The Soldier Settler Scheme

It is possible that Guy Lomax went out to Kenya (British East Africa) as part of the soldier settlers movement. This was set up by the British Government as an attempt to provide employment for the thousands of men leaving the forces at the end of the first world war. It was seen as a ‘debt of honour’ owed to the ex soldiers for their service to the Empire.

The possibility of a soldier settlement scheme had been raised early in 1916, and the adventurer, Rider Haggard, had travelled to the British Dominions in search of suitable land. Even so the government was ill prepared for the flood of 174,000 officers back into civilian life and by June 1920, there were still 17,000 ex officers on the unemployment rolls. At the height of the demobilisation crisis in January 1919, Lloyd George presented an urgent memorandum to the cabinet with respect to a land settlement bill. Farming Land in Kenya was to be distributed by ballot, but to be eligible for the draw, prospective settlers had to show that they had capital to invest. There were no requirements for previous farming experience. Lord Kitchener had issued a pamphlet entitled ‘A Patriotic Road to Wealth’ shortly after the Armistice. He estimated that money could be made from Coffee in Kenya and that £500 investment would cover costs comfortably for a soldier settler. Kitchener recommended the climate, and commented that ‘labour was plentiful and cheap’. To the unemployed officer class, the prospect of escaping mass unemployment at home, and the general  lowering of living standards – servants were difficult to obtain after the war – must have seemed enticing. The ballot took place in the summer of 1919, and on Christmas Day 1919, the first soldier settlers arrived in Mombasa.

More than a thousand Kenyan farms were distributed to existing white residents and new soldier settlers. 685 farms went to British ex soldiers selected in the London Ballot. In the main, the  the soldier settlers were ex-officers, whose background was the British upper classes and elite professional classes. Their average age was 35, usually with a public school background and had military or financial connections with East Africa. Very few of them had farming experience. Literature at the time made it clear that the allotted land was often a considerable distance from the railways, and some areas had no roads. There was to be no medical assistance and no system set up for supplies. Some doubt was also expressed about whether the climate was suitable for women and children. A correspondent to the Times in August 1919 expressed concern that a man with capital of £500 would be unlikely to make a profit within a decade. The same author also noted that British East Africa was a delightful country, and that settlers would be included in a ‘splendid class of colonists’ who were ‘enjoying real freedom instead of sham liberty at home’.

Most of the soldier settlers travelled out to Kenya to take up their farms in 1920. Unfortunately, there were many unforeseen problems. The previously booming flax economy collapsed, and prices made its production uneconomic. Drought, plagues of locust and the economic recession in Kenya in the early 1920s didn’t help. Some settlers found that their land was not fit for cultivation from the outset. The great distances from the railways, lack of roads and poor support services were as predicted at the outset, significant obstacles. There were also  labour shortages in the remote areas.  Some settlers working within syndicates managed to survive, planting tea for Brook Bond and coffee, but  a considerable number of the initial settlers simply gave up and many were bankrupted in the process. 

I have been unable to find the list of officers allocated land in Kenya at the time of the ballot in August 1919. Kitchener’s letter to the Times of 25/11/1919 suggested that interested men should write to him, and he would ‘approach the Governor to obtain suitable holdings’. It is possible that Guy went through this route rather than the ballot process.

Guy Lomax fitted the profile of the typical soldier settler described above. I know that he went to Mombasa in June 1920, which is within the soldier settler  time frame and that he still described himself as a planter in 1924.

Guy’s daughter, Alison was born in Durban in 1929, so he must have given up the Kenya planting adventure at some point between 1924 and 1929.

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