The Ayahs’ and Amahs’ Home: A History

Part II: The Home at Hackney

It is the Hansons then (“aka” the Rogers), who appear in front of the door to the imposing new premises, along with the four sari-clad women, in 1900 (figure 2.1).  Christian Hanson and wife Amina were listed as “Manager” and “Matron” respectively of the Ayahs Home on King Edward’s Road in the 1901 census. (The other listed residents were five “travelling nurses,” all from India, and a general servant from Mile End, London.) The Hansons’ tenure, however, would not last long.

Figure 2.1 Photograph of the front entrance of the Ayahs’ Home in Hackney in 1900. From the London City Mission Magazine, July 2, 1900, 173.

If Amina Hanson had hoped that the LCM would provide some security she was quite mistaken. In August 1902, her death at the age of 55 in hospital “due to alcoholism and other diseases” was reported in the press, along with the rather gratuitously scandalous information that the late matron of the Home had been dismissed from her position at the Ayahs’ Home “on account of her intemperate habits,” and that she had been known to regularly expend £5 a week on quarts of brandy.

Husband Christian disappears from the scene at that point. The Hansons were quietly replaced by the adult son of the LCM missionary James Dunn, cabinet-maker Samuel Fowkes Dunn, and his wife Sarah Annie Dunn, with their two children.

Sarah Dunn took a very active interest in the cases of those ayahs whose employers left them stranded, and thus dependent upon the charity that the LCM could provide. In May 1909 she wrote to Lieut-Colonel Sir Curzon Wyllie (who was closely involved with all sorts of matters involving Indians resident in London) asking for an interview with him “to ask you some questions regarding Ayahs being abandoned in England, as I have had cases & have kept women for four or five months, before I could obtain an engagement.”

Soon after, in July 1909, Matron Dunn would give extensive evidence before the Committee on Distressed Colonial and Indian Subjects. Stating that she believed the Home to be the only one of its kind “in the wide world,” Dunn explained that the Home managed around 90 ayahs, not just from India but also from China (Hong Kong), and Japan. According to Dunn, the majority were brought to the institution by their female employers, who were “perfectly indifferent” as to the fate of their former workers, and content to leave her with the responsibility to find return engagements for them.  

Figure 2.2 The interior of the Ayahs’ Home in Hackney in 1904. From the Collections of the British Library

Dunn’s evidence provided detailed insight into how the Ayahs Home system worked. She explained that most employers provided a return ticket for their worker and she, the matron, would sell that ticket “for the lady”, and use the proceeds to pay for the ayah’s board in the Home.  The usual charge for a one to two-week stay was 14s a week, “but if she brought one to me about February, and very likely I have to take the risk of how long we should have to keep her, and if she gave me a certain amount of money, I should take over all responsibility with regard to that woman [the ayah] and get her a situation to go back.” 

But costs were clearly a major concern. As Dunn explained, private subscribers assisted with the costs of the Home and one “very kind” un-named “lady” regularly made up the Home’s deficits at the end of the year.  The Committee’s report in April 1910 recommended that repatriation agreements should be made compulsory on engagement of domestic servants out of India. This directive – which would have made the business of on-selling return tickets and brokering engagements unsustainable – was not implemented.

In October 1910 a particular case involving an ayah named Mary Michael, where the LCM requested a small grant from the India Office to cover her board in the Home, resulted in a decision by the authorities to allow a “small annual donation” from the India Office to the LCM for the Ayahs’ Home. This measure would, it was noted, allow the government to send “distressed applicants” to the institution “as a matter of course.” An annual subvention of £10 was instituted from December of that year.

The Home continued to operate over the next decade, and even during the Great War, when three ayahs found themselves stranded at the Home. The Dunns were tested by the War, and never more so than when their only son Harold was killed in France in August 1918. In 1919 there was a new couple in residence at 26 King Edward’s Road, William and Amelia Fletcher.

