Indian Nannies Lost in Queen’s Land
In the Fourth feature of Women’s History Month, we take a look back at the ayahs or nannies employed by Victorian Britain who traversed the continents and faced hardships to earn a respectful living.
At 4 King Edward Road in the historic borough of Hackney in London stands a very curious house. Though its façade might not give much away, it once used to be a shelter for nannies who came all the way from the Indian subcontinent to be part of the lavish life of Victorian Britons.
At the start of the 19th century, the idea of domestic help was becoming quite a trend in the Empire. Rich British families were hiring Indian women as nursemaids or nannies to look after their children.
These families were so impressed by the nannies, soon they started taking them all the way to the British Isles. During the time of Queen Victoria’s crowning, the sight of an Indian Ayah on the streets of London was very common.
The ayahs developed deep bonds with the children and were quite efficient in handling them. Their honesty, cleanliness, and courage to travel coupled with low wages made them an attractive proposition.
However, it was not all fun and adventure, language barriers and societal stigma of traveling overseas were ready-made problems. To add to that some employees terminated their services arbitrarily leaving them penniless and stranded on alien soil.
When the numbers of these stranded nannies went into the hundreds, a group of English women came together to form a temporary shelter for them. They named it Ayah’s Home, its first address was 26 King Edward, Hackney.
The shelter not only proved to be a temporary respite but a home away from home. It doubled as a placement agency as well helping the nannies in finding alternative employment if their previous job was terminated. The Ayah’s Home used to care for 90 to 140 ayahs a year.
The cases of abandonment were not to go away, however. The case of Minnie Green, an ayah from Bangalore is particularly interesting. She took her employers to the British court upon her termination and surprisingly won.
In 1921, the Home was shifted to No 4, a more spacious premise on the same road in London. Lady Chelmsford, the wife of a former Viceroy of India was at hand to inaugurate the Home at the new premise.
Some estimates say that around 100 to 150 Indian nannies traveled every year to England during the Victorian era. A certain Mrs. Antony Pareira is said to have made the journey on 54 occasions.
Even though constant efforts are being made to revive their history, these courageous travelers and caregivers mostly remain hidden figures in a world still muddled by the effects of colonial empires.
Recently a blue plaque was placed at the home at 26 King Edward Road, after rigorous efforts by @ayahshome who are trying to bring the stories of the Ahyas into the light.
- Paul Popper/Getty Images