In Tanika Gupta's new play The Empress, her character Rani is left homeless and destitute in a foreign country and goes to the Ayah's Home in London for help.
What are ayahs?
Ayahs were Indian nannies largely employed by English families living in India to care for their children. From as early as the 1700s, many accompanied their employers back to Britain for personal and financial reasons.
Before the Ayahs' Home
Various lodging houses in the East End of London were the only accommodation available to ayahs other than staying in their employers' homes. These lodging houses were generally disreputable, overcrowded and expensive.
The Ayahs' Home
Ayahs were employed by individual families so there was no legally binding contract. This meant they were potentially open to exploitation and maltreatment. Though many employers did honour their agreement, instances of abandoned and destitute ayahs could be found begging on the streets and residing in poor houses.
To address this issue, the Ayahs' Home was set up in 1825 in Aldgate as a private charitable organisation.
Over the years, demand for lodgings increased, especially towards the end of the nineteenth-century when the British Raj was at its peak and more families were travelling to and from India.
The London City Mission
In 1901 the Home was relocated to larger premises in Hackney which could accommodate up to thirty ayahs at any one time and was funded by the London City Mission (LCM).
The LCM was a Christian missionary organisation that aimed to convert people to Christianity as well as generally assisting the poor and destitute across London.
The LCM was happy to fund the Ayahs' Home as it fulfilled its charitable and humanitarian mission, whilst providing opportunity to offer Christian guidance and instruction to the ayahs.
Photo: London City Mission Magazine, 1922.
How the Ayahs' Home worked
Ayahs from various backgrounds; Singalese, Chinese, Japanese and Malay, stayed at the Ayahs' Home, although the majority were from the Indian sub-continent. They remained at the Home until they could arrange a return passage.
Ayahs who regularly travelled between Britain and India used it as a stopover between jobs, but occasionally destitute ayahs turned up in the middle of the night seeking refuge after being deceived and abandoned by their employers.
Travel to India was largely seasonal so an ayah could stay in the Home for months at a time, free of charge.
The Home helped ayahs return home by securing employment for them with families travelling to India, usually through newspaper adverts. Once a return journey had been secured, the ayah would be accompanied to the dock or railway station to ensure a safe passage home.
Over the years, the function and operation of the Ayahs' Home had evolved to such an extent that it was described as 'a sophisticated network equal to any modern-day employment agency' (Rozina Visram - Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History).
The Ayah's Home was hugely successful and it continued to provide refuge to vulnerable and often destitute women until the early 1940s.
Its closure was a result of changes in society; increasing resistance towards the British Raj from natives in India, and the outbreak of the Second World War.