“The ayah is a most important personage in the Anglo-Indian nursery, one on whom very often the whole future health and happiness of the English child depends, and yet how little care is often taken in her selection!” The English Baby in India (1893)
On the day Eric Blair was baptised at the Regions Beyond Missionary Union, in Muzaffarpur, he was photographed with his ayah. We do not know her name or life-story and it is unlikely that either will ever be recovered.
However, ever the optimist, I am planning a visit to India for further research into Orwell’s Anglo-Indian heritage. Collaborating with a wide-variety of experts – before, during and after the field trip – will be essential (and has already stated to yield results).
My research has been primarily focused on ‘Orwell before he was Orwell’ for some time. There is much to learn about his parents and wider family history dating back into the 17th century. I have been particularly interested in the 1920s and Eric Blair’s experiences in Burma and France.
Last year, while researching in Paris, I purchased a rare postcard which showed three ayahs in a studio setting. The message, written in French, explained the role of the ayah in India:
Your interesting cards are always welcome. Today I’m showing you our servants, and you can see on this card the type of ‘nannies’ we have here. These women look after the babies and take them on walks.
All the best.
Coincidentally, I arrived in London (a few days after finding this postcard) to media coverage of English Heritage unveiling a Blue Plaque commemorating the Ayahs’ Home in Hackney. The plight of South and East Asian women, who worked for British families as nannies, was not something I had previously considered. Horribly, these women were regularly abandoned by their employers in London and The Ayahs’ Home, which operated from 1900-1921, provided safety and shelter for those who were unable to finance the return voyage to the sub-continent and had few options for further employment.
A growing network of researchers, including some based in Australia, have been ‘captivated’ by ‘the stories of the ayahs’ and are doing superb work to find out more and share that knowledge. This virtual exhibition, Ayahs and Amahs: Transcolonial Servants in Australia and Britain 1780-1945, is an excellent example of what is being achieved!
The literature, written by Anglo-Indians, featuring ayahs, is extensive. Manuals for British families living on the sub-continent about raising children are a window on the attitudes towards these ayahs. The voices and stories of the ayahs themselves are very hard to hear.
However, it is encouraging that an agreement between a British family and their ayah (from 1896) has recently been uncovered and shared by the British Library at the Untold Lives Blog.
Did the Blair family have such a contract with their ayah? I can find no passenger records for Ida Blair, who returned to England with her children in 1904. Did their ayah remain in Bihar?
The other photo, taken on the day Orwell was baptised, was with his mother. Who was H. Bailey? Did he take other photos on the day? Surely a proud father would have a portrait taken with his son? What about Marjorie Blair, Orwell’s sister, who would have been cared for by this same ayah?
Did Bailey know about the family’s challenge with rats? Did he and Orwell’s father, R.W, Blair, loiter at the Tirpoot Planters’ Club in Mozufferpore together?
What records remain and where can they be located?
Already some interesting connections are apparent from the primary sources available. H. Bailey is listed in the 1895 and 1897 editions of Thacker’s Directory as an ‘assistant’ at a large photography studio, Johnson & Hoffmann, in Calcutta. Amazingly, this studio was the one that produced the postcard (in 1905) of the ayahs I had discovered in Paris.
Hugh Rayner and Ron Cosens have been intellectually generous, sharing their considerable expertise and providing photographs by Bailey from their collections. There is a cabinet print taken in “Mozufferpore” (probably of Martha & Mabel Sutton) and another, with the address 100 Malvern Street, Stapenhill (in Derbyshire).
I have spent some time trying to find out more about Bailey but he is proving very elusive. Can anyone assist?
Perhaps primary sources pertaining to Orwell’s Ayah and his family’s life, in Motihari and surrounds, still exist?
Ideas? Thoughts? Advice? Where can we look, in India and elsewhere? Who can help?
Ayahs & Amahs: Transcolonial Journeys, September 8, 2022 – June 8, 2023 <accessed 23rd January 2023>
Batty, Beatrice Braithwaite, Effie and her Ayah; or, the Faithful Monkey and her Little White Mistress, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1873
Chatelain, Clara de, Story of Henrietta and the Ayah, or, Do Not Trust to Appearances; My Little Schoolfellow, or, One Good Turn Deserves Another, London: James Hogg & Sons, 1864
Cook, Thomas, India, Burma, and Ceylon. Information for Travellers and Residents, London: Thos Cook & Son, 1912
Khan, Omar, Paper Jewels: Postcards from the Raj, Mapin, 2018
Kingscote, Mrs Howard, The English Baby in India and How to Rear It, London: J&A Churchill, 1893
Sherwood, Mrs. Mary Martha, The Ayah and Lady. An Indian Story, Boston: S.T. Armstrong and Crocker & Brewster
Tucker, Charlotte (A.L.O.E.), Edith and Her Ayah, and Other Stories, London: T. Nelson & Sons
Untold Lives Blog, Agreement with Mina Ayah, 18 October 2022 <accessed 23rd January 2023>