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The Happy Valley Set: Colonial Debauchery in Kenya's Highlands

Updated: 5 days ago

Nestled within the lush expanse of Kenya's highlands, a peculiar slice of colonial history unfolded in the early 20th century. This tale, woven with scandal, indulgence, and tragedy, revolves around the infamous "Happy Valley Set" — a group of white Western expatriates who transformed this picturesque landscape into a cauldron of debauchery.

Amidst the grim realities of abject austerity during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the nation's morale was at an all-time low. Only an event as catastrophic as becoming a leading player in a six-year global conflict could further darken the mood.

Some notable members of the Happy Valley set in Kenya, 1926. From left to right: Raymond de Trafford, Frédéric de Janzé, Alice de Janzé and Lord Delamere.

Meanwhile, some 6,000 miles to the south, in the highlands of Kenya where the Wanjohi River meanders, a group of privileged white hedonists, forever known as the Happy Valley set, revelled in a lifestyle of unparalleled indulgence. This elite clique enjoyed a lifestyle reminiscent of English country-house living, albeit in an equatorial climate.

Their days were filled with a carefree pursuit of what English intellectual and literary critic Cyril Connolly aptly dubbed "the three As: altitude, alcohol, and adultery." However, Connolly's poetic euphemism overlooked the grim realities of hard opiates and, regrettably, what could only be described as servitude.

Established as the British East Africa Protectorate in 1895, the region underwent transformation into the British crown colony of Kenya in 1920. For aristocratic Britons seeking respite from the overcrowding, high taxation, and dreary climate of their homeland, Kenya offered an enticing escape. Their goal was to reassert aristocratic dominance in a vast, exploitable, and bucolic corner of the globe, replete with indigenous populations to dominate and conspicuously devoid of the trappings of modern industrial democracy.

Although there is no actual definition of what constitutes a member of the Happy Valley set, it is generally agreed by writers that it refers to European colonials located in or around the area of the Wanjohi Valley, who were infamous during the 1920s–1940s period for a number of scandals, usually concerning infidelity and abuse of drugs or alcohol.

Some of the more notable members of the group are as follows:

Hugh Cholmondeley, 3rd Baron Delamere

Lord Delamere stands as one of the pioneering British settlers in East Africa, and is often credited with being instrumental in the formation of the Happy Valley set. Lord Delamere embarked on his initial journey to East Africa in 1891, initially for lion hunting, and thereafter made annual pilgrimages to resume his hunting pursuits. In 1894, however, his encounters took a perilous turn when he was mauled by a lion, leaving him with a permanent limp for the remainder of his life. Additionally, he is attributed with coining the term "white hunter."

Settling in Africa permanently in 1896, Lord Delamere eventually made Kenya his home. In 1906, he acquired the expansive Soysambu Ranch, which would burgeon to encompass 200,000 acres (810 km2). Beyond his role as a landowner, Lord Delamere is also recognised for his significant contributions to the advancement of Kenyan agriculture. Swiftly ingratiating himself within the European community in Kenya, he actively facilitated the recruitment of settlers to East Africa, all while fostering a deep admiration for the culture of the local Maasai people.

Legend has it that Lord Delamere once rode his horse into the dining room of Nairobi's Norfolk Hotel, leaping over tables in a display of audacity. Additionally, he was known to partake in impromptu rounds of golf, occasionally knocking balls onto the roof of the Muthaiga Country Club, a renowned gathering spot for Nairobi's white elite, and then scaling the structure to retrieve them.

With the outbreak of World War I, Lord Delamere assumed responsibility for intelligence operations along the Maasai border, diligently monitoring the movements of German units in present-day Tanzania. In 1928, he sealed his legacy by marrying Lady Charles Markham (née Gwladys Helen Beckett). Lord Delamere's life came to an end in Kenya in 1931.

Josslyn Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll

The Earl of Erroll, a Scottish nobleman known for his libertine lifestyle, made headlines when he abandoned his diplomatic career in Britain to elope with the married Lady Idina Sackville, a scandal that sent shockwaves through society. Their union in 1923 led them to Kenya a year later, where they swiftly became the leading luminaries of the infamous 'Happy Valley' set. Their residence, Slains, named after the ancestral Hay family home of Slains Castle, served as a hub for social extravagance, notorious for its salacious gatherings.

However, marital discord soon plagued the Errolls, with Lady Idina divorcing Lord Erroll in 1929, citing financial infidelity. Meanwhile, Lord Erroll had embarked on an affair with the married Molly Ramsay-Hill, culminating in their elopement. Their clandestine romance came to a dramatic head when Ramsay-Hill's irate husband publicly horsewhipped Lord Erroll at Nairobi Railway Station. In 1930, Lord Erroll formalised his relationship with Molly through marriage.

Political affiliations further coloured Lord Erroll's life, as he joined Sir Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists (B.U.F.) in 1934, later assuming the presidency of the Convention of Associations upon his return to Kenya. Tragedy struck in 1939 with the sudden death of Molly, Countess of Erroll, from a lethal concoction of alcohol, morphine, and heroin. Amidst the outbreak of World War II, Lord Erroll assumed a military role, serving as a captain in the Kenya Regiment and accepting the post of military secretary for East Africa in 1940.

