Down Memory Lane
Thousands of photographs (and occasionally home videos) of ayahs and amahs were produced during the twentieth century in locations across the world. Suffused with nostalgia and sentiment, these images also underscored their labour. But why were the names of ayahs and amahs so rarely recorded?
Caring for children was often mundane and challenging. Yet these photographs depict intimacy and immortalise moments of affection between children and their ayah or amah. Devoted amahs and ayahs are pictured with children at the beach, on holidays, or attending to their charges as they played. Parents are rarely pictured in these images. Perhaps they were behind the camera or off to one side busily choreographing these sentimental moments?
To view and find out more about the images below, click on the + signs.
Ayahs, Amahs & their Charges
Unknown Ayah with two toddlers wearing pith helmets. Possibly in Calcutta. c. 1930s
In this home video, likely filmed in Calcutta (Kolkata) and dating from around the 1930s, we see an ayah supervising two children as they play with toy trains and tricycles in the garden. The children, protected by solar topees (pith helmets), smile at the camera and toddle over to their mother, who is lounging nearby under an umbrella. She too smiles at the camera, perhaps being operated by the children’s father. The scene seems to capture a moment of harmonious domestic leisure. But if we consider the footage from the ayah’s perspective, it is record of work. The ayah labours under the hot sun, protecting herself with a headscarf, as she entertains two energetic toddlers.
Film, c. 1930s | Courtesy Huntley Film Archives.
Plum and Poona
Plum and Poona on the Beach at Portsea | By Darryl Lindsay
Rhonda Lillian Rutherford (known as Plum) was the daughter of Thomas and Audrey Rutherford. She was born in 1927 and (according to a 2015 biography by A. M. Palmer) was placed straight into the arms of her ayah, Poona. Once a year, the family travelled from Bihar in India back to Plum’s mother’s hometown of Melbourne. Poona accompanied them each time.
On one of those trips, artist Daryl Lindsay painted Poona and Plum on Portsea Beach on the Mornington Peninsula. Lindsay’s work seems to draw inspiration from another well-known ayah painting, Helen Allingham’s On Dover Beach (1877). Both paintings feature an ayah in a white sari with a red shawl watching over children at play, the beach scenes framed by coastal cliffs. Perhaps Lindsay saw the Allingham painting during his time in England during the 1920s?
Photograph of Plum and Poona
‘Plum and Poona’, Photograph, c. 1930 | Courtesy of the family of Plum Rutherford Haet.
‘Plum and Poona on the Beach at Portsea’, Painting, Daryl Lindsay, c. 1930 | Courtesy of the family of Plum Rutherford Haet.
Amahs Come to Sydney, 1940
Over one hundred Chinese amahs came to Australia during the Second World War. They accompanied British women and children evacuated from Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. A September 1940 article in Sydney newspaper The Sun documented the stories of some of the amahs. The accompanying photographs were taken by photojournalist Ted Hood and the originals are held by the State Library of New South Wales. Read about three of the women and view the photos by scrolling through the gallery below.