An East London refuge that sheltered hundreds of stranded and abandoned South and East Asian nannies in the early 20th century has been commemorated with a blue plaque.
English Heritage, which runs the blue plaque scheme, said the marker on the former Ayahs’ Home at 26 King Edward’s Road, Hackney, recognised the bravery of women who crossed oceans to care for the children of their British employers but were treated shamefully in return.
Ayahs were women, often of South Asian origin, who served the British in India and other colonies as nannies, nursemaids and ladies’ maids. They were considered indispensable to Raj families and often depicted in literature such as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.
They were sometimes required to care for babies, children and sea-sick mothers on the long sea voyage from the colonies to the UK, but were generally not expected to serve the families once they arrived. They typically agreed to wait until needed for the return journey, or arrangements were made for their passage home.
However, some families did not honour the promise of a return ticket or funds for subsistence and their ayahs were forced into common lodging houses or the workhouse. The Ayahs’ Home came into being to provide shelter for these women, as well as for amahs, nursemaids of East Asian origin, who found themselves in similar predicaments.
The home also advertised in The Homeward Mail from India, China and The East that it would board and lodge ayahs for 14s a week until their return passage was paid or a situation secured for their return. Moreover, it would take ayahs “entirely off Ladies’ hands for a certain payment”.
Some ayahs were brought to the home after they were found destitute. Miss Dunn, the matron of the home, told a parliamentary committee in 1909 about an ayah “found in the streets of Hornsey by a lady . . . The ayah says she and her boxes were turned out by her employer after being in their service. The employer was seen by us, but refused to do anything further for the ayah.”
The 12-room villa housed around a hundred women a year between 1900 and 1921, when it moved to another address nearby. It functioned like an employment agency and sought to place residents with British families who would be travelling to India or the colonies.
For most of its existence, the home was the only one of its kind. It traced its origins back to 1825 when William Rogers, an employee of the East India Company, took a stranded ayah into his own house near Fenchurch Street. Her kind treatment there led members of the Company to suggest sending other ayahs to his house until their return passage could be arranged. From 1900, the organisation was run by the London City Mission, which hoped to convert the residents.
While the names of most ayahs who stayed at the Hackney home are unknown, some have been identified. On census night 1911, before the main season of arrival, there were five boarders listed. These were the Hong Kong-born amah Ah Kum, Ceylon-born ayah Elsie Hamey, and the Indian ayahs Mary Stella, Pikya Sawmey and Mary Fernandez. Fernandez had made the return journey scores of times but went down with all 331 passengers when the P&O liner SS Persia was sunk off Crete by a German submarine in 1915.
Farhanah Mamooje, the proposer of the plaque, said: “At the time, the Ayahs’ Home was the only named institution of its kind in the United Kingdom. It was a safe haven for so many abandoned Asian women from all over the empire who fell victim to colonisation, and is of great importance not just for Asian History, but British History and international history. The stories of these women, though little known, resonate with so many of us. I hope this plaque will encourage others to take a closer look at the hidden stories within their local communities, so we can continue to diversify the histories that are told around the world.”
English Heritage’s chief executive Kate Mavor said: “We will never know the names of all the women who stayed in this Hackney refuge but we do know they showed remarkable courage to come here, leaving their own homes and crossing an ocean on what was often a perilous trip. The fact that some of them were effectively abandoned by those they had served is shameful.”
The London blue plaques scheme was established in 1866. Today 14 per cent of over 980 plaques commemorate women. English Heritage says this is not good enough and it is working to address the historic gender imbalance. It is also seeking to commemorate more working-class stories.