The day socialites and divorcees were banned from Nairobi’s State House

State House

The imposing building that is the Nairobi State House; the official residence of the President. 

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

You have heard President William Ruto talk of training his MPs on etiquette and behaviour. Forget that. Once upon a time, Britain’s Queen Mary, wife of King George V, issued a royal proclamation banning socialites and divorcees from State House (then known as Government House) grounds.

According to memoirs of then Governor Edward Griggs, Queen Mary called Nairobi in mid 1920s and asked the governor's wife to ensure that Government House was out of bounds for socialites and divorcees during the royal family's visit.

Queen Mary's hatred for divorcees and socialites was epic. Still, the irony is that later her son, King Edward VIII, who ascended the throne in 1936, abdicated the same year to marry twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson. She, however, supported her second son, Prince Albert, to become King George VI – the father to Queen Elizabeth II.

There was a reason behind that. In 1928, Queen Mary's son Edward Prince of Wales had been embarrassed by a Nairobi socialite, who later became Lady Delamere, in an episode at Nairobi’s Muthaiga Club recounted by Karen Blixen. "Lady Delamere behaved scandalously at supper, I thought; she bombarded The Prince of Wales with big pieces of bread…and finished up by rushing at him, overturning his chair and rolling him around on the floor." There was the other unconfirmed story of sex in the bush with a Nairobi socialite, Beryl Markham.

Nairobi had, by then, earned its reputation as the carefree colony of aristocrats, rogues, and uncouth settlers. The fear then was that the Nairobi farmers might appear in dressing gowns and pajamas during the royal family's dinner. That explains why the future King, by then Prince of Wales, had instructed the governor on how the guests should wear.

In his memoir, Kenya's Opportunity, Governor Griggs recalled this early etiquette practice that was practised inside Government House for ages: "Queen Mary showed herself equally well-informed and clear in her wishes regarding the conduct of Government House. Her Majesty spoke to my wife of the irresponsible group in Kenya, which disregarded all convention and restraint, especially the marriage tie…The queen said that we should invite no divorced person to Government House and none was ever invited in our day."

But if the governor thought that the Nairobi socialites and divorces never found their way into Government House – he was mistaken. In her book Out in the Midday Sun, Elspeth Huxley claims that divorcees were sneaked to the compound by Tich Miles, the man the governor trusted most. How did Elspeth know? "I asked (Edward Grigg's) widow about it. She laughed and said, 'Nonsense!' Perhaps some divorcees slipped in while he was away."

Gwladys Lady Delamere, the Mayor of Nairobi in 1935.

To Huxley, adultery in Nairobi was a bit exaggerated: "Those were the days of 'guilty parties' taken in adultery by a hotel chambermaid bringing in the early morning tea; the wronged spouse was perhaps exempted from the royal ban. But Happy Valley-ites were not invited to Government House, despite their high rating in Debrett's."

Debrett has been an authority on etiquette and behaviour since 1770 — but whether Tich Miles followed that etiquette is a different story.

Governor Griggs

Governor Griggs had hired Tich Miles to manage Government House in a position akin to today's Comptroller of State House. "Tich Miles…was a creature of irresistible charm. What I most deeply admired in him was that despite appalling health, he never showed a sign of ill-humour or strain. He did so much for my spirits when I was feeling rotten that he was, in truth, a human elixir…His way of running Government House was not only masterful but magnificent; he was a Michael Angelo of hospitality, vivid with imagination and quite indifferent to cost."

It is said that when the Prince of Wales visited Kenya, Tich Miles "made a contract with a settler in Nyeri area to catch a basket of trout every morning and fly it to Nairobi before noon." Such was the extravagance of Government House, regarded as the place of endless parties. But Government House was living to the expectations of Governor Griggs. In his memoirs, he says that when he decided to build a new Government House after he arrived in Nairobi in 1925, it was because Kenya "deserved and needed beauty and dignity."

