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.

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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.

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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.

Gloucester History Festival 2019: the CC4HH Exhibits

The programme for this year’s Gloucester History Festival is finally here, and we’re very excited that the student projects conducted for CC4HH will be displayed in two separate exhibits throughout the festival. These are part of the Festival’s ‘City Voices’ programme which explores aspects of local history and heritage. The theme for this year is ‘Power and the People’.

Firstly, the projects exploring Gloucester’s Windrush Generation and Gloucestershire’s LGBTQ+ community will be exhibited at the Eastgate Shopping Centre (see pic above) in Gloucester from the 7th to the 21st of September. The projects exploring Cheltenham’s history, which include life in the workhouses, a history of Pittville, and the Heritage Lottery funded project led by Dr David Howell ‘Cheltenham: Diasporas’ will be exhibited at the Chapel Arts gallery on Knapp road in Cheltenham from 4th to the 14th September. After this date, these exhibits will be relocated to the Quad Walk Gallery in the Francis Close Hall campus library at the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham. Ultimately, all the exhibits will be made available on the website. Here’s a sneak preview of a couple of the panels from the Windrush and Workhouses projects.

We’re very much looking forward to this year’s exhibits, which will be the third year in the life of the Centre, and the second year of collaboration with the Festival.

Cheltenham: Diaspora project is underway

In June, 2018, the History team at the University of Gloucestershire proudly announced the award of a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, to support the ‘Cheltenham: Diaspora’ project. Since that time, we have been busily preparing the project, putting together our research team, and getting started with our local history research.

The ‘Cheltenham: Diaspora’ project aims to explore migration themes in Cheltenham. Much of our work is focused on the Lower High Street area, though this is not the sole focus of our attention. We are interested in recording narratives of how communities came to settle in Cheltenham, though we are specifically looking at how cultural traditions and practices change and move with people as they enter and establish new communities.

Much of what we have been doing over the past few months has involved reaching out to community leaders across Cheltenham, creating links and partnerships, through which we hope to meet people who are happy to share their personal stories and experiences. While we anticipate that most of our oral history recordings will take place in 2019, we have started conducting some interviews. The project has already begun to explore the challenging stories of forced Polish migration from central Europe in the 1940s, and the cultural legacy of Chinese migration, where both cuisine and martial arts have an important role to play in the contemporary cultural landscape of Cheltenham.

In the last week, we were pleased to welcome four student interns to the project, who will be helping develop the research side of things. The partnership is ideal, as it allows the project to help develop research skills for students of history, while allowing both undergraduate and postgraduate students to play an active role in a significant local history project. Their contributions will be meaningful and valued as we move forward.

Over the coming weeks, ‘Cheltenham: Diaspora’ will be continuing to reach out to cultural and religious organisations in Cheltenham, to help introduce the project to as many people as possible. Meanwhile, our student interns will be spending time in the local archives, looking to identify and explore some of the earlier migration narratives that helped shape the historical expansion of the town.

While we are in the process of reaching out to groups and individuals, we would also welcome people reaching out to us. If you have a migration story that you would like to share, please get in touch. Equally, if you know someone who has a story that might contribute to the project, please draw their attention to the project. You can reach us, and find out more about the project through any of the following methods:

Email, project co-ordinator: dhowell1@glos.ac.uk

Project hub: The Cotswold Centre for History and Heritage.

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