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

Stories of Workers on a White Farm

Stories of Workers on a White Farm   Elspeth Huxley recorded some stories of the workers on the farm of her mother, Nellie Grant, which give a fascinating insight into the history of Kenya. The Grants’ first farm was near Thika and then they moved to a farm at Njoro.   Njombo Came from Gethumbwini, Thika. At the time of the first famine his mother went to Ukambani to get food, but never came back. His father died (when Njombo was 12 or 13), then his brother, then his twin brother and his sister. They had no food and no one to look after them and there were two small children, so Njombo took them to an uncle who sheltered them. He then went to Nairobi to work at road making and dug building stone from a quarry. Thereafter he went to Thika to work as a driver, having been taught by a Dutchman. His job was to drive the wagon from Thika to Nairobi. He saw his first Europeans in 1912. He was sent to Blue Posts Hotel to fetch Elspeth, Mrs Grant’s daughter. His clan rejected him because he thought his father had been killed, so he ran away to Kiambu and went for one term to the Africa Inland Mission school at Kabete, and then to the Roman Catholic school. He returned to his village to avenge the poisoning (he thought) of his brothers and his daughter. He heard Mrs Grant was going to Njoro and was looking for people to follow her. He walked to Njoro and Mrs Grant promised them all gardens, saying they...

How Farm Workers Came to Settler Farms

How Farm Workers Came to Settler Farms We can get an idea of the motivation of African farm workers if we look at some specific cases. Nellie Grant (Elspeth Huxley’s mother) went to Kenya in 1912 and farmed coffee at Thika. After the First World War she heard she had been granted land at Njoro in the soldier-settler scheme and decided to try her luck there. But she would need labour. How did she go about getting it? It seems she took some workers she already had, got others by word of mouth, and some arrived by chance. Here are a few examples of how people ended up on her farm, as told to her daughter Elspeth Huxley: Kibunyu Kibunyu came to the Grants after working for Algy Cartwright, who farmed at Njoro. Cartwright sent messengers round to villagers saying he wanted to employ squatters at Njoro. He signed them on at Kabete. About 100 people from Kiambu and some from Fort Hall came to Njoro by train and Cartwright showed them where they could have gardens. When they arrived there were no Kikuyu, only Dorobo, and it was all thick forest. There were buffalo near the river and many bushbuck and forest pig. The Dorobo killed three of the Kikuyu. The Kikuyu drove the Dorobo away into the forest, cutting down the smaller trees and burning the big ones by setting fires in their trunks. During the war Kibunyu looked after the Cartwright farm. Wambogo Wambogo first worked for the DC John Ainsworth at Kilima Kiu. About 300 people were caught by Chief Kinanjui and sent there. A...

The Jewells and Mombasa Hospital

The Jewells and Mombasa Hospital Last month I talked about the Mombasa Hospital. From 1920 onwards Norman Jewell was in charge of the establishment, and his letters and diaries show us what medical hazards were faced by Mombasa’s inhabitants in the 1920s. Jewell had begun his tropical medical career in the Seychelles, but on the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 he was appointed to the East Africa Protectorate and became an army doctor. He travelled with the troops all over Tanganyika, often working under appalling circumstances. It must have been a relief for him to have been posted to Mombasa after the war. From left: Norman Jewell, Norman Jewell on the Mombasa Hospital veranda, John Jewell Jewell found there was a high standard of hygiene and health control in Mombasa, overseen by Dr Henry Speldewinde de Boer. To prevent plague, there were daily autopsies on rats, enabling Jewell to be forewarned should plague occur. Rat-catching was carried out assiduously. And food inspections and mosquito control were energetically pursued. Yet there were unforeseen hazards such as ten inches of rain in a few hours, which burst the pipes and flooded the streets, uprooted trees and washed boats from the harbour. Then there was an outbreak of smallpox in Mombasa in 1925. Jewell made vaccination compulsory for all, and the only European who died had washed off the vaccine. Over 230,000 people were vaccinated. There were many cases among the African population of the disfiguring yaws, an infection of skin, bones and joints caused by a spirochete bacterium. The sufferers were injected with neosalvarsan as a treatment. But...

Mombasa Hospital’s Early Days

Mombasa Hospital’s Early Days   When the Imperial British East Africa Company began to trade in East Africa in the early 1890s, there was a need for a hospital for Europeans, prone to fall sick so easily in a country with an unfamiliar climate, where malaria was still imperfectly understood. IBEAC appointed Dr WH Macdonald, registered as a medical doctor in Edinburgh in 1889, to be Mombasa’s doctor. Then the Company received a donation to build a church and hospital. The Roman Catholic Holy Ghost Fathers were given the running of it, under the supervision of the Chief Medical Officer, Dr WH Macdonald. In the same year the British Government took over the administration of the East Africa Protectorate, and with it the management of the hospital.   Macdonald now worked for the government and had as his assistants three sisters of the Order of St Joseph de Cluny, from France. They were Mother Auxanne Maugee, from Martinique, who was in charge, Sister Benilda Houston from Donegal in Ireland, and Sister James Hearty from Scotland. This mixed band manned the hospital until 1901, when they handed over to lay sisters arriving from England on 1 November. Mother Auxanne died in France in 1902. A plaque in her memory was placed in the Holy Ghost Cathedral in Mombasa and later moved to the hospital. The other two sisters went to the Seychelles.   Macdonald was not thought highly of as a doctor. The High Commissioner Eliot said, ‘I cannot conscientiously recommend any scheme which does not include the removal of Dr Macdonald from the post of PMO.’ A missionary doctor...

