A one-way passage from India: Hackney Museum explores fate of colonial ayahs

Indian women were often employed to care for British children, but some were abandoned on reaching UK

A little over a century ago, a woman was abandoned, far from home, at King’s Cross station in London.

The woman’s name was not 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.

The experience of this nameless woman, dumped in a strange country in June 1908, may be shocking, but she was not exceptional. She was one of hundreds, perhaps thousands of ayahs – Indian nannies (though the name came to refer to other nationalities too) who were brought to Britain by wealthy families as cheap travelling childcare between the 18th and mid-20th centuries. Many were able to make their way home again, but others, discharged on disembarking, found themselves in perilous circumstances – and in many cases, what became of them is unknown.

Eight decades after the ayah system petered out with the collapse of the British empire, an event at Hackney Museum in east London hopes to focus attention once again on these women, and a chapter of Britain’s colonial and migrant history that has been all but forgotten.

The initiative behind the event was launched by Farhanah Mamoojee, a 28-year-old from east London who, after hearing a passing mention of the subject on a documentary, was surprised to discover that she lived close to a building that had once served as a hostel for destitute ayahs. The Ayahs’ Home was established in east London in the 19th century by concerned philanthropists, and two buildings in which it was housed still stand in Hackney.

Mamoojee applied to English Heritage for blue plaque recognition (her application has been shortlisted and is under consideration), “but I thought: it can’t just be me. There must be other people who want to learn about this.”

Eventually she reached Rozina Visram, a retired historian who moved to the UK from Zanzibar in the 1970s and began researching ayahs after she too became intrigued by brief passing mentions of often nameless Indian childcare workers. She remains the acknowledged authority on the subject.

Though the women – up to 140 of whom are thought to have come to Britain every year – were extremely isolated and vulnerable, they were not only victims, notes Visram. “You can imagine how resilient they were. Enterprising, adventurous.” One ayah, Minnie Green, took her abusive employers to court and won. Another, Mrs Anthony Pareira, is recorded as making the months-long voyage between India and Britain 54 times, choosing to make a career out of onboard childcare.

“But of course we don’t have their voices,” says Visram. “They were working-class, and working-class people always disappear from history because they don’t write things down. And being women, there are also gender issues. So we just don’t know much about their lives.”

Inspired by Mamoojee’s enthusiasm, staff at Hackney Museum have begun their own research into the ayahs’ history, in the hope of expanding on the material the museum currently displays about the home. “It has presented quite a challenge, because what information is out there?” says the museum manager, Niti Acharya.

She has begun systematically scanning passenger lists and landing cards from the early 20th century for mentions of accompanying ayahs. “Over 95% of those listed are treated almost as possessions of the family they are travelling with – Ayah Smith, Ayah Leggatt,” says Acharya.

Intriguingly, her research so far shows that more came into the country than left. “Which leads me to ask: of those who did stay, what happened? How did their lives pan out? Did they stay with their families, did they find love and have their own families?” Ironically, when the women did start using a name of their own – usually an Anglicised given name – they are impossible to identify any longer as ayahs and often disappear from history.

“I’m ever so pleased that younger people want to know about this,” says Visram, “But for me, this is not just for Indians. Because after all, this is not immigrant history – it is British history, and it should be taught to everybody.”

Lost Histories: Ayahs in London is at Hackney Museum on 7 March


Esther Addley

The GuardianTramp

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