Thursday 23 December 2021

Facing fatal Infection at Xmas: the ayah on the threatened SS Nubia

Ayah Campbell's Nubia in Plymouth 1879, setting out to bury at sea one of the dead soldiers. Image by Henry Charles Seppings Wright, The Illustrated London News, 16 January 1897.

It was the run-up to Christmas and New Year. Pandemics were on people’s minds as they travelled to the UK from hot-spots aboard. 

Such travelers included a hired care worker, her employer and the baby. They were among the hundreds of passengers facing the prospect of death either en route or on arrival. 

Sound familiar? 

Yes, but...

  • This was 124 years ago, in 1896-97. 
  • Cholera, not Covid, was the dreaded ‘plague.’  
  • The care worker was not a Filipina maid but a ‘native nurse’, presumably an ayah. 
  • The port of Plymouth, not Heathrow airport, was the portal to which 268 passengers were headed.  Their conveyance was not an Easyjet plane but the troopship Nubia, which had been chartered from P&O.
  • These incoming, potentially infectious people were no hedonistic tourists but soldiers of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, the Royal Artillery, the Royal Engineers, and the Highland Light Infantry who were returning from tours of duty.

Ayah and Mrs Campbell 

Ayah Campbell was embroiled in this public health drama in 1896-97 because she was employed by a Mrs Campbell to look after baby Campbell on a three-week voyage from India. 

Ayah Campbell’s own name is not recorded – which was common. 

Indeed, it’s unusual that a reporter managed to glean any passenger’s name in such circumstances. Mrs Campbell may have been reprimanded for her disclosure.

We can hypothesise something about ayah who found herself in such a traumatic situation. 

A typical incoming ayah that year would have been in her thirties, married, and expecting to go back home within weeks, to be with her children and husband. 

The crisis would have been extra bewildering if her English was limited. It’s possible that the ayah was a wet nurse. However such a delicate matter would never be mentioned in a public report, let alone in a brief one. 

Mrs Campbell was possibly the wife of a non-commissioned officer. Her Scottish name suggests a possible connection with the HLI. Typically such homeward-bound military mothers were in their twenties. Possibly she was returning as a widow. I suggest this as no solder called Campbell is mentioned in the reports.

Unfortunately, data is limited. This is likely because of administrative inadequacy rather than an official-ish cover-up.  So it’s not clear whether the Campbell party had embarked at Calcutta or Colombo.

 Indeed, had they even joined after as the ship wended its way north through the hellishly hot Red Sea at Christmas and then north west to Port Said, Malta, Gibraltar and home?

We might imagine that the Yuletide celebrations on Nubia were something like those in this image, created a decade earlier.   


How did the drama come about?

The Campbell party were leaving behind an India facing Bubonic plague in some areas, and a famine so severe that Victoria mentioned it in her Queen’s speech in January 1897.  Plus, for at least half a century, Asiatic Cholera pandemics had been a cause of anxiety, following the 1817 and 1826-37 outbreaks.

Nubia’s cholera emerged a few days after the vessel had coaled in Port Said on Wednesday 29 December. 'A quantity of fruit and vegetables was taken on board with other stores, and it is supposed that this led to the outbreak,’ reported the Evening Mail. (But Egypt counter-claimed that it was cholera-free.)

By the time the Nubia was past Malta a few were sickening. The ship’s medical office must have wondered if the diarrhoea (a key warning sign of Asiatic Cholera) meant the trouble was serious. Or were his charges just suffering from the common and tellingly-named ‘Gyppy Tummy’?

He was helped by soldiers’ selfless comradeship. ‘On the outbreak of the disease some of the soldiers on board volunteered to ... [and] acted as nurses. These men have so far escaped the disease. Their conduct is the subject of warm praise.’ 

Although soldiers and lascars were suffering, the civilians were alright.  They included at least eight women, and 15 children, who were anyway socially distanced. In that period of moral vigilance and strict hierarchy women would typically be segregated from the soldiers. And all diligent ayahs were always hyper-protective of babies.

Arriving at Plymouth

Two lascars and two soldiers had died by the time the ship arrived into Plymouth Sound at 3.30 am on Saturday 9 January. TSS Nubia arrived flying the square yellow flag warning that a ship was yet to be cleared of contagion. 

