From dairy farm to city estate: Donholm’s rich history unveiled

Photo/File  The Kenya National Archives was one of the buildings built by James Kerr Watson.
Photo/File The Kenya National Archives was one of the buildings built by James Kerr Watson. 

Forget about Karen Blixen who was a failed coffee farmer, but a successful writer.

Or the notorious Ewart Grogan who build the Torr’s: “the house of sin”, and Getrude’s Children’s Hospital in Nairobi.

While there is a lot written about the two, there is actually nothing about Donholm — the vast Eastlands suburb that still retains its colonial name, and the many buildings in Nairobi that Donholm Estate’s proprietor James Kerr Watson originated as an architect.

I have occasionally been in touch with the family of Mr Watson, the man who christened his Nairobi dairy farm Donholm in memory of Glasgow’s Donholm Estate.

One of the great-grandsons of Mr Watson now lives in South Africa where he runs a seedling nursery company; Donholm Nurseries, and a great granddaughter, Linda, is married in the UK.

There are other family members scattered across Australia — all have fond memories of Donholm Farm.

At one corner of Nairobi’s City Park cemetery, a few metres from the grave of nationalist Pio Gama Pinto, is Watson’s grave.

He was apparently knocked down by a gate and died at 77.

But there is more to Donholm than is known today. Watson planted most of the palm trees that we see in Nairobi today.

Initially a 4,600-acre farm that stretched from the eastern edge of City Stadium towards the modern-day Donholm Estate, it was the first place in Kenya to have a cattle dip and to initiate an experiment against East Coast Fever. Lord Delamere’s came later.

It was also the place where the first breeds of Ayrshire cows, named after Watson’s birthplace, Ayr, were first tried in East Africa earning him many trophies including a prestigious Gold Cup given by the East African Standard.

From that perspective, it would be interesting to look again at Donholm Estate and appreciate its place in Kenya’s dairy history.

Watson was one of the few architects and constructors whose passion was to build roads and houses and make Nairobi a unique African city.

Perhaps long forgotten is that this was the man who laid the foundation for Nairobi’s Kenyatta Avenue.

Watson gets most of the credit for laying the drainage and design of the road, then Sixth Avenue, which is the widest in the city.

Also, when he found that he could not supply milk to the city for lack of a road he built a murram track that he named Donholm Road, which is today known as Jogoo Road.

Donholm Road ran through his farm, linking it to the city. That is the reason it was at the edge of African estates that were built to accommodate the African labour force.

But it was his desire to breed grade cattle, even before Lord Delamere, that made him well known.

Watson had an office at Donholm Estate — nay, his house — where most of the famous buildings he later built were conceptualised.

Among the most notable buildings is the famous Namirembe Church in Kampala, and the YMCA buildings in Nairobi.

Namirembe, which celebrated 100 years in 1997, is the oldest diocese in Uganda and the construction of the church turned the hill into the cradle of Christianity in Uganda.

Watson also built the Kenya National Archives building and residential houses in Muthaiga before he quit to concentrate on farming.

And like the powerful architecture that he gave Nairobi, Watson’s contribution to farming was remarkable although it is his designing of cattle dips that went to the annals of history.

Livestock started dying

When his livestock started dying of East Coast Fever, Watson was told that there was no cure for the disease and that if he had to control ticks he had to build dipping tanks.

Records show that he ordered the first drums of chemicals from Coopers which were delivered by Messrs Newlands and Tarlton.

From then on, Donholm became an experimental farm and one of the most memorable notes written to the Agricultural Society of Kenya, of which he was a pioneer, acknowledges the role of Watson in the experiment.

Dated August 4, 1913, the letter says: “In time to come when the history of the stock industry in British East Africa comes to be written, as assuredly it will, it will always be remembered that J.K.Watson (of Donholm Estate) was the pioneer of stock dipping in the protectorate”.

Interestingly, Watson’s name has not had any luck. But Donholm Estate lives on, not as a livestock farm, but inhabited by people who Watson had, perhaps, fenced out.