in the UK. In this post, I would like to share some of what was found.

Childcare options in the early 20th century

Before the start of the Second World War, provision for childcare by the government was hardly considered. The expectation was that women would be engaged in domestic work in their homes from their marriage onwards, so that all of the duties of caring for children would lie with their mother. For mothers who, through necessity or choice, did go out to work, their main childcare options were:

  1. Day Nurseries. For children under the age of 5, the Ministry of Health provided Day Nurseries for the children of working women, but only where the work was seen as ‘necessary’ and the women was the sole adult wage-earner, for example for unmarried, separated or widowed women. But these nurseries were far from plentiful - in 1938 there were only 104 Day Nurseries in Great Britain, providing care for 4291 children.

  2. Nursery Schools. These were provided by the Local Authorities, for 2-5 year old children but governmental policy on how many places were provided was open to interpretation, meaning that the Local Authority was not obliged to provide this option. In 1938, there were 118 Nursery Schools running, but these only provided care for children between 9am until 3.30pm which did not take in to account the needs of many working women.

  3. Elementary Schools. This was the preferred choice of many working women as it meant that, for those with larger families, the elder children could be responsible for taking the younger children to and from school, assisting with the incompatibility of childcare and working hours. In 1938, 170,000 children between 3-5 years old were attending school, at that time more than either of the nursery institutions took.

  4. Child-minders. Women in full time work often paid for relatives or friends to care for their children. Although this offered them greater flexibility in terms of obtaining care for the hours needed, the care was more unreliable (with greater risk of being let down by the minder) and was often more expensive than the government-funded care options. There were also a class divide on the opinions of society on child-minding. Middle and upper-class nannies were lauded as wonderful carers for children, but for the working classes, child-minding was denigrated as resulting in juvenile delinquency.

Children at school c 1915.  ©    Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Children at school c 1915. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Need For Day Nurseries

The need for an increase in Day Nurseries could partly be attributed to what was known as the ‘Phoney War’. This was a year after war was declared on Germany by England and France in 1939, in which there was very limited military action.

With many children from London and the surrounding areas, including parts of Essex such as Barking and Dagenham having been evacuated in 1939 to places such as Wales, Norfolk or Cambridgeshire, when there was no sign of a German attack many children were brought home. Women who had been released from their primary occupation as carers could have found themselves working to support the war effort, but with their children returning home would have had to make arrangements for their care.

Children being evacuated by train.  ©    RAF Museum

Children being evacuated by train. © RAF Museum

As the Second World War progressed, the need to mobilise a female workforce was acknowledged by the government. Between 1939 and 1943, 1.5 million women joined the ‘essential industries’, such as working in factories manufacturing munitions. In engineering, the number of women workers rose from 97,000 to 602,000 between 1939 and 1943. There was also change in the marital status and age of women in factory work, with a greater proportion of those aged between 35-44, and married women now working.

Woman working in a munitions factory, 1942. ©  IWM (D 8598)

Woman working in a munitions factory, 1942. © IWM (D 8598)

Many women with families felt unable to register for war work due to domestic responsibilities. There was no option to work part-time available at this time, and factories expected their workers to complete shifts of 10-12 hours. Although women with children up to the age of 14 were exempt from working, many women wanted to work, if a job could be made to fit in with their child care:

I often think I’d like to go to work if it wasn’t for the child…if there was a nursery or something”

I feel I should be doing something, it’s getting on my nerves {but} he’s too little to leave for all the time between when school ends and when I or his father would get in…”

From 1940 the Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin, demanded that nurseries be set up in advance of recruitment of married women. These were set up and run by Local Authorities and funded by the Ministry of Health. These, however remained few in number until pressure from the Trade Union Committee Women’s Conference in 1941, the Birmingham Day Nursery Campaign Committee and other women-led local protests.

The Ministry of Health began the process to open more Day Nurseries, for women working in government factories or having government contracts but due to demand this was swiftly expanded to include anyone engaged in war work. This was more loosely defined and would have included women working in factories to produce things like fuel, food and clothing, as well as those holding jobs in transport and communications.

Women would have paid for their children to attend a Day Nursery, but at a subsidised cost, and would often have been expected to provide their children with necessary items such as nappies and a change of clothes.

Women in Hampstead marching for the opening of more Day Nurseries. ©  Home Front Museum

Women in Hampstead marching for the opening of more Day Nurseries. © Home Front Museum

Day Nurseries in Barking & Dagenham

During the period 1941 – 1945, a series of day nurseries were opened in the borough of Barking & Dagenham, one of the first of which was Eastbury Manor.

Eastbury Manor is a large Elizabethan house, not far from Upney Station, which had been owned by private individuals and families until 1918, when it was purchased by the National Trust (who still care for the property today).

In 1941, Barking & Dagenham Council first raised the idea of establishing a Day Nursery at Eastbury Manor. The property would have been deemed to be suitable due to its location – it was sufficiently far enough away from the river and other major targets and surrounded by terraced housing. The Ministry of Health had deemed the idea of factory creches unsuitable due to fact that these would be at risk of bombing, so they felt that any Day Nurseries should likewise be at a distance from women’s workplaces. However, there was at least one occasion in which a 'doodle-bug' bomb almost hit Eastbury Manor, falling in a field just behind, and there was a steel-reinforced shelter which the children would go to during air raids. 

Eastbury Manor also had a large garden suitable for children to play in. This coincided with new childcare ideas of the 1940’s which emphasised fresh air and outdoor play. The gardens were also shared with local groups such as the Scouts, and the house itself was also used as an ARP (Air Raid Precaution) station.

