Mention the name Delamere in Kenya, and most certainly the story you will get is that they are a wealthy colonial mzungu family living near Elmenteita, whose son, Tom Cholmondeley, shot two people and got away with murder.
The truth is that Cholmondeley was acquitted in the first shooting and served eight months for the second shooting.
In both cases, he pleaded self-defence against armed poachers who had encroached on his family land. He died in 2016 at the age of 48 following a hip replacement surgery. End of story.
But with the Delamere family, more like a dynasty, the story never ends.
Their family history is the story of Kenya’s colonial past and of white settlers whose ancestors risked everything to make a life for themselves in “new land.” And the story is still being written, now in the seventh generation.
It is a warm September morning, and we are sitting at the breakfast table with Lord and Lady Delamere and their grandsons, Hugh and Henry (Tom’s sons) in Soysambu Conservancy, Elmenteita, 100 kilometres west of Nairobi.
Lord Delamere prefers to be called Hugh and Lady Delamere insists she responds better to Ann. She is 80 years old and Hugh is in his mid 80s.
I turn to look at their grandsons. The youngest of the Delamere generation in Kenya. They have arrived for breakfast from an off-road motor biking expedition with the adventurist Netta Ruthman.
She and the late Tom had a common interest in off-road biking in the remotest of places.
She’s fulfilling her part of a deal she had with Tom to take the boys and her son on a route they had worked on around western Kenya.
Soysambu too is a perfect setting for off-road biking and Ruthman is allowed to conduct exclusive motorbike safaris on the property.
The boys, approaching their early 20s, are taking up responsibilities at the ranch, much to their grandparents’ delight.
It’s a typical family at breakfast with all the bantering going on, including Hugh teasing his younger grandson Henry, telling him to stop growing since he is already a towering figure at almost six feet seven inches.
Incidentally, his grandmother is in the process of making a quilt big enough for the young man’s use.
The height comes from Hugh’s mother, whom he remembers as being exquisitely beautiful and more than six feet tall but still wore heels because she had “rather good legs.”
Hugh is a great conversationalist, as is his wife and both are avid readers. Their house is overflowing with books.
The Delamere’s Soysambu Conservancy is a sprawling 48,000-acre piece of real estate.
The land, stretching between Lakes Nakuru and Elmenteita is not only a wildlife sanctuary but also a farm and cattle ranch.
At Naivasha, the Delameres own and manage the 6,000-acre Manera Farm, half of which was recently sold when the bank (then Barclays) closed on a debt despite the loan being serviced without default.
I am in Soysambu following up on one of the conservancy’s project as hosts of the rare Rothschild giraffes, a colony of resettled colobus monkeys and a sanctuary for rescued raptors who have either been hit by vehicles or injured on power lines.
I have spent the night on the ranch on the invitation of the Delameres.
Sitting on the patio after breakfast, I ask Hugh what it was like to inherit such wealth.
Still a towering figure with a strong voice despite his age and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, he turns to look at me and typical of his quick wit, he shoots back;
“Money? There’s no money in this. Do you see any Rolls Royces parked outside, ‘his and hers’ with the chauffeurs?”
Hugh opens up about his family and the land. “My grandfather rented the land from the Kenya government in 1906. It doesn’t belong to us,” he says in a matter of fact way. The land is on lease.
“The land in Soysambu has only an inch of soil covering the rock beneath. Little can grow on it except miserable grass. It’s short of every mineral you can think of,” says Hugh.
It’s no wonder his grandfather could hardly make any money out of farming.
In the end, after consulting agriculturists, it was recommended that they use a mix of soil and cobalt on the land, to make it fertile enough to grow sufficient grass for the cattle and sheep to graze on.
The grazing fields however ended up attracting herds of zebras, much to Hugh’s chagrin, and now they are eating all his grass, leaving hardly any for his livestock.
Hugh is concerned by the ever-increasing number of zebras. He’s farmed all his life at Soysambu since graduating with a degree in agriculture from the Cambridge College in England.
“Eleven thousand head of cattle is profitable,” he says. That was his herd before the zebra multiplied from a few heads to 8,000 and growing, forcing him to reduce his herd. The ranch now has 6,300 heads of the sturdy Boran cattle.
In the past, the zebra were culled to keep their numbers stable but after the blanket ban on game hunting because of the elephant and rhino poaching crisis, the zebras numbers can no longer be controlled. “For politicians all game is the same,” says a visibly angry Hugh.
However, Soysambu is more than just a ranch. It has stunning landscape like the iconic Delamere’s Nose, a hill straddling Lake Elmenteita; has amazing wildlife being a World Heritage Site as part of the Great Rift Valley, a Ramsar site because Lake Elmenteita is a wetland of international importance and an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area.
The conservancy also hosts researchers studying the dynamics of wildlife management. Local schools are allowed free game drives in the conservancy as part of community relations.
But the land, as is with all wildlife areas, comes with a cost. The illegal trade in bushmeat is rife, with snares being laid by poachers along the ranch fence.
It’s an expensive, full-time job patrolling the property. Land surrounding the conservancy that used to be wildlife migratory corridors and was unpopulated until about 30 years ago, is now human settlements, including the popular Kikopey roadside settlement famous for open air nyama choma (roast meat) eateries.