Ayah Campbell must have woken up with the hope of finally placing her feet on dry land that weekend. She was not so fortunate. 

The ship had to anchor a safe distance away from the harbour. Instead, she probably wrapped up the baby and watched as the tenders arrived carrying the alerted public health authorities that day and on the next. 

Dr FM Williams, Surgeon-Major-General J. B. Hamilton (who’d been on the hospital ship Tenasserim in Burma), and Dr Herbert Timbrell Bulstrode (pictured), took the outbreak very seriously. However they agreed that it had been well-contained and the worst was over.

Poorly people were moved to the nearby hospital ship Pique. Everyone still on board Nubia endured the stench of sulphur as working parties fumigated the infected areas. 

A fourth soldier died. And the troopship became a hearse as two soldier’s corpses were taken out to be buried at sea. 

Female attendance at funerals on land was sometimes seen as unseemly.  Ayah and Mrs Campbell may have stayed safely in a warm cabin, avoiding the melancholy spectacle and the chilling January winds off the sea.

The two lascars’ internments were not mentioned. Indeed Hamilton did not count the seafarers in his figures.

Ladies freed first

In two batches the women were freed. ‘Three women and three children were amongst those who landed, and they were placed in a closed vehicle and driven to Staddon’ Fort.’

Staddon Fort today, Picture by Steve Johnson,
courtesy of

The soldiers, by contrast, marched there and stayed for a quarantine period. 

On Monday 11 January 1897, ‘Most of the wives of the non-commissioned officers prepared to go to their homes and were passed by the medical officers. They were landed at Millbay Docks with four married soldiers.’  It’s not known whether Ayah Campbell was in the first or second group.

Millbay station. Ayah Campbell would have departed from here

‘Later in the day these men, with seven women and 13 children, left by train for their various destinations. Their luggage, was, however, detained for disinfection.’

Dr Williams reported afterwards (see pic below left) that 27,000 items from the Nubia were treated by super-heated steam at Plymouth's new disinfecting station. This amounted to 87 per cent of the 31,000 items processed in the entire year.  

What happened next?

Ayah Campbell’s story ends with some men’s continued illness and recovery, but only one more death: six in total. The scare was declared over. 

There was, of course, no televised reassurance from early equivalents of Prof Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance. The Nubia case had not become an enduring matter of national concern.

Still being fumigated in the Channel, Nubia sailed on to Gravesend.  

Within two years  the ship was, ironically, used as a hospital ship in the second Boer War. For a film of its departure from Southampton in 1899 see

And the British Medical Journal carried a little self-congratulatory material about how the 1896-97 Nubia events had been handled.

 Did Ayah Campbell stay in Britain, relieved that her contract had not ended with death at sea and that ‘her’ baby was safe?  Did she sail back home with a new memsahib and even risk going ashore in Port Said? There’s no record.

Nor is there any record of a  reply to Havelock Wilson’ parliamentary question two years later, in April 1899:

‘I beg to ask ... the number of lascar or other Asiatic seamen employed on board the P. and O. steamship "Nubia," on her last voyage, as sailors, firemen, cooks, stewards, and boys  ...  the number of superficial and cubic feet of accommodation provided in the forecastles set apart for such persons ... and whether such accommodation is in accordance with the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act?’

The point being implicitly made by the head of the seafarers’ union NSFU (pictured, right) was, of course, that overcrowding caused ill health among the Asian seafarers. 

Scores of Lascars would have been living in such conditions when Ayah Campbell was aboard. 

Sunday 14 November 2021

Portuguese Ayahs: Early explorers of baby-minding sort

Pioneering explorer Vasco da Gama
  was, of course, famously Portuguese. (And while he became the first European to 'discover' a route to India Catarina, his wife, stayed home looked after the seven children, presumably with an ayah's help.

But I’m just beginning to discern another –  hidden –  Portuguese travel story: the extent to which Portuguese-origin women from India were a different, domesticity-centred kind of pioneering early voyagers, four or five centuries later.  

Travelling ayahs and amahs are the world’s first women of colour to be female travelers, as this blog has shown. 

Now very new research is revealing that they might have been predominantly from places developed by the Portuguese who followed in da Gama's footsteps This is especially true of women who lived in what is now called Goa and Sri Lanka.

