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.

Nairobi's first school near railway station nicholls blog

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 European school in Nairobi, known as Nairobi School. It became a boarding establishment accepting children from all over the country and was taken over from the railway by the government in 1908. From 14 March to 27 April 1908 it was closed due to an outbreak of typhoid fever. In 1910 the school was moved into the old European police barracks on Nairobi Hill. New buildings of wood and corrugated iron were erected, as boarding blocks for 130 boarders, two miles away by the old Buller’s camp near Nairobi Club. There were now 107 on the roll, including at least one child born in Nairobi – Jean McQueen, born on 9 November 1899. The children’s ages ranged from 6 to 23, the older ones being Boers who had started school much later than their fellows. A few children came to Nairobi School from two new schools established in the past few years – Mrs Pailthorpe’s in Parklands and Miss E B Seccombe’s in Nairobi.

Miss Emily Blanche Seccombe is interesting because she features in the memoirs of two important East African writers – Elspeth Huxley and Beryl Markham, both of whom attended her private establishment. She had travelled alone to Kenya in 1907, at the age of 21. She was born in Clapham in 1876, the eldest child of Henry Lawrence Seccombe, the son of the Assistant Secretary of State for India, Sir Thomas Lawrence Seccombe. Her father was a senior clerk in the India Office. Blanche opened her private school on Railway Hill in Nairobi in 1909, so she must have arrived with some capital. The school was run on English public school lines in a large building. According to hearsay, Blanche was a charming person and first-rate teacher. Breakfasts could include ostrich eggs, large enough to feed twenty pupils. However, Miss Seccombe did not offer Latin, because Elspeth Huxley had to leave her school in 1923 to attend Nairobi School, in order to learn Latin for Cambridge University Entrance (which she failed). As for Mrs Pailthorpe’s, this was a school run by M Pailthorpe, the sister of Wulfred Pailthorpe, Registrar for Land Titles. The pair had come to Kenya, probably from India, in 1904 and M Pailthorpe had been appointed as schoolmistress of Nairobi’s Railway School in 1905, at a salary of 1200 rupees p.a., before starting her own school.

Schools also began to be established elsewhere. In 1911 a primary school for white children was begun at Nakuru, two miles from the town on the slopes of the Menengai crater. And the Uasin Gishu plateau was not neglected. In 1909 Professor Fraser from India was sent to see what the plateau needed. The Boers wanted their children to be taught in Afrikaans, but the government demurred so the farmers set up private farm schools as well as Broederstroom school, founded by Reverend M P Loubser, a Boer pastor. To counter this, the government established the Central School in Eldoret in 1915, with F W Humphries as headmaster.

In 1910 the government appointed an official with the title Director of Education, to oversee the Board of Education, but by 1918 the Nairobi Chamber of Commerce was complaining that the state of education in Nairobi was unsatisfactory. Nairobi School was criticised for its inadequate buildings and sports facilities, and the lack of space for boarders. Consequently many people were sending their children to South Africa for their education. The Governor appointed a Commission to examine the requirements of the country’s education system, and from this stemmed the great expansion of European schools in the 1920s.