An Eccentric East African Hotelier
If you crossed the Kenya border into Uganda in the 1940s you came across a rather dilapidated building with a faded tin roof, half a mile from the border, at Tororo. On a board it announced itself as a bar: ‘Prop.: H.H. Aitken. Licensed to sell liquor to whom, how, and at what hour he pleases.’ You entered a dark room, with a bar displaying bottles of liquor behind it. Bottles of beer were in an icebox in the corner, and there was a price list. Customers were invited to leave money in a bowl on top of the bar. There was also an invitation to answer calls of nature behind the house.
If you desired to stay, you were presented with this price list:
Tororo Hotel, Tororo, Uganda, Prop.: H.H. Aitken, P.O. Box 9, phone 8.
Per day single room shgs 17.50
double room 32.00
Dinner, bed, bath, morning tea and breakfast. Visitors who do not bath, 2 shgs extra.
(There were also prices for meals and board terms for four to six days and for a week.)
After this was proclaimed:
Children: In proportion to food and accommodation, Noise and Nuisance to Visitors and/or the Proprietor.
Livestock: Dogs and other fleasome beasts and Birds are not allowed in the hotel.
Servants: Cannot as a rule be catered for.
Corkage is charged on Visitors’ own Wines, Spirits and Beer
Golf free to hotel visitors
This strange establishment was the brainchild of Herbert Henry Aitken, a man who was a legend on both sides of the border. Who was he? He was born in July 1886 and baptised on 1 August that year in Accrington, Lancashire. His father was a solicitor who lived at 149 Burnley Road, Accrington – Arthur Henry Aitken – and his mother was Maud. There were three boys in the family, Henry Herbert being the middle one. Henry Herbert was sent as a boarder to Giggleswick School in Yorkshire.
When he was 26 he decided to seek his fortune in Kenya, departing from London for Mombasa on the Gaika on 12 July 1912. But the First World War intervened and we find Aitken joining the Honourable Artillery Company in 1915 from his residence at Mytton House, Clitheroe, Lancs., where his parents now lived. He was a sergeant in that company from 29 March 1916 till 7 June 1918, and then seems to have joined the King’s African Rifles.
After the war he returned to East Africa from England, on 7 September 1923, on the BI ship Mandala, on a first-class ticket to Mombasa, saying he was bound for Uganda. Strangely, he is listed as female in the ship’s manifest. He had the idea to set up his bar/hotel at Tororo, and this was established soon afterwards. In the 1920s it was described as ‘a beautifully neat and tidy little inn.’ In the doorway stood its proprietor, H.H. Aitken, ‘a large and formidable man with a powerful jaw,’ swigging a glass of liquor.
He would only allow people to stay if he approved of them – he had turned two women away who called him ‘steward.’ His was the first hotel in East Africa to have spring interior mattresses and cellular blankets. There was soft rubber matting in the passages, and the rooms were spotless, though there were no cupboards or wardrobes because Aitken said he did not like people staying more than one night. In the lounge was a table of magazines with the notice ‘Replace tidily. I waste a lot of time putting them in order.’ The dining room had polished cutlery and offered excellent food. When Aitken was worried about losing money, he drank bottle after bottle of champagne, charging them up against himself to boost the bar profits. He also signed his letters to officials with ‘You have the honour to be, Sir, my humble, obedient servant.’
Aitken told people in the 1920s that he would not have a woman about the place because they were a nuisance, but by the 1940s, when the hotel was in decline, we find that visitors were greeted by a large African woman with good English who said she was Aitken’s wife of many years and her husband was not as active as he had been in the past. By 1950 we find Aitken in Mombasa. He died in the European Hospital there on 23 July 1951 and was buried on the same day in Mbaraki cemetery. The cause of death was given as heart failure and cirrhosis of the liver, so it looks as if the champagne ultimately caught up with this intrepid character.