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Kenya's Happy Valley Set

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The Wanjohi Valley in Kenya's Highlands was a favourite place for aristocratic Brits to settle in the 1920s and '30s. What's not to like: fabulous climate, lots of African servants available to pamper the idle wealthy, plenty of lions and other big game to kill, and more earls, baronets, countesses, and barons than you could shake a polo stick at.

A Cast of Scoundrels

The people who came to be known as “The Happy Valley Set” could hardly be called the cream of the crop. They were mostly a bunch of rich wastrels who occupied themselves with parties, bed hopping, and drugs. They cavorted in the African paradise from about 1924 to 1941.

Here are brief sketches of a few of the characters in this immorality play.

  • Josslyn Victor Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll, Lord Kilmarnock. He was horsewhipped in public in Nairobi's railway station by the husband of a woman with whom he had an affair. There were several other cuckolded husbands in line because his lordship seemed to have fondness for married women. Lord Erroll became a member of the British Union of Fascists prior to World War II.
  • Lady Idina Sackville. Daughter of the 8th Earl De La Warr, she seemed to have trouble with the concept of fidelity. After two divorces she married Lord Erroll in 1923. It was a wedding that shocked polite society because Lady Idina divorced husband number two in order to marry young Josslyn Hay. The couple decamped for Happy Valley where they became unofficial “king and queen” of the set. The inevitable divorce came in 1929, when her ladyship discovered that his lordship was stealing her money. The fact that both partners were engaged in frequent romps between the sheets with others helped with the breakdown of their union. For Idina there were to be two more marriages and divorces along with countless lovers.
Lady Idina Sackville.

Lady Idina Sackville.

  • Comtesse Alice de Janzé. The daughter of a wealthy American businessman, Alice has been described as a “wild socialite.” In 1927, after lunch in Paris with her ex-lover Raymond de Trafford, Alice pulled a small pistol out of her purse and shot him. Then, she shot herself. Both survived. Alice had to pay a small fine (it was a crime passionnel, something about which the French have always taken a relaxed view). She then married Raymond and the pair became prominent members of the Happy Valley Set.
  • John Evans-Freke, (later Lord Carberry). In a scene you can't make up, his lordship was flying his plane and throwing rocks at a car below him in which his wife was escaping with her lover for a weekend of fun and frolics.
  • Kiki Preston. Connected to the Whitneys and Vanderbilts, she was known as “the girl with the silver syringe,” due to her fondness for all the hard stuff—heroin, cocaine, and morphine. Another of the clique, Cockie Birbeck, said she was quite open about her addiction, “digging the needle into herself while we sat up drinking whisky.”
  • John Beecroft 'Jack' Soames. Known as a pathological liar and womanizer, but he was a wonderful dancer. He was also a voyeur who drilled holes in the ceiling of his guest bedrooms so he could watch the gambols of the occupants.
  • Francis (Frank) Greswolde-Williams. He owned a vast cattle farm and a stable of racehorses. He was the drug supplier to the Happy Valley Set. On one occasion, he offered cocaine to the Prince of Wales who was visiting Kenya. He was thrown out of the Muthaiga Club in Nairobi where the incident took place. Apparently, peddling nose candy to royalty crossed some sort of line in the permissive culture that pervaded in the colony.

There were several other members of the idle, rich club along with spongers without money but plenty of charm and the right blood lines. They all shared a love of parties, alcohol, and promiscuity.

A few of the Happy Valley Set; Josslyn Hay and Idina Hay are second and third from the left.

A few of the Happy Valley Set; Josslyn Hay and Idina Hay are second and third from the left.

Kenyan Settlement

The East Africa Protectorate was established in 1895 in the territory that became the colony of Kenya in 1920. The British government encouraged to go and farm the fertile highlands without regard to consulting the Africans who lived there.

Many Brits seized the opportunity to escape the climate and the development of a more egalitarian society in their homeland. Historian Richard Davenport-Hines puts it this way: “They saw themselves as implanting Anglo-Saxon values in a subject people dwelling in blank, brutal barbarism. They hoped to establish an English squiredom in equatorial Africa.”

The first settlers to arrive were members of the upper class; the second or third sons of peers who could not inherit land in Britain. A second wave of settlers arrived after World War I, made up of the few officers who survived the carnage of the conflict.

The early arrivals looked down on the later ones as being middle class, bringing with them what they viewed as their somewhat stifling morality.

Happy Valley Pleasures

The two main occupations of the denizens of the Happy Valley Set were drinking and adultery. They played cards and polo, but booze and sex were the primary entertainments.

Lord and Lady Kilmarnock owned an impressive mountain lodge where they entertained guests, sometimes enjoying a diversion they called the sheet game. A bed sheet would be hung across the centre of a room and “half a dozen men would poke their penises through strategically sited holes in the sheet, and the women on the other side would select their favourite appendage” (Richard Davenport-Hines).

