Pembroke House School - Gilgil, Kenya

A Chapel is Built.

 

Many years ago, when Kenya was still a British Colony - an outpost of a mighty empire - a preparatory school for boys was founded at the bottom of The Great Rift Valley. Here you see the main building - the centre-piece of the front was a magnificent massive Zanzibar door graced by louvered-glass windows on either side.

Here the sons of the settlers were to sent to get a decent education with emphasis on the classics, self-reliance, and sports of all kinds. Besides cricket, (note the slip-catch cradle on the lawn to the left - a practice aid for aspiring slip catchers) there was riding to hounds with a pack of bassets, moon-light cross-country runs, fly-fishing in trout streams in the Aberdare Mountains, and all manner of educational experiences as befitting the sons of Lords, Earls, Prospectors, Farmers, Mining Engineers, Game Wardens, Veterinarians, and sundry flotsam and jetsam of adventurers who washed up in this magical spot in Africa, and opted to stay there.

In the 1950's, there were around 60 or 70 boys who lived there for three terms per year, each of three months. Between the ages of 7 and 12 years old, they had to be kept occupied beyond the 8 hours of schooling a day. Besides informal play time and organised sports, it was felt that they also needed a project. A challenge that would contribute to their education beyond what Latin, French, Geometry or History could achieve.

Such projects could last for years. One was to build a yacht pond, another was to build a large pavilion with storage rooms (for athletic equipment like cricket pads, stumps and slip-catch cradle, pommel horse and archery targets - just to name a few). One project was to build a chapel. Not just a little wooden chapel, but one with stained glass windows and a tower, made with with two-foot thick walls of tamped murram and clay, with concrete window frames and a steel-trussed roof - one that would last the ages.

These are some pictures of that endeavour, kindly provided by former pupils of the school.

 

Here Alfreda Hazard (wife of the headmaster, grey coat and skirt) can be seen with the mother of a pupil in front of the chapel under construction.

Pupils are using a hand-cranked cement mixer to prepare concrete for use in the chapel. Note the crudely erected shade, and pupils wearing felt hats. The latter were a school-required item to protect against an equatorial sun at 6,600ft altitude. We probably didn't know it at the time, but this combination means high doses of UV radiation, not good for Anglo-saxon or Celtic skins in terms of DNA damage leading to eventual higher risk for cancer problems.

 

 

To mix concrete, you first need to obtain the ingredients. Cement and sand were acquired by direct parental donation as well as purchase with monies donated to the chapel fund. But the rock aggregate was "scavenged" from an abandoned quarry across the road from the school. This quarry was originally established to provide ballast rock for railway line construction, including the line that ran from Gilgil to Thompson's Falls. Not completely abandoned, it was still occasionally used as a source of rock for permanent way maintenace by the authorities, which meant there were piles of rock lying around ready for the taking.

This was an opportunity that could not be missed - it was just a matter of arranging collection and transport - ideal work for a gang of pre-teen youths. A sturdy cart was built (named the "Punda Cart" where "punda" is the Swahili for Ass or Donkey) and whenever a fresh supply of rock was needed, sufficient youth-power was assembled before breakfast (while the temperature was still cool before the sun rose too high) and the cart was man-handled (youth-handled?) across the road to the quarry. It was filled with rock gathered piece-by-piece off the ground and then dragged back (but now heavily laden) to the construction site using the same source of motive power.

The most important member of the team was the brake man (seen here to the right of the wheel with his hand on the brake lever). Coming back down the hill fully laden, the cart might overpower the combined muscle-power of its drivers. It was the solemn responsibility of the brake man to always be ready and in position to stop a runaway punda-cart laden with aggregate rock careening down the road out of control in the general direction of Gilgil.

Note the standard workaday uniform - khaki shorts, khaki bush jacket (lots of pockets), a grey cardigan if temperature warranted, and the mandatory-at-all-times felt hat which it was claimed was necessary given our equatorial location at 6000ft above sea level - the UV rays from the sun might fry our brains. Given what we know today about skin cancer, this rule was very appropriate but not for the reasons given.

