Changes to Colombo’s landscape in recent years have been so rapid and comprehensive that anyone visiting after a period of time will hardly recognize parts of the city where its homes have virtually grown out of sight. Where beautiful homes and gardens once stood gladdening the eye of passers by, there now stands a compacted structure enclosed by high walls. The beautiful garden city that Colombo was, up until the nineteen sixties, and which enraptured visitors over the years, seem to have been lost forever. On a recent visit to Sri Lanka, visiting old haunts, I tried to recapture some of the imagery of the past, particularly in relation to Havelock Road, which was a regular route to me in the days of my youth. I met only with limited success. Lots of old memories and images did however return, and I thought I should retrieve some of it and place them on record partly as an exercise in memory recall, and also to jog the memories of readers. The descriptions are of people and homes along Havelock Road and beyond around fifty years ago.
Havelock Road begins at the Bullers Road intersection or what is popularly known as the Thunmulla Junction, and ends at the Pamankade Bridge on the road to Kohuwala. Close to its southern end, at the intersection of Havelock Road with Maya Avenue was a popular Shell Service Station opposite to which there was the City Hospital for Animals which opened in 1947 by the then Prime Minister Mr D. S. Senanayake. Adjoining the hospital was a roadway leading to the Boys Industrial School providing vocational education to young people.
Next-door was the home of Dr. Thomasz whose daughter was a well-known sporting figure of the time. A fine specimen of the Traveler’s Palm- Ravenela Madagascaris grew on its front lawn. Next door, No 498 Havelock Road was “Kamala” the home of Dr. air named after his daughter. For a few years it was tenanted by B. J. Lalyett a Director of Darley Butler and Co. The house was later purchased by the then Director of Education H. S. Perera who named it “Shalimar”. Mr Perera died not long after he moved in to the house. His British wife continued to live in the house till she passed away a few years ago.
In the house opposite lived Horace van Twest who served with the Ceylon Garrison Artillery during World War II. On the opposite side next door to Shalimar at No 500, a battleaxe block stood the home of Alfred West Toussaint a former Engine Driver of the Railway whose legs were severed below the knee after accidentally slipping off the engine on to the railway track. His father Alfred West Toussaint (Snr) was one of the first Burghers to be appointed as a Railway Engine Driver. Toussaint worked for several years in an administrative capacity in the railway office at McCallum Road. He used to travel to work each day by rickshaw, pulled by his faithful rickshaw puller Muttiah. Each morning Muttiah would climb up the steps of the house, lift Alfred from his wheelchair, carry him and place him on the rickshaw. He would then pull the rickshaw all the way to McCallum Road in the city; spend his time around the office until his master was ready to go back home after work. Muttiah and his wife were quartered in the garage of the Toussaint home, and the couple worked exclusively for the Toussaints.
The Toussaint home was one of a duplex, the other occupied by the Rowlands. Alfred’s wife Alice (nee Drieberg) aged over 90 years, was living alone in this house in 1997, her son Maurice, having migrated to Canada several decades earlier.
At 502 stood the rambling old Caroline House in which Mrs Caroline de Silva lived for many years in the house built by her husband. The house was demolished in 1955. Mrs de Silva owned the adjoining row of houses in which lived the Fryer and Reimers families for several years. These houses have also been demolished.
On the opposite side was ‘Beth-Holme’ the home of B. J. Pompeus, and earlier R. A. Honter. In the adjoining garden were several homes in one of which lived V. W. Halpe a teacher at the Royal Primary School for several years. His son Ashley who attended St Peters College was later Professor of English at the University of Peradeniya.
Maya Avenue was previously called Link Road. It linked Havelock Road with the new road to Nugegoda. At its intersection with Havelock Road was the famous Oasis Nurseries owned by John Cosmas a Greek who was Colombo’s leading horticulturist. He had a well-stocked nursery standing on several acres of land, and was the source of the plants that beautified the gardens around homes of Colombo at the time. Most houses would have a resident gardener or “thota karaya” as he was called. The Oasis Nurseries sold packets of Zinnia, Balsam, Dahlia, and Chrysanthemum seeds, which were all perennial favourites with the housewives of Colombo together with canna tubers, rose grafts, and a beautiful range of orchids, all very popular with garden conscious Colombo.
