The Birth of a City – A photo essay on the history of Nairobi


A little more than a century ago, Nairobi was nothing more than a seasonal swamp at the edge of a forest. It had nothing much to show save for a variety of wild animals and endless tracts of grazing land. On several occasions between 1902 and 1906 the colonial government had considered abandoning the site as a township in favour of the highland town, Kikuyu.

The history of Nairobi is deeply intertwined with that of the railway as the town is said to have grown around a railway depot which was built in 1899. Railway engineer J.H Patterson alluded to the,’ immense amount of work required in converting an absolutely bare plain… three hundred and twenty seven miles from the nearest place where a nail could be purchased, into a busy railway center.. “ .

The level site which was chosen due to its central position between Mombasa and Kisumu and its proximity to a network of rivers, was meant to act as a temporary base for the railway engineers as they sought ways of tackling the daunting task of laying track down in the rift valley escarpment.




HistoryofNairobiFrom the start Nairobi was never meant to be a permanent base, however with every new settlement and every newly established business Nairobi  begun to morph into a bustling centre of activity and by  1906 it had been chosen as the site for the official government seat .

The Ngong hills from Nairobi in the early 1900’s


Most railway workers lived in tents as seen from the picture below.



Nairobi Railway Station early 1900’s



Government buildings in 1906 .

The first building from the right was the Government treasury



The Indian bazaar in Nairobi pictured around the late 1890s.


In 1902 bubonic plague broke out due to rats which had bred in the filth that accumulated in a small area of the bazaar. Nearly 20 deaths had been reported when Dr.Alfred Spurrier a government medical officer, ordered that the street be burned down.

Dr. Rozendo Ribiero who  made his rounds on a zebra was the doctor who diagnosed bubonic plague in the bazaar after having witnessed a previous outbreak in India.NairobiHistory17

Two Kikuyu women deep in conversation ( Bazaar Street)


The bazaar was then moved to its present site (Biashara street) and the shops rebuilt with proper planning.

(Biashara street) in 1906


One of Nairobi’s first general stores located on Victoria street.

It was owned by J.H Rossenrode, an engine driver and Mesrop Mac John an Armenian shopkeeper from Mombasa


The Mapara family outside their shop in Njogu Lane (early 1900’s)


 Post office building in Nairobi , built in 1906.


Its main business during the railway construction was to send railway workers remittances back to India.

There were three flags flown atop the post office building :

  • The blue flag denoted that a mail ship had left Aden for Mombasa
  • The red flag that overseas mail had been received in Mombasa
  • And the white flag that it was ready for distribution

Nairobi Motor garage owned by Clement Hirtzel .


His company later went on to build a hydro electric power station at Ruiru and switched on the first street lights in 1910.

The first Stanely hotel opened on Victoria Street .

It was the brainchild of Mrs.Bent a dresssmaker who named it after the explorer Henry Morton Stanely..


The hotel was burnt down in 1905 in the Victoria street fire. It was later moved to a new location and renamed the New stanely .

Building of the new Stanley hotel in 1912


Mayence later on sold the new Stanely to Abraham Block on the 29th November 1946 for two million shillings (100,000 pounds) and lived on to 98 years .

mayence bent

It is of interest to know that when Abraham Block arrived in Nairobi from South Africa in April 1903 , one of his first odd jobs before taking up farming at Kiambu was to make mattresses for Mayence Bent at the  first Stanely hotel, which he later went on to buy 43 years later.

One of the first motorized taxis to operate in the streets of Nairobi



Government road (Now Moi Avenue ) In the direction of the railway station (1900’s )


In 1922 some residents had got so fed up with the deep potholes in Government Road that they went out one night and planted bananas and sugar cane in the holes in protest

Government road in 1927


A mounted police constable


When British Foreign office took over the administration of the country from the IBEAco there was no police force, it was formed in 1896 and gradually expanded. By 1907 a European police detachment was formed consisting of three non-commissioned officers and seven constables with five horses.

The birth of a city ………………..