 

 

Access to higher levels of the building construction was gained by spanning two oil drums with a plank to form a scaffold, or even wooden towers built out of sturdy tree limbs as shown here.

Today the inspectors from Industrial Health & Safety might have some opinions on the matter - leaving aside the question of underage construction workers...

 

 

The walls near completion, ready for work to start on the roof.

 

 

The roof had three main structural supports constructed as steel box-girders to span the width of the chapel. These were designed by Colonel Randall, a maths teacher and formerly of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME). Construction of the box-girders was handled by the pupils themselves under his supervision accompanied by stories of Bailey Bridge construction in the war. (See notes futher below for more about Colonel Randall)

Construction has started on the separate tower.

 

 

The completed chapel.

 

 

 

 

The chairs in the chapel had their origins in the dining room. Traditionally, when a pupil left the school, some parents would pay for a memorial chair with a little brass plaque on the back recording the pupil's name and years of attendance. I never saw the completed chapel myself, but this photo would seem to show that those chairs (or similar ones) became repurposed to ecclesiastical duties.

The oval stained glass window behind the altar was also constructed by the pupils, under guidance from the same Colonel Randall. (See notes below for further details on this)

 

 

Mr Hanbury (or "Sir") affectionately known as Harpic - "Clean Round The Bend" as claimed by the old advertising jingle for the eponymous toilet-cleaning product.

 

 

Above is Chris Hazard (The Headmaster - affectionatlely known as Quelch by the pupils) and his wife Alfreda, standing with a pupil's mother on the right.

 

Colonel Randall, his role in Pembroke House

 

Colonel Randall was a maths teacher who had served with REME in WWll. In fact he was much more than just the maths master. His REME background (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) made him one of the most important people on staff. He functioned in fact as the Chief Engineer of Pembroke House, and with the aid of a few acolytes, kept the whole ship running.

Let me explain...

Besides the formal academic curriculum (Latin, History, French...) and the formal sports activities (Soccer, cricket, cross-country hare-and-hounds with real Bassett hounds, an ill-fated attempt by Col. Pratley to start a boxing program...) we also had a few other semi-organized activities. I remember there was a wood-working program where one could learn basic carpentry such how to sharpen a chisel and use it safely, how to set the blade in a plane without too much blood loss, or make a mitred joint. One had the opportunity not only to build rudimentary things, but also repair furniture, put a new shelf in the kitchen and so forth.

Another regular organized activity was called "Randallising", named after the aforementioned Colonel. Its activities occurred in the afternoons before supper and members of the group did all the things that Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers are wont to do (in maintaining the smooth functioning of Pembroke House), which I’m sure had a huge impact on the future career paths of a number of pupils (including myself) who comprised the labour force.

For example, in those days the wires from East African Power & Light had not reached Pembroke House, so we did not have electricity in the normal sense. But we did enjoy a modicum of electric light. This was provided by the "tinga-tinga" - an onomatopoeic Swahili name for the in-house generator. This was a large single-cylinder (aka one-lung) Lister diesel engine connected to a generator, all mounted on a wooden chassis-platform platform laid over some old tyres as a shock-absorbing (sound-deadening) measure. On googling to see what I could find more on this subject, to my amazement I found a short video on YouTube which provides a near-perfect reconstruction - click here to see the video clip. ... which is just such an engine mounted on an old Land-Rover tyre. (Listening to this clip also immediately tells you where the Swahili name "tinga-tinga" came from.)