Eastbury Manor House today – Copyright with the author

Eastbury Manor House today – Copyright with the author

The nursery would likely have been open from between 7-9am until 5-7pm. Factory work was usually a 10-12 hour day (not including time for travel) until the government pressured employers to use split-shift systems and part-time hours from 1943 onwards. This meant that women would still have had to struggle to drop off and pick up their children on time, especially with the transport problems the war caused, such as the petrol shortage and the blackout.

In a 1990s newspaper article stored at Valence House archives, June, a former nursery worker at Eastbury, recalled that breastfeeding mums who worked at Ford were allowed to take four-hourly breaks to go to the nursery and feed their babies.

Eastbury Manor would have cared for 40-50 children, from babies up until the age of 5 years old. At a similar day nursery in Rainham Hall one child, Janice Cunningham, attended the day nursery from the age of 9 months until she was 5 years old. Children would have been looked after by nursery nurses and would have spent their days engaged with games, toys and outdoor play.

“All the children wore clothes supplied and laundered by the nursery, which meant their hard-working mums were spared a lot of washing. We gave all the children three meals a day so you can imagine the number of bibs and feeders we got through. We also had five coppers full of nappies every day." - June, Eastbury House nursery worker

A room in Rainham Hall set up as it would have been in the 1940s Day Nursery for children to nap – Copyright with the author

A room in Rainham Hall set up as it would have been in the 1940s Day Nursery for children to nap – Copyright with the author

The Ministry of Health defined the day nurseries as ‘a cloak-room for the children of women workers’ and places were limited to those women who ‘had’ to work. This was felt by many to exclude those women working to supplement their husbands’ incomes and reflected the supposition that women’s wages made no real contribution to the family finances. This would have deterred some women from placing their children there.

An overall shortage of places available for children during the early 1940’s also led to nurseries operating unspoken selection procedures. Priority was often given to disadvantaged families, but this was still judged according to Victorian attitudes towards the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving poor’ in which only the clean, polite and well-presented were seen as ‘deserving’. At one day nursery in Wandsworth it was reported that governors had issued an instruction not to accept children who did not meet their standards of cleanliness:

We’ve instructed Matron not to take them in if they’re dirty”

Other nurseries in nearby areas of the borough, and surrounding boroughs began to open. In the immediate area were Parsloes Avenue Dagenham (opened in 1942 to care for 40 children), Goresbrook Rd Dagenham (opened in 1944 for 50 children), Rugby Rd Dagenham (caring for 38 children from 1945), and Dagenham Avenue (caring for 70 children from 1945). The increase in provision the borough saw right up until the end of the war, and ongoing provision afterwards indicates the growth in the numbers of married women working continued and was sustained even after the end of the war.

Wartime nurseries in England overall began to decline due to the withdrawal of Ministry of Health funding in 1945 and local authorities' reluctance to foot the whole bill. However, not all of the day nurseries closed, as a model had been established for a part-time nursery school which local education authorities now had a duty to provide to meet the needs of their populations.

Nurseries in Barking & Dagenham after WWII

Eastbury Manor remained as a day nursery until the end of 1956, after repeated extensions of the lease by the council due to high demand for nursey places. A letter to the National Trust from the council’s Town Clerk in 1951 states that over 400 children were waiting nursery places and the demand was expected to increase still further as more women took on work in industrial factories.

Looking through some old family photographs for the Working for Equality project, I discovered that my father had actually been at the nursery for the last few years it was in operation. He was born in Barking in 1953 and would have been there from 1955-56 when my Nan, Louise Elliston, returned to work she started during the war and continued for some years afterwards, as a conductor ‘on the buses’. Unfortunately, my father was too young at the time to remember any of his experience at Eastbury Manor and all we are left with from his time there is this rather blurry photograph of the Manor taken during the time he was there.

Eastbury Manor c1955, with climbing frames visible in the grounds - Copyright with the author

Eastbury Manor c1955, with climbing frames visible in the grounds - Copyright with the author

My Nan would have found herself in the situation of many women who had been invited, encouraged, and in some cases even pressured into working outside of the home during the 1940s, who (from stories recounted to us) enjoyed and thrived in the workplace. With the return of servicemen from the war seeking work, some women were displaced from their jobs.

Married women especially were no longer encouraged to work and some employers reverted to their ‘Marriage Bar’ in which women were prevented from working in certain roles. Ideologies of the 1950s about psychological damage to children of married women ‘leaving’ home to work, and the prevalence of images of domestic femininity circulated by the media and advertising would have also contributed to the return of many married women to their pre-war situation.

Childcare remains a problem for many women in the UK today, with children receiving 15 hours per week free childcare at a pre-school from 2 years old and 30 hours per week from 3 years old. Outside of this, childcare is often expensive and can be hard to find. Much recent discussion cites lack of childcare provision, or lack of flexible employment (including flexible/part-time hours, or opportunities for home working) as a contributing factor to the gender pay gap, issues which the women of today continue to fight against and campaign about.


Employment figures and all quotations within this post came from the text: Women Workers in the Second World War: Production and Patriarchy in Conflict by Penny Summerfield, Routledge, 2013

There is also an excellent exhibition on children’s experiences of the Day Nursery during WWII at Rainham Hall on currently, which was drawn on for this post.

Original research was completed thanks to Valence House Library and Archives http://valencehousecollections.co.uk/

Additional sources are as follows:







 By Charlotte Elliston

Huge thanks to volunteer Charlotte Elliston for researching and writing this brilliant article as part of our Heritage Lottery-funded Working For Equality project. Charlotte works at the Science Museum and is co-director of Sweet 'Art.