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The Ayahs’ Home at Hackney: Race, Gender, and Empire 1855-1941

In a 1922 article for the periodical the Quiver, journalist A. C. Marshall expressed his surprise at an advertisement in a London-based newspaper that was seeking applications for an ‘'Indian ayah to travel with three young children to Colombo.' [1] He reassured his readers that ‘[he] knew, of course, that an ayah is a native nurse or lady’s maid and an essential feature of a white mistress’s household in India,’ since ‘one hears of them from the lips of everyone who has trod the mythical coral strand; one reads of them in books, in the magazines,’ but he was confused why someone would expect to find one ‘right here In the Capital of Empire, an ayah as ready to hand for her service as would be a governess or garden boy?’ [2] His inquiry into the matter led him to the Ayahs’ Home in Hackney, an institution associated with the London City Mission, which, he discovered, had provided lodging to Ayahs who had travelled to Britain with their employers for approximately a hundred years. 


Reading Marshall’s discovery of the Ayahs’ Home reveals a few key points. Firstly, the fact that Ayahs were hired to accompany British families on international voyages and were readily available in London. [3] Secondly, there existed a formal institution that housed Ayahs in London. Finally, that metropolitan Britons were familiar with colonial discourses, as Marshall points out how he is well acquainted with Ayahs and their role in the Anglo-Indian household. [4]

Founded as early as 1855, the Ayahs’ Home provided lodging for Indian (and later, Chinese) Ayahs who had accompanied their employers on ships. These travelling Ayahs were hired only for the journey itself, their contract terminating upon reaching their destination. While many Ayahs had prearranged contracts to join families headed out of Britain to India, there were often delays between their arrival and departure, and in some cases, Ayahs were abandoned by their employers in Britain. 

The British Government’s gendered non-intervention in the plight of Ayahs in Britain resulted in many Ayahs finding shelter in lodging houses around London’s East End, termed by historian Michael H. Fisher as ‘London’s 'Oriental Quarter'’. [5] A Mr and Mrs Rogers opened a lodging house in Aldgate that catered to a South Asian clientele and by 1881 exclusively to Ayahs, advertising itself as ‘ The Ayahs’ Home’. After running into financial difficulties, the Home was taken over by the London City Mission (LCM) in 1897.

From the reasons for its inceptions to the way it functioned and was represented, the history of the Home is inextricably linked to British imperialism. Fundamental to maintaining the imperial project, as anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler argues, are the intertwined discourses of race and gender, which became particularly prominent in the late 19th century with the arrival of European women in the colonies. Discourses of imperial power were reproduced in the colonial domestic sphere in household manuals written by Anglo-Indian women providing advice on managing Indian domestic affairs. Geographer Alison Blunt argues that the discourses of race, gender, and imperial power were mobile beyond the colony, embedded in the relationship between Anglo-Indian employers and their Indian employees even as they travelled to-and-fro between Britain and colonised India.  


I explore how these discourses expressed themselves in metropolitan London, colouring the experience of the Ayahs in the Ayahs’ Home, through historical periodicals, particularly the LCM’s publication the London City Mission Magazine (LCMM). Through close readings of these texts and their accompanying images, contextualising them with discourses found in official policies and household manuals, I argue that the Ayahs’ Home functioned as a quasi-official domestic branch of the India Office, a site for the racialisation and gendering of Ayahs, and as a site for Christian missionary proselytization. 

The LCMM is a rich visual and textual archive of the Ayahs’ Home, providing evidence of imperial discourses of race and gender embedded in the daily activities of the Home such as the strategy of infantilizing the Ayahs, as well as in its representations as a site of Christian missionary and ‘civilising’ activity. The LCM missionary in charge of the home conducted daily ‘optional’ and ‘informal’ Christian service that took place every morning, which consisted of prayers, readings from scripture, and the singing of hymns. [6] Although voluntary, the magazine reports that most residents would attend regularly and that they enjoyed listening to Biblical stories and singing Hymns.

The image overleaf is an example of the representations of the Ayahs’ Home that I analyse in my dissertation. The photograph appeared in Living London, of the Ayahs’ Home’s Dining Hall and evidences how proselytization may have taken place in the Home outside of the morning service. It depicts 15 women around a large dining table, comprised mostly of Ayahs, a Chinese Amah, and five white women. Two of the women in the photograph sit around the table sewing, while the rest are occupied with reading. Most of the Ayahs are reading on their own, although, in the far-left corner, one white British woman appears to be assisting an Ayah in reading. It is difficult to ascertain what the Ayahs are reading, it could be religious pamphlets, but it could also be secular illustrated books which the Reverend in charge of the Home asked readers of the Magazine to donate. [7] The depiction of these activities, sewing and reading, are both examples of how Christian missionary activity was tied to a ‘civilising’ mission that aimed to develop a distinctly British middle-class image of respectable femininity. [8]


Using the LCMM and other Historical publications, I argue that the Ayahs’ Home was a complicated space that, like the colonial home, reproduced, and maintained imperial power. Imperial power was expressed through both the functioning of the Ayahs’ Home as an institution that, in the absence of state intervention, took on its role in providing shelter and employment to the Ayahs who travelled to Britain, and through its publications also reproduced discourses of race and gender, integral to imperial power. 

Rehman_fig 1.png

Fig. 1: Photograph showing Ayahs and Amahs in Ayahs’ Home dining-room, Source: George Robert Sims, Living London; Its Work and Its Play, Its Humour and and Its Pathos, Its Sights and Its Scenes; (London, Paris : New York & Melbourne, Cassell and company, limited, 1902), Access: Public Domain

[1] Marshall, A. C. ‘Nurses of Our Ocean Highways’ Quiver, August 1922, 923.  

[2] Nurses of Our Ocean Highways, the Quiver, August 1922, 923.


[3] Many primary sources from the 19th century use the term ‘English’ to describe the empire and its citizens, and have been quoted as such. However, taking my cue from Alison Blunt, I use the terms ‘British,’ ‘Britain,’ and ‘Britons,’ to refer to them as it recognises that the imperial project was as much English, as it was Irish, Scottish, and Welsh. 


[4] Like art historian Suzanne Conway, I use ‘Anglo-Indian’ to refer to British colonisers and their families in India, a term which was used to describe them until 1911 after which it was used to officially refer to ‘Eurasians’. 

[5] Historian Satyasikha Chakraborty, in her paper 'Nurses of Our Ocean Highways': The Precarious Metropolitan Lives of Colonial South Asian Ayahs highlights how treatment of South Asians in Britain differed on the basis of race, gender, and class. She notes how in the case of South Asian Lascars, Seamen on British Ships, the government were seen as threats to the public based on their gender and were actively regulated as such. Ayahs on the other hand were not perceived as a threat and the government therefore refused to regulate their employment and mobility. Charkaborty thus characterises this refusal to regulate as 'gendered non-interference'.


[6] Marshall, ‘Human Birds of Passage’; William Fletcher, ‘Daughters of China’, London City Mission Magazine, 1927, London City Mission Archive, 78.


[7] William Fletcher, ‘Daughters of China’, London City Mission Magazine, 1927, 78.


[8] Christian Missionary activity in India, Indrani Sen argues, ‘wove together 'femininity' and 'Christianity',’ by teaching literacy, needlework, and music, to develop in them respectable middle-class ideas of femininity while answering queries about Christianity, reading out from the bible, or teaching them hymns.

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