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