The engine at Pemroke House drove a 12 volt generator (maybe it was 6 volt, memory is vague on that detail) via a large belt, and that powered a set of automotive headlight bulbs strategically located in passageways, dorms and staff living quarters. It was up to the Randallizers not only to maintain this system, but it fell to one of us to start the tinga-tinga at 6pm sharp every evening, (or at 1800 hours in Colonel Randall's terminology), This involved moving a lever that held the valves open so there was no compression while the lucky pupil cranked the flywheel to get it spinning as fast as he could. Then on command, he was to disengage the crankhandle from the main shaft before the lever was flipped that allowed the valves to engage and cylinder compression became effective and the while contraption tinga-tingaed gloriously in to life. (Flipping the compression lever before disengaging the crank-handle we were assured would result in minimally a broken arm and possibly even manned flight in some random direction.)

Another duty of the Randallizers was maintenance of the Rolls, the Bentley, and the Willys Jeep. Mainly this consisted of changing the oil, greasing the greasepoints, adjusting the brakes, topping up the radiator and the tyres and so forth. I remember that when changing oil, we were threatened with having last rites read over us if we cross-threaded the sump plug. I can also remember putting a new condenser into the ignition system of the Rolls and re-gapping the plugs.

The Chapel was also the beneficiary of Randallizers efforts. The beams for the roof were box trusses made up out of angle iron and cross-braces - which all had to be assembled by cutting, drilling and riveting the raw materials. Cutting was by hacksaw, drilling was done by a manually cranked drill press, and the rivets were heated to glowing in the charcoal forge to soften them before they were hammered into place.

The large oval stained-glass window in the Chapel was also the work of the Randallisers. Parents were solicited to provide coloured-glass bottles and old car batteries. The coloured bottles were smashed into little pieces (the size of a pea was ideal) and the colors kept in separate piles. Deep blue came from “Milk of Magnesia”, light green and light brown came from Nile Lager and Tusker bottles, and medium red from “Iron Jelloids” bottles from what I can remember.

The old car batteries first had their acid decanted in a large glass carboy, and were then broken open with a sledge hammer to get at the lead plates. These were fed, still wet with acid, into a cauldron of molten lead, resulting in much sizzle and splatter of hot acid. Our uniform khaki jackets and shorts inevitably developed little holes over time whose mysterious origins drove Miss Farrant crazy until she eventually tracked down the cause and read us the riot act. (The fact that we didn’t even wear safety goggles still gives me the shudders today)

The cauldron was a old massive iron brake drum from a lorry and shaped like one of those cake tins for cakes with a large chimney hole in the middle. This was placed on a bed of glowing charcoal in the forge which had a manually cranked blower to keep the coals glowing fiercely.

When we had a gallon or two of molten lead, it was poured into a mold made out of two pieces of angle-iron clamped together - resulting in a lead rod of rectangular cross-section about a centimeter square and a few feet long. These rods were then bent to the shape of the patterns in the stained glass window and arc-welded together to form the overall design. Arc welding was done with any electric power that could still be derived from the donated car batteries. An attempt would be made to charge the batteries on arrival to see if they still worked at all, and the better ones were retained to provide the power source for welding. Charging was accomplished via the wind-charger (windmill) mounted high above the pigeon loft.

Electrodes were made by recovering the central carbon rod found in torch batteries. These were removed from the dead batteries and then sharpened to a point in a pencil sharpener. One terminal of the battery was connected via a thick copper cable to the lead to be welded, the electrode was held in a clamp connected to another copper cable in contact with the other battery terminal, and so the deed was done. Welding was great fun with sparks and blobs of molten lead flying in all directions. More holes in uniforms ensued, bringing Miss Farrant ever closer to the brink of nervous breakdown.

When the design of the pattern had been realized in lead rods welded together, it was placed flat on a sheet of clear glass. The granules of coloured crushed glass were then poured into the intervening spaces between the lead outlines, and when complete the whole thing was to be covered with another sheet of clear glass to make the finished window. I never saw the final step because I left school before it was completed, but I see from the picture above that it finally made it up in pride of place behind the altar.

Thank you Colonel Randall - you surely shaped a number of pupils to a love of technology, tinkering, and inventing. Some of them made this direction their career.