The Earl's life took another tumultuous turn in late 1940 when he embarked on a passionate affair with Diana, Lady Delves Broughton, the glamorous and significantly younger wife of Sir Jock Delves Broughton, 11th Baronet. Their liaison, marked by its public intensity, culminated in plans for an elopement. Despite Delves Broughton's purported consent, tragedy struck in January 1941 when Lord Erroll was found shot dead in his car at an intersection outside Nairobi.

Though Delves Broughton faced charges and trial for the murder, he was eventually acquitted, leaving the case shrouded in mystery. Over the years, numerous books, films, and articles, including "White Mischief," have attempted to unravel the enigma of Erroll's death, yet the truth remains elusive, and the murder officially unsolved.

Lady Idina Sackville

Lady Sackville, a British aristocrat and daughter of the 8th Earl de la Warr, caused a stir in society with her scandalous actions. Her divorce from her first husband, Euan Wallace, resulted in her losing custody of her two sons, who tragically perished in World War II. Not content with convention, Idina left her second husband, Captain Charles Gordon, for her younger lover Joss Hay, who would later become the Earl of Erroll.

In 1924, the couple made a bold move to Kenya, where they became pioneers of the flamboyant lifestyle embraced by the Happy Valley set. Idina's penchant for hosting raucous gatherings, complete with spouse-swapping and drug indulgence, earned her infamy. Legends circulated of her greeting guests while lounging in a bathtub crafted from green onyx, before regally dressing in their presence.

Following her divorce from Erroll, Idina embarked on two more marriages before her death in 1955, leaving behind a legacy of scandal and intrigue.

Countess Alice de Janzé

Born Alice Silverthorne into wealth as the daughter of an affluent felt manufacturer in Chicago and Buffalo, New York, and the niece of magnate J. Ogden Armour, led a life straight out of . Settling in Paris in the early 1920s with her husband, Count Frédéric de Janzé, Alice's path intersected with that of Joss Hay, Earl of Erroll, and his wife, Idina, during their Parisian sojourn.

The fateful encounter blossomed into a friendship that led the de Janzés to join the Hays in the Kenyan highlands, where they shared in lion hunting expeditions in 1925 and 1926. For several months, the de Janzés resided in close proximity to the Hays, a proximity that fuelled romantic entanglements. Alice embarked on affairs, first with Lord Erroll and later with Raymond de Trafford.

The scandal reached its zenith in 1927 when Alice, in a fit of despair after Raymond rejected her proposal of marriage, shot him at a Paris railway station before turning the gun on herself. Miraculously, both survived the ordeal, though Alice faced a trial in Paris, resulting in a nominal fine.

Forced to leave Kenya by government decree, Alice's tumultuous life continued with a brief marriage to Raymond in 1932, followed by an immediate separation and subsequent divorce. Despite her tumultuous personal life, Alice found herself drawn back to the Happy Valley in Kenya. Plagued by depression, alcoholism, and morphine addiction, she ultimately succumbed to her demons, taking her own life by gunshot in 1941. In the shadow of her tragic demise, Alice had been considered a potential suspect in the murder of Lord Erroll.

Count Frédéric de Janzé

Comte (Count) Frédéric de Janzé, hailing from a prestigious aristocratic lineage in Brittany, France, gained renown not only for his noble heritage but also for his prowess as a racing driver. His path intertwined with that of Joss and Idina Hay when the couple extended an invitation to the Wanjohi Valley, Kenya, in 1925. Frédéric and his wife, Alice, embarked on what would become a transformative journey, spending months engaged in lion-hunting expeditions.

Amidst the rugged landscapes of Africa, the lines between friendship and desire blurred. Frédéric found himself entangled in a passionate affair with Idina, while Alice sought solace in the arms of Joss. His observations and encounters with the colourful personalities of the Happy Valley set found expression in his memoir, "Vertical Land."

Returning to Happy Valley the following year, Frédéric's life took a tumultuous turn as Alice's liaison with Raymond de Trafford sparked controversy. The strain proved insurmountable, leading to the dissolution of their marriage in 1927 amidst the aftermath of Alice's infamous shooting incident.

Tragically, Frédéric's life was cut short in 1933 at the age of 37, succumbing to sepsis. His untimely demise marked the end of a chapter in the tumultuous saga of the Happy Valley set.

Kiki Preston

Born Alice Gwynne, Kiki she hailed from American high society, tracing her lineage back to the influential Whitney and Vanderbilt families. Upon her marriage to Jeromy "Gerry" Preston, the couple ventured to Kenya in 1926, lured by the promise of land bestowed upon them by a generous friend along the shores of Lake Naivasha.

In the vast expanse of the African wilderness, Kiki and Gerry thrived as avid big game hunters, revelling in the thrill of the chase. However, amidst the allure of adventure, Kiki harboured a darker vice – an insatiable appetite for narcotics. Cocaine and heroin held her captive, earning her the moniker "the girl with the silver syringe." Her brazen disregard for societal norms saw her openly administering drugs in public, her syringe ever at the ready in her handbag. Fuelling her addiction was her close association with Frank Greswolde Williams, the colony's chief purveyor of narcotics.