After the war, travel between India and Britain quickly resumed and the Home’s fortunes soared. In February 1921, the LCM sub-committee that managed the Home found themselves with a generous balance of just over £1000, a tenancy agreement about to expire, and a landlord intimating that he was keen to significantly raise the rent.  A suitable, and more spacious residence on the same road – no less than thirty rooms – was  happily offered to the LCM for purchase at an affordable price. The Home opened at its new location on the afternoon of November 2nd, 1921, to some fanfare.

Figure 2.3 The opening of the new Ayah’s Home at number 4 King Edward Road, Hackney, 1921. Collections of the British Library.

On the occasion the new Home was colourfully described as “a home of nations” and its many rooms were variously named and decorated according to the appellations of “‘Javanese,’ ‘Malay States,’ ‘Indians,’ ‘Chinese,’ ‘Siamese,’ etc.” From now it would be increasingly known as the Ayahs’ and Amahs’ Home.

This shift reflected the growing presence of travelling nursemaids and female servants of East Asian and other Asian origin in the interwar period, particularly the Chinese amahs who came from the British colonies in the Straits settlements. In January 1927 the terms under which amahs would be accepted into the Home were revised “owing to the unrest in China”. The new terms were a weekly charge of 35/- for a limited period, with the payment of one Guinea on securing a homeward engagement, “instead of the usual contractural [sic] payment of £14 which entitled them to stay in the Home until their return to the Far East”.

By 1928 the India Office had stopped funding the Home. Its period of quasi-official status had come to an end and under the conditions of the Great Depression, coupled with growing anti-colonial unrest, the Home was struggling to meet maintenance costs in 1935. Although its fortunes began to revive later in the 1930s, the onset of the Second World War again brought the journeys of the travelling ayahs and amahs to a standstill, and an ultimate end to the Home.

In June 1940, the LCM considered the future of the Home. It was now operating at an annual loss with “few native women” in residence. The Fletchers agreed to remain in residence so that the premises would not be unoccupied, but Mr Fletcher announced that he would be retiring in October, and his wife would take over the superintendency. With German bombs dropping “all round the Ayahs’ Home” it was necessary even before then to find alternative accommodation for the matron, and the LCM decided to begin the process of closing down the Home for good. The following year, the premises were rented out to be used as hostel for families who had lost their homes in the blitz. Matron Fletcher provided with a retaining fee of £30 a year until she found alternative employment. That marked the end of any reference to the Ayahs and Amahs Home in the LCM records, until May 1952 when the Ayahs’ Home account held with Barclays Bank was closed.  

The history of the Ayahs and Amahs’ Home in London maps closely to the history of the British Empire – from its earliest, somewhat shrouded emergence in the mid-nineteenth century, through the highly performative imperialism of the Raj of the later period, and the fluctuating, ambivalent institutionalisation of the state in the twentieth century.

This two-part blog has offered a collation of information gleaned from the historical traces of the Home’s existence, including newspaper and periodical accounts, census and land tax records, India Office archival records, and the records of the London City Mission, over the decades from the 1850s through to the 1950s. It is part of our larger project on the global history of the travelling ayahs and amahs and will inform the book we are writing on that history. We hope that this outline may provide a useful framework for historical researchers and others, and better help us analyse and understand this story.

Read Part 1 of this blog here

Victoria Haskins 2022

Feature image: Photograph of a group of ayahs with unnamed matron at the “Foreigners’ Fete”. London City Mission pamphlet, Among All Nations, 1910. British Library.

4 thoughts on “The Ayahs’ and Amahs’ Home: A History

  1. How interesting! This story shows the matron of the Home, Sarah Dunn, as having quite an idea of herself as a put-upon rescuer, doesn’t it.
    I especially loved the first image, of ayahs at the Foreigners’ Fete in 1910

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much Sunil Deepak for letting us know! Very glad that you enjoyed the blog and I hope that some of your readers might also appreciate the work we are sharing via our website.

      Liked by 1 person

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