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Name: POLHILL, Evelyn 'Eve'

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Nee: Davidson Wood

Birth Date: 1893 Stoke Newington

Death Date: 10 Mar 1978 Naivasha

Married: In Highbury, London 4 Sep 1916 Stanley Frederick Philip Polhill (1891-1970)

Children: Roger Marcus Stanley (1937); Barbara Evelyn 'Barbie' (m. Jim Nightingale) (26 Oct 1917-1983); Phyllis Kathleen (Tooley) (17 Mar 1919 Edmonton-1966); Pamela Eleanor (Welmans) (1929); Robert T. 'Bob' (d. 28.3.1998 Australia)

General Information:

Written by Barbie Nightingale as an obituary from memory, conversations and perhaps some tape recordings. A few further comments and pictures added by Roger:

Evelyn Polhill arrived in Kenya at the end of 1923 with two small daughters, her husband Stanley Polhill having preceded her earlier that year. They had met up with Powys Cobb at a Christmas party in December 1922. At a time when life in England was hard, with few jobs as a result of all the ex-army, navy and air force men having been thrown on to the already hard-pressed labour market. Stan and Eve Polhill had been lucky in obtaining a small cottage in Essex; their first real home as they were married during the war. Stan was first in the army, mostly in France, as a despatch rider and then in the Royal Flying Corps during the later stages of the 1914–1918 war.

   Their first baby girl, Barbara, was born in Ayrshire when Stan was stationed at Turnberry. At the time of meeting Powys Cobb, Stan was doing an engineering job in London which meant daily trips to and from their home in Essex by motor bike, and in winter it was a long and cold hard journey each morning and night. When Stan was offered a position in Kenya as an engineer on the large farm of Mr Powys Cobb, the offer was too good to refuse, in spite of the anxieties of taking his wife and small children to the (at that time) unknown wilds of Africa. For this reason, Stan went out to Africa with his brother Theo to see for themselves if the life would be possible for women and children. Evelyn was a London born girl, although she had her father’s love of the country and in her childhood had spent many wonderful holidays in the wild mountains and moors of Scotland with her father. This upbringing and love of adventure was to stand her in good stead in the years to come in Kenya.

Powys Cobb’s large wheat farm was cultivated, ploughed, harrowed and sown by huge teams of oxen – 32 in a team – four abreast in the yoke. These several thousand oxen grazed on the vast acres and were the only resource to till the land. It was for this reason that Mr Cobb had brought Stan to Kenya to help him mechanise his agriculture, and Theo Polhill to do the office duties as a full-time secretary.

After a few months Stan sent for his family. Evelyn travelled from England by ship taking with her Barbara and Phyllis (the two small children) and Dorothy Wiltshire who wished to go to Kenya for the adventure and she volunteered to help care for the infants. It was a wonderful voyage which Evelyn remembered for the rest of her life – the friends that were made, the musical evenings on board, and trips off the ship at the ports between Southampton and Mombasa. They travelled from Mombasa to Elmenteita by train and Evelyn was delighted with so many new experiences and seeing Africa’s animals alongside the railway; the great open spaces enthralled her.

When they arrived at the Dak bungalow near the station of Elmenteita, the Indian Babu Station Master was kindness itself. Stan had been unable to get down to meet the train due to excessive rain on the muddy wagon tracks from the high altitudes of Mau Narok where Powys Cobb’s farm lay. The Station Master gave the family hot soup, curry and rice, and lent them blankets for the cold night.

