More Stories from East Africa's past for you to enjoy

Mombasa’s Law Courts

Mombasa’s Law Courts   On 30 August 1984 the new Law Courts were opened in Mombasa, but where had justice been dispensed beforehand? A British court, presided over by an English barrister, had been established in a godown near the old harbour in Mombasa in 1890, when the Imperial British East Africa Company was in charge of the area. In about 1898 the court moved into the old police headquarters opposite the entrance to Fort Jesus (where the curio market now is). Then magnificent new premises were built in Fort Jesus (now Nkrumah) Road. On 31 December 1902 a fine building to house the law courts, as shown below, was opened by the Commissioner, Sir Charles Eliot, and the High Court based in Zanzibar moved to Mombasa. To begin with the judiciary followed the practices of Bombay’s High Court and was staffed almost entirely by personnel trained in India. In 1911 the High Court was transferred from this building to Nairobi, and British Indian legal practices ceased to be observed. Instead, the practices of English law were substituted. Non-High Court cases were still heard in Mombasa.   The building material used was coral rag bound with lime mortar and faced with plaster. A deep arcaded veranda surrounded the building on the ground floor, supporting an open-air balcony above. It was more usual in this style of building for the upper balconies to be enclosed. Everywhere internally they used dark, solid, well-carpentered wood for doors, staircases, shutters, balconies and floors. Teak was the wood generally used, for it was almost impervious to white ants.   The Law Courts has a...

Where Antelope Roam: by Jon Arensen

New From Old Africa books!  Where Antelope Roam: And Other Stories Out of Africa by Jon Arensen The short stories in this book are all connected to Jon Arensen’s experiences in East Africa. They are deeply personal and are narrated in the first person. As in any good anthology, there are diverse topics with different conclusions – clever, sad, funny, surprising, cultural, educational and spiritual. The author’s reputation as a storyteller is well known. Here are some of his favorite stories. buy now at...

Brian Havelock Potts

What caused young men to join the exodus from Britain to East Africa in 1910-1912? Let us take one example and look at his memoir. Brian Havelock Potts, born in Brixton on 30 March 1891 as a fourth child and only son, came from a middle-class family. His father William Potts was a journalist (a parliamentary reporter in 1891) at the Morning Standard and was made redundant when Brian was 15. Brian became an office boy in a London stockbroker’s. There a friend told him his brother was growing coffee in Nairobi. This prompted the young Brian to visit Rowland Ward’s (the taxidermist in Piccadilly), and next door stood the safari outfitters Newland Tarlton…

Violet Donkin and Fritz Schindler – Matron of Scott Sanatorium Grieves After Fiancee Dies Following Lion Attack

For the last two months I have been talking about the founding of the Scott Sanatorium, and the part Violet Donkin played in this. However, a year after the facility opened, she departed for England. Why? A scrutiny of the surviving manuscripts gives us a clue. We learn from The Leader of 24 January 1914 that Violet had recently left ‘upon medical advice.’ Then, in an obscure journal of Brian Havelock Potts held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, we find that Potts served in the army after the outbreak of the First World War, contracted amoebic dysentery, and was taken to the Scott Sanatorium…

On Call in Africa – book review

On Call in Africa in War and Peace, 1910-1932 by Norman Parsons Jewell     Norman Jewell’s memoir gives us the best eyewitness account of medical conditions among the troops fighting in East Africa that has been published so far. It is a riveting story of the horrors of warfare in the heat, mud, flies and dust of Kenya and Tanganyika. Jewell was a medical officer in the Colonial Medical Service and served in World War I as a captain in the 3rd East African Field Ambulance. Before he died he wrote his memoirs, which have been amalgamated in this book with his unique daily diary written in the field during the war. The book also contains a preface by World War I historian Edward Paice and a section written by the author’s granddaughter about the Jewell family. The book has been professionally edited and has wonderful explanatory footnotes. The book begins with a splendid account of life in the Seychelles in 1912, where Jewell was first posted for four years. He was then sent to Kisumu to take charge of the Native Hospital as well as a temporary hospital for European troops. He cannot have made himself popular when he ordered all the European patients out of the nearby local bar and back to bed, forbidding further excursions. Jewell tells interesting stories about the disbandment of Ross’s Scouts after an enquiry, the success of Drought’s ‘Skin Corps’ and the composition of the Legion of Frontiersmen. He always describes the tribes of the region and the ailments they suffered – for example, he dealt successfully with bubonic and pneumonic...

