Finch, as he was known to his friends, was an aristocratic big game hunter and famously the lover of Baroness Karen Blixen (pen name Isak Dinesen), a Danish noblewoman who wrote about him in her autobiographical book Out of Africa, first published in 1937.
Finch Hatton was the second son and third child of Lord Henry Finch-Hatton, 13th Earl of Winchilsea, by his wife, the former Anne ‘Nan’ Codrington, daughter of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Codrington. He was educated at Eton and Brasenose College, Oxford, where he allegedly ran a gambling parlour in his quarters. After earning an unspectacular fourth-class degree and a golf blue, he left England for British East Africa in 1910. Finch Hatton began hunting with his close friend the Hon. Berkeley Cole, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat, who had also settled in the colony.
“Finch could kill two lions with successive bullets from a double rifle – the ultimate ‘left and right’, for sure”
Their reputations as hunters soon spread far and wide. Finch could kill two lions with successive bullets from a double rifle – the ultimate ‘left and right’, for sure. The Great War intervened and Finch gained a temporary commission as a subaltern fighting German guerrillas in the East Africa campaign. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1916 having seen off a determined ambush. Soon after came a captaincy, and a transfer to Major-General Hoskins’ staff as aide-de-camp.
The war over, Finch sealed his reputation as a professional big game hunter specialising in lions. Among his wealthy clients was the then Prince of Wales (later Duke of Windsor). Finch asserted his authority over his royal guest by shooting a rhino the prince had got too close to, in an attempt to photograph it. Finch later crept up on another rhino, and stuck the king’s head (in the form of a couple of postage stamps) on its arse, one on each buttock.
Karen Blixen’s husband, Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, shared the honours as Africa’s top PH with Denys Finch-Hatton. It seems sharing was a habit with Kenya’s bohemian women, and Bror Blixen took to introducing Finch-Hatton as “my good friend, and my wife’s lover”.
During the Prince of Wales safari, Finch recommended Bror as a good “lion man”. The prince badly wanted to shoot a fine lion, but time was short and Finch was worried about the scarcity of a suitable cat. The first bait the party waited over drew a good lion that feasted but slunk off. “We had to return to Babati with long faces,” recalls Blixen. “I was not merely crestfallen – I was angry, and swore that the Prince should have his lion.” The following day after lunch the party drove to Mount Ufiome, where the prince finally bagged his lion, but had to depart almost immediately when a telegram brought news of the king’s failing health.
Finch was one of the early hunter-conservationists, in regular letters to the Times he protested about the orgy of slaughter and advocated a rule of foot safaris only. Indeed in one letter he quotes an American who had already shot 21 lions from a car. Referring to such men as “licensed butchers”, Finch called for ethical and controlled hunting procedures to be established.
On the morning of 14 May 1931, Finch Hatton’s Gypsy Moth took off from Voi airport to scout for elephant. The biplane circled the airport twice, then plunged to the ground and burst into flames. Finch Hatton and his Kikuyu servant Kamau were killed.
In accordance with his wishes, Karen Blixen (though Finch had left her for Beryl Markham) buried him in the Ngong Hills overlooking Nairobi National Park. His brother erected an obelisk at the grave and placed a simple brass plaque inscribed with Finch Hatton’s name, the dates of his birth and death and an extract from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “He prayeth well, who loveth well both man and bird and beast.”
Finch’s conservation efforts were later recognised with the help of Edward, Prince of Wales, in the establishment of the Serengeti National Park. This is Denys Finch Hatton’s lasting legacy.