Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 07 December 2023

Happy Valley setfree

(act. 1924–1941)

Happy Valley setfree

(act. 1924–1941)
  • Richard Davenport-Hines

Happy Valley set (act. 1924–1941), was the sobriquet of fast-living English upper-class settlers in Kenya's Wanjohi valley who were notorious for adultery, alcoholism, and violence. The sexual diversions of the Wanjohi valley led to it being known as Happy Valley and prompted the joke question, 'Are you married, or do you live in Kenya?' (Carberry, 156). The Happy Valley escapists were no more representative of colonial Kenya than the ‘bright young people’ were of inter-war England. The set's heyday ran from 1924, when two of its most notorious members, Josslyn Hay, twenty-second earl of Erroll, and his first wife, Lady (Myra) Idina Sackville (1893–1955), daughter of the eighth Earl De La Warr, settled in the Wanjohi valley. It petered out in 1941 after Erroll's murder, and the suicides of his discarded mistress Alice de Janzé (1899–1941) and his cuckold, Sir Jock Broughton, eleventh baronet [see under Hay, Josslyn], both of whom have been suspected as Erroll's killer. Alice de Janzé ranked after the Errolls as the third leader of the set. Also prominent were her first husband, Count Frédéric de Janzé (1896–1933), whose roman à clef Vertical Land (1928) depicts Happy Valley's habitués, and her second, Raymond de Trafford (1900–1971). The de Janzés were divorced in 1927 after she shot de Trafford, who was then her lover, and turned her gun on herself; her marriage to de Trafford in 1932 endured only a few months. Other members of the set included Kiki Preston (1898–1946; née Alice Gwynne), John Evans-Freke, tenth Baron Carbery (1892–1970), his third wife, June, née Mosley (d. 1980), and John Beecroft Soames (1884–1951), who settled in 1920 on the Burgaret estate at Mweiga, near Nanyuki.

The British East Africa Protectorate was established in 1895, and renamed Kenya colony in 1920. The first wave of pioneer settlers was led by Hugh Cholmondeley, third Baron Delamere, who remained a dominant figure until his death in 1931. They found their native land overcrowded, over-taxed, and succumbing to uncongenially egalitarian tendencies, as well as too northern in its climate and inhibitions. 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—a full-blooded version of Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire rather than Trollope's. Delamere's regular teatime meal of gazelle chops, blancmange, and tinned peaches was eaten to the sound of 'All Aboard for Margate' on his wind-up gramophone. White settler society was demarcated by a strict order of precedence: the pre-war arrivals were united in their contempt for the second wave of settlers, chiefly ex-officers who arrived after the First World War, who had to work hard on their farms to prosper, and perpetuated 'the fearful living-death of the English middle-class mediocrity' (Blixen, 49). By class and temperament the Happy Valley set were allied to the earlier group. In 1926, when the Hays, de Janzés, and Prestons congregated in Wanjohi valley, there were fewer than a dozen European settler families in total there. The squirearchy in the area included landless younger sons or heirs presumptive of peers and baronets: Galbraith Cole (1881–1929) at Keekopey, overlooking Lake Elmenteita, near Gilgil; Berkeley Cole (1882–1925), who farmed sheep at Nyeri; Eric Gooch (1886–1937) of Rongai River Farm, Naro Muru; David Leslie-Melville (1892–1938), who farmed from 1924 at Airdrie, Gilgil, and was divorced in 1927; and Roderick Ward (1902–1952) at ol'Leleshwa, Thomson's Falls. These men and their wives were not uniformly champion adulterers, although Gwynned Gooch, née Brooke-Meares (1875–1964), and a neighbour were found naked in the back seat of a Buick during a party at the Errolls' house, Oserian.

Some of those involved in the Happy Valley set lived away from the Wanjohi valley. Francis (Frank) Greswolde-Williams (1873–1931), a landed proprietor in Worcestershire, in 1907 settled on a model estate, Knightswick, in the Kedong valley. He preferred to live in his shooting-camp ten miles from the main house, for he owned reputedly the finest private acreage of big-game shooting in Africa, and (aided by his native tracker, Bogo, and Basuto headman, Bless) was a renowned lion hunter. Greswolde-Williams did not figure as a Happy Valley sexual partner (he was too fat and drunken), but as a supplier of cocaine and probably opiates. Sporting a black eye-patch after losing an eye in a shooting accident, he was notoriously coarse-mannered, but kind-hearted to women. He is surmised to have paid for the future aviator Beryl Markham to have a late abortion in 1924, and was subsequently her protector. The child was probably fathered by Denys Finch Hatton, safari leader, aviator, and lover of the author Karen Blixen. None of these individuals can be included as full members of the set, but like Diana Caldwell (1913–1987)—who married Sir Jock Broughton and later Thomas Cholmondeley, fourth Baron Delamere, and had an affair with Lord Erroll—they observed or briefly participated in its activities.

