The Indian Women who Raised British Children

            Above is a Podcast of the writer interviewing Dr. Raminder Saini about ayahs and subjecthood in the British Empire. The podcast was made for a class exercise to help students like our writer Morgan Marshall discuss the scholarship and content of their research. Take a listen and read on!

The Indian Women who Raised British Children

by Morgan Marshall

“ The ayahs of the present century, more akin to serfs than the domestic servants to which we are ordinarily accustomed”. - A.C Marshall in the 1922 Quiver Magazine.

Ayahs are single Indian women who worked as both domestic servants and nannies for British children in the 19th century. Ayahs worked in India for British families as well as aboard ships that travelled between Europe and India. In the 1922 edition of the Quiver, the author draws comparison between ayahs and serfs; instead of being bound to the land, ayahs were bound to British children. Although, tied to these children, they weren’t slave-like laborers, but rather motherly figures travelling colonial “water highways” with British families as a career. Read on to find out more about these Indian women who raised British children.


            In India, ayahs provided expertise to their memsahib (the British mother they worked for) about how to survive and thrive in the colonial environment. They provided complete childcare for the white children, including feeding, bathing, clothing, and playing with the children. Often spending more time with their ayah than their biological parents. They also provided domestic and medical advice for the memsahib. For example, ayahs constantly stressed the use of wet nurses, this ensured the baby would get an abundant supply of nutrient milk and the memsahib would not exhaust herself. This was essential as the child mortality rates were double that of Europe.


            On ships, ayahs were in charge of complete childcare, cleaning, laundry, looking after the baggage, and memsahib. Some even qualified as nurses and sailors. Antony Pareira, for example, was an experienced ayah that traveled between Britain and India 54 times and to Holland once. She was a young mother looking for adventure, finding her “life’s calling” by caring for children and travelling the “water highways” of the British Empire. This brought Indian women freedom to travel and explore the world, while earning decent money to provide for her own children back home.


            What makes ayahs’ work so interesting is their inevitably close relationship with British children. This broke racial boundaries because ayahs were raising white children, while advising white mothers. Mary Sherwood, for example, was a Victorian mother living in India who wrote in her journal that her children “carry in their hearts the Ayah’s laughter and tears”. This relationship crossed racial and social boundaries, creating an ambivalent space in the British family. Many children became more familiar with Indian languages and culture because of the close relationship they shared with their ayah. So close, that when Mary Sherwood’s infant suddenly died, she heard her ayah “un-feignedly” weeping for “her boy”.


            Life in Britain wasn’t always easy for foreign workers. The Ayahs’ Home was established to house, feed, clothe, and protect ayahs in England. Founded in 1897 by Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, the Home had 30 rooms and every year over 100 ayahs stayed there.  The women were provided with a safe place, which offered Indian food, familiar languages, and culture. This institution was not only a place of refuge for Indian women but also doubled as a Victorian employment agency, helping Indian women find employment for the journey home. In 1900, the Rogers could no longer run the home, it then came under the control of Christian missionaries, as they saw the opportunity to help foreign women in need.


            What is most fascinating about ayahs is how little information there is on them! I was astonished that historians knew so little about such courageous women that broke gender, race and class boundaries throughout the centuries. Their close relationship with British children allowed these women into important positions at the heart of a Victorian household. Whether their employers wanted or not, ayahs had a lasting impact on future British generations. Impacts that were undesirable to the British, as Victorians believed children were being “culturally contaminated” by a “weaker race”. However, this did not cease the employment of ayahs, their expertise with children was undeniably excellent.

 About this blog writer: Morgan Marshall is an undergraduate student studying History and Art History at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan Campus.

Working Girl

Working Girl: The Victorian Edition

with Arlene Young

Sunday, April 28 @ 1:30

$15 Admission | $12 Members

Event page

In George Gissing’s 1890s novel about single working women, the owner and administrator of a typewriting and business school warns the young women in her charge about the political implications of women’s work:

An excellent governess, a perfect hospital nurse, do work which is invaluable [she asserts]; but for our cause of emancipation they are no good; nay, they are harmful. Men point to them, and say: Imitate these, keep to your proper world.—Our proper world is the world of intelligence, of honest effort, of moral strength.

But why, at the end of the nineteenth century, would typewriting be uniquely perceived as representing the world of intelligence and moral strength, while teaching and nursing were not? Come and discover some of the social oddities of Victorian working and domestic culture that produced these attitudes toward women and work, and learn about the ways in which women turned these attitudes to their advantage.