Where Antelope Roam – A book review

Where Antelope Roam Reviewed by Rachel Woodworth   A book review ought to start, more than likely, with the book. But my review can’t begin there. It begins with the man. The man who wrote the book, who gathered days and moments, adventures and seasons, who recalled and reminisced and turned memories to words, to pages, to chapters, to book: a collection of short stories bound in Where Antelope Roam. I cannot separate the book from the man; but then, I don’t need to. This is autobiography—what makes the book worth reading is the man who lives a life worth reading. I vouch for the value of both.   I begin, however, with the author. An author I first knew as a professor.   With an energy and eagerness (either endearing or embarrassing) of my college freshman self, I sat in his Cultural Anthropology classroom. Before the end of his two hour class, I remember clearly thinking, “I want to do what he does.” Now this, I’m coming to learn, has less to do with the specifics of doing—with mimicking job or education or, not to give too much away, the handling of horned vipers—but the being. And this is harder to articulate and harder to enact.   What I sensed in that classroom, and what I sense in the pages of this book, is this fullness of life. A character and a being, a posturing, that is wonderful—that is, really, full of wonder. It is this unwavering joy in life—a firm confidence in the value of here: this place, this person, this landscape and moment before me. It...

The Wrens in Mombasa in World War II

The Wrens in Mombasa in World War II The Mombasa of today is so different from the Mombasa of the Second World War that it is worth having a look at what the town was like previously. One of the best people to describe it is an officer in the Wrens who was posted to Mombasa, arriving in a Short Sunderland flying boat with blinds carefully drawn as it flew through neutral Portuguese East Africa. Mombasa was brightly lit with well stocked shops, so different from the England of the day. Wrens were housed in the Lotus Hotel, run by Mrs. Lotus Johnson. They were part of a detachment for the Eastern Fleet, which had recently retreated to Mombasa from Colombo. The Lotus Hotel had been commandeered for the Wrens and was comfortable apart from the ankle attacks from Mrs. Johnson’s mongoose. The Allidina Visram School was also commandeered for a headquarters for the Eastern Fleet and in a temporary banda in the schoolyard was set up the Cypher Office manned by the Wrens and FANYs, with Jack Nixon, Roger Hardman and Tony Holloway, in charge. These men and the FANYs were all local Kenyan people. Among the Mombasa FANYs were Susan Ridley, Rhoda Ransome, Cynthia Bellhouse and Bunty Goodall.                            Wrens in Mombasa The Wrens got about on bicycles because there were only a few rickshaws and taxis were rather expensive. Azania Drive from the Likoni ferry round to the Florida was shut off for harbour defences with concrete gun posts manned night and day. The golf course was not in action and the Florida degenerated into a...

Who was Freddy Ward?

Who was Freddy Ward? The name Freddie or Freddy Ward crops up so repeatedly in the early land dealings of East African settlers that it is worth finding out about the man behind the name. Like many of the early white settlers, Hamilton Frederick Ward fought in the Boer War (in the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and the Irish Guards, where he reached the rank of Major) straight after he left Eton, and developed a love for Africa. He came from a military family – his grandfather was Vice-Admiral James Hamilton Ward, from Viscount Bangor’s family, and his father Robert Frederick Ward was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy who died young, when Freddy was eleven (he was born on 3 September 1880). His mother Rose was left to care for Freddy and his younger sister Mabel, and in 1891 we find them living in a hotel in Bournemouth. As soon as the Boer War was over, Freddy Ward organised a shooting party to travel to East Africa in 1904. He made a second trip in 1905, and fell in love with the country. He managed to get himself seconded to the King’s African Rifles in April 1906, as a lieutenant in the 3rd Battalion, from which he resigned in 1908. We first really hear of him in 1905 when he joined other colonists to protest against the death sentence of a white man for murder – Max Wehner, who had shot and killed a man he had hired as his guide to a hotel in Nakuru. Eventually the sentence was overturned by the Privy Council. Ward tired...

The Sandbach Bakers and Kenya’s First Dairy

The Sandbach Bakers and Kenya’s first Dairy One of the first white settlers to be given land in Nairobi was Frederick Baker. He was granted 1,600 acres in Muthaiga by John Ainsworth, the Sub-Commissioner, on condition that he supplied Nairobi with dairy products. Who was Baker and why had he come to East Africa? He was not a young man, having been born in in Bunbury, Cheshire, in December 1849 to Thomas Baker, a draper and grocer, and Eliza Sandbach, and he arrived in Nairobi in 1901 with his second (or, possibly, third) wife Marie Vera, usually known as Queenie. This lady may have been born in 1856, the daughter of George Salmon, a master butcher in Stoke on Trent, but that person is supposed to have died in 1897 and before that was known as Mary Maria. The wife who accompanied Frederick to East Africa in 1901 was Maria Vera and claimed she was twenty years younger than her husband, whereas if she had been born in 1856 she would have been only six years younger. It is possible that she was indeed Maria Salmon and added Vera to her name, and lied about her age to her new husband. Frederick’s first wife Alice Oliver had died in September 1887 and he had married Mary Maria Salmon in 1888. He had been a cotton cloth agent in Stretford, Lancashire (some said he went bankrupt). He took to East Africa with him his wife and his son Guy, a former shipping clerk (born in Holmes Chapel, Cheshire, to his first wife Alice Oliver in October 1882). Marie was the...

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...