And so in 1926, young and naïve, full of hope and
excitement, she embarked on the S.S. Morvada with a large number of
wedding presents to join her fiancé.
The die was cast!
Getting cold feet about the looming marriage she disem-barked
at Mombasa with Charles Fannin, an older married man she had met on
board ship, deciding to keep her large cargo of wedding gifts; Charles
later being dispatched to Dar es Salaam to explain the situation to
the hapless fiancé.
This behaviour estranged her from her disapproving
The early chapters describe in delightful detail
Katherine’s life in Mombasa and Nairobi, where she went to live and
work to avert a scandal for her and Charles, until 1929 when they were
Accounts of adventurous trips and camping safaris make
present day safaris sound extremely tame.
This is a unique and invaluable record of the times
with descriptions of Malindi, Mom-basa Old Town, Dar es Salaam,
Zanzibar and Tanga.
Katherine proffering the opinion that Dar es Salaam
was not a patch on Mombasa which in turn could not compare to
Married to Charles, and back in Mombasa she
involved herself in a charity that helped destitute settlers
of whom there were quite a few and helped to found an
Almshouse (mostly by badgering officials and the wealthy) in
Majengo, for destitute elderly Africans who since the end of
the slave trade had ceased to be under the patronage of their
owners and were living on the streets.
She was also instrumental in founding the
Among the many books she had brought with
her from England was a seventeenth century Bible and prayer
book and a "volume printed 120 years ago of a voyage
all around Africa and into the interior of Abyssinia".
Henry Salt’s Abyssinian Travels
published in 1814 "The book would soon play an ex-traordinary
role in her life".
-- The Fannin Papers - The Life And
Letters Of Katherine Fannin 1902-1970. Written by Judy Aldrick
and published by Old Africa magazine.
January 1936 Katherine and Charles were back in
Nairobi, Charles acting Surveyor General for Kenya, where Katherine
attacked life "with renewed optimism and vigour".
At one event the East African Standard reported
Mrs Fannin "wore an extremely effective and brilliant dress of
gleaming silver lame and was indeed inde-fatigable throughout the
In addition to all her committee work Katherine was
learning Italian, German and Spanish.
She already spoke French and Swahili.
Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) was at this time occupied by
the Italians and in 1938 very little was known about what was going on
there and with the threat of war in the air the British administration
was anxious to find out.
At this time Katherine wanted to return to England.
A previous request to return through Abyssinia had
been refused as a preposterous idea but suddenly it became possible as
Katherine seemed just the right person and all the previous obstacles
"Capable and energetic, with a talent for
languages and a knowledge of surveys and maps she seemed just the
right candidate for some fast footwork in the field of
"Katherine Fannin ‘the spy’ was born".
Eighteen days driving though Italian Somaliland,
Abyssinia and Eritrea on her way to England and her return trip in
February 1939 (when the Italians and the British were keen to form an
alliance against Germany) as an unofficial spy for the British and
propaganda for the Italians, was in Katherine’s words "The
adventure of a lifetime"!
Armed with an expensive cine camera she managed to
photo-graph places of ‘interest’, taking stock of military
installations and equipment, carrying her Henry Salt book (now
claiming him as a relative) asking all the important people and
officials to sign the book which acted as an aide to her memory as to
who she met, where.
She dare not write anything down but could only rely
on her excellent memory.
On arrival in Britain she went to her Barclays Bank,
requested a typewriter and typed out all her information before
presenting it to the Foreign Office.
The Italians had made a very favourable impression on
her, which did not please the British officials who made snide remarks
about her subjectivity to Italian flattery.
Katherine felt and no doubt voiced the opinion that
the occupied lands were well organised, well managed and were being
well developed and was particularly admiring of their splendid road
network - some-thing even then lacking in Kenya!
Alleged 'atrocities' she refused to believe.
No doubt she was kept well away from any place where
she might have witnessed them with one exception when she witnessed a
The chapters covering these travels include a well
researched history of the political situation prevailing in Abyssinia.
That there are no written reports by Katherine
probably detracts from it a little but with the author’s excellent
reconstruction of the report Katherine made to the Foreign Office and
other documents, this a fascinating account of an amazing venture.
Chapter 11 is an excellent account of the Abyssinian
campaign, which was a "resounding success".
Armies had travelled along the routes she had taken
with the assistance of her maps and photographs subduing the
Italians as they went putting an end to Italian East Africa.
