The ayah was an indispensable part of the British Raj but was often taken for granted. The historical narrative has also largely overlooked the life stories and tribulations of the thousands of Indian women who worked as nannies looking after the children of British officials and business people working in India.
Now, a campaign led by a London woman of Indian descent has succeeded in securing some modest remedy. English Heritage, which runs the long-standing and prestigious scheme of blue plaques placed on London buildings associated with the famous and deserving, has announced that a plaque will be placed on a former Ayahs’ Home in the Hackney district of London. A ceremony will be held to unveil the plaque later this year.
Two Years of Campaigning
“I’m ecstatic the plaque has finally been approved after more than two years of active campaigning”, Farhanah Mamoojee told The Quint. “It relates to the story of a group of South Asian women who have been consistently marginalised throughout British history.”
Mamoojee, an art specialist at a leading auction house, say that both her parents are of South Asian heritage and her father was born in India. “My hope is through this campaign – which is on Instagram as well as on Twitter at @ayahshome – more of the community in this part of London, so many of whom are South Asian, will begin to feel clearly represented in British history.”
The story of the ayah is bittersweet. In some families, they were loved, honoured and cared for. In others, there were exploited and shabbily treated. The Indian ayah looking after European children developed as an institution from the 1860s when changes in the style of British rule in India led to many more wives of imperial civil servants and soldiers settling – and bringing up their children – in India.
In the more prosperous British homes in India, the ayah did the hard graft of childcare – making sure that the children in her care were well-washed and groomed, looking after their clothes, keeping them entertained and occupied, and sometimes sleeping on a mat on the nursery floor. It was a role largely taken on by older women.
When the families sailed home to Britain, sometimes the ayah came with them. This was not always a happy outcome. The ayahs were often isolated and intensely lonely in a country they didn’t understand and that made little effort to understand them. Mothers who had relied unquestioningly on an ayah in India didn’t find the role working quite so well in suburban London or a village in England’s home counties. The ayah was usually given a ticket back to India, but on occasions, she was simply slung out and left to fend for herself.
The 'Travelling Ayahs'
The former Ayahs’ Home at 26 King Edward Road, which is to display the blue plaque, was established by Christian missionaries in part to help destitute and abandoned ayahs. It gave the women refuge and the prospect of future employment. It also served as a hostel of a kind for ‘travelling ayahs’, women who repeatedly made the long sea crossing between India and England helping families to look after children during the journey.
The home also took on the role of an informal labour exchange. Families who had brought an ayah from India would buy a ticket for her sea journey back, give this to the home, the ayah would move in there, and then a family looking for an ayah to help them with childcare on the journey out to India would arrange to buy the ticket from the home and engage the services of the ayah.
Raj-era British families tended to plan their journeys to avoid the scorching Indian summer, and so that was the time of year when the greatest number of ayahs were at the home. In winter, the building was much quieter. The home helped as many as 90 women a year. But when the ten-yearly census was carried out in February 1911, there were just five ayahs staying at 26 King Edward Road: two from Madras, one from Bombay, one from Colombo and one (described as an ‘amah’, the East Asian equivalent) from Hong Kong.
The imposing four-storey building in Hackney was in use as an Ayahs’ Home from 1900 to 1921, when the home moved to a nearby building. It’s not clear when it eventually closed. The need for the travelling ayah declined sharply from the 1950s but the role hasn’t entirely disappeared.
The award of a blue plaque is part of a new drive to ensure that the scheme reflects London’s increasing diversity and honours not simply the powerful and famous but also those from a non-privileged background who deserve recognition.
There are on the streets of London many more champions of Empire commemorated than ordinary people who got caught in the cogs of Empire – but at least that imbalance is being redressed.
(Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC India correspondent.)