This year a new English Heritage Blue Plaque will be unveiled at 26 King Edward Road, Hackney, in London, to commemorate the Ayahs’ Home that operated there in the opening decades of the twentieth century. This public recognition of a major part of Britain’s imperial history has been some time coming.
Rozina Visram, historian of the South Asian presence in Britain, first drew attention to this institution back in 1986, in her book, Ayahs, Lascars and Princes. In recent years, however, a growing number of historical studies refer to the Home.
Today there is considerable interest in its history – and even a Wikipedia entry on it. But the details can be confusing. This blog aims to disentangle and set out, as far as we currently can, a basic timeline of known facts of this history. It is entirely based on original primary source material, some of which has been previously uncovered by researchers. Interested readers are welcome to contact the author directly for a copy of the blog with the full references.
Because this is an unusually long blog, it is divided into two parts: Part I – the Home at Aldgate; and Part II – the Home at Hackney.
Part I: The Home at Aldgate
We know that the Ayahs’ Home actually went through at least three incarnations, on four separate sites in East London. Its origins can be traced, tenuously, to a nineteenth-century lodging house on Duke Street, in Aldgate (an area that been the site for taverns and accommodation for travellers in and out of London town since medieval times). In 1855 an “Indian gentleman” wrote to the London Times to draw attention to the plight of South Asian domestic servants left to somehow make their own way home to India by the families who brought them to England. “Considerable numbers of these unfortunates congregate at No.8, Duke-street, Aldgate…,” he wrote. A widow named Elizabeth Rogers was the keeper.
Undoubtedly, there were numerous but not necessarily pleasant lodgings for ayahs in London’s docklands in the mid-nineteenth century. They took their chances in the squalid lodging houses that clustered around the docks of Victorian London, made notorious in the illustrated articles of the reformist journalist Henry Mayhew (see Figure 1.1).
In 1858 the first report of the London City Mission’s “Asiatic missionary” – Joseph Salter – recorded his impressions of the East India docks. Here, according to Salter, “female nurses, natives of various parts of India, who live by attending ladies and their children to and from India” resided:
There were four paying lodgers in residence at Elizabeth Rogers’ Duke Street premises on the evening of the 1861 census, two of whom were ayahs (the other two being Jewish men). Rogers passed away in June that year, at the age of about 60, leaving her house to Susan Andrews, a somewhat younger woman who had been living with Rogers for many years, and who was described in the census as her cousin. In 1867 the property changed hands with the appearance of a new owner, one Christian Hanson.
Hanson was of Danish origin. In January 1868 he married 21-year-old Amina, and the newlyweds immediately began to apply their energy to building up the lodging house business into a kind of employment agency for travelling ayahs. The timing for such an enterprise was ideal, as the opening of the Suez Canal in November 1869 would soon make travel between India and Britain very much easier for women and families, and underpin the rise of the “travelling ayah” as a new occupational category of empire. In newspaper advertisements published between 1868 and 1871, targeting employer families travelling to the East, the Hansons boasted an eminently respectable lineage for “Mrs Rogers’ Home for Indian Ayahs” going right back to the mid-1820s.
This claim has caused some of the confusion for researchers about the origins of the Ayahs’ Home. Amina Hanson it seems was the main source for the claim. In an article written about the Home in 1895 (that was practically an advertisement), Mrs Hanson was quoted at length. It was here that she declared that the Home had been established by a Mr Rogers of the East India Company, in 1820, “to supply ladies going to India with competent Ayahs, and to provide the latter with a comfortable home while they are waiting for employment.” It is possible, of course, that Elizabeth Rogers had started taking in South Asian women boarders at Duke Street in the 1820s. But the credit for establishing the Home as a travelling domestic service brokerage must surely go to Amina Hanson.
In the same article Mrs Hanson explained how the business operated. Ayahs whose employers had brought them to England without providing their return passage came to her, either through their own networks or brought by their employers. Employers paid their board, or the ayah herself would pay her a commission to cover their board, once she had secured a return engagement.
Born and raised in London’s East End, the daughter of an unmarried Eastender woman, Amina was possibly of mixed descent. When she married Christian, she identified her father as a “merchant” named “Mahomet”. Fictitious or otherwise, such heritage might have given her easier access to networks of South Asian women living in the metropole. (It is also interesting to see that in the early years, Amina’s mother was employed as the Home’s general servant.)
The Hansons operated the Duke Street Home throughout the 1870s and 1880s. In 1887 all of the houses along Duke Street (excepting the very first house) were taken over by the City of London Corporation, presumably as part of the slum clearances of that time. Duke Street is gone from present-day maps but was probably in the vicinity of Creechurch Lane today in Aldgate (see Figure 1.2, below). The Hansons relocated to premises on 6 Jewry Street, also in Aldgate, and their presence was recorded there, along with a fourteen-year-old servant and four ayahs, in 1891. At this new site, although it was probably not much more salubrious than Duke Street, the Home began to accrue the respectability that the Hansons strived for.