The campaign while being somewhat of a "minor
sideshow" may have led to Hitler changing his plans to invade
Britain, having lost his Italian allies, and turning his attention
to North Africa and the Balkans.
Charles was posted to Ghana in 1940-41 where Katherine’s
information on Abyssinia proved useful to the Gold Coast Regiment who
also took part in the Abyssinia Campaign.
Katherine meanwhile carried on her spying career in
Accra, listening to conversations overheard while having her hair
done, reporting back to the British authorities, her hair dresser
being a French Swiss and an indiscreet Vichy sympathiser!
Charles’ two year tour in Ghana ended in 1941 and he
had to return to England but due to war conditions there was no
provision for Katherine’s passage home.
She could either wait patiently for him to return or
follow him when possible.
This did not suit Katherine and she decided to try to
fly to Cairo to find war work as this was the centre for all the
Allied operations in the Middle East.
The sophistication of Cairo was a welcome change
from Accra and Katherine with her quali-fications first got a job in
the Secret Telegrams room and then a post as P.A. to Sir Arthur
Rucker KCMG CB CBE, Chief Official of the Office of the Minister of
State Cairo and Secretary of the Middle Eastern War Council. A
grandi-ose position for the naïve girl who had arrived in Mombasa
less than 20 years previously.
She stayed in Cairo until 1943 when Sir Arthur was
recalled to England and Katherine, no longer needed in Cairo,
travelled to Trinidad to join her husband.
When Charles retired at 55, the Fannins returned to
Kenya and Katherine now began to indulge her love of cats and
"exercised her passion for outspoken journalism and large scale
Katherine, always an ardent 'colonialist', soon became
very disillusioned about the way in which the British Empire was being
Her opinion was that the British from the partition of
India onwards created situations detrimental to all, "leaving a
great deal of bitterness and disillusionment".
She was particularly vocal on what should be done in
Ethiopia and Somalia, strongly advocating a return to Italian rule
which she considered had been exemplary, writing letters to the Times
to express her views.
Needless to say her voice was not heard.
The year 1950 saw many changes in Mombasa where much
development was going on and "early worries were expressed over
parking and traffic congestion".
Tourism was just beginning with many up-country
people es-caping the insecurity of the 'Mau Mau' emergency.
Katherine served on the Mombasa Municipal Council
but realised that settler control was coming to an end.
She was Coast correspondent of the Kenya Weekly
News keeping readers abreast of Coastal events for several years
but Christmas 1954 - when she took a holiday in India to find her
father’s grave - she was replaced by Edward Rodwell, something for
which she never quite forgave him.
No doubt her views on Settlers, whom she supported,
were becoming embarrassing to a paper which was obliged to resign
itself to a new Kenya.
Charles Fannin died in 1960 leaving Katherine bereft
and financially strapped, becoming more eccentric with cats now
numbering over 70.
In the chapter "Other writings, Eccentricities
and Cats" we get a clearer picture of Katharine’s
character, her personal writings and more about Charles.
The penultimate chapter outlines the politics and
inde-pendence years, Katherine’s involvement, her opinions and
The early years of Kenyan Independence proved
disastrous for her, bringing her heartbreak and financial ruin.
She managed to do some work for the Economist
Development Unit, gathering information from local traders where
her natural flair for getting information served her well, revealing
the clue as to her success as a spy.
Her faithful servant, Hamisi died in 1969 after nearly
40 years with her and the rot truly set in.
She had no money, lived in filthy conditions in a
small, almost derelict house in Kisauni, and had about 50 cats to
She could be seen, a dirty ragged figure who nobody
wanted to know, scavenging along the roadside trying to find them
As her health failed one of her few friends took her
to Mombasa Hospital and from there she went to live in Sunset Lodge, a
home for the elderly run by the Salvation Army.
From there she was later taken to Nairobi in a
catatonic state, finally dying in November Hospital in 1970, cared for
by the very charity which she had helped establish back in 1929.
The sad end to an outstanding life!
Judy Aldrick has done a wonderful job in recreating
the life of Katherine Fannin with sensitivity, portraying her
character in all its nuances from the naïve girl to the raving
eccentric living in abject poverty with her 50 cats, abandoned by
most people, her husband and the faithful Hamisi dead.
Katherine had known many people but made few close
The detailed end notes are an excellent complement and
bibliography to the text.
It is an excellent record of all the painstaking
research done to make this book what it is, an accolade to Katherine
Fannin, a woman born before her time, largely unappreciated, finally
raised from oblivion thanks to Judy Aldrick and Old Africa