You only need to read a Colonial Office letter dated September 8, 1936, to know the kind of predicament Mr Jomo Kenyatta was in during his stay at 95 Cambridge Street in the upmarket Pimlico area of London, UK.
The letter to a Mr Wade illustrates the kind of problems Kenyatta was facing — or feigning — in this house, and for that reason, and more, it was preserved by the British as part of its English Heritage.
When it was elevated to a heritage site, President Uhuru Kenyatta was there to unveil the blue plaque. The house is still well-kept, the neighbourhood serene.
It was here that the British MI5 started snooping on Kenyatta’s mail and private life, fearing that his dalliance with communists and civil rights activists would be dangerous for the survival of the Kenya colony.
Kenyatta stayed in this house between 1933 and 1937, and at one point — perhaps unable to throw him out — the landlord reported him to the Colonial Office, hoping to get paid.
The letter to Mr Wade said: “A certain Mr S. Hosken of 95 Cambridge Street, Victoria, called here in woe. He has been Johnstone Kenyatta’s landlord for four years but for the last 18 months there has been no rent.”
In those days, Kenyatta’s rent was paid by the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA), led by Mr James Beauttah and Mr Joseph Kang’ethe, who mobilised locals to finance Mr Kenyatta’s stay in one of London’s prestigious districts.
When short of funds, Kenyatta would turn to the family of a former public works officer, William McGregor Ross, previously his boss at the Municipal Council of Nairobi as a meter reader. Mr McGregor Ross and his wife had helped Kenyatta settle at 95 Cambridge Street.
But whether Kenyatta had money or was feigning penury will never be known. Some KCA correspondence accused him of failing to account for the money sent to him.
As a result, Mr Flood wrote: “Kenyatta has moved from the first floor to the attic and gets no meals. Hosken says (Kenyatta) is still well dressed and well fed and goes abroad at times (now in Denmark). Mrs McGregor Ross has apparently washed her hands of him”.
There was something else about Kenyatta’s handling of the KCA money.
Hosken produced a letter from the Kikuyu Central Association, of which I enclose a copy. It may interest you. They seem to want him back — but wisely — won’t trust him with the cash.
“What we know from records is that Mr Hosken had written to Jesse Kariuki, the chairman of the Kikuyu Central Association, which had hired the house for Kenyatta. It is not clear from the correspondence whether it was KCA that was failing Mr Kenyatta or it was Kenyatta who was not remitting money.
“What we know is that the KCA chairman (Mr Kariuki) had written to the landlord in April, 1936, expressing concern about the amount Mr Kenyatta owed.
In reply, Mr Hosken told Mr Kariuki that Mr Kenyatta “keeps telling my wife you will be sending a cheque … we both are owing everybody … at times I feel very disgusted at the whole affair, and have wanted to put this matter in solicitors hands (and) also see our Foreign Secretary as to your association affairs. We have kept Mr K for three years, not receiving any reward for our generosity …”
Police reports indicate that the KCA Murang’a Branch had, in April, 1936, started raising funds “for the purpose of sending two young educated Kikuyus to England to investigate the affairs of Johnstone Kenyatta who is unable to leave England by reason of his indebtedness to a Mr Hosken.”
It was also in this house that Kenyatta met Nancy Cunard, the activist whose billionaire father owned the Cunard Line shipping businesses.
The British intelligence boss, Sir Vernon Kell, reported in 1933 that Ms Cunard “had recently been associating, apparently with considerable satisfaction to herself, with Johnstone Kenyatta — a man they described as “slightly splay footed, almost invariably hatless, but sometimes wears a blue beret.” Another description was that he was of “slim build … with two punctures at the top of the right ear.”
95 Cambridge Street was also the place they could find the “negro agitator” whom they feared because he had “joined the Communist Party, twice visited Moscow to study” and was the vice-chairman of International African Service Bureau, which was led by George Padmore, with an office at 94 Gray’s Inn Road, from where they published the African Sentinel.
At one point, Kenyatta left this address but later returned.
The Metropolitan Police wrote an interesting enquiry report: “He still owes a fair amount of money for rent from his previous residence there during 1936 but appears to be able to convince the landlord, Mr Sidney Hosken, that he can obtain the arrears by writing to Stephen Gechugu of PO Box 59, Nairobi, Kenya, South Africa. Hosken has written, but has never received any money.”
RETURN TO KENYA
Later, Mr Hosken received a letter from the KCA regarding Kenyatta’s debt. “I am very glad to inform you that the whole Kikuyu community is too busy in raising your money. But they are very particular to know about Mr Kenyatta himself, as he is not writing to us and explain all his troubles and his wishes to return to Kenya … so to safeguard our collection he must write us at once.
“Further, I must frankly inform you that the trouble is increasing day by day in the colony, and Mr Kenyatta’s presence is very necessary. I don’t think the money will be sent to you direct, but I will send through strict order that unless Mr Kenyatta is on the train leaving London for Marseilles payment should not be effected at all.”
Documents indicate that KCA wanted to raise £400 (Sh51,720 today) for Mr Kenyatta’s ticket to Kenya. Although Mr Kenyatta maintained this address, he also lived at 15 Cranleigh House, Cranleigh Street, which he shared with a Jamaican girl, Ms Amy Geraldine Stock, identified by the intelligence as a “Labour Party speaker in whose company Kenyatta is frequently seen”.
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