Invisible Hands

The ayah is a familiar figure of the Raj. While new research shows they were much less common than once thought, it has also shed fresh light on their lives and experiences.

Children’s Christmas Dinner At Sea, illustration by G. Durand from The Graphic, 1889.
‘Children’s Christmas Dinner At Sea’, illustration by G. Durand from The Graphic, 1889.

Caroline Pereira was a frequent business traveller. For a woman and a low-status ‘native’, this was unusual. Pereira was an ayah. As a nanny and maid for British families coming ‘home’ on furlough or for good, she had unusual access to travel. 

Pereira’s voyage from Madras to England on the HMS Wellesley in 1849 was a challenge physically and a power battle socially with her employer, Dr James Darwood of the East India Company. 

Plenty water coming, ship going to sink, waves came in, and first day master want I to go hang carpet [out to dry] – I say, ‘I can’t, sir; my life is in danger’ ... I got too much to do for master; five children to take care of, and mistress to dress ... I got two baby—I obliged to carry one I put to sleep, another I got to wash and dress, another to feed, another keep in my lap while get my dinner; ... master always angry with me after that—too bold tongue he said ... after that, master be my enemy.

Fortunately for historians, but unfortunately for Caroline, she was accused of robbing her employer, which led to an Old Bailey case. The resulting court records give the best details of any voyage by one of these ‘chattels of empire’, in the historian Rozina Visram’s terms.

Ayahs took charge of every aspect of raising white children. They were ‘indispensable’ to memsahibs, upper-class women unused to hands-on mothering: from dawn to dusk ayahs nurtured, protected and entertained. They were especially valued before the Suez Canal opened in 1869, when journeys could take up to six months, which is probably what Caroline endured. They also acted as literal and metaphorical interpreters for women new to overseas life. Yet, in spite of this fundamental role, the person was barely seen as a human being in her own right, with rights of her own. 

Millions of ayahs stayed in India. But Pereira was one of the fewer than one per cent who sailed, motivated by money, as well as loyalty to their employers. Sometimes they left their own families behind and lost caste by sailing. Journeys were compulsory and often traumatic; any romantic interest in the possibilities of travel was secondary.

Pereira was to be paid 300 rupees (£30) for the trip. The pay was typical, equivalent to 75 weeks’ wages for a female clerk, or £2,400 today. She expected, she said, ‘to have my passage paid back – that is always usual when nurses come over to this country ... passage back would cost me 20l. [£1]’. Yet Mrs Darwood allegedly reneged on the deal to pay the return fare, declaring instead that a new employer would be found. This, too, was quite usual. New families could be found through networks of expats, Thomas Cook’s travel agency, the few ayahs’ hostels, or by posting adverts. 

The number of ayahs arriving in and leaving Britain for most of the 19th century is unknown. For the period for which ship’s passenger records are available (1890 1953), however, there were an average 20 ayahs arriving each year. The greatest influx was 51 in 1921, perhaps accompanying families returning after the First World War. The flow dwindled to five in 1929; the Second World War meant none came at all in the 1940s. After Independence in 1947, many British families left India for good and just three ayahs travelled to Britain in the 1950s. 

Perhaps the last was Mrs Choti, who in 1953 appears in passenger records working for the family of a civil servant, Samar Sen, caring for his pregnant wife, Sheila, and their toddler, Jupiter. 

Most ayahs travelling to Britain came and went, as Pereira wished to do. Yet, in the 60-year period for which there are records, there were 984 incoming voyages by ayahs and only 308 outgoing, suggesting that many chose to settle. Others made careers as baby couriers: one, a Mrs Anthony Pereira (her relationship to Caroline is unknown) claimed in the 1922 London City Mission to have undertaken 54 voyages. Her experience would have been a selling point for her services, but it is unlikely to be true. 

The story told by the passenger records is different from the longstanding generalised assumptions in histories of the subject, which typically describe ayahs travelling to Britain in large numbers in the late 19th and early 20th century. This traditional view was based on statements made by urban missionaries and journalists at the time, which we now believe were exaggerated. In the 1890s Joseph Salter, a London City Missionary who acted as advocate for ‘Asiatics’, estimated that 100-200 ayahs visited annually. The actual number officially listed as arriving that decade averages only 30 per year. 

Likewise, in 1910 Sara Dunn, the matron of London City Mission’s Ayahs’ Home in Hackney, told the India Office that they catered for about 90 women a year, an estimation that seems doubtful: only 30 ayahs and 8 amahs (their Chinese counterparts) are recorded as arriving in Britain that year. It is possible that some travelled by unrecorded routes, or that shipping companies listed them as nurses, maids or native servants. It is also likely that missionaries embellished the numbers in an effort to secure more funding.

The result of these inflated figures is more than a statistical discrepancy. They have given ayahs an over-large place in the popular imagination of the Raj. But investigating their true presence shows that the ayahs’ legacy is greater than the actual numbers. A less romantic, but more accurate picture is being built up, from scant records and patchy testimony by Raj children who never knew the reality of their nannies’ personal lives. The Old Bailey records do not say whether, or how, Pereira got home, and Jupiter and Sheila Sen have no memory of Mrs Choti on their voyage to Britain.


Jo Stanley is a writer, lecturer and consultant. She is currently gathering material about ayahs afloat at