The city which today boasts a population of more than 3 million people has grown immensely over the last century or so. A growth which now more than ever, at a time when the country is grappling with an array of economic, political and social issues, should remind us all of the immense amount of hard work and time that has been put to get to where we are today.

Credits : Much of the information and many of the photos used in this post were obtained from Nigel Pavitt's book Kenya: A Country in the Making, 1880-1940 , a wonderful collection of Kenya's history and definitely a collectors item

  • Enjoyed this. From the air, you get to see that ‘plain bordering a forest’ description quite well. Where does one get a copy of the book?

  • Thuitaw

    Slight correction, the photo above is not of Maasai women, its of kikuyu women. I can tell by the gourd one of them is carrying, the one decorated with cowrie shells.

    • Chao

      Thanks Thuita will make that correction

  • Pushpendra Shah

    Wonderful, Really Wonderful !

    • Chao

      Thank you 🙂

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  • I liked this 🙂 good work! I love history and especially history of my city! Keep up.

  • Steve Sheldon

    Really great, have learnt a lot more about my birth city , many thanks !

  • Sylglenda Smith Saziru

    Great article

  • Great history lesson. Could our government now remove the remnants of colonialism by substituting former colonial names of hotels/places/streets like New Stanley, Karen, etc., etc. with African names?

    • Navin Shah

      Yes, it is nationalistic to feel and say that we replace all colonial names with the indigenous names. But, for the sake of coming generations, it would be better to have new names but with the old names in brackets ( ) so that people reading the new names can learn past history. History should not be just wished away.

      As it is even new local names after independence will become debatable by future generations – because some real heroes do not get recognised by their names being given to streets, etc. but other lesser important names get undue publicity for no real reason.

  • Drew

    Fantastic, brilliant work! Please consider a now and then photo essay as well. Great stuff!

    • Chao

      Hi Drew, , was actually thinking about doing one on current Nairobi , same streets, same places, will definitely be working on it, stay tuned, thank you 🙂

  • Japheth S.Mushira

    Quite interesting. This is what we should be teaching the current generation.
    Just a suggestion: Continue with the journey till you get to the current Nairobi.

    • Chao

      Hi Joseph, currently working on that, should be posting it soon , thanks

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  • Conrad Karume

    Wow! this is awesome.

  • Kishor Modha

    Wonderful – great photos, invaluable info.

  • Sudhir Shah

    Beautiful – My birth place-My growing up years 1950’s.

    • Chao

      Thanks Sudhir would you have any photos of Nairobi during that time ?
      if so you can send me an email at , would love to feature them here ,

  • WASEEM Altaf Khawaja

    Beautiful photographs of my City Nairobi I was born in Nairobi In 1948 .my grand father got registered as contractor M.Hussain and co in 1926

  • Anita Ladva

    Really enjoyed reading the information. I was born in Nairobi in 1957. Will always remember the good old days. Brought back so many memories. Thank you

  • Jagdish Dave

    Nairobi has grown rapidly. I visited Nairobi after 25 years. Now Kenyatta Avenue, Bazzar Street, Moi Avenue
    Government Road are teeming with skyscrappers, it is now a concrete jungle.
    Outskirts of Nairobi has also developed, Nairobi is a worls class city.

    • Chao

      Thanks Jagdish. Yes it’s amazing how fast the city has grown over the years and yes concrete jungles and skyscrapers are the order of the day.

      But everything starts from somewhere and I’m glad that we can have something to show from the start of our beloved city Nairobi.

      Thanks for reading too.

  • Jyotikumar Jagjivan Pankhania

    Beautiful – Enjoyed reading the history of my Birth place. I was born in 1953 and my Grandfather was one of the first Member of our community to arrive on Kenya.



  • Mohammed Maimoun

    Amazing and Pictures of Olden Kenya and historic archives.
    Congrates for preserving

  • Hasmukh Devani

    Wonderful history
    Nairobi now in 2014 it is estimated to have a population of just around 5million
    Our grand parents and parents would be proud of foundation they built on which Nairobi is
    is now growing.
    We also hope that the contribution by people of non African origin will be recorded
    In the History of Kenya

    • Chao

      Indeed the would be very proud to see how much the city has grown as a result of the firm foundation they built.