William Wood's 1792 portrait of this Bengal ayah, Joanna de Silva, (see pic) helps the story evolve. The painting has just been acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 

Joanna, whose surname sounds Portuguese, looked after the children of Catherine  and Charles Russell Deare. He was a Lieutenant Colonel in  the East Indian Company

Both lost their lives in 1790, age 40 and 34 respectively.  Catherine died a few days before Charles was felled by a cannon shot at Sattimungalum. They are buried together in Kolkata (see pic). Charles' military career can be perused at:

The Deares had been based in Calcutta  (a place where many Portuguese descendants lived, as did da Gama himself). And Joanna appears to have gone back to England with the children, who seemingly were to be looked after by his brother Phillip. 

That was a relatively common pattern: the beloved ayah was so central in providing 'her' children with stability after a parent died, that she effectively emigrated. She took her charges 'Home'  and then looked after them in Europe, far from her own family. 

Joanna‘s voyage to England would have been on an East Indian Company sailing ship round the southern tip of Africa. In challenging conditions aboard she’d have been looking after the orphans for about six months. She was lucky to arrive. Not all ships made it. Not all ayahs, memsahibs and babies survived voyages in that time. 

You can read the fascinating story of Joanna’s portrait, which my colleague Swapna M Banerjee (pictured) has just written up: She Travelled: The Portrait of Joanna de Silva, the Indian Ayah at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Path-breaking Portuguese ayahs

Joanna was one of the path-breaking Portuguese-origin ayahs who were mobile. Many historical texts refer specifically to 'Portuguese ayahs'  or 'Singhalese amahs' as if that cultural identity mattered very much.  

The unlikely and eroticised image (right) is of Agostina, a 13-year-old Singhalese low-caste girl who worked as an ayah in a native house in Pelmadulla, Ceylon, c.1867. In that period Portuguese domestic workers were commonly seen as sexually available.

Since Joanna's time thousands of ayahs and amahs have traveled the globe. Surely the nervous newbies venturing on the undertaking were helped by knowing that they had predecessors such as Joanna. 

If you look at the passenger lists  (now available online) you will see that an astonishing number of these mobile ayahs had Portuguese-origin names, spelled in varying ways.

In fact the two best-known ayahs on the India-UK route happen to be called Perara or a variation of that name:

  1.  Caroline Pereira whose 1850 Old Bailey story reveals much about the racism on voyages from India 
  2.  Mrs Anthony Pareira, who was vividly featured in a hyperbolic 1922 newspaper article. See

Tracking down every floating ayah  who had a Portuguese name is a research job for later. But as a test I looked up the passenger lists to find all the inbound and outbound ayahs called something like Pereira. I found an astonishing number: 29. In the period 1908 to 1934  were at least:

  • seven voyages by Marys
  • seven by Carolines
  • four by Elizabeths
  •  a scattering of Isabellas and Rosalines. 

29 out of 721 is statistically significant: four per cent. So what will a study of other Portuguese-named ayahs – such as da Silva   reveal, one wonders. 

Key question

It is well-recognised now that there were a few travelling ayahs (frequent sailors) and a lot of regular ayahs who went everywhere with the employing family, as a Filipina maid might today.

As I researched I keep wondering about all the many Pereras among the very mobile ayahs:

~  ls this coincidence?  Surely not.

~ was there a dynasty of travelling Pereras  who had cornered the market?  A bit of a 'Dial-an-intrepid-ayah' service or a network known to shipping agents?

I've now realised that the answer is bigger than that. 

Portuguese-descended ayahs tended to be Roman Catholics. This meant they had a more relaxed attitude to travel and to religious prohibitions about food than did some Hindu and Muslim ayahs. They wouldn't lose caste if they voyaged.

It's likely that memsahibs in search of travelling ayahs selected those who'd be the most flexible supports. And maybe, too, RC ayahs would market themselves as  especially able to cope with ocean vicissitudes and on ships without galleys catering for particular dietary rules. 

In addition, the Portuguese were known as trustworthy couriers of European travelers from the 1600s. This meant that ayahs were part of a culture group  characterised as ideal working escorts. 

Caroline Periera of Devon/Ceylon

And an ayah’s work could take her to all sorts of iconic places. 

In 1932 one of the Caroline Pereiras was sailing with Ceylon tea planter William Waddon-Martyn’s family. With Mrs Sheila and the two-year old twins, Caroline seems to have been briefly lodging in Dorland, Yelverton, while the crumbling, ancestral home, Tonacombe Manor in Devon was rented out.  

