Who were Mr Gailey and Mr Roberts?

The firm Gailey & Roberts has been known over East Africa for more than a century, but who were Mr Gailey and Mr Roberts? John Hamilton Gailey, born in Edmonton in 1870 and educated at King’s College School in London, and David Owen Roberts, born in Merionethshire on 10 September 1871, arrived in East Africa in 1896 and 1897, to work on the construction of the Mombasa–Lake Victoria railway.  As an engineer Gailey was put in charge of the bridge building between Nairobi and Muhoroni in 1899, while Roberts was assistant engineer with the maintenance division, resident at Masongoleni.. After the completion of their contracts with the railway in 1903 the pair went into partnership in Nairobi as retail ironmongers, estate agents and surveyors. Their idea was to import all sorts of hardware, electrical goods and machinery for the putative farmers now beginning to settle in East Africa. They would also be surveyors and estate agents. With the motto ‘Enterprise is the keystone to success’ they pursued their business in the lobby of Nairobi’s only hotel; it was said that if you wanted land, you went to see Gailey, but if you wanted to know where to settle, Roberts was your man. Gailey would joke that the enterprise was started more as a joke than anything else and was nicknamed ‘Gaily They Rob Us’. A sideline was that they experimented with growing tobacco at the Red House Estate near Nairobi in 1907.


JH Gailey

Roberts married Gladys Edith Annie (1881-1946) – and settled her on a farm, Ngewe, at the junction of the Ruiru and Kamothai rivers, where she grew coffee. The partners prospered, acquiring two plots in Nairobi and one on the railway line. Gailey was put in charge of the Kilindini harbour extension and he also constructed the deep-water pier for the Uganda-Jinja-Namasagali railway. The firm also acquired another, rival company – the Nairobi Engineering Works. By the outset of the First World War Gailey & Roberts employed eleven Europeans and several Indians and Africans.

DO Roberts

The advent of the war provided more opportunities. Gailey became officer in charge of the East African Railway Corps and was responsible for the construction of the Voi-Taveta line on which troops were carried to German East Africa. Unfortunately Roberts became ill and died of blackwater fever on Friday 2 April 1915. After the war Gailey decided to carry on the business without him. The bulk of the firm’s work was supplying machinery to farmers, but it also acquired contacts to supply whole factories with equipment. One of its selling points was that it offered after-sales servicing. The company grew rapidly, becoming a private limited company in 1924, and it diversified by selling cars and household goods. By 1930 it employed eighty Europeans.

It was not all work and no play. Gailey was keen on horse racing: at the first horse race meeting in 1900 his horse Diablo won the first race. He was President of the Club in 1919 and a steward of the Jockey Club in 1922. Golf was another interest and he became President of Muthaiga Golf Club in 1925. In 1921 he married Roberts’s widow Gladys, with whom he had been having an affair for several years. She was a partner in the business, as well as being a successful farmer. She bought another two farms on the Ruiru river, Sasini and Jacaranda, and sold the latter to the Coffee Research team in 1944; it became the headquarters of the Coffee Research Foundation. When Gladys died on 9 July 1946 she was buried next to her first husband, David Roberts, in Nairobi South cemetery. She had survived her second husband by eight years, for Gailey had died in Edinburgh on 24 August 1938.

The firm Gailey & Roberts celebrated its half-century in 1954, an extraordinary expansion from the day when ‘two young men sat in the light of a hurricane lamp in a tiny shack, one of a hundred or more that made up the shanty town of Nairobi in 1904…They were two young railway engineers, heavily moustached in the Victorian style – survivors who had helped drive a railway from the Indian Ocean to the shores of Lake Victoria.’

Some of the information for this blog came from the East African Database prepared by Peter Ayre, which will be available on the internet later in 2019.