Another man who was crucial to the set, although never recorded as a participant in its orgies, was a stately, erudite, and independent-minded baronet, Sir John (‘Chops’) Ramsden (1877–1958). Ramsden, who had owned most of Huddersfield until 1919 and as late as 1930 held 150,000 acres in Britain and rubber plantations in Malaya, owned 70,000 acres in Kenya, where he was a large-scale dairy-farmer, sold land to Wanjohi valley settlers, and built houses for the de Janzés among others. The Wanjohi valley lies near the equator, at an altitude of about 8000 feet, beneath the eastern slopes of the Aberdare mountains, with their fertile foothills and cedar forests. Mount Kenya towers to the east. The valley's chief town is Nyeri, then a shabby, dusty settlement resembling an outpost in the American wild west. Robert Baden-Powell and his wife, Olave Baden-Powell, had a cottage there, in the grounds of the Outspan Hotel, which was opened in 1928 on a site overlooking the Chania gorge by Baden-Powell's former private secretary, Eric Sherbrooke Walker (1887–1976). Walker was an British army officer and American bootlegger whose pseudonymous Confessions of a Rum-Runner was published in 1927. By 1930 the Outspan had its own golf course and flying-strip, and served settlers as a social headquarters, library, laundry, and pharmacy, while staff organized safaris. The White Rhino Hotel (part-owned by Berkeley Cole) was the second-best hotel in Nyeri.

The set included people with houses near the rough-and-ready livestock town of Gilgil, or on the shores of Lake Naivasha. The Carbery farmhouse at Seremai was a single-storey grey-stoned building with a cedar bark shingle roof surrounded by a coffee plantation. The focal point of June Carbery's bedroom, which was painted in raspberry and cream with doors and mantelshelf in black gloss, was the huge bed in which she amused her lovers. With its well-groomed gardens, and a battery of servants, Seremai provided the semblance of English country-house living in an equatorial climate. Slains—Hay's first Kenyan house, named after his ancestral castle—was an unpretentious bungalow with corrugated iron roof and cottage-like bay windows, but had some exotic features: a mirrored ceiling above Idina's bed, and a green travertine marble bathroom to which hot water was piped from three 44 gallon drums heated by log fires. Josslyn Hay's next house, Oserian, known as the Djinn Palace, a crenellated and domed house, with minarets, inner courtyard with fountains, squash court, swimming pool, and polo ground, was near Kiki Preston's Dutch colonial house, Mundai, on the shores of Lake Naivasha. In 1925 the Hays moved to Clouds—a palatial mountain lodge, with a cloistered central courtyard, and a working dairy farm—which became synonymous with the high living of the Happy Valley set.

With a few exceptions, the settlers did not master Swahili, though they could bark peremptory orders in a primitive version called ki-settler. The most common phrases used were pesi pesi and watcha kelele, meaning 'hurry up, get on with it' and 'shut up' (Carberry, 40). Members of the Happy Valley set tended to regard their houseboys as sub-human, housed them in tin-roofed huts, and complained that they stank, but provided only pit latrines. Apart from a few women ayas, the servants were all men, mainly from the Kikuyu tribe. Somali men carried high prestige as indoor servants, and were the equivalent in Kenya of an English butler in California. Women were kept on the reserves, except when they were needed at harvest time. Houseboys wore long cotton rusty brown robes called kunzus with a red fez, although when the head houseboy served at table he donned a white kunzu with a sleeveless red bolero trimmed with gold braid. For breakfast they served porridge, eggs and bacon, sausages, kidneys, and black pudding (though Raymond de Trafford breakfasted in bed on grouse paste and soda water). Luncheon comprised soup, roast meat with boiled potatoes, and rice pudding or junket.

Adultery was the most notorious characteristic of Happy Valley life. Beryl Markham was first married at sixteen to Alexander (Jock) Purves (d. 1945): each time she took a new lover, he hammered a six-inch nail into the wooden frame of their front door. Jack Soames was a voyeur who drilled holes in the ceilings of his bedrooms to watch his copulating guests. At Clouds they played the ‘sheet game’: a sheet would be strung across the drawing-room, 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. A head start in the competition was enjoyed by Julien ‘Lizzie’ Lezard (1902–1958), a lover of both Idina Sackville and Alice de Janzé, who was so proud of his long member that he also liked to display it, along with his cards, when he got a full house at poker. When Evelyn Waugh stayed with that 'fine desperado' de Trafford at Njoro in 1931, the latter was trying to organize a scheme to capture gorillas, which he believed he could sell at £2000 a head to Berlin zoo: 'he got very drunk and brought a sluttish girl back to the house', then 'rogered her and her mama too'. De Trafford, Waugh reported, in words applicable throughout Happy Valley, 'fights & fucks and gambles and gets D.D. [disgustingly drunk] all the time' (Waugh, Letters, 63–4; Diary, 347).

Alcohol was the second distinguishing trait. It hit hard at the high altitude surrounding the Aberdares, and created an ambience dominated by sexual horseplay, swearing, and furious recriminatory rows. Spirits, but not wine, were swigged by party-goers: whisky, John Collinses, white ladies, whisky sours, bronxes, brandy and soda, and pink gins. Alice de Janzé's drink of preference was absinthe-spiked vodka cocktails. Drugs were openly used. Kiki Preston, with her silver syringe, introduced George, duke of Kent, and Erroll's second wife, Mary Ramsey-Hill (1893–1939), to intravenous drug use. Michael Canfield (1926–1969), the adopted son of an American publisher, was reputedly the prince's son with Preston.