She was 47 and a British subject, planning to settle back in Ceylon after they left the Marnix van Sint Aldegonde  (pictured),  at Colombo.

Caroline would maybe have known the haunted medieval house, which was where author H Rider Haggard wrote some of Westward Ho

What's ahead?

Watch this space for the latest news of the extent to which Portuguese-origin ayahs dominated the domestic-couriering business. How many more ayah de Silvas might there have been?  

These women’s’ voyages didn’t pave the ways for empire building – as Vasco da Gama’s had. 

But they certainly did unusual exploring, as non-white women. Their fortitude deserves recognition. 

Saturday 18 September 2021

Ten interesting things about working at sea in the past: BBC2's A House Through Time

BBC2's A House Through Time, broadcast 14 Sept 2021, featured
ship's steward Edward Partridge Fearnley.

If you want to know more about Edward   (see pic), who lived at Grosvenor Mount in Leeds,  read on.This is my extra detail about him, to supplement the show. It builds on research done by the Twenty-Twenty team too, especially Anna Bates.

The Board of Trade official  photo shows he looks fairly attractive and intelligent. He sported the fashionable Adolphe Menjou moustache. I happen to be able to analyse hand writing, so I detect that he was cultivated and steady. At that time, by contrast, stewards hit the headlines as flashy wide-boys into bigamous adventures  and swindles.


Edward was born in 1877 and became a ship's steward sometime after 1901. He did around 38 years and died at sea at 62, in 1939, with lung problems. Certainly he was a ship’s waiter by 1905, when he was 28 - quite old for a newcomer to the sea.

We don't know how or why he took to seafaring work. He worked first as an import clerk, which may have fuelled his interest in travel and connected him to someone who could give him a reference for Cunard, one of the biggest names in shipping. He'd have travelled to its Liverpool HQ to be interviewed. Certainly reliability and a good service ethos were among the required traits.  

He was employed mainly by Cunard and didn’t change ships much. (See list below). Staying with the same vessel was normal if the Chief Steward and Head Waiter wanted you on their ship. Not everyone stayed with the same shipping line, because they wanted to go to other destinations instead. Edward might well have got tired of going to New York. But if he fancied Australia or Japan he certainly didn’t act on that wish and join, say, P&O instead.  Maybe he was happy being home one week in three, and on the best-tipping route in the world – to and from New York. 

He was buried in the Cunard section of a Manhattan graveyard; possibly his family didn’t think it was worth shipping his body home, or were persuaded against it.


Being a waiter was a white job, except for the low-waged Asian stewards working for shipping lines such as British India. Edward would have got several times their basic pay, plus good tips as he was working with American passengers, who tended to be generous with the gratuities.


Being male meant he was privileged and mobile in this maritime world. Women were not allowed to be waiters until a handful were allowed in on Buries Marks tramp ships for a gimmick in the 1950s, then later on Union Castle liners as stewardettes in the 1960s. See YouTube: Dining rooms were the area where you had greatest access to tips, so for as long as they could men made sure they - not women  - secured those rights.


Hotel and catering work - on land and sea - was an area where it was fairly common to employ gay and bi men, or at least men who sometimes had sex with other men. So Edward would have had queer shipmates. Maybe he even shared the same dorm as some gay stewards.


As a waiter his day began at 6am and ended around 10 pm. He served breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea on alternate days, and dinner, too. When he made it to First Class waiter his job was easier: only one sitting for dinner, not two, and better baksheesh - but stuffier diners.

Edward on Orduna's crew list, 1915.


Waiters sailed in war, mainly on their usual ships which had been converted to carry troops. Edward was certainly at sea in Dec 1914, Jan and Feb 1915 on the Transylvania, with 312 other crew. In 1917 a German U-boat sunk the Transylvania; Edwards seems not to have been aboard.

In In March 1915, as a First Class waiter on the Orduna to and from New York, Edward is likely to have been bringing Canadian officers (and their families) to the UK to train before going to the Somme. In war crew were expected to also learn to use the ships' guns in emergencies. So Edward might well have been as adept at targeting as he was at Silver Service, going to and fro across the Atlantic. Not many areas were mined at that stage. A German torpedo narrowly missed the Orduna in July 1915. I don't think he was aboard at that time. He died before WW2 began. Stewards lost their lives in both wars.


