52 Rooms of Emptiness

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By Martin Odote

I always wanted it to happen. I didn’t imagine the first time would be during a wedding. Twice I planned to do it, twice I failed. Maybe the third time is a charm after all. All it took was a wedding invitation. Who would have imagined that love between two people would finally bring me to this loveless place. The greatest heartbreak in history took place here for heaven’s sake! I’d continue writing about how great the wedding was, but my passion for old buildings won’t allow me. This is the story of Maurice, the last Baron of Egerton.

Lord Maurice Egerton

Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Maurice Egerton was set for life from day 1. The right combination of immense family wealth and a curious mind led him literally travel the world. In his youth, he lived a life that many would envy to this day. A website dedicated run by the a family trust gives him a colorful description. They call him an inventor, innovator, pioneer aviator, photographer, filmmaker and prodigious traveler. He would have made it big on Instagram, had it been invented a century earlier. the last two decades of his live were spent in Kenya. He bought a huge chunk of land and settled on it, possibly because that’s what people with the title ‘Lord’ before their names did in the 1920s. I’m sure the question of an heir crossed his mind as the years went on. (That’s what they call the offspring of the rich, right?) He had to sire an heir as a matter of necessity; Egerton had already lost two siblings, one died at infancy and the other as a teenager.

Egerton had Victoria, his Austrian lover come over to see the nest he had prepared for their future family. “YES!!” she exclaimed, “I’ll check it out.” Everything was going well until she saw his house. The six bedroom house seriously underwhelmed her. She compared it to a nest (this time in the literal sense, not like two sentences ago). That night dinner was awkward. Egerton furiously stormed out of the house to walk of the rage. Two hours into his walk, he figured out his property was too big and he risk getting lost. I should mention at this point that his property was 26,000 acres large.

A panoramic view from the balcony

 

In the days that followed, he developed an acute bout of insomnia. Instead of staring into the ceiling like a peasant would, he opted to make his servants act out the 1920s version of ‘Rocky Balboa.’ Remember, he was rich and could afford to watch stuff set to be released 50 years in the future. One thing stuck with him. The scene of Rambo (that’s what I call Sylvester Stallone) sprinting up the stairs. “Something about the theme music makes me inclined to overcome challenges in life,” he said to himself.

By the sheer power of his will, and a fat bank account, and a battalion of skilled workers in excess of 150, he embarked on a construction project that would sweep his lover off her feet and into his arms. What they built was an ode to opulence. He literally threw all he could at this mansion. The roofing tiles were not simply tiles but zinc tiles. For some reason that was impressive back in the day. There was exotic timber in different parts of the house. The ground floor was akin to a ball-room, complete with an organ, which people say could be heard from over 8 km away. The house may only have stood four storeys tall, but stories about it continue to be told, generations later. The guy must have had a ton of eagerness as he waited to show his lady what he constructed for them. “Listen Giovanni, if Victoria rejects me a second time, I will surely banish women from my land,” joked Egerton to one of his workers (Because he had Italian workers,… and let’s face it, the mansion was impressive).

The mansion with people for scale

Eager to find out why Lord Egerton wasn’t replying her telegrams for a decade, Victoria visited again in 1946 when the house was finished. The Lord was super excited about the visit. He was full of confidence, and who could blame him, his eligibility as a bachelor has been boosted by 52 points, one for each room in the house. If there was a way of expressing drum rolls in text, this is exactly where I could place them. Everything he had been working on in life had built up to this. He visited exotic places, pursued his interests, owned an airplane while they were still termed as contraptions, fought in a war, and now it was time to settle down and have a family.

“So, what do you think?” he asked her. Victoria rolled her eyes and responded to him, “Nah bro, I think we should see different people.” Egerton went blank. He didn’t even hear her say “but we can still be friends.” It was like a a fuse in his head went off. He retreated to the darkest room in his mansion, the dark room. Being an avid photographer, he had a purpose built dark room for film development. Little did he know that this would become his little fortress of solitude at such a low point in his life. His fall into depression was steep, given the high level of expectation he had built up over the years. He could not escape his misery. Everything that was supposed to bring joy in his life served to haunt him. Adjacent to the master bedroom were two spacious rooms meant for the children, as well as a dressing room for Victoria (Who probably married a Wealthy Austrian called Klaus).

A fancy bathtub
A bathtub fit for the would-be wife

In a bid to rid himself of anything that reminded him of shattered dreams, he had the servants lock the offending rooms permanently. In addition to this, he also banished women from the entirety of his massive property. He was dead serious about this decree and had signage at the boundaries of the property as well as the entrance warning women that they will be shot on sight. The wives of his servants had to stay completely clear of him, and a warning was always sounded hours before he made an appearance around the staff quarters. By this point, Lord Maurice Egerton had completely given up on romance. As much as he tried to recover and move on, he was never the same.

He occasionally had a pianist who came to play his favorite tunes. One of the last surviving butlers he had says the Lord sat behind a curtain as the music played (perhaps to curl himself in a fetal position and sob). In 1958, Egerton was taken ill with breathing complications. A team of doctors flew in to attend to him. For three weeks they treated him, all to no avail. On the 30th of January he died, effectively bringing to an end his family’s lineage.

A family from beginning to end

When I visited the castle, my biggest worry was that there would be a boring guide or worse, none at all. As far as tour guides go, the man we found was worth his weight in gold. Robert Onyiego, a former servant of Egerton and then caretaker of the castle was available to give us a guided tour.

This was not an ordinary guided tour, this was a vivid eye-witness account of what happened those many years ago in this imposing building. When he first came to work for Lord Egerton, Robert was 15 years old. That means he had spent almost seven decades of his life over here. As he took us through the house, I couldn’t help but empathize with the Lord. The house had a lot of modern amenities for its time, many of which were barely used. Walking through the house as the guide narrated the story of his former boss, one clearly gets to understand how easily hope can be replaced by despair. The most persistent character of the castle is its emptiness, save for the collection of Lord Egerton’s personal effects in his bedroom.

Empty children's bedroom
This was for the kids

All is not lost however, he lent his name to Egerton University. The institution was built on land he donated. It was initially an agricultural college and later went on to become a fully fledged university offering courses in a variety of disciplines. I guess this is the closest he came to having an heir. Everybody who graduates from this institution inadvertently carries on the family name of a baronage long gone.

The castle is located about 200 km from Nairobi. Last time I visited, there was a charge of 100-200 KES for visitors to the castle. The grounds are also suitable for garden weddings.

 

Congrats! you made it this far in the story! Thanks for taking this journey with me.

Disclaimer: While most of this is based on a true story, I employed my imagination to cover for scanty facts.

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