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Turning the Page

Individual recollections of the British Raj in India combine in the one abiding childhood memory of the much loved, sari-clad ayah. It is a memory profoundly shaped by popular British children’s books of the time, featuring the ayah.

Children's Stories

In 1822 Mary Martha Sherwood, the wife of an Indian army captain, wrote about a little English girl who was taken from her Indian nurse to be sent 'home' to London. It would be followed by a proliferation of stories of little girls and their ayahs. Children in the English-speaking world became familiar with the character through their pages, even if they had never been in India themselves. The stories that were told, by women writers who were often well-travelled characters in their own right, were of picturesque carers who were tender, loyal, and very brave, willing to risk their own lives to protect their charges.

Click on the images below for more information on three of these stories.

Source | A.L.O.E, Edith and her Ayah and other stories (London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1872), Frontispiece.

Source | Clara de Chatelain, 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), p. 25. 

Source | Beatrice Braithwaite Batty, Effie and her Ayah; or, the faithful monkey and her little white mistress (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1873), p. 14.  

The English baby In India and how to rear it

Despite the positive sentiments expressed in the children’s stories, the reliance of the British in India upon native child carers was the source of considerable anxiety about gender, race and class. Fears of disease and moral contamination were frequently expressed in the housekeeping manuals and advice guides for British mothers in India. The English Baby in India and How to Rear It (1893) was written by Mrs Georgiana Kingscote, a rather scandalous ‘adventuress’ who also wrote novels. Her manual was more sober, warning that inexperienced Anglo-Indian mothers were ‘the prey of the most ignorant of all servants, the Indian ayah.’


To find out more, search for ‘ayah’ in Kingscote’s advice guide below.

Source | Adeline Georgina Isabella Kingscote, The English Baby in India and how to rear it (London: J & A Churchill, 1893) | Digitisation by Wellcome Library. 

The ayah is a most important personage in the anglo-indian nursery, one on whom the whole future health and happiness of the English child depends...

Ayahs & Anxiety

As well as being expressed in advice manuals, colonial anxieties about ayahs were also present in fictional accounts. Vague fears about the potential dominance of Indian women, who might even steal the imperial offspring from under the mother’s very nose, suggest the insecurities that underpinned British colonial rule.

Frontispiece of The Ayah and Lady by Mary Martha Sherwood

The Ayah and Lady

Mrs Sherwood, the evangelical writer, wrote this series of interlinked cautionary stories about a quarrelsome and immoral 'Mussulmaun' (Muslim) ayah and her Christian mistress in India, in 1822. Disorderliness and devilish disobedience are the predominant themes, but on her deathbed the Lady secures a promise from the Ayah, that she will go with her little girl to Europe and take care of her at sea. 


Source | Mary Martha Sherwood, The Ayah and Lady. An Indian Story (Boston: S.T. Armstrong and Crocker & Brewster, 1822), Frontispiece.

Illustration titled Rape of Infant from Volume 2 of Confessions of an Oxonian

Confessions of an Oxonian

In this first of a paired series of illustrations for volumes II and III of the 1826 novel Confessions of an Oxonian, readers see an Indian woman, who appears to be an ayah, stealing a white child from the verandah of an Anglo-Indian home. This prurient novel about a young rake’s adventures, published anonymously, circulated in both Britain and the United States, although possibly not in India.

Source | T Little (ed.), Confessions of an Oxonian, vol. II (London: J. J. Stockdale, 1826) | Image courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum.

Illustration titled Intended Sacrifice from Volume 3 of Confessions of an Oxonian

The second illustration shows a Hindu 'witch' called Hoonah preparing to sacrifice the child. The text of the novel tells us that Hoonah instead abandoned the baby in a sailor’s alley. The novel’s upper-class English protagonist has learned that he was that baby. Although the woman depicted was not a nursemaid, the illustration inverted the stereotype of the loyal ayah who secured the British child’s safe return home.

Source | T Little (ed.), Confessions of an Oxonian, vol. III (London: J. J. Stockdale, 1826), p. 120 | Image courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum.

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