A Tale of Two English Families in Ceylon
by Leelananda De Silva / @ The Island - Dec 2009
Although the British Empire is no more, there can be found in various corners of England many associations with the empire. Recently, I visited one of the last institutional remnants of the empire, located above a solicitor’s office on the high street of a little Kentish town called Tonbridge. This is the Colonial Service Pensioners’ Association, which serves the interests of former servants of the British Empire. Its numbers have now dwindled to about a thousand, and pensioners from Ceylon are only about ten, and most of them are widows, the main pensioners having passed away.
Memories of imperial days in Ceylon yet linger with families in the United Kingdom, and there are many British homes which have Ceylonese artefacts, including letters and photographs and unpublished memoirs. The number being significantly more, there are more of these things for India, and many Indian memoirs and diaries are available in published form. Recently, a selection from the diaries of British women in India, have been brought together in published form by the Oxford University Press. The story I am going to relate is based in the village of Over Norton, near the beautiful Cotswold town of Chipping Norton, a few miles north of Oxford.
In 1968, when I was Assistant Secretary in the Ministry of Lands, Irrigation and Power, I was assisting the Senior Assistant Secretary, T. Sivagnanam, in the early design and planning of the Uda Walawe Project. The Minister at the time was C. P. de Silva. The Asian Development Bank was expected to fund the project, and it sent out a team from Hunting Consultants in the U.K., to undertake a feasibility study. It was one of my tasks to liaise with this team from Huntings.
The agricultural expert in the mission was R. W. (Dick) Kettlewell, CMG, who had been the senior agricultural administrator in what is now Malawi in Africa. In the pre-independence period he had been the Minister of Agriculture in that country. During his visit to Ceylon with Huntings, I got to know Dick Kettlewell, and continued our friendship until his death in the early 1990s. We visited and stayed with him in Chipping Norton. Dick Kettlewell had a previous and what he told me was a most enjoyable association with Ceylon in the early 1940s. He was a Major with the Kenya African Rifles, and was based in Anuradhapura for over an year in 1942 and 1943 with his regiment.
He developed a close friendship with the then Government Agent of Anuradhapura, Richard Aluvihare and his family, and from that time he was a great admirer of this country. Dick Kettlewell wrote his memoirs and they remain unpublished. At the end of this article is an extract from his memoirs of Anuradhapura days, offering a glimpse of what life was in Anuradhapura during the Second World War.
Much later on, we got to know his son, Michael, and daughter-in-law, Sarah, who live in a sprawling farm in Over Norton. Michael is a distinguished gastro-intestinal surgeon and an Oxford academic, who has been a supervisor of many post-graduate medical students from Sri Lanka. Sarah, was a Dawkins, prior to her marriage, and the farm on which they live is Dawkins’ property. The Dawkins and the Kettlewells are close friends from Africa days, and from being neighbours in Over Norton. Sarah’s brother is the well-known academic celebrity, and the arch protagonist and defender of the Darwinian revolution. His books – The God’s Delusion, The Selfish Gene, and The Blind Watchmaker - are notable landmarks in popular scientific literature. He is a TV personality and held the prestigious professorship for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford until recently.
The connection of the Dawkins with Ceylon is through the mother of Sarah and Richard, Jean Lardner, who was born in Matara in 1914. Her parents, Connie and Jack Lardner, married in Colombo, Jack having come to Ceylon to set-up a Marconi Wireless Station at Matara on the outbreak of the First World War. Jean Lardner married Clinton John Dawkins and they are now in their nineties, living in a house in their Over Norton farm. Jean has many possessions from Ceylon days including Ceylon books of that period and a large number of photographs of Matara and the southern coastline. Her father was a keen photographer. She has fond memories of Matara, and this is what she says in her unpublished memoirs.
"When the 1914 war came, A.W.L. joined the Navy and was posted to Ceylon where a wireless station was to be built on the southern tip of the island at Matara. Connie followed him in 1915 and had a hair-raising voyage among submarines. They were married in Colombo from Padre MacMichael’s house. Later I was christened Jean after Mrs. MacMichael and she was a very kind godmother.
Bill and Connie loved Ceylon. They had a big shady bungalow in a garden full of gardenias and frangipanis. I remember standing looking out to the road to see the elephants go by with my ayah whom I loved I am told. She was called Hinni Hami Wikramaratna, Nancy for short. She came to England in about 1921 when being ayah to another family; and she visited us in Chelmsford, and I was overcome at meeting her again".
