More about Frank Hall

Last month I talked about Frank Hall, for whom Fort Hall was named. He arrived at Fort Smith, about eight miles from present-day Nairobi, in 1893, and one of his jobs was to supply the caravans of people who marched from the coast to Uganda. These were a regular occurrence and could be composed of large numbers. In January 1895 there were caravans of 1050 men camped at Fort Smith, among them eight Europeans. It was a constant strain to secure supplies. Much was purchased from local people – the Kikuyu were keen to barter their crops, but Hall also planted gardens of European produce; in 1894 he had tomatoes, lettuces, French beans, peas, marrows and onions. Things should have become easier once the British Government took over the East African enterprise from the Imperial British East Africa Company in 1895. Surveyors began to arrive to plot the route of the proposed Mombasa-Lake Victoria railway.

Frank Hall reported in August 1896: “Kikuyu is very different now…There are some Europeans about 100 yards from the Fort, building stores for two Mombasa firms, and one man planting coffee about 3 miles from here.’ But his optimism did not last long. The following month he reported that things were infinitely worse than they were under Company rule, because transport arrangements had completely broken down. He had to send a caravan of 100 men the 300 miles to Mombasa for supplies. His colleague Ainsworth was starving at Machakos, so had to draw his food from Fort Smith. The trouble was that every available man was being used on railway construction, leaving none for transport from the coast inland. Then a few supplies arrived, but without the trade goods (cloth, beads etc) necessary for bartering food from Africans. Hall was expected to supply 33,000 pounds of grain a month for the railway.

The small white community began to grow in 1896. There were Walter Trefusis and John  Walsh as the two representatives for Smith Mackenzie, Charles Kitchen who planted coffee for the same firm, Dr Henry Boedeker, Mr William Wallace (farmer), and Mr James McQueen (blacksmith). Boedeker, Walsh, McQueen and Wallace had their wives with them. In December the first European child was born in Nairobi – a son for Mrs Wallace, named Francis George Kikuyu Wallace, with Frank Hall as the godfather. Five months later Mrs McQueen had the second child to be born there – a son.

But supplies remained a perennial problem and Hall envisaged having to abandon his station – ‘we can get no supplies up, loads having been ordered six months ago not having arrived yet. What is worse, we are down to native tobacco to smoke which is pretty awful.’ They could not even shoot for the pot because they received news that the whole of the Kikuyu area was to be reserved for game. Then, in June, pleuro-pneumonia emerged among cattle. Frank Hall must have heartily welcomed his leave, and he went home to England, where he was married to Beatrice Russell, the sister of his colleague at Fort Smith. When he returned, the railway had proceeded far inland, solving the supply problem. But not for long. In 1899 famine and smallpox occurred. Hall reported: ‘No one could describe the frightful misery and horrors of this famine.’ He took it upon himself to feed the 370 people (200 of them children) who came to him for help, putting himself thousands of rupees in debt. He was burying eight people a day. ‘It is really pretty awful having to select the living and lay aside the corpses with one’s own hand.’ Then the rains came and things got better.

The letters of Francis Hall are in The Bodleian Library, Oxford, but there is an excellent publication: Kikuyu District: The Edited Letters of Francis Hall 1892-1901 (ed. Paul Sullivan, Mkuki Ya Nyota Publishers, Dar es Salaam, 2006)