Elizabeth Watkins was the pen name used by June Knowles (1923 – 2012) who was an English author, brought up in Kenya, where her parents, Oscar Ferris Watkins (1877 – 1943) and Olga Florence Watkins (1889–1947), had started a coffee farm outside Nairobi.
In 1941, she falsified her age and joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force as a cypher officer. She served in Cairo during the North African Campaign and at other secret locations translating top secret signals for the British High Command. She was later posted to Kenya and the Seychelles, where she supported the dangerous work of the Catalina crews of the Canadian and allied air forces, flying anti-submarine missions to protect the sea routes to India. Subsequently, volunteering for further active service, she was posted to Caserta to do cyphers for the Allied advance into Southern Italy.
In 1949 she married Oliver Staniforth Knowles (1920 – 2008) in Nairobi, they had moved to Kenya where he was in the Colonial Administration.
Oscar From Africa: The Biography of O F Watkins by Elizabeth Watkins (1995) is the author's tribute to her father, Oscar Ferris Watkins (1877 - 1943). He was a cavalry trooper in the Boer War in South Africa before going to East Africa and becoming commandant of the Carrier Corps in the East Africa Campaign in World War I. He became acting Kenya Chief Native Commissioner, Provincial Commissioner and the first editor of a Swahilli newspaper which gained the largest circulation of any paper in Africa. He strove to protect the interests of the African people and found himself on a collision course with the settlers and Lord Delamere and a Governor who was inclined to take their part. Oscar Watkins' wife, Olga Florence Watkins (1889 – 1947), was the daughter of big game hunter William Baillie-Grohman
Jomo's Jailor by Elizabeth Watkins (1993) is the biography of Leslie Whitehouse (1901 - 1989), a District Commissioner in Turkana, Kenya in the mid-1950s, at the time Jomo Kenyatta was interned by the British in Lokitaung and Lodwar. Responsible for holding him safely in captivity, Whitehouse formed a friendship with Kenyatta which subsequently influenced Kenyatta's outlook and relationship with white Kenyans.
Cypher Officer: In Cairo, Kenya, Caserta by Elizabeth Watkins (2008) is a first hand account of the author's experiences during World War II as an RAF Cypher Officer in the WAAFs, encoding and decoding cyphers in the field using the British version of the Enigma machine.
Olga In Kenya: Repressing The Irrepressible by Elizabeth Watkins (2005) is the story of Olga Florence Watkins, the author's mother, who went to Kenya in 1914 and died there in 1947. Olga was the daughter of William Adolf Baillie Grohman, from an Anglo-Austrian family. She and her first husband, Douglas Thompson, travelled up-country on the Uganda Railway to their newly surveyed land at Koru, when the war and the campaign on the border with German East Africa intervened, during which Douglas was killed. She was recruited for her fluent German by Richard Meinertzhagen to help with intelligence work. An energetic pioneer, farmer and social worker, she became the first woman member of the Nairobi City council, and a member of the Kenya Legislative Council, being elected to take the seat previously held by the murdered Lord Erroll. As the first director of Women's Education in Kenya she was a staunch advocate of rights and education facilities for African woman.
Oliver Staniforth Knowles (1920 – 2008) was a British officer (and husband of Elizabeth Watkins) who served in the Indian Army before joining the British Colonial Service in Kenya. He later worked in the Kenya Treasury in 1955 and remained there after independence. He left Kenya in 1969 and joined the United Nations, where he served for fourteen years as an adviser and consultant.
Back Seat Driver by Oliver Knowles (2008) is the memoir of Elizabeth Watkins' husband, who mostly wrote the book in the 1980s for his family. The author and his wife spent their early years in a succession of short postings from Turkana to Kiambu where he became aware of the stirrings of Mau Mau and met Kenyatta.
Page Updated: May 2022