Edward’s Dad was a stuff merchant’s clerk in Shipley, who died when Edward was 14. So Edward went with mum and siblings to live with his maternal grandparents in Headingley, the house featured in the A House Through Time programme. (See photo of presenter David Olusoga there today). It was fairly posh, but VERY crowded. He had a genteel upbringing and reasonable education, so he'd know about how to behave with the elite passengers upon whom he waited.


There's no typical pattern for stewards' families of that period, except that usually seafarers’ children followed in parental footsteps. Edward's dad was in textiles and Edward had no children, so he was not part of a maritime dynasty. Two of his younger sisters became teachers. Edward would have been able to put in a good word and help get them jobs as stewardesses, if they had fancied what was seen as a daring life for a genteel lady. About 50% of seafarers were married, as Edward was, although we don't know when exactly he married. Shipmates did have adulterous relationships, but more so on long-distance voyages.


Was he an exception? No, only in dying on board. 24:7, Edward did not live the good life his wealthy passengers enjoyed. Most ship's stewards ate their meals on the hoof, so they had gastric problems and kept popping Rennie indigestion tablets. Many men smoked at that time, which worsened lung problems for lowly crew sleeping in poorly ventilated area.

It sounds like Edward had a serious health problem because in April-Jun 1932 he became a lift attendant on the ship - a non-arduous job, like lavatory attendant, which was a sort of grace-and-favour job allocated to loyal elderly staff who were not capable of much exertion. Then for a further six months he became a servants’ hall steward, which was light work. The fact that Cunard did not get rid of him when he became poorly indicates that he was regarded as a useful company man. It's very unusual to die in your bunk, at sea, of natural causes. Most shipping employers would have been ‘let go’ before they reached that state of ill health.

What ships was Edward on?

1905: Campania

1914: Transylvania

1915. Orduna

1921-33. Aquitania

1934. Scythia

1935-1939: Lancastria

Wednesday 25 August 2021

Only Female Survivor of Royal George, 1782.


The “Royal George” at Deptford Showing the Launch of “The Cambridge”, 1757 (Credit: John Cleveley the Elder, National Maritime Museum.)

Taster for recommended blog entry. 

Dr Hilary L Rubinstein's sleuthing has produced The Only Female Survivor of the Sinking of the Royal George.

'The woman was Elizabeth (“Betty”) Horn, née Badcock, daughter of a Plymouth shipwright.'Baptised in 1758, she had since 1778 been married to John Horn, an experienced seaman who was now a petty officer, serving as one of the ship’s quartermasters  ... 

'[When the ship sank at Spithead, because of a mistake, 'A chivalrous seaman dragged the surrounded, struggling Betty out of one of the  [portholes] and threw her clear of the ship.

'No sooner had he done so than the ship lurched further, so that the portholes were almost horizontally above the heads of people who had not yet managed to escape, and who consequently dropped back into the ship.

'To the sound of haunting screams, the ship then sank, trapping most of her terrified occupants ... into the sea.'

For fuller details, including other women's plights, see

Hilary's latest book is Catastrophe at Spithead: the Sinking of the Royal George, by Seaforth Publishing, 2020.

Monday 9 August 2021

First ayah rescued from shipwreck, 1832

Nearly two hundred ago Ayah Carruthers (her own name is not recorded) was apparently the very
first ayah rescued at sea by her English employer. 

Ayah Carruthers' employing family may have looked something like this picture. It's a representation created just seventeen 17 years earlier: Charles D'Oyley: A European Lady and Her Family, Attended by an Ayah, or Nurse (1815). 

Working for a mobile family was a mixed blessing for South Asian servants, including ayahs (nannies and maids). They found travel could be:

  • an unusual adventure for a lowly woman, and an extrinsic perk of the job
  • life-threatening, especially in the days of sailing ships.

But, when shipwrecks inevitably happened, being a woman did bring the chance of gallant rescue - even if she was brown or black. By contrast male 'native' servants were usually expected to look after themselves. 

All we know of this ayah now is that she was old, and rightly scared, in autumn 1832. She was probably from Calcutta (Kolkata), as she was accompanying Josephine and Matthew Carruthers from there to Tipperah (Tripura) in Bengal (Bangladesh). Matthew worked for the East India Company (EIC)

The party's terrible sea experience began just hours after they set off, the very evening  after the Carruthers were married in Calcutta Cathedral on 2 October. (St John's, pictured).