Violet Donkin and the Scott Sanatorium


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Violet Donkin and the Scott Sanatorium Last month we read about the establishment of the Scott Sanatorium outside Nairobi under the leadership of the nurse and midwife (Frances) Violet Donkin. Who was she? I mentioned her in my blog of 9 May 2012, but gave few details. She was born on 19 September 1875 in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, the second daughter of Edward Francis Donkin and Margaret Russell Wilford, who died in 1884. She was the great-great-granddaughter of General Sir Rufane Shaw Donkin (Port Elizabeth in South Africa was named after his wife, as was the Donkin Reserve there, forever a green space in the centre of the city). Violet was brought up by her grandmother Elizabeth Wilford, of 9 Church Hill, Milverton, Warwickshire. She trained as a nurse at the Royal South Hampshire Hospital and Southampton Hospital, and in 1903 qualified as a midwife with a certificate from the London Obstetrical Society. At the age of thirty-three Violet departed for British East Africa on 4 September 1908, arriving in Mombasa on 29 September. She was then recruited to head the Scott Memorial Sanatorium, an advertisement for which appeared in The Leader on 2 August 1913. The Sanatorium flourished, with Violet active in her fundraising efforts, as detailed in the local paper: The Leader – 10 October 1913 The dance given last Friday in aid of the Scott Sanatorium was a great success. The fine Railway Institute, so well equipped for dancing … Smart society was well represented, while our visitors from the provinces, at Nairobi during Race Week, largely patronised the affair. The Stewards … were indefatigable in their attention...

The Scott Sanatorium

The Scott Sanatorium In 1912 it was felt that there was a need for a sanatorium in Nairobi for white settlers, and the idea for the Scott Sanatorium took root. What was the origin of its name? It was named for the Rev. Henry Edwin Scott, LRCP and SE, a medical missionary. Dr. Scott, who died in 1911 in his forty-eighth year, was educated at the Royal High School and the University of Edinburgh. He was a distinguished football player and a good all‑round athlete. He had been a missionary of the Church of Scotland since 1890 and was first stationed at Nyasaland. In December 1907 he was transferred to Kikuyu, British East Africa, to act as the head of the Church of Scotland Mission there. He took a prominent place in the public life of the community. He was a member of the Government Board of Education, and the Government also called on him for advice in connection with native affairs. He also helped to found the YMCA in Nairobi. He was so honoured and respected by the local community that they named the Scott Memorial Sanatorium after him.   The generosity of Northrup McMillan, the Nairobi benefactor, enabled the project to go ahead. He gave a donation of £1,000 and stood guarantor for a loan of a further £2,500. Subscriptions were solicited and the nurse and midwife Violet Donkin was recruited in England to lead the sanatorium. We can trace the building’s progress from the local paper, The Leader. The Leader – 10 August 1912 The subscriptions to date for working expenses on behalf of the Scott...

An Eccentric East African Hotelier

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: Nuisances: 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...

Sneak Preview: Horse Racing in Kenya

Old Africa has been working for over two years on a project covering over 100 years of horse racing in Kenya. We’ve just completed the rough edit of the full book and are moving into the stage for final editing and photo selection. I think we can use about 300 of the over 900 photos collected so far. Here’s a sneak preview of one race in Nanyuki that didn’t go as well as it should have. Gentleman Rider Rowland Minns wrote the piece, which will be included in the book. Rowland Minns riding Beaujolais in an Open Hurdle race in Limuru in 1969. This was NOT the horse mentioned in the story that follows. A BAD RIDE IN NANYUKI Another incident at Nanyuki was on a horse owned by another farmer, which had been ‘warned off the course’  for being uncontrollable (the horse not the farmer). This meant the horse couldn’t ride in official races organized by the Jockey Club of Kenya, but no one seemed to care if the horses ran in the gymkhana events upcountry.  I asked the farmer what it was like and all he said was that ‘it could go a bit’ but tended to throw its head around. It appeared in the paddock led by no less than two syces, who appeared to have great difficulty in controlling it. When the word came to mount, I took a flying vault into the saddle as it was far from stationary at the time and then told both syces to let go of it thinking this might help. The race was right round the course and the...