Oasis was bounded by Felsinger Town, a conglomeration of houses owned by the Felsinger family, on the northern side. Oasis closed down in the nineteen fifties and its former site is now obliterated with houses, and shops.
Adjoining its southern border was “Yamuna” the home of H Sri Nissanka, Q. C. It was at this house that the historic Yamuna Conference was held by Mr S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, the first meeting of his parliamentary supporters following his resignation from the U. N. P. in 1951. It was this meeting that led to the founding of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party. The house and its garden stands exactly as it was fifty years ago, one of the few that has withstood pressures from the soaring land values in Colombo.
Across the road was the Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mils, the largest industrial enterprise in Colombo South. It was established by Darley Butler and Co and at one time was owned by Goculdas the Maharajah of Gwalior. The Mills employed thousands of workers most of whom lived in tenement housing around the Havelock Town, Thimbirigasyaya, Pamankade and Wellawatte areas. Its towering smokestack was a landmark in Colombo South. Its siren, which sounded at regular intervals, could be heard for miles around, and served as a signal to the end of a work shift and as a wake up call for workers due for the following shift. The siren sounded exactly on time, so much so that people set their clocks and watches to synchronize with it. The Mills which were associated with the social history of the area was also significant in the political development of modern Sri Lanka. The origins of the trade union movement in Sri Lanka could be traced to the work force of the Mills. The Mills and its massive complex of buildings, today stands in crumbling ruins ready for demolition. The Wellawatte canal or “Layrds Folly” or the “Moda Ela” in Singhalese, into which the industrial wastes of the Mills freely flowed, passed under an old iron bridge on Havelock Road, replaced in 1938 by the bridge, which stands today. It was constructed during the tenure of office of the Mayor of Colombo Dr V. R. Schokman in 1938.
Dr. Schokman lived in this house called “Valerest” opposite the Havelock Park.
Stewart Orr of the Municipal Council lived in this house previously and it was called ‘Dilkusha’. In its front yard was a beautiful circular sunken garden. In later years the house was converted into a restaurant. Adjoining the northern bund of the canal was the Government Senior School, which later transferred to Maharagama. During World War II it housed the Royal Primary School when the entire Royal College complex was used as a military hospital. Today the buildings are the home to Lumbini Maha Vidyalaya. Opposite the school was a row of small shops and houses including a bicycle repair service, which was popular with students and adults alike, as many adults cycled to work in the city and would stop by to pump up their tyres.
In one of these houses lived Mr M. E. Piyasena teacher at the Royal Primary School and a great organizer in the Boy Scout movement. Lawrence Tudawe of the building firm Tudawe Brothers lived in the freestanding house next door. A few houses further on lived S. B. Lekamge, a lawyer, whose wife was a teacher at the Royal Primary School. In the adjoining lane was the home of Dr. C. O. Perera, then Superintendent of the Mental Hospital. Beside the school was Skelton Gardens, with much of its land yet not built upon.
At Dawson Road where it abuts Havelock Road was the home of Dr. Francis Silva, Orthopaedic Surgeon. Havelock Place consisted of around ten homes mainly occupied by British and Burgher families like that of Edwin Ludovici a partner of a leading firm of lawyers, C. H. White of Walker & Sons, R. M. Lawson whose home later owned by T. M. Soysa, and de Kretser who migrated to Australia in 1946. His son who was in school with me was a tall gangly youth nicknamed “pol gus maama” for his extraordinary height. He wrote a letter from Australia stating much to our envy that he was earning a lot of pocket money during weekends by pasting labels on IXL jam tins!
Next to Havelock Place stood ‘Park View’ an old house demolished about thirty years ago, which belonged to R. A. de Mel, former Mayor of Colombo. This house figured prominently in an election petition that eventually unseated de Mel from his election as M. P. for Colombo South.
Dunstan Martin the Accountant built his home on part of this property, but passed away not long after of a heart attack. In the house next door lived Dr. C. H. Gunasekera the Chief Medical Officer of the Municipal Council and well-known sportsman. The sports triangle on the opposite side of the road included the Colts, the Burgher Recreation Club, and the Havelock Sports Club.