      Thanks too for the info, working on a series of posts ( particularly about the railway) and I have come to greatly appreciate the immense role played by people of Non African origin as you have said.

      Doing my best to record as much of it as I can, because it is definitely one that deserves appreciation and preservation



  • R. Naresh Saini

    Great work & informative history of our beautiful city.

  • Nice. I love this….pictures and words…

  • amir

    Why change names? Colonial past is what brought Nairobi where it is. HIstory is just that. Africans and all others just have to accept it and move on and built new things and give them African or tribal names. Kenya was built by many communities and they all should have their place in history, just not eliminated for the sake of “political correctness” . Be proud Waithira.

    • Wamai

      I absolutely agree with Amir. Culture is the sum total of one’s, or a community’s, collective experience. I am proud that Kenyans are drawn from so many backgrounds. This is something to embrace and celebrate…


    must say – great photographs…

  • Narotam Lathia

    It was great to see historical photos of Nairobi. It’s just amazing how many people started a new life there!

  • Rajesh Doshi

    Re called old memories.

  • Awino Onduu

    Amaizing work Chao Maina! Am still embarrassed that I am seeing the post now..
    Keep up the good work Bebe 🙂

    • Chao

      Haha Thanks love, nimeshukuru sana

  • Shantilal Patel (s.m./Sharad/Shambhu/Lungi)

    I was born in Nairobi in 1945 – Memories of a laid back, peaceful life , attending City Primary & Duke of Gloucester High in Nairobi will be with me forever.

  • Faroo Ishaq

    Wow,you done a great job in putting this together,fantastic,though i am from uganda but loved the history and pictures tell a lot,GOOD OLD DAYS,love my africa,THANK YOU VERY MUCH ONCE AGAIN,GOD BLESS

    • Chao

      Thank you Faroo, glad to have done it

  • Hussein Sheriff Khalfan

    I born in Mombasa old town,and was admire to see the picture of old NIROBI. It will be better also have for Mombasa.

    • Chao

      Hi Hussein I am working on similar write ups on other towns and cities in Kenya and Mombasa is one of them, will be sure to post it as soon as I’m done, thanks

  • Incredible historical presentation about Nairobi. How about Mombasa, Kisumu and other big/small cities in Kenya.

  • Wow! This, this is quite interesting. How can I get access to some of these photos? Who owns the copyrights rather?

    • Chao

      Thanks, I had to manually take photos of the photos in Nigel Pavitt’s book. And edit them for clarity and all ( I hope that makes sense)
      The book is too big to use on a standard size scanner so that was the only means fit at the time.

      So as for the copyright issue you could just either reference to The Agora or directly reference the book, whichever you find best.

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    Great work! shows where we’re coming from and where we’re going, let the new generation embrace the change and keep Nairobi high with skyscrapers

  • Jay Thakerar

    NIROBI as my gran maa used to call, remains a place of beauty.From Kisumu we used to go to NIROBI, and often found it colder, so get a chance to wear woolies..Saw SHREE 420 (1957) at NGARA CINEMA, Loved RIVER RD shopping a mystery & the museum snake park to see pythons near LEAKE MUSEUM.. ..CITY must have changed quite a lot. Hope CITY stays peaceful & joy for residents and tourists..

    • Chao

      Wow Thank you for sharing these wonderful memories JAY, 🙂

  • Jayanti patel

    Great pictures and info…..

  • m.salim mughal

    well done brings back tears and memories of old days more please

  • It was already an enchanting place when I was there in the fortys. I am sure it gets better and better. It must get the slums sorted out at its periphery.

  • chandrakant thanki

    wonderful history of my birth place. My father settled in Nairobi in 1944 and I spent the first 18 years of my life there, so Nairobi holds a special place in my heart.

    • Chao

      Thank you Chandrakant , happy to have shared this information .

