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The governess occupied a position of great responsibility and authority in the Irish country house. She was expected to have a genteel exterior, teaching as much by example as by theory. Governesses were often German or Swiss girls or the daughters of local clergymen. As they were generally members of the gentry, governesses had an ambiguous status, being too refined to mix easily with the other servants, but too poor to be accepted as equals by the daughters of the household. Something of an outsider, the governess joined the family for breakfast and lunch when no guests were present, or ate with her charges in the schoolroom, seldom fraternising with the other household staff.
The ideal governess had a good temper and good manners and was very well-educated and accomplished. She had a broad range of skills and knowledge, for in addition to teaching ‘the three Rs’, she was expected to converse well in French and Italian, teach arithmetic, science and geography, and instruct young ladies in drawing and needlework. She was expected to play at least two musical instruments (preferably the pianoforte and harp), be proficient with a paintbrush, and know the rudimentary dance-steps, so as to provide the first lessons in these subjects before a master was employed.
She taught essential etiquette, instructing her pupils on dress decorum and how to behave when they entered society. She also gave religious and moral instruction, using pictures, stories and sewing phrases as aids. She taught her students to recite from books such as “Pratt’s Selection of Classical Poetry”, and used globes, microscopes and telescopes to broaden their knowledge of the world around them. Under her tutelage, her female charges became accomplished ladies, while their brothers were prepared for the best preparatory schools in the country.
The Home-School Day
home-school day began early. Children rose at six or seven and had two
hours of instruction before breakfast, as it was believed that this was
the best time for study. Breakfast was followed by more lessons until
lunchtime, with the afternoon devoted to nature walks, sketching-sessions,
fresh air and exercise. In bad weather, dumb-bells and skipping ropes
provided exercise, while chess and cards, games deemed suitable for genteel
society, were sometimes allowed in the evenings.
The governess was expected to supervise her charges throughout this long day, correcting their bad habits and encouraging good manners. In return, she was rewarded with a salary ranging from ₤25-100, depending on her qualifications, social status and the number of pupils in her care. While sometimes allowed to attend house parties by her employers, she had to know her own station, fraternising with neither servants nor guests at such events.
Olive Sharkey 1998,30
Discipline and Atmosphere
lonely, many governesses took out their frustrations on their young charges,
disciplining them excessively with punishments such as the back paddle or the
finger stocks. While ‘nanny’ was often remembered fondly as a pillar of warmth,
love and kindness, many children of upper class families shuddered at the
memory of their tyrannical governess. Viscount Carlow, for example, recalled
shedding many a tear in the schoolroom at
Governesses, Schoolrooms and Tutors at
We know a little
about some of the early governesses and tutors employed at Dawson’s Court and
“…the governess cannot manage him at all, and seems quite to have given up the point… she is put out of patience, and seems worried to death with them. I could not help speaking to her of the little progress she has made with them, and told her if she found herself not equal to it, she had better give up the place, which she seemed very ready to do.”
(Gleanings from an Old Portfolio 1895, II.60).
governess is in sharp contrast to Miss Howe, the governess who brought young
Viscount Carlow to tears in the schoolroom at
The letters of the
1st Countess also mention a tutor named Mr Bourdage,
who was employed at
The Schoolroom at
were generally located in a separate wing from the family apartments, usually
on the upper floor of the house. At