From India to Cheltenham

This post comes for second year undergraduate student Lydia Munn, who has been working as a research assistant on the Cheltenham: Diaspora project.

When I first joined the Cheltenham: Diaspora project I was unsure where my research would lead me. After exploring some of the project’s initial findings, I decided that I wanted to focus on women’s stories as I feel their voices are often overlooked. I noticed one narrative the project had already started looking at was the Ayah’s, who were Indian women brought over to England during the 19th century by British colonial officers in order to look after their children on the long ship journey’s. The officers were supposed to pay for these women’s journey home, but many ended up abandoned and were sent to the Ayahs’ home in London.

Ayahs Home
The Ayahs’ Home in Hackney, 1904. Photo courtesy of the British Library.

Most of these women’s stories have not been written down and are lost to history, but one Cheltenham related name that kept appearing was ‘Ruth’. She was an Ayah in the service of Colonel Rowlandson, and she became the first person from India to be baptised in Cheltenham along with one of the Colonel’s children. What is even more interesting is she was baptised by a different priest to the child, one who could speak her native language: Tamil. Very few records surrounding these women have been saved. With some determination though, I found the record of her baptism on Ancestry. This record revealed her last name, or at least the name she had been given while in England, as Adnitt, a piece of information I had not been able to previously find. I wondered if she had kept the name, so I searched for it on shipping records but found nothing. It was so frustrating as there was so much information about the English family she lived with, but so little about her.

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Ruth’s Baptism certificate obtained from Ancestry.

I have not given up on Ruth and hope to one day find out more about her but I wanted to be of more use to the project. A few weeks before I had helped the Diaspora team set up a pop-up exhibition at the Cheltenham Community Rescource Centre. During this Bernice Thomson, who runs the centre, had mentioned that she ran a group on Monday’s called Sahara Saheli, for women had had emigrated to Cheltenham from other parts of the world. I contacted her and asked if any of the women would like to be interviewed for the project, she suggested I come along to one of the Monday sessions, in order to introduce myself and explain the project. I thought I could be of use to the Diaspora project as many of these women come from traditional cultural backgrounds and would feel more comfortable being interviewed by another woman.

Munn 2
The Cheltenham: Diaspora exhibition being installed at the Community Resource Centre on Grove Street.

The Sahara Saheli group was really welcoming and some of them seemed genuinely interested in the project. I conducted my first interview in March and heard the powerful story of a woman who came to Cheltenham from India in 1967. Over the next fifty years she watched a town change dramatically whilst dealing with immense loss and the need to support her family back in India. Sadly, due to the current Coronavirus pandemic it is unlikely I will be able to conduct anymore interviews this year, but I am so grateful that I have been able to have even the tiniest glimpse into some of these women’s amazing stories.

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