From pioneer to current family
“My grandfather blew all his money,” says Hugh. He had inherited the barony of Delamere in 1887 at the age of 17. Hugh recounts this history with a degree of humour.
“In 1821, my great-grandfather bought the title of ‘Lord’ from the Duke of Wellington. He thought being a lord was fashionable. All it did was put up the grocery bills,” he recounts.
“My grandfather inherited a very fine estate in Cheshire in England, called the Vale Royal. It was about 6,000 acres of arable land with an abbey in the middle of the spread until King Henry VIII abolished all monasteries in England and threw out the monks. The property was his inheritance passed down by his ancestors, the Cholmodeleys, but he ended up selling it.
“My grandfather kept selling profitable real estate in England. My father argued with him because of that but my grandfather believed that it was more profitable to own property here in Kenya than in England.
“But it turned out it wasn’t.”
By 1930, the entire Vale Royal had passed on to receivers. All that’s left in the Delamere’s name in England, says Hugh, is a fishing pond that fetches 600 pounds a year in rent.
The present Delamere farm house at Soysambu was built in 1913 out of Nakuru stone.
It has had quite a few additions since with Hugh’s two stepmothers adding their bits to it.
One of them was the notorious Lady Diana, the central figure in White Mischief, the real life story of the unsolved case of the murder of Lord Erroll in 1941.
There is nothing ostentatious about the farmhouse save for a few stately portraits. In the dining room hangs the portrait of King Charles and Lord Delamere, Hugh’s grandfather.
Fast forward to 1931, Lord Delamere, Hugh’s grandfather died, owing money to the then National Bank of India that is today’s Kenya Commercial Bank.
“He died of a broken heart,” says Hugh. “He had asked the Kenya Farmer’s Association, which he founded, for credit and they turned him down.” It is quite ironic for a man who pioneered commercial agriculture in Kenya despite massive losses.
“My grandfather was a very peculiar fellow. When he moved to Kenya he lived in a mud hut with all the furniture from the Vale Royal rotting away because the floor was mud. I inherited very little of it,” says Hugh.
Hugh’s father, Tom Delamere, was born in England but didn’t come to Africa until after World War 11. “At the time, the Vale Royal was already in the hand of receivers,” says Hugh.
Tom Delamere served in the army during the Second World War. In 1934, he moved his family into Vale Royal only to be forced out in 1939 by His Majesty’s government, which used it as a sanatorium for soldiers from the war front. But by 1947, the house and grounds had been sold.
Tom Delamere was successful. He lived in London where he started an advertising company and came to Kenya to find out if his father’s farm was worth investing in. He thought it was, and he sold his advertising company.
The company changed hands a few times. It is today the global advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, with a network of 114 offices in 76 countries.
Luck was on his side. Thanks to the war, the price of steers shot to a high of 30 pound. “My father was able to pay off the bank,” says Hugh. By 1952, the Delamere estate in Kenya was no longer under receivership.
Which Tom Delamere knew nothing about farming or cattle, he did know a lot about race horses, which he bred and raced. His third marriage to Lady Diana brought the Delameres back into the limelight.
“She married him because she wanted to be a Lady,” says Hugh of his notorious stepmother.
As we discussed wildlife management and the menace of poaching, the issue of the shooting of two people at Soysambu by Tom, and his sudden death came up.
“We miss him terribly,” says Ann. We had by now moved from the patio into the living room, where Tom’s picture sits on the fireplace mantel. Understandably so. Tom was an only child.
“He was always bounding around, getting things done,” says Ann. “His boys are rather like him.’’
She tells me that the Delamere rest stop on the Nairobi-Naivasha Road ,with its petrol station, restrooms and restaurants, was Tom’s project. ‘‘He said people needed somewhere to stop for a coffee and use a decent toilet.”
Hugh recounts the two shootings that captured the country’s imagination.
Of the 2005 shooting, Hugh said: “The men arrived in a car that the police were looking for. The driver shot at Tom and missed him by a whisker. Tom shot back in self-defence. He was a crack shot. I taught him to shoot when he was 10.”
According to press reports, the men were Kenya Wildlife Service rangers investigating the illegal trade in bushmeat. The man Tom shot was Samson ole Sisina. Tom was arrested and charged but was acquitted.
A year later, in 2006, the country woke up to the news of yet another shooting. On the fateful day, Tom was out in the ranch walking with a friend.
Since Soysambu also happens to be buffalo country, it is normal for the staff and, Tom included, to have a gun handy.
They stumbled upon poachers who were hiding in the grass, but who were given away by their hunting dogs. This time he hit the dog’s owner hiding in the grass.
Tom was arrested, charged, acquitted of the murder of Robert Njoya but found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to eight months in prison.
He served time at the Kamiti Maximum Prison in Nairobi, where his parents say he was popular with other inmates and helped set up computer classes for them. He was released in 2009 and returned to work at the farm.
In August 2016, Tom, aged 48, was admitted at the MP Shah Hospital in Nairobi for a hip replacement surgery.
On August 17, Tom Cholmondeley, the only child of the fifth Lord Delamere, breathed his last.
He is buried in a quiet corner of Soysambu, near the simple stone graves of his pioneer great-grandfather and other relatives.