Britain and Ethiopia (former Abyssinia) had had intermittent, and occasionally rather dramatic, dealings with each other since relations were first formally established in 1841, and a British consul was appointed at Massowah in 1842. Permanent representation was not established at Addis Ababa until 1896, soon after Emperor Menelik II overthrew an Italian Protectorate of his country. He allotted one gasha of land (a variable measure, but approaching 100 acres) for a British agency at the foot of the Entoto Hills, 2,600 metres above sea level, just north-east of what was then the new-ish and still-tented town of Addis Ababa. The boundaries of this land were defined by natural objects: a spring at the north corner, a prominent rock at the east corner, a stone wall along the south-east side down to the road at the south corner, along the road to the west corner and up the creek to the spring. The lower, flatter part of the site, almost treeless, was no more than thick grass.
This allocation of land was not and, despite significant British efforts, has never been consolidated by the issue of title deeds. In recognition of its receipt, however, the British government has always exempted, and uniquely continues to exempt, the Ethiopian Embassy in London from rates and successor charges [still?].
A small tented encampment was apparently established on the site in 1896, before the first consul-general and agent, John Harrington arrived in 1898. Eight tukuls, indigenous circular huts, connected by covered walkways, were built in 1900 as the consulate, at a cost of about £2,000. The agency became a legation, and Harrington its minister, in December 1903. His successor, in 1909, was Wilfred Thesiger, whose son, another Wilfred and the explorer and travel writer, was born in one of the tukuls in 1910. The compound had separate areas for the Sudanese and their households; the Abyssinian servants and their wives; stables for 30 horses and other tukuls for harness room, fodder stores, and quarters for men of the Aden troop. A clutch of tukuls for the native interpreters was built in the south-west corner, close to the entrance to the compound. The first non-indigenous buildings to be erected, in 1905, were for escort quarters and stables towards the north corner, and elsewhere two small houses, followed by a courthouse, prison and dispensary.
Plans for a more European type of legation buildings, with residential accommodation for minister, secretary of legation and vice-consul, and their offices, were prepared in London in 1908 by the architect Thrift Reavell in the Office of Works. The selected site was further up the hill than the tukuls: from the new terrace, reached by a steep set of steps, was a magnificent view over the plain and the town. The residence plan, on a single floor, was rectangular. The entrance hall, which had a grid of four columns in its middle (on which successive incumbents’ names are incised), opened straight ahead to the Durbar Hall, and through to the dining room beyond. On either side of the durbar hall was a courtyard, each surrounded on three sides by a veranda and each with a well in the middle. Around the western court was ranged the minister’s drawing room and bedrooms; around the eastern one, the minister’s and secretary’s offices, the secretary’s quarter and the kitchens. The vice-consul’s house and chancery offices were in a smaller building of comparable manner to the west, across a formal flower garden.
The building was constructed under the supervision of WC D’Harty, an experienced clerk of works from the Office of Works, and completed in 1911 at a cost of about £21,000, D’Harty was able, diligent and generous with good advice to many bodies who were building in Addis Ababa, to such an extent that the Ethiopians wanted to award him the Star of Ethiopia, third class. [Was the award actually made?]
The buildings are of the local black stone. Window sill levels throughout the house are unnaturally high as a security precaution in the event of siege. The roof was originally asbestos but replaced with corrugated iron in about 1950. The internal timberwork is in local cedar, and the ironmongery came from Britain. The dining room was enlarged by extension north in the late 1950s. The Durbar Hall’s pitched ceiling was originally open to view but a silk velarium was inserted at about the same time. In preparation for the Queen’s State Visit to Ethiopia in February 1965 (she stayed in Jubilee Palace but visited the residence), the steps were re-arranged to lessen the steepness, and the terrace altered to suit.
The present compound, of about 63 acres, which lies within the original site of about 80 acres, has undergone numerous piecemeal changes and improvements over the past century as demand for office and residential accommodation rose and security arrangements were taken more fully into consideration. On the offices side, a new building for consular offices in 1923 enabled their move from the vice-consul’s house. The mission was withdrawn between 1937-42 (while Ethiopia was under Italian occupation): after its return, a new chancery building enabled the offices to move out of the residence in 1943. The legation became an embassy in 1949. In the same year, the consular offices moved into the original tukuls of 1900. They stayed in them until 1971 when they moved to leased space in the city (in Papassinos Building, Ras Desta Damtew avenue) and the Administration section of the embassy took over the tukuls. Two of the 1900 tukuls remain in use, and are carefully conserved, as are the other historic and natural characteristics of the site. A building to house the Department for International Development was constructed in 1995, and in 1996, in response to the introduction of a visa regime, a new visa and consular section was built, with access straight off the street, in the vicinity of the original interpreters’ tukuls.
On the residential side, three bungalows for UK-based staff were built in 1927 (as well as a new prison); the diplomatic secretary’s bungalow was rebuilt in 1934 on a new site after subsidence from a stream; two pre-fabricated houses were built in 1948 on the site of a former vice-consul’s house; and more new staff houses were built in the 1950s. By 1971, there were 12 UK-based staff houses on the compound, and seven leased houses off-compound. Four more compound houses were completed in 1991 to enable expensive leased premises to be given up.
On the communal side, a “motorable” road was made in 1935, a time of increasing threat, to connect the four adjacent legations (British, Russian, French and German). In 1957, a six metre strip of land along the entire south boundary was ceded for road-widening. The native village and stables areas have been redeveloped and improved several times. There is a small embassy graveyard in the compound, consecrated in 1943 by the Bishop of Egypt and Sudan. One of the original interpreter’s tukuls by the main entrance became the embassy cinema club in 1965, which year also saw the establishment of the St Michael’s clinic in the compound. Staff amenities include a small golf course, two tennis courts and a swimming pool.
A plot of land was leased in 1965 for thirty years as a staff amenity at Lake Langano, about three hours drive from Addis Ababa, and two amenity bungalows were subsequently built there [given up?].