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Remembering the ayahs: Hackney Central home where abandoned South Asian nannies sought refuge could get blue plaque recognition

PUBLISHED: 13:51 25 February 2020 | UPDATED: 08:48 27 February 2020

The front entrance of the London City Mission Ayahs and Amahs Home, in Hackney 1900. Picture: Courtesy of London City Mission

The front entrance of the London City Mission Ayahs and Amahs Home, in Hackney 1900. Picture: Courtesy of London City Mission

London City Mission

A house in Hackney Central where dozens of nannies from South Asia sought refuge after being abandoned by the families who brought them over to the UK could soon be commemorated with a blue plaque. Emma Bartholomew finds out more.

In the Ayahs' Home, published in Living London: its work and its play, its humour and its pathos, its sights and its scenes. Picture: c1904, unknown [photographer, held by the British LibraryIn the Ayahs' Home, published in Living London: its work and its play, its humour and its pathos, its sights and its scenes. Picture: c1904, unknown [photographer, held by the British Library

From about 1800 to the mid-1900s South Asian women who worked as nannies - called "ayahs" - would accompany British colonial families back to England, either for seasonal trips to escape the Indian summer or when the colonial official retired.

It is believed that almost 140 travelling ayahs visited England every year to look after the children of returning Brits.

But they were vulnerable to the whims of their employers, and sadly many were abandoned on arrival in the UK.

Once their employment was terminated, without official contracts or guarantees for return passages, they were forced to live in squalor or to beg.

The exterior of the house in Mare Street. Picture: London City Mission Magazine published December 1921, London, London City Mission. Public Domain Held by British Library Shelfmark:PP.1041.cThe exterior of the house in Mare Street. Picture: London City Mission Magazine published December 1921, London, London City Mission. Public Domain Held by British Library Shelfmark:PP.1041.c

Many were found wandering the streets of London - lost, cold, hungry and with no money or shelter.

It is not clear when or how, but a special refuge for them was set up called the Ayahs' Home which eventually came to be sited near to Mare Street, where they were able to seek shelter and a return passage.

Evidence from the India Office gives a foundation date of 1825, although records show it was also said to have been founded in 1891 by Mr and Mrs Rogers at 6 Jewry Street, Aldgate.

The home may have closed before 1891 through administrative inadequacies, but in response to the lobbying of a committee of white British women, the foreigners' branch committee of the London City Mission (LCM) took it over and prevented its permanent closure. In about 1900 the shelter moved to 26 King Edward Road in Hackney Central and in 1921, when more space was needed it moved to the larger 4 King Edward Road.

Portrait of John Petrie and his wife Anne (nee Keble) and three of their children, their Ayah and a musician. Picture: Sotheby’s/ Arthur William Devis (1762 - 1822)Portrait of John Petrie and his wife Anne (nee Keble) and three of their children, their Ayah and a musician. Picture: Sotheby’s/ Arthur William Devis (1762 - 1822)

Regarded as a "symbol of empire" and a "home from home", about 100 ayahs stayed at the home each year, and it was the only institution of its kind in the whole country.

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Farhanah Mamoojee, 28, first heard of the Ayahs' Home two years ago when it was given a brief mention in the BBC documentary Passage to Britain.

She found it on Google Maps clearly marked "Ayahs' home former site" and walked there from her flat in Bow - but to her dismay there was no blue plaque to mark the site.

She told the Gazette: "There was nothing to show that it had been the Ayahs' Home, or that countless colonized women had made the tumultuous journey across the ocean, from their home country, to take care of colonizers' children. I felt disappointed that the sacrifice these women made has not been made more public. It was shocking to find that there is no recognition for these women, in an area rich in women's history, South Asian History, and migrant history, this should be clearly marked."

Farhanah, who works at Sotheby's auction house, applied to English Heritage for a blue plaque and was delighted to hear it has been shortlisted for detailed research to verify the authenticity of the site.

Since then stories about ayahs have been "coming out of the woodwork". 
She heard of one case where an ayah took the family she had worked for to court, accusing them of physical abuse, and won the case.

She said: "Some of my colleagues have come forward with pictures of their ancestors and their ayahs if they were brought up in India. My colleague's grandmother was raised in India until she was seven and remembers her ayah vividly, but she stayed and didn't travel back to England."

Farhanah has organised an event with Hackney Council at Hackney Museum on March 7 to mark International Women's Day. It will explore research around ayahs in London.

A discussion at 11am with the leading scholar on ayahs, Rozina Visram, who published a book on the topic in the 1980s, and her research partner Florian Stadtler, will consider why South Asian histories are often left untold in the UK.

There will also be a poetry workshop with the Yoniverse Collective at 1pm, and a poetry performance at 3pm.

"They are a collective of spoken word poets who are of South Asian origin, and I was amazed at their creativity when I saw them at Richmix a couple of years ago," said Farhanah. "We proposed for them to curate a few pieces about ayahs based on their own ideas and we are doing a poetry workshop before their performance for just 15 people. If you are a budding poet you can work with the poets directly and then have the chance to perform your piece to the audience."

To sign up to any of the sessions see ayahshomeproject.eventbrite.com/.


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