Speed rather than inanition was Happy Valley's preference. The road along the Rift Valley from Nairobi to Lake Naivasha was still in the 1930s a deeply rutted, slow-going red earth track. Aircraft covered the distance in an hour and several members of the set were pilots. John Carbery, for example, had been the first man to loop-the-loop over co. Cork (c.1913); his second wife, Maïa, known as Bubbles (1904–1928), was the first person to fly from Mombasa to Nairobi, and was killed when a later aircraft nosedived to the ground. Members of the set gallivanted to and from Europe, especially after 1931 when Imperial Airways inaugurated a flying-boat service from Southampton with a refuelling stop at Alexandria.

Several women in the set were disturbed or vulnerable. Alice de Janzé, heiress to a Chicago meat-packing fortune, endured a horrid childhood during which she tried to slash her wrists. She was a little woman with bright, feverish eyes and high cheekbones, who spoke in a deep-voiced American drawl that accentuated her air of naughtiness. By temperament she was melancholic and lascivious. Erroll's first wife, Idina Sackville, was frail and fragile, a brittle chain-smoker horrified by ageing and with an insatiable need of male admirers. 'Reputed to have had lovers without number', Georgia Sitwell noted on meeting her in 1928: 'heavily made-up face covered with blue-white powder, chic, empty; dissipated, hungry-looking, spoilt and vicious. She has dyed hair and no chin but withal looks like a pretty chicken, the same colour, the same contours' (Osborne, 187). Similarly June Carbery was a peroxide blonde plastered in cosmetics, face-cream, and scent, with lipstick and nail varnish in Max Factor's bright red. She spoke in a husky, gin voice, loved dancing, sun-bathing, and manicures, and avoided books. The only exercise she tolerated was with her many lovers in bed. Erroll's second wife, Mary, whom he married for her money and encouraged to destroy herself using alcohol and intravenous heroin, was the daughter of a bankrupt clerk who had clawed her way to prosperity. Almost every woman in the set was a callous, negligent mother estranged from her children. Idina had contact with her children severed by lawyers (both her sons died shortly after their reconciliation with her).

The set's dissolution came in the wake of de Trafford's departure from Kenya in early 1939 to forestall a police investigation after he struck and injured a farm worker during a drinking bout. In June he was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for manslaughter, after killing a cyclist with his motor car while drunk after attending horse races at Cheltenham. De Trafford's departure was followed in 1941 by the deaths of Erroll and de Janzé, and the involuntary withdrawal of John Carbery while he served a year's imprisonment at Fort Jesus, Mombasa, for non-disclosure of American dollar assets and clandestine share dealings in American aviation manufacturers. After being charged and acquitted of Erroll's murder in July 1941, in November 1942 Jock Broughton returned to England, where he died from a drugs overdose in the following month. The Erroll murder was later investigated by Cyril Connolly and James Fox, with the findings also published by Fox as White Mischief (1982). A film of the same name (1987), directed by Michael Radford, depicts the Happy Valley set and events leading to Erroll's death.


  • N. Best, Happy Valley (1979)
  • J. Fox, White mischief (1982)
  • F. Osborne, The bolter: Idina Sackville, the woman who scandalised 1920s society and became White Mischief's infamous seductress (2008)
  • P. Spicer, The temptress: the scandalous life of Alice, Countess de Janzé (2010)
  • J. Carberry, Child of Happy Valley (1999)
  • Mary Carbery's west Cork journal, 1898–1901, ed. J. Sandford (1998)
  • E. Trzebinski, The life and death of Lord Erroll: the truth behind the Happy Valley murder (2000)
  • R. Furneaux, The murder of Lord Erroll (1961)
  • L. Farrant, Diana, Lady Delamere and the Lord Erroll murder (1997)
  • S. Wheeler, Too close to the sun: the life and times of Denys Finch Hatton (1943)
  • E. Trzebinski, The lives of Beryl Markham (1993)
  • M. S. Lovell, Straight on till morning: the biography of Beryl Markham (1987)
  • ‘Dragoon Guard’, ‘Mr Greswolde-Williams’, The Times (8 July 1931)
  • R. F., ‘Mr J. J. Lezard’, The Times (10 Sept 1958)
  • L. van der Post, ‘Mr Julien Lezard’, The Times (13 Sept 1958)
  • Lady Cawdor, ‘Sir John Ramsden’, The Times (13 Oct 1958)
  • E. Waugh, Remote people (1931)
  • I. Dinesen, Letters from Africa, 1914–1931, ed. F. Lasson, trans. A. Born (1981)
  • The diaries of Evelyn Waugh, ed. M. Davie (1976)
  • The letters of Evelyn Waugh, ed. M. Amory (1980)
  • Lord Cranworth, Kenya chronicles (1939)
  • C. Connolly, ‘Christmas at Karen’, Sunday Times Magazine (21 Dec 1969)