Why Sita Brahmachari wants you to discover the amazing history in your street

Published on: 01 September 2020 Author: Sita Brahmachari

Sita Brahmachari's brilliant new story When Secrets Set Sail is all about children discovering the hidden history of their home - and now she wants you to do the same!

Sita Brahmachari and the front cover of her book When Secrets Set Sail

This year has been different for all of us, and with many families already having spent a lot of time at home, it can be really hard to think of stimulating activities to do in your area.

Here's a local history project that's written into my forthcoming novel When Secrets Set Sail that you can do together in your own home, street or area where - like my characters Imtiaz, Usha and Cosmo - you might end up setting sail on an adventure around the globe.

Launching the #WSSSBluePlaqueProject

When Secrets Set Sail is set in Hackney in London, not far from where I now live, but the history of the characters can be traced around Britain and the globe.

Over one summer holiday in my fictional story, two sisters - Imtiaz and Usha - discover the hidden history of their own house through the ghosts that cannot rest until their stories are told.

The #WSSSBluePlaqueProject invites you to discover what hidden histories and secrets unspoken lie waiting for you to uncover in your area, wherever you live!

Why are blue plaques important?

A blue plaque commemorating Rabindranath Tagore

One of my favourite Blue Plaques – it also has a link to my local library, where the Tagorian Society meet. I have a whole new story to tell about how Tagore saved the library, told to me by an elderly neighbour.

Blue Plaques remember what people have done to contribute to the nation and world. They are given to people who have been dead for at least 20 years.

The Ayah's Home in Hackney, where my story is set, is on a list of buildings that could one day carry a plaque. When I pass a blue plaque it sometimes makes me want to find out more about the person or people who lived there. In a way, a blue plaque is a kind of signpost on a map to take you to discover about the history of where you live.

On the steps of the Ayahs' Home, Hackney

Farhanah Mamoojee and Sita Brahmachari on the steps of the first Ayah's Home

Farhanah Mamoojee and myself on the steps of the first Ayahs' Home in July 2020, with my childhood doll and writing journal. (Photo credit: Farzanah Mamoojee)

When Secrets Set Sail is about two 11 year-old newly adoptive sisters and their friend Cosmo discovering the hidden history of this house in Hackney that was once the Ayahs' Home - it was for nannies who made the long journey from India and other countries in South Asia by ship, accompanying British children to their schools and families during the British Raj.

They often found themselves stranded because their return journey home was not paid for. This must have been so hard for both the nannies and the children who loved them. The homeless Ayahs were taken in by missionaries who set up the home.

It disturbed me how these women who were so much part of the children's lives didn't even have a name in the children's stories I had read other than 'Ayah'. I wanted to help change that by writing this story. I had no idea that there was a campaign for a blue plaque for the home until I saw an event advertised at Hackney Libraries, where I met Rozina Visram - whose research helped me write the story - Farhanah Mamoojee.

Fact and Fiction

When I had finished writing my story I returned to the Ayahs' Home with Farhanah Mamoojee - an activist, presenter and researcher who has been campaigning for a blue plaque for the Ayahs' Home.

Farhanah told me that the first time she stood on those steps, the door opened and the residents were kind enough to let her into the hallway. But they knew nothing of the house's history, as my characters Imtiaz and Usha don't until they hear a voice whispering through the ear of a conch shell...

Promise to piece me together
Or my story's lost for ever


Sita Brahmachari and Farhanah Mamoojee: Who Were the Ayahs?

Suggestions for Setting Sail on your #WSSSBluePlaqueProject Quest...

  • Research if there are any blue plaques in your area. Who are these people? What were their contributions? Who do you think deserves a blue plaque or statue that might be missing? I hope that a temporary trial to extend the scheme across the country, resulting in 34 plaques, might once more become a national project, linking countryside and city.
  • Research the name of your road and local places. What and who are they named after?
  • Visit your nearest library as Imtiaz and Usha do, or go online to find out about your local history and area.
  • Talk to family and carers of different generations about their memories of the area. Choose a person and place that captures your imagination.
  • Make a writer's research journal. Collect old photos, stamps, and anything that inspires you and helps you to jigsaw the story of a person and their contribution to history together.
  • Write a letter arguing why you think this person should be commemorated.

The stories we tell about who is valued in our communities matter. I hope that When Secrets Set Sail will be a catalyst to more young people going on quests in their local area to discover its untold histories.

A blue plaque commemorating Laskhmi Rao

Designed by @ayahshome via https://www.blueplaque.com/

I can't wait to see your blue plaques and learn about your discoveries. Who knows... you could help make sure your local heroes and heroines are commemorated, and maybe be inspired to write your own story.

Writing this book was an amazing adventure for me as well as my characters! I hope it is for you too - happy questing...

More useful stuff


Topics: Historical, Features

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