   Eve reached the Cobb’s farm the following day through beautiful African country with tall oat grass and many varieties of trees and flowers she had not seen before. The great variety of fauna and flora of East Africa that was all new to Evelyn fascinated and interested her. Her new home on the Cobb’s farm at an altitude of 9,000’ was built of mud and wattle walls, with wooden shutters for windows, a thick grass thatch roof, and a floor of smoothed mud and cow dung which was used in the early days in Africa. It was easily swept and looked clean and attractive with animal skins used as carpets and mats. This cool and pleasant house was the Polhill home for over two years. Evelyn enjoyed walking, or riding the Cobb’s horses up into the hills; the country had indigenous forests at the back of the farm and forested valleys running down between many of the hills. Dorothy Wiltshire took the children for daily walks in this delightful country and with Evelyn’s fondness and knowledge of nature, the children were encouraged to study and collect small creatures from the streams and ponds, and flowers from the countryside which were taken home and pressed, and when possible, the names were attached.

Unfortunately, only two and a half years had passed when Stanley suffered a bad accident in one of the wheat harvesters, being caught up in the moving chains, which in those days had no shielding covers to the moving parts. He was taken to Nakuru Hospital and was in a serious condition for many months. Evelyn helped to nurse him and watched by his side day and night. He had lost several ribs and one lung. The remaining lung was kept going by an innovation of Dr Burkitt’s – an African man using a bicycle pump and a football bladder. When Stan was fit to be left, Evelyn set off in an old T. Model Ford car to look for a farm or somewhere to live. Mr Cobb had to get in another mechanic on his farm as it was felt that Stanley would not be fit to work for a long time.

  There were few or no roads in Kenya at that time – most people travelled by ox wagon, on horseback or on foot. Evelyn was told to try and find the Kinangop Plateau where a few farmers were already established. A family of Nightingales, Max and Nell and their children had paid a visit to Powys Cobb at Mau Narok the previous year, and Eve felt this was a contact.

When she arrived on to the open, bleak plateau with the Aberdare Mountains in the background, she immediately fell in love with the wild, almost Scottish highland type of country. She spent a night with Nell Nightingale, who was a wonderful and hospitable person. The next day Nell lent Eve her horse and their young pupil, John Etherington, to ride with her to look at a derelict farm which had belonged to a Mr Van Rensburg – wild game roamed the plains, and ostrich ran from the horses.

On these 1,500 acres of swamp and grass was an old bamboo and mud house with a flat rusty roof, the usual cow dung and mud floor which had worn into holes with an uneven surface. However, Eve like the rugged country, the mountains and the only people she had met with were kind, and she felt they could make a home here. The price was low and the owner wished to sell. So after a second night with the Nightingales, she went back to Nakuru to discuss it with Stan still in hospital. Letters and telegrams travelled back and forth to their parents in England for advice and help – both in making up their minds in what seemed an outlandish idea, and for monetary assistance. Both Eve and Stan came from missionary families so money was not plentiful. Their own parents had met in China in the China Inland Mission, Stan’s father having been one of the Cambridge Seven who went out in 1885 and Eve’s father, Marcus Wood, followed a few months later.

   At the end of 1926 the Polhill family moved to the Kinangop. The children loved it – their games were closely associated with Nature, playing with small creatures in the stream, birds and animals and even their own games pretending to be animals. Dorothy helped teach these two with books which were sent from England. Schools were not available in those days. When Stan left hospital, he was unable to do any work for many months. It was Eve and Theo who did the ploughing and the cultivations. Dorothy taught the children their lessons and how to ride a horse and milk the cows. Fifteen cows had been purchased that were to form the nucleus of the dairy herd of the future. More cows and pigs were purchased at a later date. Neighbours were few but the family spent many lunches and happy afternoons at the Nightingale’s home. Nell had a beautiful garden and helped Eve to start her garden.

