One of the buildings I have admired over the years in Nairobi is the former Torr’s Hotel. Enough cannot be said about this building for it is part of Kenya’s history.
It all started with the Kenya Uganda Railway that was completed in 1902 when construction reached Port Elizabeth (Kisumu). The total cost was £793 million (Sh127 billion) when the books were closed.
After that, the British government embarked on a spirited campaign to encourage white settlement in Kenya to entrench white occupation and create economic development that would, in part, help to recoup the massive cost of opening up the hinterland.
Despite the generous offer of huge tracts of land, potential settlers from the home country found the lease term of 99 years unattractive for long term investment. As a consequence, many of the early settlers came from South Africa where they were escaping the fallout of the Boer War.
In 1919, the British government introduced a Soldier Settlement Scheme for Kenya to reward those who had served in World War I Again, free grants of up to 3,000 acres of land were offered to willing applicants, but many of these settlers did not succeed due to a shortage of personal capital, inexperience and an uppity attitude towards farming. A fair number were allocated land in Nairobi where they settled and built residential houses in areas such as Thompson and Bernard estates and parts of Kilimani.
The houses were typical design bungalows with 2½ bedrooms and a servants quarters. Most of the soldiers did not have families so two bedrooms were sufficient and the other half served as a study or an emergency bedroom for a guest. This class of soldier settlers served in the emergent motor and aviation industries as well as other minor professional disciplines.
One of their favourite spots was Torr’s Hotel (modern day Stanbic Bank) located on a corner plot, with the main frontage on Delamere Avenue (Kenyatta Avenue) and a return frontage to Hardinge Street (Kimathi Street).
Torr’s Hotel was built by Colonel Ewart Grogan, he of the walk from Cape to Cairo fame to prove his love for Gertrude, and who later built a children’s hospital named after her.
Torr’s opened for business in 1929. The building is a classic Tudor style example in solid masonry with red brick facing, grouped, full height, arched windows to the ground floor, rectangular casement windows to the upper floors, recessed entrance portal with embellished door frames, complete with a penthouse offering commanding views of the city centre.
On the ground floor was a one-of-a-kind pear-shaped ballroom with an overlooking balcony on the first floor, featuring a hand carved balustrade and magnificent crystal chandeliers hanging majestically from the ceiling. During the time I worked for Grindlays Bank my office was on the first floor and must have served as a guest room in earlier days.
Contrary to popular folklore, Torr’s Hotel was quite a decent establishment and the management maintained a strict code of conduct, including a formal dress code.
Bernard A. Astley, the second headmaster of the Prince of Wales School (Nairobi School) records, in his memoirs, that he was a frequent visitor at Torr’s Hotel in the 1930s.
Because of the patronage of senior members of the police, the hotel was regularly allowed extended operating hours up to 2am. The real party poopers were the aristocratic Happy Valley set who descended on the hotel after their favourite establishments such as The Norfolk, The Stanley and Muthaiga Club closed early.
The intruders regarded the regular patrons with disdain because they deemed them to be of a lower social class. The Happy Valley set often wrecked havoc when they arrived at Torr’s and they believed themselves to be above the law; perhaps quite rightly so. Doubtless, there were many memorable nights at the hotel.
In 1958, Ewart Grogan, sensing the wind of change blowing in Africa, sold the hotel to the Ottoman Bank and relocated to South Africa. The hotel business was closed and thereafter the building served as a bank on the ground, first and second floors while the remainder was let out to tenants. In 1969, Ottoman Bank sold its business in Kenya to National and Grindlays Bank (NGB).
Shortly afterwards in 1970, the Kenya government entered into an agreement with NGB in which a new bank known as Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) was to take over all but two of NGB’s branches in Kenya, with the government owning 100 per cent stake in the new bank.
A new company known as Grindlays Bank International Ltd (GBI) was created to be owned 60 per cent by NGB London and 40 per cent by the State, to take control of the two remaining branches of NGB, one in Nairobi and the other in Mombasa.
The international portion of GBI changed hands several times up until 1992 when Standard Bank of South Africa, operating under the Stanbic banner, took control. Today, the bank is known as CFC Stanbic Bank after merging with CFC Bank in 2007 to create the largest banking merger in Kenya’s history.
The writer is a retired banker and motorcycle enthusiast.