Whenever I mention the Ayahs’ Home project to new people, I’m often asked, “What made you want to do this?”, a question you may have yourself. The answer is quite simple: the stories of the ayahs have completely captivated me.
The ayahs of Britain are a little-known group of displaced women from South Asia, who worked as ayahs or amahs (nannies) for colonial English families around the nineteenth century. Many of these women accompanied their employers on sea journeys to and from Britain. History has never recorded their experiences first-hand; we have and never will hear the voice of the ayah in oral or written materials left to us. However, the legacy these women left behind through second-hand accounts is so alluring, so fascinating and so heartbreaking, that when I stumbled across them in 2018 while watching a documentary on the first South Asian migrants to Britain, my imagination was captured.
Who were they? Why did some of their employers abandon them? How must it have felt to come from India, roaming around the cold Victorian streets in a white sari with nowhere to go? Before 1900, many of these women had nowhere to go until the London City Mission set up a home for them on King Edward’s Road, Hackney. The Ayahs’ Home became the only named institution of it’s kind in the U.K. You can walk past both the former and latter sites (26 and 4 King Edward’s Road, respectively) and be none-the wiser. I did so when I first happened upon the story of the ayahs and was in complete shock. Why is nothing here to signify what this place was to so many South Asian women?
My application for a Blue Plaque was met with astounding support from both English Heritage and local academic and non-academic communities alike. Something about these women resonated with everyone. We’ve all felt displaced, victimised and angry or abandoned by imperialist, colonialist and patriarchal powers, but here was evidence of a group of women, who despite how much history has tried to silence and erase them, refuse to be forgotten.
There were ayahs like ‘Minnie Green’ (it’s unlikely this was her real name). At just 18, this ‘coloured girl’ from Madras who worked as an ayah had been treated badly by her master and mistress, both of whom drank heavily. She successfully used the British judicial system against her violent and disrespectful employers. She was described by Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper’s court reporter as, “an intelligent Hindostani”. On the voyage from Bangalore and on arrival in London she had been hit and underpaid by Harold and Grace Denton. Southwark court restored the three shillings wage Minnie was still owed. As a result, “the [Southwark] magistrate took her away & sent her to us. [Salvation Army Rescue Home]”. Her conduct in the home was described as ‘very good,’ and her disposition “good tempered and contented’. Minnie was sent as an ayah to a Mr & Mrs Rose, who were returning to India. Others were not so lucky.
One ayah was found abandoned at King’s Cross station in London. The woman’s name has never been recorded, but that of her employer was – she had been employed by a British family in colonial India to look after their children on the long boat passage to the UK, before she was taken on by a Mr and Mrs Drummond, on the understanding they would pay her way home to Mumbai in the same manner. Instead, the Drummonds boarded the ship without her, leaving her at the station with £1 in her pocket. Another, Mrs Anthony Pareira, is famously recorded as making the months-long voyage between India and Britain over 54 times, choosing to make a career out of onboard childcare.
So ask me again, what made me want to do this project?
These ayahs were multi-dimensional, adventurous, loving, (sometimes murderess) women, that are a crucial fabric of British history. Why have they been forgotten? My project seeks to remedy that. Applying for a blue plaque seemed the obvious step. How many times have you walked past one and thought, seriously, this building gets a blue plaque because [insert white/male name here] used to live/stay/visit that building? Not only is there a serious lack of recognition through this scheme for females in history, but for the BAME community there is barely anything. This needs to be rectified.
I held an event on March 7th at Hackney Museum to bring the community together to learn about this important part of history. Rozina Visram, one of the pioneering academics on Asian history in Britain, did a fantastic talk on the story of the ayahs. She has demonstrated in her pioneering book, Asians in Britain, how Asians have contributed to British history for over 400 years. We are British history. Ayahs are a part of British history, and we need to start standing up, raising our hands and leaving our mark for generations after us to remember. Apart from Rozina’s seminal work from the 1980s on early Asians in Britain (including the history of ayahs in the UK), no-one has ever expanded on the knowledge she painstakingly presented to the world. We also had the privilege of hearing some commissioned poetry from the Yoniverse Collective poets, Shagufta K Iqbal, Shruti Chauhan and Shareefa Energy, who wrote and performed poems from the perspective of the ayahs.
Now it’s our turn. These women’s voices have been erased from history. We can’t let them be forgotten forever.
For more on the story of the ayahs, join us for a live Q&A with children’s author Sita Brahmchari who’s new novel, When Secrets Set Sail sheds light on the discovery of the ayahs in Hackney.
R. Visram Asians in Britain: 400 Years History (Pluto Press, 1997)
R. Visram Ayahs, Lascars and Princes The Story of Indians in Britain 1700-1947 (Routledge, 1986)