Thus, in 1894, we find the aging London City Missionary Joseph Salter – he who had so severely condemned the lodging houses of the ayahs in 1858 – referring to “the excellent Ayahs’ Home” where some ninety ayahs had “passed through” over the previous year. The residents, he commented approvingly, “appreciate a Christian visit”, and “even Hindus and Muhammedans are ready to bend the knee in prayer and praise”. It was here at Jewry Street, also, that Mrs Hanson was interviewed in August 1895. At that time there were some twenty ayahs in residence, “intelligent women” available for engagement by families travelling not only to India but to other warm climes, such as “Gilbraltar, Malta, Turkey, and even Egypt.”
Curiously, in August 1897, a Mr Rogers “of the Ayahs’ Home in Jewry-street, Aldgate,” makes an unexpected and singular appearance in a court case, giving testimony in support of two ayahs who had taken the owner of another institution (“the Ayah’s Home at Bedford-road, Clapham”) to court. Who was this person? Could it be that the Hansons were also known as the Rogers, due to their now long association with “Mrs Rogers’ Home”?
This small glimpse of the past shows us, too, that there were still various enterprises competing for the travelling ayahs’ custom. As the scope and scale of the Home expanded, the Hansons may have found that their resources were stretched, and of course they were both getting older.
In July 1900, the London City Mission announced that their “latest enterprise” was the taking over of the Ayahs Home at Jewry Street, Aldgate, which “has now been removed to 26, King Edward Road, Mare Street, Hackney, N. E.”. An evangelical organisation ministering the gospel to the urban poor, the LCM had been set up in London in 1835. In 1856 the organization established the Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, Africans, and South Sea Islanders in Limehouse for the accommodation of sailors “from Eastern lands”.
The proprietors had approached the LCM to ask them to take it over, because they “found the expenses connected with it more than they could raise,” but offered to continue to manage the institution. (They were named as the Rogers, lending credence to the idea that the Hansons were using the name Rogers as their business name.) An LCM leader at that time, James Dunn, later explained that “a man and his wife” – he did not actually mention their name – had run the institution “for sailor nurses” for many years:
An article published in 1921 confuses the matter further by recording that the Home had been relocated to the premises at King Edward Road in June 1897, coming under the control of the LCM, when “the late Mr and Mrs Robert Barclay and a number of ladies interested in the women of India took the matter in hand”. As we have seen, “Mr Rogers of the Ayahs’ Home in Jewry-street” was still active in August that year. Robert Barclay, of a prominent banking family, and his wife Elizabeth nee Buxton, were notable for their supportive work in promoting the LCM’s “powerful work … among foreigners” in their social circles and hosting, from 1895 to 1904, a regular “foreigners’ fete” for Indian sailors, ayahs, and other foreign workers in London, on the grounds of their stately home at High Leigh, Hoddesdon. No doubt the Barclays did play an instrumental role in finding a new and superior location for the Home (the site in the 1880s, of a “ladies school,” run by a Mrs Althro Alfred Knight). But it was probably not until after the retirement of Salter in January 1898, and then his passing in March 1899, that the LCM formally took control of the Home and saw it relocated to King Edward’s Road in Hackney.
Victoria Haskins 2022
Feature image: A business card for the Ayahs’ Home in Hackney. From the collection of the British Library.
 Rozina Visram, Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: The Story of Indians in Britain 1700-1947 (London: Pluto Press, 1986), 29-30. For work following, see: Laura Humphreys, Globalising Housework: Domestic Labour in Middle-class London Homes, 1850-1914 (Oxon: Routledge, 2021), 145-158; Satyasikha Chakraborty, “‘Nurses of Our Ocean Highways’: The Precarious Metropolitan Lives of Colonial South Asian Ayahs,” Journal of Women’s History, vol. 32 no. 2, 2020, 37-64, https://doi.org/10.1353/jowh.2020.0019; Olivia Robinson, “Travelling Ayahs of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Global Networks and Mobilization of Agency”, History Workshop Journal, Volume 86, Autumn 2018, 44–66, https://doi.org/10.1093/hwj/dby016; Florian Stadtler and Rozina Visram, “A home for the ayahs: from India to Britain and back again,” Our Migration Story website, 2016; Jo Stanley, “Ayahs who travelled: Indian nannies voyaging to Britain in the nineteenth century,” Black and Asian Studies Association Newsletter, January 2011, 5-8; Shompa Lahiri, Indian Mobilities in the West, 1900-1947: Gender, Performance, Embodiment (New York: Palgrave, 2010), 31; Rozina Visram, Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 51-54; Shompa Lahiri, Indians in Britain: Anglo-Indian Encounters, Race and Identity, 1880-1930 (London: Frank Cass, 2000), 1-2.