  • Arjun Hirani

    What a wonderful collection.The collector deserves congratulations.Very well done !

  • Navin Shah

    Great photos. Good to know about beginnings of Nairobi.

    Old names of city streets, etc. should be retained and not replaced by new names – for history and posterity. Alternately, have new names but write the old names in brackets after the new names so the new generations can know more about transformation from colonial to independant time.

  • Kiran PANCHAL Toronto canada

    Down memory lane … Great work congrat with best wishes

  • Maina Mungai

    Great work & pics. Nairobi has come far! Kudos to the pioneers – black, brown or white. All played a great role in establishing the city. Continue the good work. Waiting for your work on the other cities – Msa, Kisumu etc…

    • Chao

      Thank you very much Mungai , working on the rest , should be posting one soon



    • Chao

      Thank you very much Amritlal glad to have brought back those memories

    • Naresh Lathia

      Yes, reminds me of and old song popular in the UK (1968, Mary Hopkins) when I first arrived here from Kenya. ‘those were the days my friends and we thought they’d never end’.

      “Those Were the Days” is a song credited to Gene Raskin, who put English lyrics to the Russian romance song “Dorogoi dlinnoyu” (“Дорогой длинною”, lit. “By the long road”), composed by Boris Fomin (1900–1948) with words by the poet Konstantin Podrevskii. It deals with reminiscence upon youth and romantic idealism.

      This also tells me that migration and development go hand in hand in most lands and through history. Thus it’s so nice to see our history too preserved on this website.

      • Chao

        Thank you Naresh especially for identifying the post with such a beautiful song,recently acquired a copy of Podrevskii’s biography. now that you mention it, I think I am more and more excited to read it now that I can attach a personal experience and meaning to it.

        Thank you too for the encouraging words and the undying support.

  • Mohamed Afzal Hayat

    I love Nairobi and its weather, thanks for collection of very good photographs. See also calendar 2014 of Kencom for old Nairobi. I have some photographs of old Nairobi, please let me know if interested.

    • Chao

      Hi Mohamed, yes Nairobi is truly a beautiful city, thanks a lot will be sure to check out the Kencom calender, yes would love to have the old Nairobi photos , my email, Looking forward to seeing them , thank you

  • Good job nice to see photos of NLRB.

  • Akuna Matata

    Really Muzuree, did not know all the above

    • Chao

      Thank you, glad to have shared it

  • t k butt

    Really very nice. Thanks for sharing

  • Ambalal Mistry

    Very nice I was brought up in Nairobi got my education Eastleigh Secondary School and was working for city council of Nairobi till Feb 1968

    • Chao

      Thank you Ambalal

  • Dr. Mansoor Sharief

    I was born in Nairobi, grew and educated there, spent the early part of my life there. I went to the Park Road Primary School and then to the Eastleigh Secondary School. From Kenya, I moved toDar es salaam, zambia and finally to Harare (Zimbabwe). I am now retired and settled in Birmingham (UK). They say you can take an African out of Africa, but you can not take Africa out of an African – how truly said. I was born in Nairobi in 1943. My father went to Nairobi in 1933.
    Still miss the wonderful days spent in Africa and especially Nairobi !!!!

  • Dr. Mansoor Ahmad Sharief.

    I was born in Nairobi in 1943. Went to the Park Road Primary School and then to the Eastleigh Secondary School, Nairobi. My father went to Nairobi in 1933. After spending my early youth in Kenya, I moved on to Tanzania, then to Zambia and finally to Zimbabwe where I established my own hospital and practiced there till 2009 when I retired and moved on to Birmingham (UK).
    They say you can take an African out of Africa, but you can not take Africa out of an African – how very true !!
    Still miss the lovely days spent in Kenya and Africa on the whole.

    • Chao

      Thank you Mansoor for sharing that brilliant piece of your history, I stumbled upon this website of Eastleigh Secondary School the other day it might be of great interest to you , that is if you have not seen it already.