Sundial mottos from humorous to darkness

Compiled by Charlene Van Buekenhout from our friends at Wikipedia!

Sunny days are up ahead, and that’s good news for a sundial.

In honour of the upcoming clock talk “A Brief History of Time (Keeping)” on Sunday April 7th at 1:30 pm with Alexandra Kroeger, here is a list of some of our favourite mottos that are written upon the face of sundials throughout history.

From the sweet:

Be as true to each other as this dial is to the sun.

Hours fly, Flowers die. New days, New ways, Pass by. Love stays.

The sun shines for everyone

To the wise:

Self-dependent power can time defy, as rocks resist the billows and the sky.

Springtime does not last

Use the hour, it will not come again

To the humorous:

If the sun's gone, nobody looks at me

Make haste, but slowly.

Now is the time to drink

To your demise:

All hours wound; the last one kills

It's later than you think.

Thus passes a lifetime.

And then there is this:

Night, shortly.

Touché! This last one is my favourite for it’s bluntness and spookiness.

For a longer list check out the wikipedia page on sundial mottos, and for time’s sake come to the talk on Sunday to learn more about the human obsession with keeping time.

Indian Labourers in a Victorian City

“The Evil and How Occasioned”: Caring for Migrants in a Victorian City

with Dr. Raminder Saini

Sunday, March 24 @ 1:30

$15 Admission | $12 Members

Event page


“Found dead!” Who? Where? Has he no friends? How did he die? …“We don’t know.”

Excerpt from Joseph Salter,  The Asiatic in England  (1873).

Excerpt from Joseph Salter, The Asiatic in England (1873).

 So writes Joseph Salter, a missionary who worked in London’s East End. In his first memoir, The Asiatic in England (1873), Salter reflected on the condition of labouring Indians in early 19th century London.

 In the early 1800s, thousands of Indian labourers were moving through the port of London. Lascars (Indian sailors), servants, and ayahs (nannies) signed contracts in which they agreed to work on board ships headed to English ports. On landing in London, though, too many discovered that guaranteed return passages to their port of origin were merely empty promises. Some weren’t even paid their wages. Not prepared for a prolonged stay in London, these labourers found themselves without food, shelter, or a way home.

 The issues of distressed Indian labourers, especially lascars, increased after the 1830s. For middle-class Victorians in particular, the presence of distressed Indians was alarming: how could there be distressed colonial subjects in the metropole? What did their condition say about Britain? What did this say about Victorians as good, Christians who were trying to “bring civilization” to the peoples they colonized?

To tackle the problem of increasing and abandoned destitute lascars, members from missionary organizations established the Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, Africans, and South Sea Islanders. This lodging house opened its doors in the spring of 1857 after a year of construction. Initially, the institute was formed to provide a solution to lascars who were not adequately housed by the East India Company. As the administrators began their work, though, they realized that there were other labourers in similar conditions of distress. The Strangers’ Home thus became a space through which Victorians could provide “help” to working-class Indians.

Sketch of the Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, Africans, and South Sea Islanders in Joseph Salter,  The Asiatic in England  (1873).

Sketch of the Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, Africans, and South Sea Islanders in Joseph Salter, The Asiatic in England (1873).

 Not everyone wanted to be helped though. For example: Abdul Rehmon was from Bombay. He had been living in London for twenty years when Salter discovered him. Rehmon had begun earning a living by sweeping streets, but then got involved in a lucrative business in Bluegate-fields where he “pandered to the vices of his countrymen when they arrived in England” – in other words, he owned an opium den. Rehmon was perfectly content with the life that he led in the heart of the empire…

To find out more about the Strangers’ Home and Victorians’ idea of “helping”, check out this Sunday’s lecture with Dalnavert’s very own Intern Curator, Rammy Saini! More details on her talk can be found here.

“Ten Meals to Prepare”

“Ten Meals to Prepare”: The Women Who Laboured at Dalnavert

Ruth O. & Rammy S.


On 21 December 1895, The Winnipeg Tribune ran an article introducing its readers to the newly constructed mansion of Sir Hugh John Macdonald and his family. Titled “A Perfect Home,” the piece described the lavish interiors of Dalnavert in impressive detail. Perfect, too, were the “arrangements for carrying on the work of the house,” particularly the heating system, laundry facilities, and kitchen. When praising the upkeep of the house, the article focused on the rooms themselves, failing to acknowledge the individuals who laboured in them every day. In celebration of International Women’s Day, we want to talk about the hard work and service of the female cooks and maids that actually kept the Macdonald family home in working order.

