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Karunguru estate: Preserving Kenya’s shared rich history

Posted by Admin on February 5, 2022

I recently joined Friends of Heritage Trust Kenya (FoHTK) at the invitation of a friend. Heritage Trust Kenya is a registered trust dedicated to the conservation and restoration of old buildings and their surroundings which tell our shared history.

Last month, during a tour of old houses in Kiambu and Limuru, organised by FoHTK, I came across a social media post by John James Glassford of Australia, showing pictures of a house in their old coffee shamba, where “he lived for 20 years working on the farm in between soccer, rally driving, and young ladies!”

On closer scrutiny, I realised that I recognised the house as one belonging to my friends, the Kareithi family in Gatundu.

Originally known as Ridge Estate, the farm was established by 2nd Lieutenant George Glassford, a New Zealander who came to Kenya in 1919.

The following year, he was allocated more than 1,000 acres on Gatundu Road — current Kenyatta Road — under the Soldier Settlement Scheme on which he planted 300 acres of coffee with the attendant infrastructure.

He revived interest in golf at Ruiru Golf Club in 1929 where he was a captain in 1930 and president of the club in 1940.

In 1928, Glassford built a magnificent three-bedroom double-storey house, which still stands today. The walls were built in chisel-dressed stone from the nearby Thiririka Riverbanks, under a double-pitched tiled roof supported by hardwood timber members, while the floor to the reception areas is raised and finished in polished timber boards.

The floors to other living areas are finished in polished parquet, while windows are glazed in a mixture of wooden and steel casements. Doors are made of hardwood panelling held in timber frames while the ceiling consists of a solid concrete slab.

The upper bedrooms have an open area, which is an extension of the concrete slab providing a beautiful view over the forecourt and swimming pool.

One unique feature, which was standard fare in the day, is a basement accessed through a concealed trap door in the foyer whose purpose was to provide a hiding place for the residents in case of an attack while waiting for help.

This facility proved particularly useful during the emergency when attacks on white-owned farms by the Mau Mau were common in this area.

Unfortunately, Glassford died in 1954 and, military nurse, Kathleen Mavis Bird Glassford, his second wife, was left to manage the farm. Glassford was buried at Nairobi City Park cemetery.

Feeling lonely after the death of her husband, Ms Glassford extended the house, adding an extensive sunken ballroom to the western flank, which was approached from the raised bar area.

I can well imagine ladies being announced and making a grand entry in all their upper-class splendour!

Ms Glassford’s parties were legendary and every weekend there was an event at this ballroom with guests coming from far and wide. For those who may have over-indulged, Ms Glassford built three bedrooms on the eastern flank as a guest wing.

A large hole had been dug in the forecourt and when there was a party and the weather was fine, it would be filled with water and the guests would enjoy a swim. A proper swimming pool has since been built in its place by the current owners.

At the dawn of independence, the Glassford family had to make a difficult decision. Ms Glassford asked her son John to stay in Kenya and manage the farm, but John felt that although he loved Kenya and considered it home, the political climate was fluid towards white people, and he felt it was best for him to leave and complete his university studies.

In 1965, the Glassford’s sold the farm to the Madhvani Group from Uganda, and they rented a house in Karen where John got married. Soon thereafter, he left Kenya to pursue further studies at Edinburgh University and then relocated to Australia.

Ridge State was purchased by the Kareithi family in November 1973, initially changing the name to Thiririka Estate before settling on the current name Karunguru Estate. The family soon put an additional 200 acres under coffee, and this came in handy during the “Chepkube coffee boom” of 1976-1979.

The Kareithi family has since converted the ballroom into a banquet room and the family gathers here every Christmas day. A further three bedrooms have been added above the banquet, as well as several outbuildings including changing rooms and a gym.

Karunguru Coffee Tours organises guided tours of the farm twice a week where visitors are taken around the farm to experience the process of coffee production and the history of the farm.

Visitors also get to sample the Karunguru brand of roasted coffee, which can also be purchased in shelf-ready packaging for takeaway. A bus tour costs about $80 per person, which includes a fun day for the kids, a three-course meal and, of course, coffee. The tour attracts both local and foreign tourists.

Talking to Kibby Kareithi, he said he was very keen to pass on Kenyan history to the younger generation and his long-term plan is to convert this sprawling mansion into a public museum where they can come and learn more about our history.

The revenue stream from the endeavour will help to run and preserve this historic building. This is a great initiative.

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