      It’s great to see Africans abroad , appreciate their history and their homeland, thanks a lot

  • Jyotikumar jagjivan Pankhania

    Hi Chao,
    You are doing great work, well done it bring back lot of good memories.
    I would be very greatful if you can please kindly post any information you come across on the 3 schools I went to in Nairobi. Visha Oshwal Primary School, Parklands Secondary School and Nairobi School. Many thanks.

    • Chao

      Hi Jyotikumar, thanks for reading, will try and find out as much information as I can about the schools. I know that they are some of the oldest schools in Nairobi and it would definitely be a history worth recording I shall let you know as soon as I do.

      • Jyotikumar Jagjivan Pankhania

        Thanks Chao xx

  • Jagdish M. Dave

    Jyotikuamr. any relation to Karsan Sura ?
    Jagdish Dave

    • Jyotikumar Jagjivan Pankhania

      Karsan Sura Pankhania was my grandfather.

  • Ashok Ratilal Bhatt

    Great Photos,good memories
    I was born in Nairobi in 1947 and living parklands and went to Highridge Primary school, from std 1 to form 1 and duke of Gloucester and finally in U.k
    I still love to go back and settle in Nairobi
    I have lots of my child hood photos of my school and teachers and headmaster
    My father come to Nairobi in 1938 and he worked for East African power Lighting and finally open his own business ,my father and his workers installed all decorative lights in Khoja Mosque which they switch on when AGA KHAN visits Nairobi

    • Chao

      Hi Ashok., Thank you very much for sharing interestingly enough I recently stumbled upon an old photo taken during the construction of Khoja mosque..if you have any old photos you would love to share you could always send them to me and I could share them on the website with your consent of course.

      Here’s my email

      Thanks for enjoying the post, I highly appreciate it

  • absolutely amazing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! i love it 🙂 i like the old Nairobi better!! 🙂

    • Chao

      Thanks Abdulrahim, you have every right to 🙂 glad you enjoyed it

  • Luc Sokoine

    I was born in Nairobi in 1918.

    So many memories of the glory days of Nairobi when things were just getting started. I wish I could could freeze the rain season of 1933 in Nairobi and keep life in that year for infinity.

    • Chao

      Thanks for reading Luc, if only we had the ability to freeze and live only in those moments we treasure the most. But I guess that’s what makes them even more special and memorable the fact that we can’t relieve them we can only treasure them. Most grateful that you enjoyed the photos.


    Fabulous to see the “birth” of Nairobi from the first few tents !! Many an overseas Kenyan will remember the City as it was especially in the 50s and 60s . Sheer nostalgia seeing the pictures of old.
    Keep up the good work.

    • Chao

      Thanks Shindy , glad to know that many people can identify with the photos , pleased to have shared them ,appreciate the support

  • Ariz

    Beautiful pictures of Nairobi!! Can’t believe how Nairobi has grown so much. I wish I could go back in time and walk them streets of Nairobi and see the views of Ngong hills must have been spectacular!!! I need to get that car from back to the future!!!

  • vincent

    Nice collection, I have three more pic you would like to add to this story…I can email them if you like

    • Chao

      Hi Vincent thank you , glad you enjoyed the post on Nairobi..yes would love to add them to the story , here’s my email : , Thanks

  • Pali Ladher

    although I was born in Kajabee in the Highlands, Kenya has always been with me ever since we left in the 1963. Nairobi was a special place for me, coming from Nakuru was like going the Moon. such a buitefull town comparing Nakuru.we cont. stop talking about Nairobi .when we left Kenya we took all the memory’s with us, and left behind our hearts…..

    • Chao

      Dear Pal Ladher, it was wonderful reading your comment , glad to have written something that reminds you so much of the beautiful Nairobi that you and your family so dearly treasure. I appreciate it , thanks for reading .

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  • Hillary wachira

    Wah! tumetoka mbali. I love this…Good work.

    • Chao

      Yes we have Hillary, we truly have .. thank you for reading

  • Rohit TALLMEN

    Same above anyine can share me SUDAN pic historical old age???





