Margaret Duncan’s diary: 22 February 1919

Posted on by Fay Curtis.

In February 1918 Margaret Duncan, a Post Office clerk from Scotland, sailed to East Africa for a new job and new adventures. Her diary and photograph albums are now in the British Empire and Commonwealth Collection at Bristol Archives (ref: 2001/090/2). One hundred years on, we share her story for the first time.

Last month Margaret recovered her high spirits and active social life following a spell of ill health. This final instalment of her diary sees the end of the war in East Africa, and also the end of Margaret’s time in Kenya as she’s transferred to Kampala, Uganda. Some of the terms she uses to describe her experiences would not be considered acceptable by today’s standards. 

My diary

22 February 1919

Ruiru Post Office staff enjoying time off on Boxing Day 1918

From October to February is some jump. I have not been idle, but most of the writing done has been in letters. Much has happened, there are many changes in the P.O. bungalow at Nairobi, and Maud, Jo, Nell and myself transferred to Uganda. 

Jock Munro has gone home, Dick Berry left before I came from Ruiru. I started work again in Nairobi in November and afterwards visited Ruiru several times. The P. of War camp isn’t there now. Two of the Committee are still there, but the O.C. [Officer in Charge] Camp is in Nairobi and has been very ill in hospital. Christmas day I went to Ruiru and had a jolly time. New Year I spent in bed having a week’s sickleave. Had a few visitors, Peter, Lt. Wilkinson and Lt. Tyrrell.

January passed happily, Edith and I were at a Burn’s party one night and there were little enjoyments all through. The Bungalow was happier than ever before, we had no housekeeper and Edith was “acting O.C. Mess.”

Margaret and friends setting off on a farewell picnic before their transfer to Uganda

On Feb 1st Nell and I had a great sendoff from Nairobi station, it was beautifully decorated. Yes, but not for us, the New Governor arrived a few hours after we left and there were great doings. Peter was, as usual, a gem, supplied us with good things for the train and saw that our luggage was right. At the office as the train went past handkerchiefs were waved from every window of the Instrument room.

Margaret’s view from the train as she nears the Kenya-Uganda border

We had tea at Kijabe, Dinner at Nakuru, it was dark then, Nell was sick, and we settled down to an uncomfortable night’s jolting on the Uganda Railway. We reached Kisumu as morning dawned and the sun glistened brightly on the great lake, the Victoria Nyanza. Kisumu lies in Kavoronda Gulf and the Mainland is hilly and beautiful as the steamer passes down to the open lake. 

Monday morning dawned clear and bright, we felt well and happy. Entebbe drew near, we got in about 11 o’clock and Florence was on the pier. Entebbe is beautiful, tropically perfect. Blue sky, blue lake, green trees and grass, red brown paths and tropical sunshine over all.

What was this? A KAR [King’s African Rifles] band playing “My love is like a red red rose” and then on to “The Star O’ Robbie Burns”. A very good welcome to Uganda, but not meant for us, there were troops for discharge from the boat.

Margaret, Nell and the “boring” Miss Birtles, on the steps of the PO Bungalow at Kampala, February 1919

Because the Armistice was signed in November – I’ve missed out all that, how we had 3 days holiday, processions daylight and torchlight, sports and a thanksgiving service, bands playing and flags waving and a mad reckless feeling overall.

Well, we re-embarked about 3 o’clock and got to Kampala that night. Jo went to Entebbe later and now we are four in a sweet compact little Bungalow. Maud, Nell, Miss Birtles (a telephonist who gives herself airs, seems to think Kampala is composed of Edith Birtles – and others. She’s good style but boring) and myself.

We have had many invitations and little pleasures, a Masonic dinner the first Saturday here, then a luncheon party and then a tennis party. Tonight we are going out to dinner and so the time goes on. Serious study or thought is out of the question in this country; as someone put it, we deteriorate morally, mentally and physically. Do we I wonder? I’ve been nearly a year out, would Kit think me changed?

St Paul’s Cathedral, Kampala, more commonly known as Namirembe Cathedral, under construction 1917

Kampala is scattered over hillsides and covers an area of many miles although really a small place. On the hill opposite ours, away on its summit is a large Cathedral not yet completed. It is being built entirely by Native labour and they have already been at it for 7 years. Everything is green and beautifully fresh and although the heat is great it isn’t overpowering as the rainy season is on.

Kit is a very happy girl these days, her love affairs run smoothly. Mine are in a muddle as usual. Kit has had “Spanish flu” otherwise the home news is good. We are hoping for a mail soon.

What happened next? In next month’s instalment we catch up with how Margaret spent the rest of her life after her diary ended, and also take a behind the scenes look at some of the issues involved in publishing a 100 year old document for a modern audience.

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