   The Nightingales also had a large herd of cattle and many pigs, and showed Eve how to make bacon and sausages. Game meat was used extensively for home use, and Eve learned from Nell many ways of cooking wild pigs, buck, zebra and other wild animals. Life was hard but interesting and challenging. Stan, under Eve’s patient nursing, recovered and took up the mechanical side of the farming. Theo dropped into the office duties and later took part-time work with other farmers. Happy progress was made until the early 1930s when the world slump hit most countries. The Polhills had big sheds full of wheat they could not sell. Milk was made into butter and cheese as there was no fresh milk market. Eve was ever resourceful, feeding her family on home grown produce, making their own pigs into bacon, lard and sausages, buying back the second-grade cheese from the local dairy and repackaging this into small packs with their own label, which she took round the country to hotels and shops in Nairobi, Nakuru and Eldoret, and sold what they could get, or swapped it for goods they needed. [Years later Roger as a small boy discovered and loved the remaining packs of shiny silver paper she had used.] Dorothy was told that a salary could no longer be offered, but she volunteered to work for nothing and to help the family all she could. Theo made jam in large quantities from local fruits they grew and sold it in paper cartons. His contribution became quite a large side line. Eve made clothes for all the family on her old “Singer” sewing machine she had brought from England. The girls, now in their early teens, wore khaki dresses (very strong) with bead belts given them by the local Africans. The two girls milked twenty five cows each, morning and evening, and only one African man helped with the cattle during these hard times – but everyone was happy and families pulled together to “weather the storm”, rather like the “harambee” efforts of newly independent Kenya.

Then came the pre-war days when farming looked up. Stan bought Eve two horses which were her pride and joy. One was an ex-race horse, the other a pony which bred some of her favourite horses. Eve spent a lot of her time with her horses riding in the forests and the mountains, among the wild game on the plains, with her children to Gymkhanas and paper chases. She now had a third daughter, Pamela, born in 1929, who was also brought up with horses and never tired of riding or playing with them. The Pyrethrum era was starting and Stan was one of the early large scale pyrethrum growers. Their first daughter, Barbara, married Jim Nightingale in 1935. Eve and Nell made her wedding gown, and Eve made their wedding cake. She and Stan had by this time moved to a new timber house on the top half of the farm. Theo had married Dorothy Wiltshire, taken over half the farm and rebuilt the old bamboo house with a stone and timber house.

Then came the war – many of the young men had to move off to help defend the country. Stan and Eve’s second daughter, Phyl, joined the F.A.N.Y.’s and was stationed at various places in Kenya, first as a despatch rider, later as an Ambulance driver, and as a heavy transport driver. Eve helped the local Red Cross women’s organisation and like many other Kenya farm wives, she took in service men on leave.

   Towards the end of the war, Stan and Eve started building their real home on Howbury Farms. They took advantage of skilled Italian prisoners of war to construct an attractive double-storied stone house. Eve designed the new garden to blend into this new programme of farm development. The orchard of apples, pears and plums was already established and bearing fruit. Eve continued to work with horses, helping many other Then came the war – many of the young men had to move off to help defend the country. Stan and Eve’s second daughter, Phyl, joined the F.A.N.Y.’s and was stationed at various places in Kenya, first as a despatch rider, later as an Ambulance driver, and as a heavy transport driver. Eve helped the local Red Cross women’s organisation and like many other Kenya farm wives, she took in service men on leave.

