Margaret Duncan’s diary: 16 September 1918

Posted on by Cameron Hill.

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 was trying hard to stay positive after giving up her part in a musical comedy show because of ill health. Two months on and she is back to her energetic self, determined to get as much as she can out of “the great experience.” Some of the terms she uses to describe her experiences would not be considered acceptable by today’s standards.

My diary

16 September 1918

Two months have I let this record of events lie untouched, and yet I’ve had many little adventures in the passing weeks. On Friday 28th July I re-entered the Hospital, my right knee being badly swollen.

On the next Monday, 26th August I started work, Mr Freeman is now Supervisor and the Instrument Room is quite a happy place, I enjoyed being back, but couldn’t stay a full duty for the first two days.

The village store at Ruiru, showing sacks of maize with weighing scales in the background

Then someone was wanted at Ruiru to take the tiny office there and I was offered it as a rest from the more exacting duties of Nairobi, here I am, came the next Monday Sept 2nd and therefore have been a fortnight in the remote Country. There is the Hotel, a store and the Post Office, and all round a sea of prairie land. It isn’t bad but it’s lonely.

“Giuseppe” (Dick) and Jock visiting Margaret on their motorbike

On Thursday last I sprung a surprise upon the Bungalow crowd, there was a party on and I appeared just before the girls started dinner, I travelled on the brake van of a goods train with the four Indian guards and one white man, nationality questionable. One does such things in BEA, and all were quite respectful and nice. What fun we had! It was the toppingest party imaginable and of course I was the uninvited guest, the surprise of the evening. Got back next morning about 10.30 to start the office work then, instead of at 8. This is nothing to what one can do in BEA. Next thing I felt sick and ill all day and was not better for three days.

Peter came to tea on Saturday and we had two snaps taken, then “Giuseppe” and Jock came on a motor bike and sidecar yesterday for lunch and tea and we had a lovely little time. Had deck chairs and a little table in the grass hut beside my room, and it’s a jolly fine place too. We had a joyride after tea, and when the moon rose high the two departed.

I’ve had dinner tonight with five men, Mrs Barnes is in bed tired out and so I was the only “girl in the world.” There were some strong arguments, an Irishman, a Canadian and three English to one Scottie. Such dinners are novel to me after our long table of girls at the Bungalow, but I like them, they are part of the great experience.

6 October 1918

Have just had tea with Lieut Lucas at the Prisoner of War camp, watched the Ngoma and listened to the song of welcome sung in my honour, all standing at the “salute” during the singing.

Margaret with her colleagues “The Committee”: Mr Lancum, Mr Brown-Saul and Lieut. Lucas

 I tossed cigarettes and boxes of matches, and one Bibi came up to me with her “Jambo Mammie” the greatest honour payable to a “Memsahib,” and I shook her hand. I took two snaps, one of the dance and one of some “Askaris” (Native soldiers) some of whom are really fine looking men, the Nandis are tall and straight and clear skinned, a very different type to the Kikuyus we have as servants.

I am still at Ruiru, having quite a good time, the three nicest men of the place take care to keep me amused and they call themselves the Committee to keep Settlers from becoming cheeky to their “Little Ray of Sunshine.”

Margaret taking up the dare to dress as a cowboy and be photographed on a mule

They dared me to dress as a cowboy and be photographed on a Mule last Thursday. There were a great many snaps taken before we were finished. I’ve met a very interesting man (President of the bogus Committee) Mr Brown-Saul, so life isn’t really dull in this place so “far from the Madding Crowd”.



Next month is the final instalment of Margaret’s diary, in which she describes the end of the war and her transfer to Uganda.

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