(Although grand the cathedral was already proving far too small for the burgeoning British population; plans were beginning for the current one.) 

Probably  Matthews' EIC colleagues attended the celebrations. That network is likely to have found him his servants too.

After the ceremony  Ayah Carruthers, plus at least one other woman servant and the newly-weds, began their 217-mile voyage. Perhaps Josephine had with her her trousseau.

Depending on conditions such a short coastal and river trip took several days. Sailing was far easier than going 1,025 miles over hilly terrain. 

We can imagine the ayah feeling many emotions ranging from excited or jittery about the journey and her relocation. This could have been her first sea trip. Or, as she was elderly, she might have been a veteran traveller.

It seems that she was going to be working in the home of  Civil Servant Matthew. He was already employed as Assistant to the Collector at Tipperah, a princely state newly under Rajah Krishna Kishor Manikya.

The Carruthers entourage was heading east-north-east. Unruly seas and wild elements entered the scene after four days of travelling, which had made them sea sick.

Disaster strikes

Today no-one today would know about this ayah involved in a routine relocation, except that she was one of the 'helpless female' characters in a talked-up drama:  an 'instance of preservation of life ... through the skill and intrepidity of a gentleman of the civil service, [which] deserves to be recorded,’ according to the Madras Courier and the Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany.

The story was later immortalized in a Victorian compendium, Acts of Gallantry

Under headings such as 'Remarkable Preservation of Life During the Late Gale,' most versions record that: 

'On the 6th the pinnace was forced to anchor, and in the evening the gale came on with terrible violence. Mr Carruthers was dreadfully sick with the motion of the vessel.

'And Mrs Carruthers was lying on her couch suffering under an attack of fever, when the pinnace was blown over and drifted into the stream’ [which means the current].

‘Mr Carruthers caught his wife, and they fell into the water together. When he came up, he succeeded in grasping a part of the vessel, but was knocked off by a man falling upon him.

‘On coming up a second time he saw his wife struggling with her women, who were trying to save their lives at the expense of hers. Seizing her by the hair, and grasping one of the iron stanchions, he got into the wreck, Mrs Carruthers being nearly lifeless ...

'watching for a favourable opportunity, when near the shore, he directed Mrs. Carruthers to take off her flannel gown and cling to his waist ... they committed themselves to the stream, which carried them down many yards ...

'by dint of labour, in about half an hour, he had the delight of landing his wife upon the bank, though at night, without shelter, she nearly naked, the wind piercing cold, and the rain descending in torrents ; at length they procured some dry clothes and a fire from the natives.

'The ayah, or female attendant of Mrs Carruthers, still remained on the wreck, and Mr Carruthers plunged into the rapid and dangerous river a second time, and brought the poor old woman to shore. Six of the crew, and one of the women, were drowned.’

Pinnace budgerow (left)  on the Hooghly River, looking at the EIC
factory at Cossimbazar, c1800.

The tragic story is so unclear that we have to guess a lot. 

1.What vessel was carrying the Carruthers party? 

They were said to be in a pinnace. This is rather puzzling as a pinnace is just a  ship’s boat that acts as a small tender taking people to port. It seems unlikely that they would have been using a small boat for the entire voyage from Calcutta, round the upper Bay of Bengal. So maybe the reporter's use of the word 'pinnace' is anachronistic and refers to something like the independent vessel pictured.

2. Where exactly was the shipwreck?  

The article refers to a river, indicating the likelihood that the tragedy happened somewhere on the vast and tidal Meghna River. Three miles across, the estuary is a significant waterway and the start of an ancient route to significant Bengal towns.

The nearby shore is mentioned. Possibly - as they were in a small boat - the Carruthers were very near the port where they intended  to disembark for Tipperah. Chandpur, at the junction with the Padma River, is the most likely transport hub.   

Who was the ayah with?

Josephine's memsahib was born Josephine Parker and was 22. Little is known of her. But records shows a HM Parker was secretary of the Board of Customs, Salt and Opium. I'd place a small bet on his being Josephine's father.

By contrast EIC records reveal much about Matthew. He was 22 and on the rise. Having an ayah was normal after such a man married. 

