The thinking behind Nairobi’s grand schools

1930s picture of the new the Nairobi European School (Now Nairobi School).

What you need to know:

  • Led by that restless bolt of energy, Lord Delamere, the settlers wanted European schools befitting their grandiose ideas of a white Kenya that would be no different from Britain, writes LYDIA MUTHUMA. And, they built them

In 1925, the Governor of Kenya, Sir Edward Grigg, defended the “provision of spacious public buildings designed with grace and dignity as an inspiration to a young country, a tribute to the faith and vision of those who were building its future…”

The Frazer report of 1909 had recommended the establishment of separate educational systems: for Europeans, Asians and Africans. And this tripartite system was maintained until 1963. One cannot easily tell the particular system that the governor was referring to.

Traditionally, all Government-funded schools are financed from taxes. By the early 1920s Kenya’s population ratio was 10,000 Europeans to 23,000 Asians to 2,500,000 Africans.

All were taxed except the Europeans who had declared “no taxation without representation” in a bid to acquire, first, a legislative council and later, minority self rule.

From the collected taxes, colonial government put up the following schools: the European Government School, opened in 1902, the Asian Government School, opened in 1908 and the African Government School opened in 1958. Not all schools, in Nairobi, were designed, let alone ‘with grace and dignity’.

A school had been started in 1902 to cater for the families of the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) and later the European settler community. It consisted of “a few rooms near the Railway Station”, and was sited on the grounds of the Railways Club.

The colonial government took over its running in 1910 and in 1916 moved to “the hilly grounds of Protectorate Road” – the current grounds of Nairobi Primary School.

In 1925 Lord Delamere proposed the building of a senior Boys school. The governor, Sir Edward Grigg, making use of the Railways reserve grounds along Waiyaki Way, commissioned the construction of this school.

He invited one of the most famous British Architects, Sir Herbert Baker, who wrote of his visit to Kenya thus: “this was for the purpose of giving general advice on building … and to design some special buildings, a task for which my experience of building in the sub-tropics … qualified me”.

Baker’s work included the design of South Africa House in Trafalgar Square, London, and of India House in the Aldwych.

In South Africa, he directed the rebuilding of Cecil Rhodes’ Groote Schuur (now the residence of the President) and designed St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town and, most notably, the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

In New Delhi he worked with Sir Edwin Lutyens on the design and construction of the administrative buildings of the government of India. Other impressive buildings designed by Baker and completed with the help of his assistant, Jan Hoogterp, in Nairobi include the High Court and State House.

But in 1925 the provision of education for European children in Nairobi was at low ebb… The sole government school, Nairobi European School, consisted of unsatisfactory classrooms located in the former European police barracks on Nairobi Hill … So poor were the school’s academic results that year compared with those of Indian pupils, that they were suppressed … Sir Edward Grigg, took prompt action.

He commissioned Sir Herbert Baker to plan a school similar to Winchester School which, both Lord Delamere and Governor Grigg, had attended. Winchester is an old town in Southern England dating from about 516 AD.

On January 10 1931, Kenya sent an official telegram to the Colonial Office asking that the Prince of Wales be sounded out about using his royal title as a new name for the school at Kabete.

And a commemorative edition of the Impala, (Prince of Wales School Magazine) of June 1952 notes that “in the early twenties a magnificent site had been selected by Lord Delamere … for the school that the most far-sighted of Kenya’s leaders knew must one day be created. When Lord Delamere, with his usual forcefulness, was urging the expenditure of a large sum of money on a new school for boys, he was opposed by the Director of Education.

However it was to the vigour of the Governor, Sir Edward Grigg, that the final decision was due. Although at the time he was much criticised for the alleged grandeur and extravagance of the buildings that shortly rose at Kabete, Sir Edward was adamant.

He defended the ‘provision of spacious public buildings designed with grace and dignity.’ Such examples of architecture, he said, “were an inspiration to a young country, a tribute to the faith and vision of those who were building its future, and an inspiration also to its youth …”

The foundation stone of the new School was laid on 24thSeptember 1929 by the governor, in the area directly beneath the clock tower.

Under the foundation stone was placed a copy of the then East African Standard and coins of the colony. Generations of boys walk over this stone daily.

The Prince of Wales School was later praised by the Colonial Office (London) as “the most important European school in British colonial Africa.”

In 1930, the Nairobi European School was separated into a senior boys school (Prince of Wales School), senior girls school (The Kenya High School) and a junior school (Nairobi Primary School).

A 250-acre site, on Waiyaki Way, was found for the older boys giving rise to the Kabete School, renamed the Prince of Wales School and after independence Nairobi School, popularly known as Patch.

This is the school featured in the film Out of Africa. The Prince of Wales School main building was used as a convincing substitute for Government House.

The substitution presented few difficulties; both buildings were designed by the same hand and built at the same time. Perhaps those groomed in this school would later occupy the real Government House.

The Asian school was City Primary and later on Jamhuri School, for the secondary level.

A government funded African school, Pumwani, was only opened in 1958. Africans were served by mission schools. None was located within Nairobi Municipality before 1958.


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