Frances and Jane Coster (Nurses to the Plaoutine Children)
Frances and Elizabeth Jane were the daughters of William Coster and Mary Towner, known to their family and friends as Fanny and Jane (or Jennie).
The search for Frances and Elizabeth Coster is a continual one, and it is hoped that more information will be added to this page over time. These noteworthy sisters came from a large family in Eastbourne, Sussex, and, although ten years apart in age, were very close throughout their lives. Both went to Russia as nurses (or governesses) in the 19th century, loved children and spoke fluent Russian.
Fanny left England first, going to St. Petersburg in 1869 as nurse to the children of Colonel (later Lieutenant-General) Serge Plaoutine and his wife, Eleanor (nee Pringle), in whose service she would remain until her retirement. In 1884, fifteen years after Fanny's departure, her younger sister, Jane, joined her in Russia as under-nurse in the Plaoutine household. Exactly how long Jane stayed with them is unclear, but it is known that she spent some time back in England during the early 1890s while caring for her dying mother. Jane must have returned to Fanny (and the Plaoutines) for a short time after the death of her mother, though, because she is known to have once again (and finally) left the Plaoutines in 1895 to become nurse to Baby Irina, the first child (and only daughter) of Grand Duchess Xenia of the Russian Imperial family.
Jane quickly endeared herself to the Imperial family (particularly to her young charges, when she devised a flannel mat to line the cold porcelain bathtubs in the large Russian palaces, thereby making the dreaded bathtimes more endurable). The Empress (Alexandra) mentioned her in a letter to her brother (written around this time) saying, "The English nurse is very nice. I have longer talks with her every day – she speaks Russian fluently, having been here eleven years . . . as undernurse to her Sister in an officer’s family." The following year, several months after the birth of Czar Nicholas and Alexandra's first child, Fanny was recommended to Xenia's brother as temporary nurse for the infant Grand Duchess Olga. Even though the new Tsar did not like her looks (because of her "long nose", he said), she was accepted and left the Plaoutines in May 1896. Fanny stayed with the Tsar and Tsarina long enough to accompany them to Moscow for their coronation, continuing on as part of their retinue during a tour through Germany, Paris and Great Britain (including a visit to Queen Victoria at Balmoral).
Meanwhile, Jane remained as nurse in the household of the Grand Duchess Xenia, continuing on to raise all seven children. Jane nursed them through Typhoid Fever and accompanied them on their annual trips to their various palaces and summer homes (even joining them at King Edward's tent for the Battle of the Flowers at Biarritz in 1907). She stayed with Xenia's family through their exile from Russia in 1919, actually travelling as one of the fleeing Imperial party to escape aboard the H.M.S. Marlborough (listed simply as "Miss Coster"). In her letters, "Auntie Jennie" appeared well-educated but untouched by her sojourn with the Imperials. She was proud of having "raised seven children" for the Grand Duchess Xenia but longed to return home to family.
At some unknown time (probably 1896-97), Fanny returned to the Plaoutines at their home at 24 Quai de la Cour in St. Petersburg. With the children grown, Fanny took up service as Housekeeper to the family. It is most likely that she remained with the family until their retirement to Chateau St. Laurent in Nice, France, in 1914.
Fanny returned to England (joined some years later by her sister) and settled near her remaining family at Eastbourne. Joined some years later by Jane, the sisters shared a home at 4 Crown-street, and it is there that Fanny died in 1933, Jane surviving her by a little more than nine years. Having spent their lives raising other's children, these much-loved sisters were laid to rest with their own parents in Ocklynge Cemetery, Eastbourne.
Fanny and Jane's sister, Mary Anne, had emigrated to New Zealand when the sisters were still quite young. Though they lost touch for many years, the sisters were later able to renew their acquaintance with their sister's daughter, Florrie. Several letters from the Costers survive and have been preserved by the family in New Zealand. While there are not a lot of personal details about the sisters or their work in Russia, the letters provide a lovely picture of two very caring and Christian ladies. Click on the links below to read transcriptions of these very sweet letters.