Kiki's hedonistic lifestyle knew no bounds, her dalliances extending beyond the realm of drugs. Among her numerous liaisons was one with Prince George, Duke of Kent, a liaison that scandalised the British royal family. Forbidden from further contact, Kiki's alleged dalliance with Prince George purportedly bore fruit in the form of an illegitimate child, Michael Temple Canfield, later adopted by Cass Canfield, a prominent publishing executive.

Tragedy struck Kiki with the untimely demise of her husband and the loss of her son, Ethan, in the Normandy Landings. Haunted by grief and plagued by addiction, Kiki's descent into despair culminated in her tragic demise. In 1946, she met her end by leaping from the window of her apartment at the Stanhope Hotel in New York City.

Raymond de Trafford

De Trafford, scion of the illustrious Irish de Trafford lineage, was the son of Sir Humphrey de Trafford, 3rd Baronet. His presence in the Happy Valley set during the 1920s was marked by a penchant for gambling, a reputation as a notorious womaniser, and a troubling dependency on alcohol.

Among his conquests were notable figures such as Alice de Janzé and Kiki Preston, their dalliances a testament to de Trafford's magnetic allure. However, his amorous pursuits were not without consequence. An ill-fated attempt to seduce Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, ended in rebuff, highlighting de Trafford's reckless abandon.

In a twist of tragic fate, de Trafford found himself embroiled in a sensational scandal with Alice de Janzé. Threatened with disinheritance by his family should he wed her, their tumultuous relationship culminated in a dramatic confrontation at a Paris railway station. Shot by Alice in a fit of despair, de Trafford miraculously survived, later standing by her side during her trial.

Their tempestuous bond persisted, leading to a hasty marriage in 1932. Yet, marital bliss eluded them, as de Trafford swiftly deserted Alice, purportedly consumed by fear. He sought refuge in Australia, only to find himself entangled in further misfortune.

In 1939, tragedy struck when de Trafford, in a drunken stupor, fatally struck a man with his car, resulting in a three-year prison sentence for manslaughter. Financial ruin followed, with de Trafford filing for bankruptcy just a year later, marking the dismal conclusion to a life marred by scandal and sorrow.

Sir John "Jock" Delves Broughton

Sir Henry, a distinguished British aristocrat, made his way to Kenya accompanied by his youthful bride, Diana Caldwell, who was three decades his junior. However, their marital bliss was soon overshadowed by scandal when Diana embarked on a highly publicized romance with Joss Hay, the Earl of Erroll.

Despite the humiliation, Broughton reluctantly acquiesced to the terms of a prenuptial agreement, which allowed Diana to leave him if she found herself enamoured with another man. This concession paved the way for Diana's eventual departure from Broughton's side to marry Erroll.

Tragically, Erroll met a grisly end in January 1941, casting a dark cloud of suspicion over Broughton. He was swiftly arrested and brought to trial for Erroll's murder. However, due to a lack of conclusive evidence and ballistics findings, Broughton was acquitted of the crime.

Nevertheless, lingering doubts persisted, fuelled by allegations from Juanita Carberry, daughter of John Carberry (10th Baron Carbery), who claimed that Broughton had confessed the murder to her following his acquittal. Subsequently, Diana wasted no time in divorcing Broughton, leaving him to grapple with the weight of his tarnished reputation.

Haunted by his demons, Broughton retreated to England, where he ultimately succumbed to despair, ending his life with a fatal overdose of barbiturates in 1942.

Diana, Lady Delamere

Diana Caldwell, born into privilege, ventured into the Happy Valley in the late 1940s alongside her newlywed husband, Sir John "Jock" Delves Broughton, a Baronet with vast estates in England.

However, their matrimonial harmony was short-lived as Diana swiftly initiated a scandalous affair with the local luminary, Joss Hay, Earl of Erroll, signalling her intent to divorce Broughton and wed Erroll. Surprisingly, Broughton purportedly sanctioned this unconventional arrangement.

Tragedy struck when Erroll was found slain in his car in January 1941. Broughton faced charges for his murder but was ultimately acquitted after trial. Despite her initial support, Diana later accused Broughton of being the perpetrator and deserted him.

Following her divorce from Broughton, Diana entered into matrimony with Gilbert Colvile in 1943, a prominent landowner in Kenya, inheriting a substantial portion of his wealth. The couple welcomed an adopted daughter into their lives. In 1955, Diana wed Thomas Cholmondeley, 4th Baron Delamere, further augmenting her landholdings. During the 1960s and 1970s, and until the demise of her romantic partner, Lady Patricia Fairweather (daughter of the 2nd Earl of Inchcape), Diana maintained a complex three-way relationship with her husband.

Despite the passage of time, the exploits of The Happy Valley set have been immortalised numerous times in literature and film and they still continue to fascinate and intrigue, offering a glimpse into a bygone era of privilege and indulgence.



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