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Name: PURKISS, William John

image of individualimage of individual

Nee: son of William Thomas and Mary Ann Purkiss

Birth Date: 1861 St Pancras, London

Death Date: 15.8.1894 Kibwezi

First Date: 1891

Last Date: 1894

Profession: Ainsworth 1892/3 - Ainsworth received an urgent request for help from Purkiss at Fort Smith. He was Capt. Smith's assistant and was temporarily in charge pending the arrival of Capt. Nelson who had been appointed Superintendent of the Kikuyu District

Area: Fort Smith

Book Reference: Ainsworth, Permanent Way, Tucker, EAHB 1905, North, IBEA, Kiewiet, EAHB 1906, UJ, Nicholls, EAHB 1904, Hut, Barnes

General Information:

Barnes Kibwezi cem
Ainsworth - On completing the fort, Capt. Smith proceeded directly west to Lake Victoria and Mr Purkiss, who had been his assistant, was left temporarily in charge pending the arrival of Capt. Nelson (late of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition) who had been appointed Superintendent of the Kikuyu District. On Nelson's arrival Purkiss proceeded to Uganda and arrived in due course at the Kake, where, however, he went down with fever and was sent back to Kikuyu. By the time he reached Fort Smith he was much better and he was just in time to take over the station on the death of Captain Nelson. ............ Towards the middle of January 1893 I received a letter from Purkiss saying that the Kikuyu were giving him a lot of trouble, that he had lost some men and the Fort was practically invested and asking me for help if I could render it. .. (Ainsworth went to help) ........ We stopped a short distance from the entrance to the station and Purkiss with some of his men came out to meet us. There was no sign of the enemy that night and next morning it became apparent that they had entirely dispersed. I think the knowledge that outside help could be obtained if necessary made the Wakikuyu less inclined to hostile acts thereafter. .............. A few months later (Ainsworth relates) Wyaki put the final touch on things. It was the custom for the Askari guard at the entrance to the Fort to allow any of the important elders who wished to see the Officer-in-charge to enter but they were required to leave any arms with the guard. Wyaki was in the habit of entering the station frequently. One day he paid one of his usual visits. He left what arms he appeared to carry with the guard and went on to the house occupied by Purkiss, who at that moment was washing his face in a wash-hand basin. Purkiss had his back to the door which was open. Wyaki, seeing this, drew out a simi rushed into the room and made an overhead slash at Purkiss. Fortunately the ceiling of the room, consisting of wooden rafters, was very low and the sword caught in one of the rafters before it could descend. Purkiss immediately swung round, rushed at his enemy and knocked him back against the wall where he lay until the guard dashed in ........... Wyaki was probably manhandled and wounded in the head ......... he was sent to the Coast as a prisoner but died at Kibwezi. .............. Purkiss by this time was suffering from ill-health and on being relieved by Frank Hall, who had recently been appointed by the Company, he left for the coast with the idea of going for a sea voyage. Unfortunately he too became very ill on arrival at Kibwezi and died.
Permanent Way - Lugard, on arriving at Kikuyu said of Purkiss - 'Vacillation and indecision cause in the end a vastly greater amount of bloodshed than the strong hand and the personality which commands obedience.'
EAHB 1905 - IBEA Co. General Africa Staff - appointed 4th February 1891 - W.J. Purkiss
North - Former merchant marine officer; Asst. Supt. at Kikuyu; Acting Supt. Kikuyu Station after death of R.H. Nelson 26/12/1892; at Kikuyu 5/2/1893; resigned from Company 18/4/1893 and sent by Sir G. Portal to Uganda; with the Maj. R. Owen expedition to Wadelai 2/2/1894; Appt. 2nd Class Asst. UP 11/2/1894; moved to Ravine, ill; d. 15/8/1894 Kibwezi on way to coast (personal effects returned to FO in London, 8 boxes and a live green parrot, Jan 1895)
IBEA Co. - Nominal List of British Born Subjects resident in IBEA Territories within the Sultans Domain, 30 April 1891 - W.J. Purkiss, Railway works
Kiewiet - Fort Smith - The Company selected R.H. Nelson, one of Stanley's companions on the Emin Pasha expedition, as the new Superintendent for the Kikuyu district. The choice was unfortunate. Nelson had been trained in the school that did not hesitate to use force; on his way up to Kikuyu he taught the Teita "a lesson" and upon arrival at his post he continued his tactics, which only made the situation more difficult for his mild successor, Mr Purkiss. By the time Portal arrived in January 1893 the station was "practically in a state of siege;" "By refusing to pay for things" Portal concluded, "by raiding, looting, swashbuckling, and shooting natives, the Company have turned the whole country against the white man."
Uganda Journal - Vol 23, p.173 - George Wilson and Dagoretti Fort by H.B. Thomas -  ….The decision to re-establish a station in Kikuyu must have been taken within a few weeks of Smith's [A.F. Eric] return to Mombasa. He and W.J. Purkiss, a Company's assistant, were back in Kikuyu before the end of 1891 building a strong stockade, Fort Smith, on the site, not of abandoned Dagoretti, but of Lugard's first camp among Kikuyu villages and cultivation. ……. [more trouble with Kikuyu] ….. At the end of October ….. Captain R.H. Nelson, a survivor of Stanley's Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, had taken command of the post with Purkiss as second-in-command. ……… 26 December, Nelson died, leaving Purkiss once more to take command. ……………… Purkiss was relieved about mid-1893 by F.G. Hall, later the founder of Fort Hall. ………. Purkiss went on to Uganda and gave valuable service in the Unyoro Expedition of 1893-4, particularly on Lake Albert - for he had been a mercantile marine officer. His health broke down and on the way to the Coast he died of blackwater at Kibwezi on 14 August 1894. He was buried near his old antagonist Wyaki.
Nicholls - W.P. Purkiss - a former sailor lately in South Africa ……….. Since Purkiss was a talented brickmaker there were burnt brick sleeping quarters for the whites, neatly plastered and thatched with grass [Fort Smith] ….
