The Abandoned Indian Nannies Of London-Who were The Ayahs?

Thousands of women from India and other parts of Asia were brought to London during the height of the British empire to look after young children, but many of these nannies were later abandoned and left to fend for themselves. A blue plaque will now be placed on a building in London where they were held.

The blue plaque scheme, which is operated by the UK charity English Heritage, honors buildings throughout London that have been linked to significant historical personalities.

The plaques honor several Indians, including independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, the country’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and the architect of the country’s constitution, BR Ambedkar. Noor Inayat Khan, a World War II spy, was the first woman of Indian descent to be honored with a blue plaque in 2020.

The award for the Ayahs’ Home, which is located at 26 King Edward’s Road in Hackney, East London, is the outcome of a campaign spearheaded by Farhanah Mamoojee, a 30-year-old Indian woman who first learned of the facility when it was mentioned in passing in a BBC program.

The Ayahs’ Home housed hundreds of destitute caregivers(IMAGE SOURCE: BRITISH LIBRARY)

Hundreds of destitute ayahs and amahs – as Indian and Chinese nannies were known – were known to have lived in the building.

Ms. Mamoojee, as well as historians who have studied the role and accomplishments of these nannies, hope that the award will help to bring attention to these often-overlooked women.

Who were the ayahs, exactly?

“Domestic laborers known as ayahs and amahs were the backbone of British families in colonial India. They took care of the kids, kept them engaged, told them stories, and rocked them to sleep “Rozina Visram, author of Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History, believes.

When these families returned to the United Kingdom, they frequently brought their ayahs with them. Some were asked to accompany the families only for the duration of the lengthy, painful journey, while others were hired for a few years, according to Ms Visram.

She claims that “these nannies were frequently given a return ticket back home at the expense of the family.”

But not everyone was so fortunate; many workers were fired and abandoned by their employers, with no pay or plans to return home. Some were also forced to stay since they were unable to find relatives to join them on the return journey.

The nannies played a vital role in British history(IMAGE SOURCE: BRITISH LIBRARY)

“This drove the ayahs to fend for themselves,” explains Florian Stadtler, a University of Bristol expert in literature and migration who has collaborated with Ms Visram on the project.

He claims that these ladies frequently placed advertisements in local newspapers seeking assistance in returning home, with many being forced to seek sanctuary in dismal housing with excessive rent.

“These women were also kicked out of these lodging homes when their money ran out. Many were compelled to beg for money in order to return to India.”

The Ayahs’ Residence

Families would come here to hire nannies, and they ran the residence almost like an employment exchange.

As the empire grew stronger in the second half of the nineteenth century, travel between England and India became more regular – and the number of nannies traveling to Britain increased as well.

“Up to 200 ayahs remained at the Ayahs’ Home each year. Some just spent a few days, while others stayed for months “According to Dr. Visram.

The ayahs were not required to pay for their lodging. Local churches donated to the home, according to Dr. Visram. There were also nannies who had return tickets but were unable to return home owing to a lack of cash or an escort; in these circumstances, the matron of the home sold the ticket to another family in need of their services for the voyage to India, which helped raise funds.

The Ayahs’ Home, however, was more than just a shelter or a hostel.

The building at 26 King Edward’s Road in Hackney, East London.(IMAGE SOURCE: Gaggan Sabherwal/BBC)

One of the key goals, according to Dr. Stadtler, was to convert the ayahs to Christianity.

“However, because there are no records of how many of these nannies converted to Christianity, we don’t know how many of them did. There are no records to support the claim that these ayahs were compelled to convert to Christianity in England “he continues.

The London City Mission, a Christian organization, took over the institution in 1900 and relocated it to 26 King Edward’s Road in Hackney, then to 4 King Edwards Road in 1921.

The Journey To Getting A Blue Plague

The demand for ayahs and amahs decreased after the British empire fell apart in the mid-twentieth century. 4 King Edward’s Road has been turned into a private property.

Ms Mamoojee first learned of the Ayahs’ Home in 2018 while watching a BBC documentary called A Passage to Britain, in which the lodging house in Hackney – close to where she lived – was mentioned briefly.

“As a South Asian woman living in East London, I felt linked to the ayahs and their untold experiences,” she adds, explaining why she went to see the structure.

“The fact that there was nothing there to indicate that it had been such a vital site for many Asian women from all over the world infuriated me, and I felt compelled to act.”

As a result, she established the Ayahs’ Home Project, which preserves the carers’ history. She also applied for the house to be designated as a blue plaque site.

An Indian ayah with two children circa 1850

Ms Mamoojee organized an event at the Hackney Museum to explore the role of ayahs during the British empire in March 2020, as she awaited word from English Heritage on the status of her application.

The museum personnel became interested in the subject after being inspired by her enthusiasm.
The museum’s manager, Niti Acharya, says she looked at “a variety of sources, including passenger lists of persons arriving in and departing the UK from 1878 to 1960, census registrations, and various archival materials” to identify the people who stayed at the residence.

“All of the many sources contribute to piecing together small pieces of the tale to form the broader image,” she explains.

However, due to the scarcity of information about nannies, it was a difficult assignment.

“The accessible archive material focuses on the households who had ayahs and amahs, rather than the women themselves. Using Christian names [for those who converted to Christianity] or the family name, such as ‘Ayah Bird,’ the woman’s identity is frequently obliterated “she explains.

Ms Mamoojee and others hope that the blue plaque will help bring these women’s stories to light.

Ms Mamoojee said, “These women definitely deserve this honor.”

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