Coster Sisters' Letters to Their Niece, Florence Mary Stilwell (nee Scott):
1884: Partial Letter from Frances Coster
05 May 1909: Letter from Jane Coster
26 Oct 1909: Letter from Jane Coster
17 Oct 1914: Letter from Jane Coster
10 Oct 19??: Letter from Frances Coster
Coster Sisters and Family Photo (c. 1923)
This photo shows the Coster sisters with other members of their family (c. 1923). Both sisters are seated in the front row, with Jane seen second from the left and Fanny on the far right.
Coster Sisters Featured in "Illustrated London News" (3 Oct 1896)
ENGLISH NURSES AT THE RUSSIAN COURT.
While the eyes of the nation turn to the imperial visitors at Balmoral, it is worthy of note that the nurse in charge of the infant daughter of the Czar and Czarina is an Englishwoman. Miss Frances Coster is a native of Eastbourne, where her ancestors resided long before that now popular seaside resort had begun to grow, and when the only traces of habitation were a few houses clustered round the venerable parish church, with a small fishing village two miles away. In 1869 she entered the family of General de Plaoutine — a Russian nobleman who had married an English lady of good family — as nurse, and took up residence in St. Petersburg, where she remained, except for short periods, until the arrangements were being made, early in the year, for the imperial coronation, when she was sent for by the Empress to take charge of the infant Grand Duchess Olga. She accompanied the royal party to Moscow during the festivities, and has now the honour of bearing her precious charge safely to the Highland home of her imperial great-grandmother. In figure she is rather tall and graceful, with a kindly disposition, a high sense of duty, while her experience with and great love for children render her peculiarly well fitted for the honourable post she now occupies.
Her sister, Miss E.J. Coster, who is a few years younger, had previously been selected for a similar position with the amiable sister of the Czar, the Grand Duchess Xenia. In July of last year she was hastily summoned to St. Petersburg to take charge of the infant daughter of the imperial Princess. Like her sister, she has resided for some years in St. Petersburg, and is thoroughly conversant with Russian customs and speaks the language fluently. Always pleasant, kind, and thoughtful, she is, if possible, more fond of young children than her sister. Unselfish to a degree, she threw over everything a few years ago to sooth the declining days of her widowed mother.
Miscellaneous Notes about Fanny:
— 1861 Census (Eastbourne, Sussex):
15 year old Frances is living at 53 Puddle Docke, Eastbourne, as a house servant to her uncle, Frances Towner.
— "The Montreal Medical Journal" Vol. 27, 1898, page xxxv:
[Advertising "Benger's Gold Medal Awarded Health Exhibition London Food for Infants, Invalids, and the Aged."]
The Following Letter is Published by Special Permission of the Russian Court:
"Balmoral Castle, Scotland, 25th Sept., 1896.
"Sirs,--- Please forward to Balmoral Castle one dozen 2/6 Tins of Benger's Food for H.I.M. The Empress of Russia, addressed to Miss Coster. We have received the box ordered from Peterhoff. Yours truly, F. Coster"
— "England & Wales, Nation Probate Calendar 1858-1966":
Coster, Frances of 4-Crown-street, Eastbourne, spinster, died 25 December 1933. Probate Lewes 6 February to Elizabeth Jane Coster spinster.
Effects 389 pounds 18s 9d.
Miscellaneous Notes about Jane:
— "England & Wales, Nation Probate Calendar 1858-1966":
Coster, Elizabeth Jane, of 4 Crown-street, Eastbourne, spinster, died 13 January 1943 at 123 Church-street, Eastbourne.
Probate Lewes 23 April to Gertrude Potter (wife of Fred Potter).
Effects 852 pounds 12 s. 5d.
Tombstone Transcription (Ocklynge Cemetery, Eastbourne)
I know that my Redeemer liveth!
In loving memory
Died: July 31st 1889
Aged 74 years
Also of MARY
His Beloved Wife
Who Died 24th Nov. 1893
Who Died Christmas Day 1933
Also, ELIZABETH JANE COSTER
13th January 1943