Naivasha was one of the first areas to be settled by white people early in the 20th century. Geoffrey Buxton, the first colonial farmer in the area, had moved up from the dry, arid Rift Valley with its meagre rivers and a relentless, dusty wind that gave Gilgil its name. After finding his ideal farming country, he called this new haven “Happy Valley”.
Between the 1920s and 1940s, a group of largely British and Anglo-Irish aristocrats and adventurers settled in the area. In the 1930s, the group became infamous for its decadent lifestyle and exploits following reports of drug use and sexual promiscuity, lending the name Happy Valley a whole new meaning.
Some of the notable members of the Happy Valley set include: The 3rd Baron Delamere and his son and heir the 4th Baron Delamere, Dennis Finch-Hatton, Sir Jock Delves Broughton and his wife Diana, Josslyn Hay, 22nd Earl of Errol, Lady Idina Sackville, Alice de Janze` and her husband Frederic de Janze`. The height of the influence of the Happy Valley set was in the late 1920s.
Harold Turner came to Kenya shortly after World War 1, serving with the colonial administration before joining the East African Standard. He then tried his hand at farming with disastrous results, losing all his money in the process.
Turner appeared to have found his forte when he developed an interest in education.
In 1925, he joined another Englishman, Finlay Cramb, who had started Kenton College at Kijabe the previous year. The relationship did not last long as Turner was rather fond of expressing himself physically, leaving Cramb blind in one eye in the process.
Turner incorporated Gerald Pink as a junior partner and purchased 100 acres of land at Gilgil with an incomplete farmhouse from Captain Alan Gibson to start a boarding school for European boys. Alan had planned to farm flax but ran out of money midstream. The railway branch line to Thompson’s Falls passed through the farm.
The school was named Pembroke House after Turner’s college at Cambridge. When the school was officially opened on 15 September 1927, the first pupil was John Trent. The school motto was “Anglus in Africa Sto” (I stand as an Englishman in Africa)
Turner and Pink were the first teachers along with Miss Boyd and Mrs Stott who was the school matron. John Coplestone joined as a teacher in 1928 by which time the school had 37 pupils. By 1933 the student population had grown to 67, each paying £37 per term.
From the outset the school was modelled on the British Preparatory system. Within a few years Pembroke had established a reputation as a successful academic and sporting school with many of her pupils being admitted to top secondary schools in Kenya and the UK.
The school was particularly well known for its prowess in the game of cricket and the use of carrier pigeons to relay the score back to school for away matches. At first, no games were played with Kenton College because of the acrimonious relationship between Cramb and Turner but in 1933, Turner relented and arranged a cricket match with Kenton at Kijabe.
In 1947, Turner sold the school to Christopher Hazard and retired. Hazard was headmaster from 1947 to 1965. In 1949, Hazard obtained a 1913 Silver Ghost Rolls Royce from Mr Stevens of Nakuru who found himself in debt to Hazard. The vehicle was used as the school bus and many happy tales are associated with it including the pigeons in a cage which were the brainchild of Hazard.
A chapel for the school was designed by Hazard in 1952 and the boys built the chapel over the next eight years. The Christina Chapel was consecrated in 1961 and is still in use today.
The management of the school was taken over in 1959 by the Kenya Educational Trust Limited, an independent body limited by guarantee which ensures that all income is channeled to management and development of the school. Pembroke is also a proud member of the Independent Association of Preparatory Schools (IAPS).
The school motto was changed to “Fortuna favet Fortibus” (Fortune favours the brave) when David Opie took over as headmaster in 1970. The first African pupils were admitted in the 1970s and from 1988 girls were admitted to the school.
After 90 years, Pembroke House, a school started for the white aristocracy in Africa, continues to provide an excellent prep school education. Being a private institution, it has been entirely self-financing. It has been argued that the fees charged by preparatory schools in Kenya are out of reach for most of us.
However, in order to attract the patronage of those who can afford, these schools have maintained exceptional academic standards, moral and financial discipline and commitment to the sound upbringing of children. The same cannot be said of many of our local schools.