The New and the Old New Stanley Hotel
By Dan Karanja, New Bedford, Mass. 06/04,2009
Most of us are familiar with the need to take up a second job to supplement our income. The sacrifices involved and the expectations are nothing unusual. The sacrifices as evidenced in the following story, can at times lead to new directions and reveal strengths in us that we did not know we possesed.
One of the earliest white settlers in Kenya was W. S. Bent and his wife, Mayence. Bent had arrived in East Africa as a worker on the Ugandan railway, and when the railway reached Nairobi, he and his wife chose to remain in Kenya. Between 1900 and 1902, the couple purchased farming land near present day Kikuyu town.
Mayence was a hard worker, and her enterprising nature could be seen in advertisements for their farm products, which she placed on the forerunner of the East African Standard. Despite all their efforts, the farming business did not perform well and to supplement their income, Mayence took up a job in 1902 as a store clerk on what was then called Victoria Street. The street is today called Tom Mboya Street. The store owned by Tommy Wood, an Englishman was the first European-owned store in Nairobi.
Nairobi at the time was a shanty town with only two main streets. During dry season, the city’s ground was perched and dusty. In the wet season, the streets were muddy, and the ruts made by rickshaws and horse drawn wagons even made them muddier. But the town was growing and it became a popular stop for people, who constantly travelled to other parts of the country. To serve these people, Wood opened a store in 1901. According to Christine Nicholls’ Red Stranger, the business served as a butchery, tea room, hardware store and a tailor shop. The building was a raised floor rectangular structure, two storey’s high made from wood and measured roughly 20 feet in length. A shoddily built bar made from corrugated iron sheets was later attached to it. The upper floor served as one of the only few lodging facilities in Nairobi at the time. Nigel Pavitt in his book, Kenya: A Country in the Making shows a number of excellent photos of the building.
Mayence devoted a lot of her time to the business (es) and when she noticed a lack of sufficient lodging for her customers, she and another entrepreneur named Dan Noble opened a 15-bed boarding house next door. The year was 1904 and Noble was the proprietor of Nairobi’s sole post office. The two partners named their new venture The Stanley Hotel. According to the book, White Hunters by Brian Herne, this name was taken from Henry Morton Stanley; the famous African explorer, who was still alive at the time. Like Tommy Wood’s store, the new hotel was a two storey wooden building with a bicycle rack and hitching posts in the front.
At the time, Nairobi had a frontier feel to it. The streets were unpaved and a lot of buildings were hastily put up without any planning. Because many of its buildings were made of corrugated iron sheets, this earned Nairobi the nick name “tin town” as reported in the February 2, 1908 edition of The Boston Globe. Due to lack of proper planning, poor sanitation and other related issues, the town was susceptible to diseases and other calamities. A huge fire in 1905 engulfed much of Victoria Street, including the new hotel and what had been Tommy Wood’s store.
The disaster did not deter Mayence , who only saw it as a minor setback and continued with the business. The day after the fire, she acted quickly and moved her guests to a temporary facility nearby. The new location was an unfinished building and Mayence had to erect a tarpaulin over it to serve as a roof. She reassured her guests that she had not deserted them and that she would do her best to make them comfortable.
Meanwhile, Bent and Mayence got divorced, and Mayence married Fred Tate. The Stanley Hotel survived the fire and business picked up very fast. In 1912, Mayence constructed a permanent building in the hotel’s current location at the junction of Kimathi Street and Kenyatta Avenue and names it The New Stanley Hotel.
She modified the new building in early 1930s, but didn’t relocate it. Mayence later returned to England and sold the hotel in 1947 to Abraham Block, a former employee. The hotel has since changed its name to Sarova Stanley and still remains at the same location.
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