Matthew was the Eton-educated second son of David and Mary Carruthers, of Bloomsbury Square, London. 

David seems to have been a wealthy merchant, involved in EIC internal politics and supported of free trade with China - a stance that was linked to opium trading politics. The extended Carruthers family of Dumfriesshire had long been involved in EIC India. 

In 1828-29 Matthew been trained as a writer (meaning administrator) at the East India Company College in Hailey, Hertfordshire. Later referred to as Haileybury, the college groomed bright 16 -18 year olds for elite careers In India.  (see picture below, right, of the college today).

Chris Hunt, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https:creativecommons.
org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The subjects on his curriculum included Urdu (Hindustani) Bengali, and Marathi, as well as natural philosophy and the classics. 

All his education meant he understood not only the correct British Christian chivalry required when shipwrecked. He might well have been able to speak the ayah's language too. 

After leaving Hailey Matthew arrived in India in 1830. He'd have been familiar with Calcutta's Writers Building, (left of the Court House, the old  EIC headquarters, in this picture). 
EIC architecture showed such men their own significance in the social order, including in relation to humble ayahs.  

After gaining his feet in Dacca (Dhaka) Matthew had worked in Maimansinh (Mymensingh). It seems likely that the ayah, and maybe Josephine too, were going to this rural outpost for the first time, to set up the marital home.

Arriving on dry land

  • Did the Carruthers forgive Josephine's 'women, who were trying to save their lives at the expense of hers' in primal terror? 
  • Did the ayah express gratitude to her rescuer, but feel resentment at the way her employer had seemed to initially abandon his powerless protectee?
  •  Did she curse the need for a job, which led to her potential drowning? 

Who knows. But she probably gained a materially comfortable life. Matthew's EIC career records show that he stayed in the area for six years after the shipwreck, including becoming acting civil judge in Tipperah

Back home in England David, Matthew's father, was making pro-Free Trade speeches,  arguing against EIC power. He was part of the pressure group that curbed the EIC with the 1833 Charter Act, and helped open up trade with China.  He briefly became MP for Kingston Upon Hull, in 1835, a little before William Wilberforce.  

in her local community the ayah would have accrued vicarious status from this elite family. She had time to recover from the traumatic voyage, and to network with ayahs in other British-India households. 

But perhaps EIC supporters there would have been hostile to her household because of David Carruther's part in the major 1833 row about the extending the EIC charter. Ironically it was written up in the same journal that praised his son's bravery: The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany. 


Next trips?

Matthew died in 1838, aged 27. This meant Josephine, the ayah, and any children, would have to leave. 

The odds are that Josephine married again within  a year, and took her ayah with her. 

Did they have the courage to travel again by sea? We can only guess: yes. These were indeed becoming mobile times for ayahs in the EIC's India. 

Sunday 11 July 2021

Pioneering Indian ayahs afloat ( South Asian Heritage Month 2021)

Ayahs (nannies) were the biggest group of South Asian women business travellers in the 19C and early 20C during the Raj.

They sailed to and from Bombay, Calcutta, Rangoon and Colombo, looking after colonial children being taken ‘Home’ by Anglo-Indian parents on furloughs or to British boarding schools.

2021 is the hundredth anniversary of the peak year for ayahs arriving in Britain.

Among the 50 ayahs arriving in 1921 was a woman only known as ‘Ayah Hollick.’(It was normal to refer to servants only by the name of their employers).

Ayah Holllick was sailing from Colombo (Sri Lanka) to London on the Bibby Line’s  SS Lancashire. During the three-week voyage she was looking after Mrs Louisa and Mr FC Hollick, their boy of nine and a baby girl, Anthea.

Ayahs gained status from their employers. So this ayah is likely to have enjoyed the Mr Hollick's referred prestige. He was a tea merchant working for the illustrious Dodwell & Co, direct rivals to those mighty merchants of the Far East, Jardine, Matheson & Co.

On arriving, the whole family went to Matlock Manor Hotel, a boarding house in south London’s Herne Hill. Possibly the ayah shared a room with the children.

We don’t know what the ayah made of England, nor how long the Hollicks stayed. Indeed, if the family’s sojourn was a long one, the ayah may have gone back earlier. 

It's possible that she stayed at the Ayah's Home in Hackney at some point: rates were cheap, the companionship heartening, and prospects for finding a job through networks were good.