The land was a rubber plantation at the turn of the century. South of the perk area was Park Road, which was, then a gravel road that extended to Nawala. The land between Park Road and the Wellawatte Canal was low lying and was planted with “keerai”, the source of most of Colombo’s green vegetables. It belonged to Ramasamy Reddiar who sold most of it for redevelopment. Today it is one of the more desirable residential areas of Colombo.
Next to Dr. Schokman’s house referred to earlier, stood a cluster of large, mainly two story bungalows built in the nineteen forties by E. P. A. Fernando (later Sir Ernest), owner of the Bogala mines. His own residence “Údayasiri” was away from the main road. One that faced Havelock Road was named “Siripasiri” and was leased to W. B. Mackay then Manager of the Bank of Ceylon, and later to the Sun Life Assurance Co at the time a leading insurance firm in Colombo. Its Managing Director F. M. Mc Bain lived in this house for several years. His neighbor next door was Mrs Walteer Peiris whose well-manicured lawns were always a pleasing sight. In a corner of her garden were two tombstones to the memory of deceased family members. Dr. J. T. Amarasingham a medical practitioner, also involved in politics lived next door. In the adjoining house was the Ayurvedic Medical practice of Rev Malewana Gnanissara who was also a politician of sorts.
At the Havelock Road/Dickmans Road intersection stood an old cottage named ‘Didi Vila’ belonging to a Maldivian. For some years it was unoccupied and rumor had it that it was haunted.
Sir Ernest Fernando constructed Bogala Court on this land in the late 1940s and it was then considered the ultimate in residential flat design. At the junction was installed the first set of traffic lights in Sri Lanka.
In the first house past the Dickmans Road intersection on the left was “White Lea” the home of Dr. Serasinghe and of Winston Serasinghe well known in DRAMSOC circles and rugger player for the C. R. and F. C. He is also remembered in later years for his stentorian voice often heard encouraging the C. R. and F. C. team from sidelines.
Next door lived Steuart de Silva who for many years was a member of a trio that played each evening at the “Pigalle”a nightspot on Galle Rad Colpetty. Further on was “Chistlehurst” the home of W. S. Fernando.
The adjoining house was that of Dr. Seneviratne whose sons Dr K. N. (Bull) and Nihal, the former Secretary General of Parliament, rose to eminence in their respective fields of professional activity.
Two doors away lived B. P. (Percy) Peiris who served as Secretary to the Cabinet of successive Prime Ministers. Percy was a favorite at the Havelocks Club where his talents as a pianist and penchant for singing were much appreciated.
Former Chief Justice Hema Basnayake, then a Crown Counsel previously occupied this house. The Agalawatte’s lived two doors away. The last house on this stretch before reaching the Thimbirigasyaya bazaar area was that of Samasamjist, Bernard Soysa, later to become a Minister.
On the opposite side of Havelock Road adjoining the intersection with Dickmans Road was ‘Mona’ the home of Proctor Nicol Samarasinghe, which was demolished in the nineteen fifties to give way to the modern homes that stand there now.
Next door lived Dr. L. C. Gunasekera.
A couple of houses away stood “Som Wasa” the home of the Weerasinghe family that nurtured the well known fraternity of sportsmen including Oliver (Chief Town Planner), Lionel (Auditor General), Bertie (Fire Chief), Winnie (Police Officer).
The last house on this stretch adjoining Spathodea Building was “Sukhasthan”, the home of R. R. Undugodage.
Beyond the Thimbirigasyaya bazaar area was T. F. (Freddie) Jayawardena’s property on which a motor garage and a Shell Petrol Station stood. Part of the land was built on during the nineteen sixties.
Adjoining the petrol station lived the Gunawardena family, whose daughter Kusuma was a well known netball player.
A few yards away lived Dr. J. R. Wilson specialist in Chest diseases.
Vajira Road led into Havelock Road at this point where “Lileena” the residence of Sir Ukwatte Jayasundera, the Secretary of the United National Party in the fifties, stands. His Chevrolet with registration CY1 was quite an attraction in the area. Colonel Stanley Fernando who designed it with its façade of Corinthian pillars originally owned the house. The building now houses the popular restaurant Jade Gardens.
Next-door was the home of lawyer “Spotty” Sunderampillai.