First European Schools in Kenya

The First European Schools in Kenya On reaching Nairobi in 1900 the Uganda Railway set up its own school there for the children of its white workers, in a corrugated iron shed near Nairobi station. The first school for European children in Nairobi was set up by the Uganda Railway in 1900 in a corrugated iron shed, similar to the ones in this photo,near Nairobi Railway Station. Soon this school decided to accept settler children as well. The teachers, A J Turner, a thin, dour man, and his wife A M Turner, had a total of 38 pupils by 1904. The school roll shows that many of these came from schools in India because their fathers had previously worked on railways there, a few from schools in South Africa and one from the Loreto Convent in Nairobi, a small school begun by Roman catholic nuns and sometimes called St Joseph’s Convent. By the second term of 1904 ten pupils had left Mr Turner’s school out of the roll of 70, but by August 1906 his roll had risen to 99. In January 1903 Tommy Wood’s store announced that a Miss Ellis had opened a day school in one of its upper rooms, but this establishment cannot have lasted long because nothing more is heard of it. In 1906 another school was added, at Kijabe on the edge of the Rift Valley – the Rift Valley Academy, run by the Africa Inland Mission primarily for the children of missionaries, although many settler children attended in its early days. With the completion of the railway, Mr Turner’s school became the general...

The Kakamega Goldfields

The Kakamega Goldfields The recent interest in gold in the Kakamega district reminds us of the first gold rush in the region – in the early 1930s. In 1930 Kakamega township was an open space with a few Indian dukas, but in the middle of the decade it became a prosperous and crowded township. What had caused this transformation? The worldwide slump had occasioned the bankruptcy of many settler farmers and when in October 1931 an American, Louis A. Johnson, a farmer at Turbo and formerly a storekeeper in the Klondyke, turned up in Eldoret with gold he had found at Kakamega, impoverished settlers flocked there to earn a living. Johnson had been alerted to the possibility of gold being in the area by A. D. Combe, of the Uganda Geological Survey, who wrote a report in 1930 on a geological reconnaissance of parts of North Nyanza Province and recommended that prospecting be carried out there. The new arrivals panned for gold on the Yala and other nearby rivers and sank shafts at Kimingini reef. By 1932 there were 200 of them and they had established a settlement. After passing the government boma (the District Commissioner’s office) you crossed a river, and went past ‘Seven Dials’ on a good road up to ‘Piccadilly Circus’ where there were many camps formed of reed matting. The huts were thatched and surrounded by little gardens. From ‘Piccadilly Circus’ you continued to Golders Green, with its lovely view, then to ‘Palmer’s Green’ and finally ‘Hampstead Heath’, where there was an aerodrome, built by an American speculator, de Ganahl. The first miners who found...

Home Guards Killed While Returning Escaped Prisoners

Solomon Njihia was the head chef for the Rift Valley Academy kitchen when I was a student there in the 1970s. I just heard he has passed away. Another link to Kenya’s past has gone. About eight years ago I interviewed Solomon and he told me a story of how he and a group of home guards captured some escaped prisoners after the Naivasha Prison attack during the early years of the Emergency. The story appeared in issue 11 of Old Africa and we thought it would be good to share it again.  Home Guards Killed While Returning Escaped Prisoners Told by Solomon Njihia Kairu   1953 We noticed a group of people walking up the road in a line at about 11 p.m. near the Kiambogo School above the AIM Kijabe mission station. We went out and stopped them by shouting, “Halt!” We asked who they were. They replied, “We are the ones who were released from the Naivasha prison by the Mau Mau.” They explained they just wanted to find their way home. Many of our people worked at the mission or had gone to school there. A number of us had been recruited to serve as home guards. Some of our home guards started slapping the escaped prisoners with their hands. Others said to stop because we didn’t know if these people were bad or not. They had been in prison, but that didn’t mean they were Mau Mau. We decided to tie them up and return them to the police. We found ropes and tied the escaped prisoners two by two. We borrowed a Mercedes lorry...

