Jean Smith

Nanny turned television star and advice columnist
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The Independent Online

Jean Smith had brought up 10 children and long since retired when, in 1993, she began starring in her own BBC television show, Nanny Knows Best.

Jean Smith, nanny: born Ilkley, West Yorkshire 5 May 1922; died London 12 May 2004.

Jean Smith had brought up 10 children and long since retired when, in 1993, she began starring in her own BBC television show, Nanny Knows Best.

Each week, Nanny Smith, 71 and fluffy-haired, sat down with a pot of tea and the morning post. She would open a letter from an anxious parent and then board a train to Liverpool or Carshalton to investigate. One child was hitting his mother as she breast-fed his brother, another would only wear blue.

Nanny would hear out the parents and then take the child off to the park, where the two of them would feed the ducks, kick a ball and have a chat. Without exception, Nanny and child returned firm friends. In the warm bath of her presence, the behaviour either improved, or was deemed nothing to fuss about. Blue Boy's mum was told to stock up on blue shorts for the summer. "Why stop him wearing blue when it gives him such joy and fun?" asked Nanny.

To the parents, she offered as much reassurance as advice. Off camera, she was fond of saying that the problem was not the child, but the parents. In her view, the child was always right - or if not absolutely, indisputably right, certainly always to be defended.

The book of Nanny Knows Best (1993), subtitled "How to Bring Up a Happy Child" and ghost-written by Nina Grunfeld, a former charge, was a bestseller. Smith and Grunfeld went on to write an advice column in the Daily and Sunday Telegraph.

Jean Smith was born in 1922 in Ilkley, West Yorkshire. The eldest of three children, she grew up in the mining village of Treeton, where her father was the policeman. A bout of tuberculosis kept her in bed for a year and left her with a painful hip and limping gait. She described her childhood as happy and secure, but stifling. "Ever since I was 12, still smarting from one of my mother's tellings-off, I had decided that when I grew up I would be involved with children," she said in her book. "I would look at each and every situation through their eyes."

She left school at 16 and took a one-year course in nursery nursing at St Monica's in Bradford, a church home for unmarried mothers and their babies. Some of the girls arrived at St Monica's six months before giving birth, and some of the children stayed until they were three, providing the probationers with broad experience.

In 1940, as the young men she had grown up with were sent to war, Smith became nanny to a brother and sister in Derbyshire. She had found her vocation, but lost the first two loves of her life: her boyfriend from Treeton, who died in a Japanese PoW camp, and the little boy, who died of a mystery illness.

At 25, she got engaged to a Belgian refugee and agreed to move to Belgium once they were married. But she took a temporary job in Sheffield and "when it came to the crunch, I had become so attached to the baby I did not want to leave". It was the Belgian, not the baby, that got thrown out with the bathwater.

Smith stayed with the baby from Sheffield until she was six, by which time the family had moved to London. She lived in London for the rest of her life and never married, a conscious decision taken when she realised that by not having children of her own, she could spend her entire life in the company of other people's.

My parents hired Jean Smith in 1960. She moved into our house in Lancaster Gate the day my elder brother came out of hospital, aged 10 days, and left 17 years later, when I was nearly nine.

With a floor of the house to ourselves, she was our life and we were hers. We spent the day in the nursery, and the night in the night nursery, where we slept with her up to the age of four. She was at our beck and call 24 hours a day, except on Thursdays, when she would set off to the West End in elegant suit, hat and gloves, to meet a nanny friend at Lyons Corner House or wander round the National Gallery.

She never complained about the workload. "Being a children's nurse has not been a job," she reflected in Nanny Knows Best. "It's just been my life. We nannies didn't ever think of the money or the time off or anything like that."

She dressed my brothers, Charlie and Tim, in silk shirts and me in stiff organza, pushed us out in a shiny black pram that bore more resemblance to the state coach than a buggy and strongly disapproved of dummies, au pairs and disposable nappies.

But where the other nannies we saw at the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens could be fierce and forbidding, she was gentle and liberal. She rarely said "No" or "Don't" - believing it was better to show than to tell. She never made us eat food we didn't like, and always made us feel cosy, one of her favourite words. The only starchy thing about our nanny was her uniform, which featured pie frills on her sleeves well into the 1970s.

She taught us to read and write before we went to school and how to do hospital corners before we went to prep school. (Until then, she had made our beds, tidied our toys, ironed our clothes and scrubbed the nursery bathroom every day with environmentally hazardous quantities of Vim.)

In the summer, she took us to Westgate-on-Sea in Kent, where she and several other nannies sat in stripy deckchairs knitting while the children built sandcastles, flew kites and dripped ice-cream. She took her own holidays in Yorkshire, where she visited her real family. Able to talk to anyone of any age or background, a quality that beamed out of the television, she made lifelong friends at church and on the beach.

After 43 years immersed in five different families, Smith initially found retirement empty. But she was much sought-after as a maternity nurse, and continued to see the children she had raised, throwing a Christmas party for us every year in her tiny Peabody flat in Victoria. She enjoyed making Nanny Knows Best and appreciated the perks celebrity brought her - not the money, but the chance to meet the stars of her era, such as Dirk Bogarde, and go on "the wireless".

In the late 1990s, her sharp memory began to fail and in 2001 she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. She went into a nursing home, where she died in her sleep, a teddy bear in her arms.

Rosanna de Lisle