Did she work for the Hollicks in Colombo when they returned, and while the children were growing up? Certainly some families had a fast turnover in ayahs. Other ayahs remained devotedly for generations. Some settled as British Asians.   

 After the 1921 trip?

Ayahs were usually proud of ‘their’ children and followed their career from afar, after moving on to work for other ex-pat employers However Ayah Hollick may well have felt ashamed of, or defensive about, what ‘her’ little girl grew up to do.

Age 18, Anthea Hollick not only angered the Buddhist world in Ceylon. She repeatedly made world-wide headlines in 1938-39 as the ‘Buddha Girl’ because of a faux-pas. 

Whether the ayah was in England devouring the Daily Herald, or in the East reading the Ceylon Daily News she'd have been shocked at Anthea's behaviour, especially if the ayah herself was a Buddhist.

On holiday with her fiancé George Lamont Watt in at Anuradhapura at Easter 1938 the "blue-eyed blonde" had seized a photo opportunity. She'd posed in the lap of the seven-foot-high Buddha (pictured). It looked as if she was in the deity’s arms.

When George’s film was put in for processing someone at the film lab spotted the calumny and reported it. Protest meetings ensued. Buddhist organisations then demanded an official apology. 

It was given, and published. Even the Attorney General was involved. 

The couple were fined 1s 6d (7.5p), which would have been worth about £5 in today’s money. The derisory amount suggests the level of local cultural respect. 

Buddhist journals that summer referred to the "barbarous act of sacrilege." Maha Bodhi & the United Buddhist World demanded "how long are these acts of desecration and apologies to continue? 

"In Anuradhapura notices calling visitors’ attention to the penalty for tampering with or defiling sacred relics are prominently displayed in addition to the existence of sit watchers to look after the sacred places and objects.

“Can it then be imagined that these persons acted in good faith? Or, did they ignore all official notice boards and the prevailing customs of the majority of the people of this Island?”

She was so infamous that when she arrived in Britain on the Orient Line’s Ormonde in July 1938, to buy her trousseau, the headlines were ‘Buddha girl arrives.’ 

Reporters came on board at Southampton, while the ship was en route to Tilbury. Anthea was not contrite despite the shaming publicity. See her photo at

The Straits Times picked up Anthea's syndicated comments: "We have lost none of our friends in Combo as a result of the incident – and we have not come home [to England] because of any ill feeling in Colombo."

What’s more, she found a cobra in her cabin trunk on the voyage. 

Had some affronted Buddhist really wanted her to die from a snake bite? Or was it just a story? Maybe so, as there were no subsequent reports about dangerous reptiles, as you’d expect.

She brought her trousseau, and sailed home. But people were still talking about Anthea’s photo in August 1938. 

“The whole matter is closed now,” she said. “We made a mistake. There was not the slightest intention of insulting anyone’s religion, and we have paid for it. We have been through the mill and in Ceylon now everyone is satisfied. That being the case, I am totally disinterested in the whole affair and I don’t care a hoot what people in England think about it.”

The following January, 1939, she and George married in Colombo. Did her old ayah go to the wedding? 

And if so, what were the thoughts about respect that she could not afford to express?  We know only that ayahs had precarious careers. They needed to avoid blacklisting in the ex-pat community.

Ayahs' later voyages

There’s no evidence as to whether Ayah Hollick ever came back to the UK. She certainly didn’t return as ‘Ayah Hollick’. None of the family’s post-1921 voyages included an ayah.

But some ayahs kept making repeat voyage working for different families. Records show 984 ayahs arrived in England between 1890 and 1960.

There were never as many as the 50 in 1921. The nearest to that peak was 26 in 1925. No voyages by ayahs were listed after the mid-1950s

However, Indian ayahs still work for European, and Indian, families. Now, when required to travel, they fly.

If Anthea Hollick had children she may well have employed an ayah too. My sleuthing skills haven’t extended this far. If she brought them home to see her mother in Epsom they are likely to have travelled by plane.

When we celebrate South Asian Heritage Month we also acknowledge this remarkable group of possibly a thousand pioneering women. They had unusual privileges, but at a cost: precariousness and obedience.

Ayahs crossed the sea partly out of a desire for adventure and partly because the voyage went with the job. They left behind their own children, in order to tend the Antheas of that colonial world.