Anuradhapura days by R. W. Kettlewell -
As the Japanese were increasingly forced on to the defensive in the Pacific and our fears of invasion receded, we were able to appreciate something of the beauty of the island, its fascinating ancient history and its remarkable economic progress, especially compared with central Africa. There must be few countries in the world with such an attractive range of environment in so small a space, from the high, hilly tea country with two monsoons, down through the rolling middle altitudes growing rubber, cocoa and spices, to the low rice-growing plains with coconuts all along the shore.
Another impressive contrast with central Africa was the feeling of history. The Sinhalese had an ancient civilization with fine extensive cities and highly efficient rice irrigation on a vast scale. Although much of this had irretrievably decayed, there was evidence everywhere of ancient skills and splendour. The larger "tanks" to serve the needs of cities had earth banks sometimes thirty feet high stretching for two or three miles across imperceptible drainage lines to impound the bountiful waters of two monsoons in the hills for the year-round use of the drier plains below. The controllable sluice gates in the banks were made of stone and the channels that conveyed the water from them were often of such precise and gentle gradient as to defy understanding of how the ancients laid them out.
The early cities in their different way were equally wonderful both in extent and architecture. Their remains covered many square miles from which the jungle had been sufficiently cleared to reveal the plinths and pillars of beautifully proportioned stone buildings, elegant steps and doorways and spacious swimming baths. All this was dominated by the huge Buddhist dagobas (shrines), hemispherical in shape and surmounted by a tall finial. They were built of solid brick, as could be seen from those in disrepair, and many were said to have some sacred Buddhist relic embedded in them.
The mightiest and best preserved dagoba (about 250 feet high) posed a temporary military problem. It was a gleaming conspicuous white and thought to be an obvious marker for enemy aircraft aiming to bomb the city headquarters of Anuradhapura. I remember seeing a tea research chemist, turned camouflage expert, pondering the insuperable problem of making this monument look like a bit of jungle, when a down-to-earth Australian airman assured him, with emphatic embellishments, that aircraft located the city by the surrounding tanks; not by the dagoba.
The other striking difference from backward Africa was the indigenous people of Ceylon. With the legacy of their ancient civilization there were plentiful examples of impressive capability from the peasant cultivators, poor but hard working and skilful in terracing and irrigation, up to highly intelligent and cultured administrators blending the best of east and west. But it was some while before I became aware of the latter and, being perhaps a little over-zealous in my comparatively new role as adjutant in an anxious and unfamiliar situation, I committed a shocking diplomatic blunder.
The battalion was camped on a large common traditionally used as a grazing ground for scores of cattle and sheep whose unrestrained habits impaired our camp amenities. I wrote a formal letter to the junior local administrator asking him to have the animals removed. When they were not I regret to say I followed it up with a peremptory threat that some of the animals might have to be shot if they were not kept out of our camp. Colonialism at its worst! My letter evidently sped up administrative channels, across to the military, and equally quickly down again to make it plain that that was not the way to treat the local administration. Quite right. Perhaps as a direct and happy result of this regrettable incident, a European with extensive Ceylon experience was attached to each battalion as an adviser on local affairs. Ours, a delightful tea planter, had been in the same house with me at Clifton.
As headquarters of a large administrative province, "Ana" (Anuradhapura) was the base for several senior officials and their families. Outstanding among them was Richard Aluvihare, the Sinhalese Government Agent. He was something altogether outside my African experience. Coming from one of the most respected aristocratic Ceylon families, with a good education and English as his first language, he was a cultured and capable man. We worked closely with him; he guided and helped us in our relationships with the people of his province, and we in return helped him in the distribution of food during a seasonal shortage. Richard Aluvihare became, in due course, Inspector General of Police, and finally Ceylon’s ambassador to India, and a Knight.
He, his charming and equally cultured wife and their younger teenage daughter lived in a big house near our mess, and their kindness and unostentatious hospitality was boundless. Their remarkable library of books was a great blessing to us and we often met interesting visitors to the province at their home. I remember being much impressed by D. S. Senanayake, then Minister of Agriculture and later the first Prime Minister after independence in 1948.
There was a club of sorts too in Ana. The locals welcomed us as temporary members and we enjoyed some excellent tennis with them. Farther afield there was more robust sport once the risk of Jap invasion receded. The forces rugger tournament was a big event at a high standard of play. 21st Brigade reached the final where we were narrowly beaten by 1st King’s Own battalion, the peacetime Army champions commanded by A. R. Aslett, a former British international. I played in the back row of our scrum, and cruelly exhausting it was in a humid 800F!