    • TheAgora

      Thank you Mahendra

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  • Wonderfull scineries.My father in law Mr.LM Dave, president Audichya Brahmin and his som Mr.Jagdish L Dave were staying there long back.They were well known persons.They my e in Nairobi since 100 years ago.Mr.LM Dave road was there in Nairobi.He was big merchant.His grand son Mr.Shreyas Dave is still in Nairobi.Do you have any idea?or do you know all them.Mr.LM Dave and his son Mr.Jaagdish Dave expired long back.I had beenT Nairobi twicw in their time.and like itvery much.climate is like paradise..i appreciate andstill like to visit again and again……H.G..Joshi from Porbandar

  • django

    Great piece but there a new conspiracy theory on Nairobi.

    Ever heard of the Colombian Exchange? The brits deliberately unleashed a biology warfare of smallpox and rinderpest as they gradually laid the railway inland, systematically subduing and wiping out a 1/3 of the Maa people and 3/4 of there of their livestock to render any resistance to the railway construction futile.

    Enkare Nyorobi had been earmarked in 1892 as the railway headquarters by royal engineers James MacDonald and John W. Pringle. To dispossess the precious watering hole from a weakened Maa people, the conniving brits gutted and razed local settlements and a propped supply depot ‘Mile 327’ to the ground on the pretext of eradicating the plagues in 1889, relocating the Masai to Kaijado and the Kikuyu in “Kikuyu District” to pave way for the railway headquarters from temporary Masuku in 1901 … eventually establishing a regional government seat in 1907.

    A cookie cut strategy was under way by the Germans in Tanganyika.

    “..Through everything – through the forests, through the ravines, through troops of marauding lions, through famine, through war, through five years of excoriating parliamentary debate, muddled and marched the railway.”
    Winston Churchill

    “There were women wasted to skeletons from whose eyes the madness of starvation glared … warriors scarcely able to crawl on all fours, and apathetic, languishing elders. Swarms of vultures followed them from high, awaiting their certain victims.” By one estimate two-thirds of the Maasai died during this period”
    Through The lands Of The Maasai, By Austrian explorer Oscar Baumann, 1894

    • TheAgora

      Hi django , wow I must say your comment presents a very interesting yet unknown revelation . Thank you very much for that info. I had previously read about the rinderpest and smallpox infections that brought the Maasai tribe down to its knees and in many ways left them with no option other than to collaborate with the British. ( In their weakened state resistance would be futile ). But had not come across any material that presented the downfall of the Maasai as deliberately caused by the British. Will definitely research more about it and if possible write and share what I find ,. Thank you , regards, Chao

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  • Bill Butler

    Great pic”s.As to Django conspiriacy theory, Smallpox is related to cow pox and cow “people” don”t catch it. Rinderpest is carried by game indeed endemic especially buffalo, out breaks occured periodically, a “slate cleaner ” in unvaccinated cattle and game whose immune system had degenerated through lack of contact. I would suggest that the rinderpest wiped their cattle leaving them destitute, and open to disease caught from railway employee”s
    that came from different parts of the world

  • Odeny Martha

    What happened to Victoria Street?

    • Dear Martha Victoria was changed to Tom Mboya street

  • Feisalnanji

    For a reflective, funny look of a fourth generatioin Indian-Kenyan, read “Made in Kenya”… Available on Amazon..

  • timothy njoroge

    Wow!! Interesting. Really astonished.. We have come from far.. A great piece. Kudos,we need not forget where we are from and not loose focus on where we are headed.. Its encouraging that theres is the Vision 2030 that will move us further.. I love my country. I love my city. Now I’ll have a better understanding when am walking down the streets of Nai, considering the coincidence that I am studying in The Bazaar Moi University Nairobi Campus.. Wow! Awesome knowing this history. Thanks

    • Hi Timothy , thank you very much for your comment..I was extremely pleased to read it 🙂 🙂 . Happy to have shared this vital part of the city’s history. All the very best in your studies . Thank you.