My maternal grandfather, James “Karani” Kagumu Muhia, was an industrious and self-driven man. He secured employment in Nairobi as a house-boy for a white couple at a tender age, soon after the end of the First World War.
The couple encouraged him to get an education and during his free time he learned how to read and write. Some time around 1930, he returned home to Kibichoi in Kiambu and got a job as a clerk at Gitamaiyu Estate, a settler-owned coffee plantation bordering the native reserve. He would, after a short while, start his own business farming fresh produce, keeping dairy cows and running a retail shop with considerable success.
It appears that during his tenure with the white couple, my grandfather acquired a taste for the finer things in life. Around 1964, I remember him immaculately dressed in a cream suit, bowler hat, a maroon neckerchief, shiny Tony Red leather shoes, and two fountain pens clearly visible in his upper jacket pocket, very much in the style of a country squire.
He was on his way to Nairobi in his navy blue ex-police Morris Commercial, 2.5 ton pickup. Not being proficient at driving in traffic, he would leave his pickup at Muthaiga Police Station and proceed to town by bus.
His first port of call would be The Norfolk Hotel where his usual order of “coffee alone” and toast was well known by the waiters. On his return home, he would regale us with stories of how he was rubbing shoulders with the mayor of Nairobi, the former governor and other leading personalities at The Norfolk. He had a smattering of English and I am sure he was able to put in a word edgewise!
The Norfolk Hotel opened its doors on Christmas Day 1904 when the original owners, Major CGR Ringer and Robert Winearis, welcomed their first guests.
The building had a signature Tudor architectural style and was constructed in stone and a tiled roof around a quadrangle, giving it a cool environment. It was Kenya’s first true luxury hotel.
Many visitors took refuge here from the hot and dusty countryside surrounding Nairobi. It has been claimed that the history of Nairobi revolves around The Norfolk.
The old railway alignment passed near The Norfolk as it snaked its way past Ainsworth Bridge towards Kirungii (Westlands). Sometimes the train would stop outside the hotel to allow important guests from upcountry to disembark.
Upon his retirement as the 26th president of the United States of America, Theodore Roosevelt travelled to Kenya and launched the biggest and most lavish hunting safari ever from The Norfolk. Many other rich and famous guests have patronised the hotel.
In March 1922, the political “Harry Thuku incident” took place in front of the hotel verandah when an enraged mob of Africans demonstrated demanding the release of Mr Thuku from police cells. The police responded with guns and more than 150 Africans were killed, including women and children.
Some of the hotel’s patrons joined in the massacre, cheering and drinking whisky at the sight of the victims’ blood. The road past the hotel was re-named Harry Thuku Road after Independence to commemorate this event.
The hotel was bought by WHE Edgley in 1923, who had been managing it for the previous 10 years. Unfortunately, the Depression of the 1920s took its toll on the business and the hotel was sold to Abraham Block in exchange for a plot on Delamere Avenue (now Kenyatta Avenue) in 1927. This was to be the foundation of the Block Hotels dynasty over the next 60 years.
Mr Block, who was of Russian-Jewish descent, arrived in Kenya from South Africa in 1903 when the lands of the Great Rift Valley from Naivasha to the Mau Escarpment were proposed as a colony for Jewish settlement but, alas, this was not to be.
Armed with little money, Block befriended Lord Delamere who helped him become a farmer, a cattle transporter and over the years he engaged in every sort of activity, usually profitably, including supplying Mayence Bent with mattresses at the Stanley Hotel in 1905.
The first 10 years were lean but Block demonstrated his financial acumen by ploughing all profits back into the business to make it the beautiful, comfort establishment it became renown for.
The Second World War brought money pouring in and The Norfolk was the home of many fighting men and women. Business was roaring once again and the years of frugality paid off.
Over the years the hotel went through several phases of redecoration and expansion to keep up with demand and changing trends.
On the night of December 31, 1980, a bomb planted by a terrorist exploded at the hotel killing 20 and injuring 80. The hotel was extensively damaged. Renovation work commenced immediately.
Tiny Rowlands bought it in 1989 and made it part of the Lonrho Hotels conglomerate. The business changed hands one more time in 2004 when IFA bought the hotel and placed it under the management of the Fairmont Hotels and Resorts Group.