Nicholls - After Nelson died at Fort Smith in December 1892 Purkiss took over. He soon found himself besieged for 6 days. Fortunately a caravan turned up on its way to the coast from Uganda and relieved him, though with the loss of 10 killed and 2 wounded. On another occasion Purkiss again nearly lost his life, at the hands of one of the Kikuyu leaders, Waiyaki, but he managed to wound and capture his assailant. Waiyaki died on the way to exile at the coast, at Kibwezi. Ironically, Purkiss also died at Kibwezi a year later, and the 2 men's graves lay close together in the mission cemetery.
Web - Black and White - 17/11/1894 - By the death of Mr William J Purkiss another name is added to the long list of Englishmen who have lost their lives in Equatorial Africa. Born in September 1861 Mr Purkiss joined the mercantile marine in 1876, visited the East and West Indies, and made two lengthy stays in Australia. Leaving England again in July 1889 he visited the Transvaal, travelled up the coast to Mombasa, joined the staff of the British East Africa Company, and assisted Major Eric Smith to build the outpost fort at Kikuyu where he nursed Captain Nelson through his fatal illness. The late Sir Gerald Portal annexed Mr Purkiss to the Government staff in Uganda in August 1893, where he did valuable work, and earned the high opinion of Colonel Colvile, the acting Commissioner, and Major Roderic Owen. Invalided home he failed to reach the coast and died of haematuric fever at the Scottish Mission at Kibwezi on July 15th last aged 33.
Old Africa - 20-1-14 - Christine Nicholls & Steve North - William J Purkiss, a former merchant marine officer, originally arrived in east Africa as an employee of the Imperial British East Africa Company in about March 1891 and was employed on building the narrow-gauge railway to Mazeras—the grandly named Central African Railway. The railway was soon abandoned and some time the following year Purkiss was sent to Fort Smith in Kikuyu as Assistant Superintendent. Following the death of the Superintendent, Robert Nelson, in December 1892, Purkiss became Acting Superintendent.
Before he died Nelson, who had been with the H.M. Stanley expedition to ‘rescue’ Emin Pasha, had managed to infuriate the neighbouring Kikuyu with his aggressive attitude and indiscriminate raiding of their villages for food and cattle. When Sir Gerald Portal passed through the area on his way to Uganda in February 1893 on his Special Mission, he found the residents of the fort living in a virtual state of siege. Anyone venturing more than fifty yards from the perimeter without an armed escort was very likely to be attacked and killed. Purkiss managed to wound and capture an assailant, the Kikuyu leader Waiyaki, who died on his way to exile at the coast and was buried at Kibwezi.
As there was no food available locally Portal was delayed at Kikuyu while sufficient provisions were collected at Machakos for the next part of his journey. By the time Portal reached Kikuyu he was already firmly convinced that the Company was moribund. But he did have good things to say about Purkiss who was trying to reduce the tension and bring about a return to peaceful trading. During his enforced stay at Kikuyu, Portal was much taken by a grey parrot which, as he mentioned in a letter to his wife, kept him company as he wrote. The parrot belonged to Purkiss.
Portal probably passed on his views about the imminent demise of IBEAC, and Purkiss, already deeply disillusioned, is listed as resigning from the Company in April 1893. However, he was still at Kikuyu when Portal passed through on his return journey from Uganda to the coast in August 1893 and when offered a temporary position with the new administration in Uganda he accepted. He arrived at Mumia’s on his way to Kampala in late September 1893. In February 1894 he was given a permanent appointment as a 2nd Class Assistant to the Uganda Protectorate and was part of an expedition up the Nile to Wadelai. He apparently became ill during the expedition and was eventually moved to Eldama Ravine where he failed to improve. In July 1894 it was decided to take him to the coast. He died at Kibwezi, about 190 miles from Mombasa, on 15 August 1894, and, ironically, was buried in the mission cemetery close to his former attacker Waiyaki.
The usual procedure at the time was to sell locally the deceased’s effects, except personal items such as rings and watches, and the proceeds were then used to pay off their bills (in most cases it seems these were for accounts with local traders for alcohol) with any residue being sent home to their next of kin. In this case, however, the Foreign Office appears to have required all the deceased’s effects to be sent to England. Soon the Consul-General at Zanzibar, Sir Arthur Hardinge, was being asked why the effects had not been sent. Purkiss’ father was in frequent communication with the FO and the FO with Zanzibar. This appears to have had little effect on speeding up the authorities at Mombasa as it was almost six months after Purkiss’ death that the effects were eventually dispatched. They included a live parrot.
Why the parrot was sent is unclear, but maybe the months of nagging by the FO may have had had an effect. However, it was later noted by Charles Hobley, another Company man, that Consul Hardinge ‘probably never took his duties seriously’ so it looks as if sending the parrot could well have been Hardinge’s idea. The eight boxes of clothes and curios, and the live parrot, eventually arrived at the FO. The presence of the parrot was quickly noted and an urgent request sent to the next of kin for it to be collected without delay.
There is a rather sad postscript to the story. Keys for two of the boxes were sent, with a request that they be passed on to the family. For some reason these were never given to the family but ended up in the FO files—probably filed away before the boxes arrived. The keys were attached to a sheet of paper and bound into what became FO 107 at the National Archives, Kew, where they still are. Presumably Purkiss’ father had to break open the boxes.

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