History of Nairobi 1901 to 1920s

6 min


A Glimpse At Early Nairobi

In the 1900s, the train service between Nairobi and Mombasa ran twice monthly.With each arrival in Nairobi, the train brought many white land speculators. At the time, downtown Nairobi was a little more than a mabati-roofed shanty town.

Indeed, situated close to the railway station, at a spot likely occupied today by one of the railway godowns found along Haile Selassie Avenue, a famous corrugated iron building stood.It was the Lands office, near which white land speculators hanged out.Authorities set aside a municipal camping area for them. This was so the speculators could not acquire land by making squatting claims. I am curious, but yet to establish, where exactly in modern Nairobi this spot was situated.Some of the speculators, looking for ingenious ways to push up land costs, built a few tin-roofed houses in some areas of the town to create impressions of an impending development.Then there was a bubonic plague outbreak. There was more than one outbreak, actually.The first one took place in 1902. Medical officer Dr. Ayres Rosendo Ribeiro recommended that a large section of an Indian bazaar situated close to the Nairobi railway station be burnt down.

As Elspeth Huxley wrote in White Man’s Country: Lord Delamere and The Making of Kenya, management of the 1902 plague cost the nascent colonial administration at least Rs. 50,000, which was half its revenue that year.And when a second plague broke out in 1904, medical experts this time recommended that the town be moved to a new site.This proposal raised a furore among railway authorities, powerful hotel investors, land speculators and even the East Africa Standard (Standard Newspaper today).A Commission set up to look into the matter concluded that the town was already so developed that moving it would not be practical.

As a result, the proposal was abandoned.The town’s administrators initially tapped water from the Nairobi River at Chiromo. A small dam was also constructed at the St. Austin’s mission.To meet the growing demands of the precious commodity, a water treatment plant was put up in the north-western parts of the railway station, at Kabete.In 1926, which is the year when Nairobi’s boundaries were drawn, there was a series of terrible fires that swept the city. These fires caused the authorities to consider tapping into the Rûirû River for auxiliary supply (Sasumua and Chania schemes were completed in 1956).For amusement outside the town, Europeans including upcountry ones gathered in droves at the horse races along Racecourse Road in today’s Pangani area. The main racing events were held twice in a year – during Christmas, and in July.Within the town, Sixth Street (later Delamere Avenue, now Kenyatta Avenue), was somewhat seen as the entertainment hub of the budding city.

On some weekends, whether perched on some veranda or window above, or standing at some shade along the length of Sixth Street below, Europeans cheered as locals competed in rickshaw races.

More regularly, they hanged out at pubs in The Stanley Hotel, or at the Torr’s Hotel, if not at The Norfolk. At the latter hotel’s terrace, a devil-may-care bunch of white men occasionally aimed their rifles at lamp posts in ad hoc target-shooting competitions.From 1913, the Theatre Royale – today’s Cameo Cinema – hosted drama plays.

But it does seem like even before that year, the Nairobi theatre scene was thriving.

We know this from 1910 observations penned by former U.S. President Theodore “Ted” Roosevelt. Describing how wildlife and humans often clashed in central Nairobi, Ted wrote:“One unsuspecting young lady, on a bicycle, wheeling down to a rehearsal of ‘Trial by Jury’ had been run into and upset by a herd of frightened zebras.”

(Trial By Jury was a comic act first produced in London in the 1870s).Roosevelt also described sentry boxes along Government Road from which armed askaris kept watch for wildlife.According to him, it was common for lions to be seen wandering through residential areas. As a precaution, he added, guests carried spears or rifles on their way to and from parties.Unlike tin and wooden structures seen on Victoria (Tom Mboya) Street and Government Road (Moi Avenue), stone buildings, among them the General Post Office – or GPO as we call it today, dominated Sixth Street.