Former Supreme Court Judge, F. H. B. Koch Q. C. lived in the adjoining house “Bramble Court” set in a beautifully maintained garden. In one corner was a splendid conifer Araucaria Cookii, and just at the entrance to the driveway was a striking clump of Agave Americana Variegata or the Century plant. The walls of the house were covered with ivy, neatly clipped in a line about a meter lower from roof level. F. H. B. Koch also owned a countryseat in Talahena called Blue Lagoon, which was later to become a tourist hotel.
H. T. Roslyn Koch, Managing Director of Colombo Apothecaries Co lived in “Glenrose” next door. He had a beautifully tended garden mainly of colorful perennials thriving luxuriantly off the cattle manure that his plump Cape Cows generated. His daughter Kathleen La Brooy ran a school for dressmakers in later years. Both these homes are no longer visible from the road, as modern flats stand on the beautiful gardens that once existed there.
On Gower Street abutting Havelock Road was Dr. Lance Fernando’s house, which was next to “St Clair” the home of Dr. Rex de Costa the war veteran who was tragically gunned down in Deniyaya during the 1971 insurrection.
Further on at 106 lived Dr. G. R. Handy eminent cardiologist, whose neighbor at No 100 was lawyer C. R. Gunaratne in a residence of more recent vintage.
The University Hostel “Aquinas Hall” was a few yards away. It was earlier the home of lawyer J. A. P. Cherubim.
On the opposite side was the Police Training School built originally in 1924, with several residential flats for police officers being added over the years. At the entrance to Lauries Road was the petrol service station owned by S. De S Jayasinghe M. P. who also ran the Gamini Bus Co, which piled on this route. His buses often made unscheduled stops for fuel here, much to the annoyance of commuters.
Beyond Lauries Road was the Modern Chinese Cafe of the M. C. C. , one of the earliest Chinese restaurants in suburban Colombo and a popular rendezvous for young people. Its owner, Mr. Shu was a versatile man excelling in tropical fish breeding and orchid culture.
Rienzi Toussaint of the Post Office Savings Bank previously occupied the house. Across the road at No 3 Havelock Road lived Edmund Wilson in his house “Tamund” which is now a vegetarian restaurant (Shanthi Vihar). At No 7 was a two storeyed house purchased in the nineteen fifties by Sam P. C. Fernando.
Next door lived Ivor de Saram in his home ‘Áberdour’ and in the adjoining house lived Royal College Master R. C. van der Wall who ran a boarding house in the nineteen twenties.
One of its occupants was a young Colvin R de Silva then making his mark as a boxer in the Royal College boxing team. Municipal Surveyor, Derek Swan lived two doors away at No 25.
The Thunmulla Junction was known for its many accidents and for the various endeavors made by the Municipal Council to ensure road safety. For several years it was a crossroad junction. A roundabout was tried next without much success, then a set of traffic lights, and once again by a roundabout.
A. E. R. Paul a member of the Royal Collage cricket team was fatally run over by a truck at this spot in 1928. Twenty years later a master at Royal College met with a similar fate at this spot while riding his bicycle home after school.
Reid Avenue commences from Thunmulla Junction and runs through the ‘educational triangle’, then consisting of the University College, Royal College, and the Training College on the left, and the Havelock racecourse on the right.
The offices of the Dutch Burgher Union stand facing Thunmulla Junction. In the adjoining property was the surgery of Dr. Alan Rutnam.
Senator A. M. Samarasinghe’s house was next close to Adam’s Avenue in which lived Banking magnate N. U. Jayawardena. At the corner with Thurstan Road was a bare block of land, which subsequently became Oasis Nurseries run by a former employee of the original enterprise in Havelock Town.
Next door was the ornate “Lankshmigiri” originally owned by the de Soysa family and now with the Adamjee Lukmanjee family.
Royal College faces Racecourse Avenue, which on its opposite side provides frontage to the urban walawwa “The Maligawa” which belongs to J. P. Obeyserkera and is much the same structure as it, was half a century ago. The Maligawa originally stood on 9 acres of land bought from the crown for Rs 39,000 in 1893 by Mrs Cornelia Obeysekera. The house was at one time the Royal College hostel and to this day has two fives courts on its extensive grounds.
At the entrance to Racecourse Avenue stood the statue of Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike erected in his honor in 1940 by the Ceylon Turf Club and the public. Sir Solomon died in 1946 and the Turf Club paid him the unique tribute of erecting his statue during his lifetime.