Before Governor Griggs modernised Government House, there used to stand another structure during the reign of Sir James Hayes-Sadler, described by haters as a "portly man with a face like that of a surprised sheep”. Then came Edward Northey who kept a zoo inside Government House. He also allowed his wife, Lady Northey, to raise chickens in the attics. Unfortunately, it was also the place of parties with cheetahs roaming the ground.

A story is told that Northey's successor, Sir Robert Coryndon, did not know what to do with the animals, consuming a considerable percentage of the Government House budget. His successor later took them to London, and the Governor called the Nairobi medical officer to clean the attics, which were a foot deep with chicken droppings.

That is why Nairobi deserved another building for the governor. According to colonial memoirist Elspeth Huxley, Griggs constructed the modern-day structure after a federation proposal to unite Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika and Zanzibar. The reasoning was that the “old bijou residence in stockbrokers black-and-white that had hitherto (housed) the King's representative was clearly no place for a Governor-General."

Passed the vote

Griggs arrived in Nairobi when the legislative council (LegCo) had passed the vote: "I was met on arrival in Kenya with an agreement already signed and sealed between the colonial office and the European elected members that £80,000 out of the new Kenya loan should be devoted to building a Governor's residence worthy of a city which aspired to become the capital of an East African confederation," wrote Governor Higgs in his book, Kenya's Opportunity.

Griggs invited Hubert Baker, the great imperial architect, to design the new Government House in Nairobi and a smaller version in Mombasa. He also commissioned the High Court and a new block of government offices.

This move encouraged private entrepreneurs to start building permanent houses – such as the National Bank of India, now housing the Kenya National Archives – in place of the timber structures.

Sir Baker's "stately white columns and imposing portico arose a splendid edifice, which swallowed the old one like a whale ingesting a krill," wrote Huxley. However, there was a complaint in the colony after a large ballroom was added to the extravagant building – it had consumed £80,000. "Their anger rose to a boiling point when a large ballroom was added at top speed to be ready for a visit by the then Prince of Wales." Col Ewart Grogan raised questions in Parliament, albeit as a scandal, and Lord Delamere, who had initially supported the extension switched sides. Newspapers reported that the governor wanted to enlarge the building "to entertain all sorts of people”.

Government House was also the place for picketing. In January 1953, with the Mau Mau outbreak and Roger Ruck's killing, more than 1,000 settlers invaded Government House after breaking through a police cordon to protest the government's incapacity. They only dispersed after Michael Blundel assured them that the government would heighten the campaign against the freedom fighters. But three months later, the colonial government said it had arrested six Government House employees for being members of Mau Mau. Soon Governor Evelyn Baring had to have an armed policeman outside his bedroom door just in case the Mau Mau came knocking.

State House gardens parties

State House gardens parties have a long history too and are as colonial as the institution they represent. Colonial-era Governor Evelyn Baring was known to throw tea parties on the extensive lawns and was one of the first governors to invite a mixture of all races. At one point, some conservatives felt that the governor was committing an offence by letting Africans take whisky. Some of those usually invited included Chief Njiri – the man who gave Princess Margaret a spear tipped with a ball of ostrich feathers. Njiri's legacy is retained in the school he built on his farm – Njiiri High School in Murang'a.

The legacy of the Barings inside Government House is that his wife planted the Naivasha thorn trees within the compound. But he was always frightened that of the decisions he took on Kenya when he was still newly arrived in 1952. He not only declared a State of Emergency but also had political leaders detained. One day after independence, he met Jomo Kenyatta, in a State House meeting organised by Charles Njonjo and Bruce Mackenzie. Mzee Kenyatta was now the president. "By the way, I was sitting at that actual desk when I signed your detention order 20 years ago," said Baring.

Mzee Kenyatta replied, "I know. If I had been in your shoes at that time, I would have done exactly the same."

According to Griggs, he built such a large structure, hoping "it would someday become a viceregal residence." However, he later worried that his successors turned Government House to be "only for the comfort and seclusion of governors," which he considered "an indefensible waste of public money."

And for the record, State House used to have a quarry whose stones were used by Architect Temple Moore to build the All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi.

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