Firebrand Editor of the Kenya Press: Harold George Robertson (‘Rab the Rhymer’)

Firebrand Editor of the Kenya Press: Harold George Robertson (‘Rab the Rhymer’)   From the age of ten in the 1950s I was an avid daily reader of the Mombasa Times and loved its crossword. So I was very interested to come across some details of one of its former Editors, Harold George Robertson, or ‘Rab the Rhymer’. He was a Scotsman, born on 3 January 1884, probably in West Kilbride, Ayrshire, the son of William and Martha Robertson. He went to Kenya on 9 August 1912, describing himself on the ship’s manifest as an artist. With him went his wife Mrs M. Robertson, eight years older than himself, and three sons – aged six, four and an infant. His elder brother James G. Robertson followed him three months later and as a contractor was responsible (with Gow and Davidson) for the building of the New Stanley Hotel in 1913. Harold Robertson thrust himself immediately into journalism in Nairobi, joining the staff of the East African Standard and the Leader. This did not satisfy him and he began the East African Tatler and Free Lance, published by the Leader. The Tatler, a satirical magazine without advertisements and containing articles, short stories, poems and cartoons, all of them composed mainly by Robertson, did not continue after the outbreak of World War 1 in August 1914. Harold joined the armed forces, serving in the East Africa Pioneer Company, East Africa Supply Corps and East African Ordnance Department, earning the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. Yet his journalistic instincts remained with him during the war and he contributed poems to...

Wavell 100 Year Memorial Tour

Join Guerrillas of Tsavo author, James G Willson on Saturday 9th & Sunday 10th January 2016 when he will lead a tour Commemorating the centenary of the January 1916 Mkongani Battle, Kwale, where Major Arthur Wavell MC and 15 of his loyal Arab Rifles lost their lives. In thanks giving for protecting Mombasa from this invasion by the German Schutztruppe, the grateful town’s people erected, in memory to the Arab Rifles, the obelisk standing beside Fort Jesus. This tour will walk the battle site; visit Wavell’s stockade; pay respects at the memorials to the fallen. There will also be an evening multimedia presentation on the life and times of Wavell. All this will take place while enjoying the beauty and wildlife of the Shimba Hills National Reserve. Over-night at Shimba Hills Lodge and/or KWS Sable Self Catering Bandas. For further information and bookings contact james@guerrillasoftsavo.com Signed copies of Guerrillas of Tsavo will be available....

Escape from Singapore

Escape from Singapore Our December-January edition of Old Africa magazine has a story by Barbara Dods. She tells about growing up in Nairobi while her father, Arthur James Scott Hutton was the architect overseeing the building of Kenya’s Government House (which later became State House) and the Law Courts in the late 1920s and into the 1930s. After finishing those jobs, Arthur Hutton took a job in Singapore. He was there when the Japanese attacked in World War 2 and his family was in Australia. He had a narrow escape when the Japanese overwhelmed Singapore. For weeks Barbara Dods and her mother and sisters didn’t know what had happened to their father. Barbara has a copy of the letter her Father wrote to her Mother describing his escape from Singapore. We had planned to use it as a sidebar article to accompany Barbara’s memories of growing up in Nairobi. But we ran out of space. So here’s the letter. And if it piques your interest, be sure to get a copy of Old Africa issue 62 where you can read Barbara’s story about her Nairobi childhood.   Written by Arthur James Scott Hutton at the Taj Mahal Hotel, Bombay, 11th March 1942. Margaret My Darling, I have not dared to tell you of my whereabouts before this but I am hoping that mail from Bombay will reach you in Perth. You will have received my Bombay cable informing you that I was free, safe and well and you may have had official notification from Ceylon of my safety before my cable. I felt your anxiety on my behalf from...

More About Vladimir Verbi

I’d like to return to the subject of Vladimir Verbi (see my blogs of February and December 2013), the missionary who shot his mother-in-law in the Taita Hills in 1941. To recap, Verbi was having trouble with his second wife, Lascelles, and forbade her going to a party in Voi. When she disobeyed, he angrily took his gun into the garden, because he was trying to deter crows from eating his strawberries…

Lady Sidney Farrar

My last blogs have been concerned with the role of European women in Kenya, particularly in World War 2. It has become clear that a leading role was played by Lady Sidney Farrar. Who was she? She was the daughter of the 7th Earl of Buckinghamshire, who boasted the names Sidney Carr Hobart-Hampden-Mercer-Henderson…

New from Old Africa books…The Sultan’s Spymaster

The Sultan’s Spymaster tells the story of Peera Dewjee, an Ismaili merchant who crossed from India to Zanzibar as a boy. Later he became Sultan Barghash’s barber and valet, where he became a confidant to the Sultan and a trusted advisor. Peera Dewjee acted behind the scenes during momentous events in the history of Zanzibar and East Africa – the closing of the slave markets and imperial expansion by Germany and Great Britain.