Bordering Guilford Crescent was the Cinnamon Gardens Police Station built in the nineteen twenties and then considered a model structure for police stations in the colonies.
The Colombo Racecourse, which opened for racing in 1893, was considered the best in terms of design, facilities, and size in the East. The opening of its electric totalizator in 1922 was quite a technological achievement of the time, the only one in the East, though there were several in Australia where it was invented by a son of a Bishop. Today the buildings and the extensive grounds of the racecourse are part of the University Of Colombo and also houses the Department of National Archives. At the Reid Avenue end of Guilford Crescent and facing the side of the Police Station stood the home of Dr D. J. T. Leanage.
On Torrington Avenue, near its intersection with Reid Avenue stood “Newton” the home of the silver tongued H. V. Perera Q. C. the leading lawyer of the time who dominated the appeal courts of Colombo for several decades.
Next door lived Dr. Noel Bartholomeusz a leading surgeon of the time. Sir John Tarbat lived here in the house then called ‘Keston’ before he moved to the Galle Face Court.
J. V. Collins the Government Analyst lived in the neighboring house called ‘Dunafanaghy’. In a cottage on the opposite side was the home of Nihal Gunaserkera a successful criminal lawyer who passed away comparatively early in life. The house was demolished in the nineteen sixties and in its place a two storeyed was built by the late Tulsetha de Soysa.
At the intersection of Torrington Avenue with Alexandra Place was the home of A. S. Berwick, a Director of Lee Hedges and Co. Opposite the old Sinhalese Sports Club grounds is St Bridget’s Convent. Its buildings included a house called “The Firs” built in 1890 and donated to the convent by Charles Peiris’ family. On the nature strip in front of the convent was a fine specimen of Diospyros Ebenum or the Ebony Tree, the only one of its kind in the whole of Colombo. It is no longer there.
Next to the convent was “Hurst Green” the home of Professor W. S. Osman Hill. He had a menagerie of apes and monkeys in cages around his home, which attracted the attention of passers by. The house was demolished in the nineteen fifties and in its place stands several modern houses.
At the corner of Alexandra Road and Horton Place was ‘Abbotsleigh’ the home of A. R. H. Canekeratne Judge of the Supreme Court. It is now the office of the Development Finance Corporation.
Adjoining the entrance to Barnes Place was Alexandra House the home of the Armitages who were the principal coffee merchants during the coffee days of the nineteenth century. For the past four or five decades it has been the home to Alexandra College.
Next-door was “Homelea” long the residence of the de Saram family. Adjoining the entrance to Rosmead Place was the residence of Mr W. W. Berry, Director of Bosanquet and Skrine. This house too was demolished in the nineteen fifties for sub division.
The Colombo Town Hall completed in 1928 overlooked Victoria Park (now Vihara Maha Devi Park),and was the geographical centre of the city of Colombo. Several other notable buildings stood around this area such as the Mohameddan Mosque, (aka Dewatagaha) and the Victoria Memorial Eye Hospital all relics of architectural styles of a bygone era. The main roundabout facing the Eye Hospital was called Liptons Circus and thereafter the De Soysa Circle. The statue of C. H. de Soysa the nineteenth century philanthropist occupies centre stage in the circle. The adjacent roundabout holds a memorial fountain to commemorate the life of George Wall legislator, and merchant of nineteenth century Ceylon, held in high regard in the country.
As could be seen from these descriptions recalled from memory, Havelock Road was the principal links between Central and South Colombo. A good cross section of the community of Colombo lived there enjoying the social, recreational, educational and career opportunities that inevitably arose from living in close proximity to the city centre.
Fifty years ago there were more people from the British and Burgher communities living in Colombo and that was represented in the Havelock Road microcosm. Life was less complicated, and probably more ‘family and friend’ orientated than is possibly today. In that day and age, the school, the club, the employer, and the cinema played a greater role in people's lives than today where modern technology plays a dominant role through the computer, television, and other electronic devices.
Although names after a colonial Governor, Sir Arthur Havelock, the road commemorates much of the life and times of a bygone era, and hopefully its name would remain unchanged.
I went to sleep last week living down Havelock Road and woke up in the brand spanking spruced up renamed SSJ Mawatha.