 When the Macdonald family moved in, they hired two women to live and serve at Dalnavert: the older, more experienced servant worked as the cook, while the younger served as the maid. While we know very little about the women who laboured at Dalnavert, we do know that one servant was named Mary Keith and that she moved into Roslyn Apartments with Lady Macdonald after the death of her husband. And we know that an earlier domestic servant had emigrated from Ireland. Most of the identities of the servants, though, remain buried in the past, along with their stories.

 What we can do is speak to the labour of these women. We know they lived and worked in the servants’ quarters of the home. Working from the back of the house – divided by doors and tucked away servants’ staircases – the cook and maid navigated the mansion as a near-hidden labour force. They could easily work 13 or more hours a day from sunrise to sunset, labouring away at the endless chores of laundry, cooking, and cleaning.

Dalnavert’s kitchen, located at the opposite end of the house from the front entrance.

Dalnavert’s kitchen, located at the opposite end of the house from the front entrance.

The steep, narrow servants’ staircase, leading from the kitchen to the second floor.

The steep, narrow servants’ staircase, leading from the kitchen to the second floor.

 Holidays and special events were especially taxing. As one housekeeper wrote in the Winnipeg Tribune (December 28, 1896) regarding Christmas dinner,

Ten meals to prepare beforehand, and not sure where there will be sufficient scraps for tasty rissoles or shepherd’s pie for lunches. It is bad enough to go to bed with three meals on one’s mind, but when it comes to a dozen, the weight is appalling.

 We also know that roughly 75% of women in the domestic service industry in Canada before the First World War came from the United Kingdom. Canada at this time had an immigration policy that drew in “suitable British single women, ages 17 to 35” (Library and Archives Canada). They were single because it was deemed not respectable for married women to labour for a wage—they were supposed to have their own households to manage.

E. Cora Hind (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

E. Cora Hind (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

 Perhaps to break away from the stereotypes of women’s work, Canadian women were moving away from domestic service—it did pay relatively well, but it was uninspiring work at a time when women were beginning to consider their own rights and independence. Women were seeking alternative occupations in industry and commerce. E. Cora Hind, for example, came to Winnipeg from Ontario in 1882 to seek work with The Manitoba Free Press as a journalist. After the company denied her a position, she learned to use a typewriter and went to work as Hugh John Macdonald’s secretary. In 1901, Hind was appointed as the agricultural editor of the Free Press, becoming the first female journalist in Western Canada. Yet even as a number of women sought employment in new industries, domestic service remained the main employer of female workers.


 As household technology changed, so did the lives of female housekeepers across Canada. Many innovations made domestic labour less time-consuming, less taxing, and less dangerous. The Kitchen Queen stove, for instance, featured a temperature gauge that no longer required the cook to stick her hand in the oven to determine its heat levels. Another innovation was the Warren Rotary Knife Cleaner, which greatly reduced the labour of cleaning knives by hand. Then there was the electric Beattie washer, an innovation that eliminated the time-consuming work of manually washing clothes.

Kitchen Queen Stove temperature gauge, Dalnavert Museum

Kitchen Queen Stove temperature gauge, Dalnavert Museum

Electric Beattie washing machine, Dalnavert Museum

Electric Beattie washing machine, Dalnavert Museum

Warren’s Knife Cleaner, Dalnavert Museum

Warren’s Knife Cleaner, Dalnavert Museum

 Even as these new machines eased the overall burden of work, they were sometimes seen as problematic in the hands of women. Some argued that these innovations would lead to female idleness due to their ease of use; one female education manual specifically warned against Rotary Knife Cleaners, claiming that their use would make women “inflexible and indifferent” housewives. There was, it seems, a perceived threat to the status quo, fearing what women would do if housework didn’t keep them preoccupied; they might read, enjoy a cup of tea, or fight for the right to vote! And then what would happen to men’s supper?


 Today, household technology continues to reduce the demands of domestic labour. Many of us have dishwashers and washing machines to do the bulk of the work. But does the responsibility of maintaining a household still largely fall upon women? Who does the dishes or the laundry at your house?