Friday, September 09, 2011

John Ainsworth- the man who built Nairobi

The name John Ainsworth may mean little today.
But this was the man who built Nairobi and planned it from scratch albeit with little support from London.
After arriving in town from Machakos, much to the chargrin of the railway administration Ainsworth built his house at Museum Hill to oversee the government administration.
Although he stayed for a little period, upto 1906 when he was transferred to Naivasha, Ainsworth had left a legacy.
By the time he left in the town had naturally sorted itself into seven districts then named Railway centre, Indian Bazaar, Railway Quarters, European Business and Administrative Centre, The Dhobi Quarters, European Residential Areas, and Military Barracks Lions normally laid a state of siege near the Norfolk Hotel while down at the swamp, frogs kept the town busy as they croaked in unison.
The demarcation of roads and plots had began in 1900 and four streets were planned in the Bazaar to be called Station Street, River Street, Punjabi Street and Khoja Moholo Street. But after the 1902 plague it was moved towards the current Biashara street.
Elspeth Huxley recorded the events in her book White Man's Country: "The town consisted of one cart-track recently labelled Government Road (Moi Avenue) flanked by Indian Dukas. Beyond lay the swamp where flogs lived…every night at dusk they used to bark out their vibrant chorus and spread a cloak of deep, incessant sound over the little township. The frogs were accepted as regular inhabitants of the town".
"Lions lurked in the papyrus swamp, and I really should not like to say how many were shot by the present sub-commisioner".
It was Ainsworth who started planting the blue gum trees that now stand in Nairobi today. He started by planting the trees around Moi Avenue, next to the Central Police Station and moved to other highways. Majority of these trees can be found in upper hill.
A treeless plain bored Ainsworth and he brought the seedlings from Machakos where he had been based.
He also lined the muddy strets of the railway town, a legacy that is still visible today in many parts of the town.
The European surburbs were at the hill (upper hill and State house road area) while the indians crowded at the Baazar. The Africans were to the east with the exception of Kileleshwa where a large African village existed.
In 1902 Mayence Bent had opened the first hotel in Nairobi on Victoria Street (now Tom Mboya) the second floor of on a store owned by Tommy Wood. The store also served as a post office. Tommy Wood is remembered as the town's first Mayor. Soon the hotel became too small and moved next door and renamed Stanley Hotel.
A proposal to build a church was accepted and the construction commenced just at the same time A.M. Jeevanjee started work on the first town hall. Also construction of Racecourse Road began. The first mishap for Nairobi happened in 1904 when the "great fire of Victoria Street" consumed Mayence Bent's Stanley Hotel just at the time Major Ringer and Aylmer Winearls were building Norfolk Hotel.
This was a blow to Nairobi and Mayence had to move her clients to another building. She named it Stanley Hotel.
When the notorious Meinertzhagen visited Nairobi in 1906 after his 1903 visit he was surprised by the changes.
"Trees have sprung up everywhere. Hotels exist where Zebra's once roamed. Private bungalows in all their uglines mark the landscape where I used to hunt waterbuck, impala and duicker", he wrote.
It was in 1909 that Mayence bought a plot at the corner sites of Sixth Avenue (Kenyatta) and Hardinge Street (Kimathi) to put up a hotel. The plot went for £350. Construction started in 1912 and by 1913 the first New Stanley Hotel was opened. The old Stanley Hotel continued to operate. (Excerpt from A Short History of Nairobi by John Kamau, coming soon)


brian.duckitt said...

thank you for the short history of early nairobi. I have a letter which seems to be postmarked Dec 1937, stamps are for: Kenya Uganda Tanganyika.The letter itself has an interesting story, but I was fascinated by the picture of the "Hotel Avenue" on the envelope itself. Unfortunately I have not been able to research any further info on this hotel and wonder if you could help. Thanks. Brian Duckitt. Hillcrest Natal RSA

Anonymous said...

I'm also trying to get some info on this hotel. In 1928 a liquor licence for the Avenue Hotel, Sixth Avenue, was issued to H. E. Waller, any further details very welcome,

John Truscott

evelyne mosongo said...

Hi, thank you for the history. Its really been helpful. I am writing an article on John Ainsworth, but i cant find his date of birth anywhere. Any help with that? Thank you :-)

Anonymous said...

In 1902 Mayence Bent had opened the first hotel in Nairobi on Victoria Street the second floor of on a store owned by Tommy Wood.

Eligibor Tours and Travel

Unknown said...

The past is so beauty...thanks for this piece

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