   Towards the end of the war, Stan and Eve started building their real home on Howbury Farms. They took advantage of skilled Italian prisoners of war to construct an attractive double-storied stone house. Eve designed the new garden to blend into this new programme of farm development. The orchard of apples, pears and plums was already established and bearing fruit. Eve continued to work with horses, helping many other children to become keen horsemen and women. Her own daughters were enthusiastic riders and Pam, after leaving school at the Loreto Convent, easily obtained jobs looking after horses – and in one notable case lion cubs; a little earlier she also had a zebra foal as a pet at home. Their first and only son, Roger, born in 1937, was also on a horse before he could walk. Eve would put this small boy on a basket saddle on her big horse and either walk or ride beside him with a leading rein. [Roger has very happy memories of this early exciting experience – especially in the rains with puddles between the humps of rough grassland.] As Roger grew up, she and he would go on long walks, collecting flowers and watching the birds and wild animals. Eve taught Roger his lessons by correspondence course until he was old enough to go to boarding school at Nakuru School [Geoff Nightingale starting the same term in 1946], later to the Prince of Wales School in Nairobi, and then to Cambridge where his father had been before him. [Roger remembers the excitement of his new upstairs bedroom and the thrill of gold stars in the results from England of the correspondence course.] His graduation from Jesus College, Cambridge, was the reason for Stan and Eve’s trip to England – the only time Stan ever went out of Kenya during his fifty years in the country. [He was quite reluctant to leave the farm at all despite Eve’s love of safaris, because on returning, even after only a few days, the headman would say everything was fine “likini” (except) the bull had died, the tractor had broken down, the pyrethrum drying shed had burned down or whatever – or so he imagined.] Roger studied botany and later joined Kew Gardens to make it his life’s career. It was when this last child of hers was off her hands that Eve started drawing and painting indigenous plants and flowers. She had been to the Slade School of Art when she was a girl and had always been an able person with pencil and brush. She had enjoyed country sketching and whenever on a trip or visiting new places her sketch book became part of her travelling gear.

   By 1950 she and her husband had helped contribute to the building of St Francis Church on the Kinangop and had prayer books and hymn books printed in England with the name of

the church inscribed. Eve played the organ for this church for many years until they left the Kinangop. By this time Evelyn was a keen member of the Children’s Pony Clubs and helped organise the Pony camps – her artistic talents helping with the posters and booklets. She was still riding regularly herself and in the 1950s became known as the Galloping Granny, and it was not until the 1960s that she finally gave up riding to please her husband who would get anxious when she returned home late at night or was away for long periods of time, but she continued to work with the Children’s Pony Clubs.

   In 1963 when the first of the New Settlement Schemes was started, the Polhills, like many other farmers, decided to sell their lovely home and farm and retire to a small place they rented on Lake Naivasha, where they both lived to the end of their days. [The plot had belonged to John Etherington, who had been a close friend throughout their time on the Kinangop, and was bought by Ernst and Inga Magius, who made it into a famous rose nursery, much to the interest of Stan, who loved to keep an eye on what was going on there.] It was during this period that Eve became so keen on her botanical drawing and painting and she enjoyed giving most of her work to the Nairobi Herbarium and to the collections at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. She also did a number of drawings for the East African Women’s League in Naivasha, including a few paintings for raffles and fund raising for the League. She and her daughter Phyl also embroidered the Kinangop tapestry and finished off the one of Naivasha for the collection of Kenya tapestries which was later published as the book “They made it their Home”. [Phyl had married Jim Tooley, a wonderfully gifted man she had met in the forces and after the war they came back to the farm; Jim the farm manager took most of the practicalities off Stan and guided survival of the farm during the Mau Mau period, about which Eve would not have chosen to talk.]

   She and Stan attended the Naivasha Church after their move, where Eve played the organ for a number of years.

   Stan died at his home at the age of 79 years, and Eve stayed on in the place they had enjoyed so much together and had so many good friends. Eve continued her botanical work and got great pleasure from looking for, and finding, new specimens of flora that might be of interest to Kew. She also enjoyed hosting young men and women from other countries who were visiting Kenya to look for particular plants. Eve was a happy, contented person who enjoyed her hobbies; she played the piano, sewed and tapestried, sketched and painted, gardened, and walked with her dog for many miles, and would motor upcountry to see her daughter and families when she felt like it, always taking her plastic bags, secateurs, rubber bands and for her specimens, notebook and pencil and often her sketch book also. [She was also cherished by the younger generation for her scones, rock cakes, coconut cones fruit cake and fudge, which Roger was allowed to help make as a boy.]

   She died on March 10th 1978 with her friend Inga Magius as a result of a motor accident. She had spent a week at Njoro with her family, celebrating her 86th birthday, and on the last day while out walking, she found a new plant.   She left four children, 13 grandchildren and 20 great grandchildren.




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