Nairobi’s white and Asian residents often glanced in the direction of GPO if they expected mail from overseas. See, GPO had an ingenious way of sending coded messages.A blue flag atop the post office building indicated that a mail-carrying ship had left Aden for Mombasa. A red flag on the other hand meant that overseas post had been received. And when mail was ready for distribution, a white flag was mounted.In 1913, there was yet another plague outbreak at the (new) Nairobi bazaar (Biashara Street). The government appointed a sanitation expert, one Professor Simpson, to probe the outbreak.

He recommended that the bazaar be relocated to present-day Nairobi Museum area, on a section that was part of expansive land owned by pioneer settler and administrator, Col. John Ainsworth.The Professor further recommended segregation of the town by race. That is how Parklands and Ngara areas were designated for Asian settlement, and the eastern parts for Africans.However, the proposal to move the town, like the previous one, faced much opposition. So no action was taken.In 1919, Nairobi was declared a municipality. The government declared that the municipality would be placed under the supervision of a team of sixteen elected councilmen. The person elected chair of the council automatically became Mayor.Of the sixteen spots, twelve were assigned to Europeans and the remaining four to the more populous Asian community. The latter complained about the disproportionate representation and boycotted the council (until 1924).In spite of the boycott, H.H. Henderson was elected chair and became Mayor.But if the Asians lacked political representation, they made it up with success in all manner of commerce and construction.In 1913, with assistance from an English architect, an Asian businessman, Gurdit S. Nayer, put up a building – Nayer House – along Sixth Street and leased it to colonial authorities. It was used as a warehouse of sorts by railway workers. Indeed, a railway line passed next to it.For no fewer than two decades after 1913, it held on to the fame of being Nairobi’s tallest structure.

The railway line was removed later and the building became a centre from which the colonial government issued passes, or Kipande/Vipande, to African workers.Today, that building is Kipande House.

According to writer Elspeth Huxley, yet another successful Asian businessman in 1900s Nairobi was Ali Khan.Khan owned a large “fleet” of rickshaws and hired dozens of locals to steer them. He enjoyed complete monopoly in the contracts of VIP transfers between The Nairobi Railway Station and major hotels such as The Norfolk, which was opened in 1904.

In 1911, another Indian and successful contractor, Mr. Alibhai Jeevanjee, gave out part of his land for recreation. It became known as the Jeevanjee Gardens, so named to this day.Jeevanjee also had land near the Nairobi River which he donated to authorities for the establishment of a natural history museum.The museum was rebuilt in 1929 and renamed Coryndon Museum after Sir Robert Thorne Coryndon, who was Kenya’s Governor sometime in the first half of the 1920s.Anthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey almost single-handedly raised the profile of the facility to world fame through his palaentological, zoological and botanical works. Today it is the Nairobi National Museum.The authorities set aside land for a library, slaughterhouse, town hall and agricultural show grounds. At Dagoretti corner was established a temporary airfield for pioneer aviators before the same in 1929 moved to Nairobi West airport, which happens to be Wilson Airport today.There was no fire station until sometime in the 1920s, when the Nairobi Fire Station was set up. Before then, volunteers managed fire disasters, such as one in 1905 that also destroyed a large part of the town centre, including the recently opened Stanley Hotel.

Nairobi fire station 1907

Meanwhile, farmlands that supplied food to the town emerged from the north of the town. Sisal and dairy farms were established, too.Dairy, meat and butter requirements of hotels and the growing European population in Nairobi were, particularly after the end of World War 1, mostly served by farms of pioneer settler Lord Delamere (pictured), who also started a milling company.

Meanwhile, missionaries seemingly competed with government to put up mission schools around Nairobi and beyond. Some schools were established in Mûthangari area to the west of Nairobi by catholic missionaries.

Of course, there were separate schools for blacks and whites.

The Railway Institute was set up to cater for children of settlers and white railway officials in the south of Nairobi.

It wasn’t until later in the 1940s that the Nairobi National Park was created further south.“….I feel that it (Nairobi) is an ideal playground alike for sportsmen and for travelers who wish to live in health and comfort, and yet to see what is beautiful and unusual…”

That’s how Ted Roosevelt saw Nairobi in 1910.Nairobi is now a changed city, a far cry from its humble beginnings at the dawn of last century.

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