Aside from the frequent house parties (most chroniclers refer to them as orgies), the Happy Valley folks would sometimes head off to Nairobi and the delights of the Muthaiga Country Club. Historian Caroline Elkins in her 2005 book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya calls the club a place where the elites “drank champagne and pink gin for breakfast, played cards, danced through the night, and generally woke up with someone else's spouse in the morning.”

A Body Is Found

In January 1941, a man's body was found in a Buick car on the outskirts of Nairobi. It was identified as that of Josslyn Victor Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll, Lord Kilmarnock. There was a bullet hole behind his ear.

Rumours abounded as to who could have killed the man sometimes described as “an absolute cad.” There were plenty of candidates as his lordship seems to have bedded every white female in East Africa, whether married or unmarried.

Eventually, suspicion locked on to Sir “Jock” Delves Broughton. He had learned that his wife, Diana, had become Hay's latest paramour. Within a few weeks Sir Jock was arrested and came to trial in May 1941. The prosecution had a weak case and it didn't hurt that Sir Jock's hairdresser was foreman of the jury. He was acquitted, returned to England, and ended his own life a few months later by taking an overdose of morphine.

The death of the “king” of Happy Valley brought about the demise of the scandalous gang. There were two sad epilogues to this little melodrama. In September 1941, Alice de Janzé took her own life via a self-inflicted gun shot. In December 1946, Kiki Preston made a similar exit from this mortal coil by jumping out of a high window at New York's Stanhope Hotel.

Bonus Factoids

  • Hugh Cholmondeley, 3rd Baron Delamere was a founder of the Happy Valley crowd. On one occasion, he rode his horse into the dining room of Nairobi’s Norfolk Hotel and vaulted over the tables as if competing in a show jumping event.
  • Lady Idina Sackville had a mirrored ceiling installed in her bedroom.
  • Prince George, Duke of Kent and brother of Edward VIII and George VI was involved with the Happy Valley coterie. He is alleged to have fathered a child with Kiki Preston and to have been introduced to morphine and cocaine by her.
  • Beryl Markham, who became a famous aviatrix, was one of the gang that slept around. Her husband Captain Alexander Laidlaw “Jock” Purves was in the habit of driving a six-inch nail into the frame of their front door each time Beryl took a new lover.

Sources

  • “Happy Valley Set.” Richard Davenport-Hines, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, May 19, 2011.
  • europeansineastafrica.co.uk
  • “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya.” Caroline Elkins, Henry Holt, 2005.
  • “Altitude Sickness: The Happy Valley Set.” Nick Scott, therake.com, May 2020.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 25, 2021:

Rupert, your points are in order. Some of the local rulers or headmen see themselves more superior than the whiteman likewise due to position, wealth, social status. That's proud human nature. Igbanichuka of Okrika, consider all whites inferior. Being a very wealthy man, he denied them access to all his trading posts. He was deported on charge of human sacrifice 1896. After him enter Oju Daniel Kalio, who jointly leased land to the Harcourt Greaves Administration 1913.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on July 24, 2021:

I did not mean to imply they were superior to Africans, but that's how they saw themselves. The Happy Valley set were a pretty loathsome form of humanity.

Not all colonials behaved as badly as they did, but the entire notion of colonization is based on a false feeling of superiority.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 24, 2021:

Rupert, did I heard you right? Superior to the Africans? So stolen their lands? When these Brits came to Africa or else where, they're warming received. In America, the locals offer them blackets because of cold. All men are equal. When they came to the Niger Delta(in Nigeria). Jaja, a chief ask them to explain 'protection' under the mission of trade or religion. He explain he want to know it does not mean the loss or cedeing of his land. Port Harcourt, the second largest seaport in Nigeria denoted by my people, Okrika, and another ethnic group, the Ikwerres. I agree that in some cases, land was stolen a loss of war. But the whole land or country was regain under independence. Jaja, because he does not agreed to cede his land was falsely deport. The court ask he be sent back to his country. These pimps and libertines are beasts of no person in their country. From your story, they're just visitors.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on July 24, 2021:

Miebakagh - And they had the gall to think themselves superior to the Africans whose land they took.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 23, 2021:

Rupert, it's very shameful. These set of men and women have no conscience. They're lesser than beast of the field.

Rodric Anthony Johnson from Surprise, Arizona on July 23, 2021:

This was a disgusting reminder that the ills of the present were just as present in the past! The only thing now is the "common" people now have enough idle time to join in the whoredoms once belonging primarily to the wealthy. Anyone can be a lord or lady now of the Happy Valley persuasion--2021 equal opportunity immorality.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 23, 2021:

Depravity at its core is certainly described here. It does not sound as though it ended well for many of them. The Kenyans must have been dismayed for many reasons.

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