English Heritage unveils blue plaque to Ayahs’ Home in Hackney
A new blue plaque commemorates sanctuary for stranded South and East Asian women.
A house we owned in Hackney which, in the early twentieth century, sheltered hundreds of stranded and sometimes abandoned South and East Asian nannies – known as ayahs – has been commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque.
Who were the ayahs?
The term ‘ayah’ was applied to women who served the British in India and other colonies as children’s nannies, nursemaids and ladies’ maids. Sometimes required to care for babies, children and their sea-sick mothers on the long sea voyage from the colonies to England, the ayahs were generally not expected to serve the families once they arrived.
They were either contracted to wait until needed for the return journey – some made the journey multiple times – or arrangements were made for their passage home. Some families did not honour the promise of a return journey or ticket or offer the means to survive in the interim, and the nurses thus abandoned were forced into common lodging houses or the workhouse.
The Ayahs’ Home at 26 King Edward’s Road in Hackney came into being to provide shelter for these women in London. The twelve-room villa housed around 100 women a year between 1900 and 1921 when the Home moved to another address nearby.
The Hackney shelter also welcomed ‘amahs’, nursemaids of East Asian origin. For almost the whole of its existence, the home appears to have been the only one of its kind in Britain.
English Heritage 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. This blue plaque recognises their lives and their bravery. The ayahs played an important part in the story of immigration to London and thus in British history. We are honoured to recognise them here in Hackney today.”
While the names of most of the 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 at the Ayahs’ Home in Hackney. 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 was most likely the same woman who gave her last address as the ‘Ayah’s House, 26 King Edward Road, Hackney’; she had made the return journey scores of times but went down with all 331 passengers when SS Persia was sunk by a German submarine in 1915.
Farhanah Mamooje, Ayahs' Home Blue Plaque proposer: “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."
Home for ayahs
The first home for ayahs was started in the early 1800s, when an employee of the East India Company, William Rogers, took a stranded ayah into his own house in Cullum Street, 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. The original Ayahs’ Home was subsequently run by relatives of Rogers at various London addresses.
On 1 January 1900 a notice in the Homeward Mail announced the (new) address of ‘Rogers’s Original Ayahs’ Home’ at 26 King Edward’s Road, Hackney.