A woman cruelly abandoned in King’s Cross station with just £1 in her pocket. Another kicked out onto the streets of Hornsey carrying boxes of her own possessions. A third abused by her employers. These are just some of the experiences that the South Asian nannies known as Ayahs, had upon leaving the motherland and arriving in London.
Ayahs were hired by wealthy British families to mind their children during visits to colonial India and often during their voyage back home. Some of these women who were brought to the UK in the 18th and 19th centuries, were abandoned upon arrival in London; they had no contracts to be honoured and, as such, families sometimes refused to pay for the Ayah’s journey home.
If you search hard enough, the harrowing mistreatment of these Ayahs can be traced throughout time, yet the women themselves – their birth names, personal histories, and voices – remain deeply buried.
One woman working to uncover their stories and bring them towards mainstream acknowledgement is Farhanah Mamoojee, 28, who is behind the project Ayahs’ Home. The project aims to secure a blue plaque for the historic building that housed as many as 100 Ayahs per year.
Mamoojee put her application forward in the summer of 2018 after seeing a passing mention of the Ayahs’ Home in a documentary. In June 2019 she received an email from English Heritage to say it had been shortlisted:
“When I started [my application] I had absolutely no idea that this was going to happen and it was just like completely on a whim” says Mamoojee, who has been overwhelmed by the positive response.
Located at 26 King Edwards Road, Hackney, Ayahs’ Home is a 30 roomed shelter that was established around 1900 by a Christian charity, London City Mission, for the Ayahs to stay in whilst they were between jobs. It later moved to a larger building at 4 King Edwards Road.
To support her application, Mamoojee has been conducting thorough research into Britain’s Ayahs to educate both South Asians and Hackney locals on their history, but finding sources close to these women has proved difficult, she explains: “All research that we’ve found or stories we have come across have been from descendants of people that have had Ayahs, rather than descendants of Ayahs themselves”.
The research process for a project like this requires a lot of patience. The use of technology and internet archives make it easier for individuals to trace history, in fact websites such as Ancestry boast 1 billion searchable UK family history records including census and electoral rolls, birth, death and parish records, military records and more. So with all these resources at our fingertips, why do the Ayahs still seem to be lost in history?
Mamoojee explains that there are additional limitations at play when tracing migrants in Britain. For example: “Even if we are searching through passenger documents and passenger lists or census records, their names are either Anglicised or they have taken the surname of the family they’re serving but if they then went to serve in another family, we wouldn’t know if that’s then the same Ayah or not because they would change their name again”.
A key resource that Mamoojee built her knowledge upon was the body of work produced by retired historian Rozina Visram, who wrote the seminal book Asians in Britain: 400 years of History after 6 years of research. Visram’s dedication to raising awareness of British Asian history is founded upon one principle – that ‘this is not migrant history, it is British history’.
She says: “It is for everyone to know about empire, colonialism, people who came to Britain, their contributions, their treatment […] I always felt that the Ayahs were really crucial not only to British families in India, but also on the voyage to Britain. It is vital that we get a plaque”.
Whilst Ayahs have been mentioned by British writers such as Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, minority experiences were only taught through the narrow limitations of these British observers. As such, valuable stories can become lost and people of colour are viewed simply as victims of colonial oppression. Visram’s research shows that these women, and the communities that they represent, were so much more.
A key example of this is the Ayah, known by the Anglicised name Minnie Green, who was abused and underpaid by her employers Harold and Grace Denton during the voyage to the UK and upon arrival in London. Green turned to the British judicial system to take legal action against the British couple and won her case. Mamoojee identifies this case as a ‘hopeful message’ but also recognises that it is ‘quite surprising because you would not think that would be the case’.
Visram notes that these examples show that these women, though treated poorly, were not just victims – they were pioneers. One Ayah that particularly ‘impressed’ her was Mrs Antony Pereira who had ‘journeyed between India and England, plus once to Holland, 54 times. She was resilient, motherly, and gently spoken – there was a description of her in London City Mission Magazine 1922, written by A. C. Marshall’.
“Before the East-West canal was opened, it could take 6-9 months and even after the journey was shortened by 4,500 miles from the Cape of Good Hope, it was still a long journey and difficult […] this is why I find her story so riveting” explains Visram. Pereira is proof that some of these Ayahs enjoyed their careers and must have fascinating lived experiences that we should work to uncover.
There is a historical tendency to erase or overlook minority contributions to British History, this is particularly prevalent in the education system. Visram experienced this whilst campaigning for a blue plaque to acknowledge the work of Brighton born physician Frederick Akbar Mahomed, who played a crucial role in the understanding of hypertension. She explained that, despite being ‘a vital man for the history of British medicine’ English Heritage ‘thought he was not important enough’. Visram says: “I think the committee has changed a lot since then”.
English Heritage recognises that there is a discrepancy in the number of blue plaques that recognise people of colour’s contributions to Britain, especially women of colour, but this year marks a historic first; Noor Inayat Khan, a British spy who served in the Special Operations Executive during WWII, will become the first woman of South Asian descent to receive a blue plaque in her honour.
Howard Spencer, a Senior Blue Plaques Historian at English Heritage notes that: “Blue plaques tell us a lot about who we, as a society, consider worthy of recognition. At English Heritage, we’re working hard to improve the representation of women and women of colour in our London blue plaques scheme, but our scheme is reliant on public nominations”.
Mamoojee believes that British Asians need to do their part to ensure that our history is more accessible and represented in mainstream discourse. Whether that is achieved by establishing cultural events such as an Asian History Month, or encouraging more young Asians to consider studying history, which invites predominantly white students; the Royal Historical Society’s 2018 research report on Race, Ethnicity and Equality in UK History found that only 3.8% of university history students were Asian.
“It’s up to the community to pick up their laptops and actually start taking this on board because we are the only ones that can make that change – no one is going to be like ‘I’m a white man and I’m going to start applying for blue plaques for South Asian women’ – it’s up to us and it’s our responsibility” explains Mamoojee.
Spencer added that “The English Heritage Blue Plaques Panel thought that the nomination for commemorating the former Ayahs’ and Amahs’ home – a unique institution – was a good one”. Whilst the panel have not completed all the stages of their research into the site there is a consensus that awarding ‘a blue plaque to this remarkable institution could become a reality before too long’.
Were any of your ancestors Ayahs or did they belong to a family who had an Ayah? Get in touch with Ayahs’ Home if you have any stories or relevant information.
Do you want to help further this project by discovering more of the Ayahs stories? You can get involved by conducting your own research using the following resources: