The People and Homes on Thurstan Road & Cambridge Place - Fifty Years ago
Fifty years ago, the Thurstan Road- Cambridge Place thoroughfare was one of the most picturesque in Colombo. It was lined on either side with gigantic specimens of the flamboyant or flame of the forest tree (poinciana regia) and the saman tree (samanea saman), which provided a shady and restful canopy over the road. During the months of April and May when the avenue of trees was in full bloom, this stretch of road was most colourful and attractive and indeed a magnificent spectacle, a remarkable living legacy from the spacious days of the past. Those were the days when Colombo was renowned the world over as the "garden city of the east".
It is believed that the trees were planted around 1920 following a report by Professor Patrick Geddes who was commissioned by the government of the day to recommend a master plan for the development of Colombo. He had a vision for Colombo, which included trees, greenery, and open spaces. Sometime in the nineteen forties members of the Orchid Circle of Ceylon took the initiative of adding further colour to the environment provided by the trees, by planting varieties of epiphytic orchids on the branches of the larger trees. Specimens of cymnbidum bicolor, vanda tesselatta, and dendrobiun superbiens could to this day be seen among the trees that survive along this once beautiful avenue.
Thurstan Road (since renamed Munidasa Cumaranatunge Mawata, after the well known Sinhalese author and poet) commences at its intersection with Reid Avenue, and ends at the roundabout connecting Flower Road. Cambridge Place continues northwards from this point, and ends at its intersection with Edinburgh Crescent, now known as Sir Marcus Fernando Mawata. Thurstan Road was once the eastern boundary of the estate originally known as Bagatelle, and renamed later as Alfred House.
The Fergusons Directory of 1871 lists Bagatelle as a cinnamon cum coconut estate of 125 acres. As the history of Alfred House has a significant bearing on the stately homes that exist on Thurstan Road to this day, a brief examination of its past would seem appropriate.
The property was first advertised for sale in the Ceylon Government Gazette of March 9 1822 as" a thatched cottage with a tent roof, about two miles and half from the Fort of Colombo, to be disposed of by private contract." The owner at the time was believed to be a prominent businessman in the Fort with the quaint name Daddy Parsee. Charles Edward Layard the third son of the Dean of Bristol arrived in Ceylon in 1803. He joined the Ceylon Civil Service in 1804 and served until 1839. It is not clear whether he owned Bagatelle Estate, but it is evident that he resided there, the thatched cottage having been replaced by a substantial two-storied bungalow at the time of his occupation.
Many of Layard's children were born in Bagatelle House, and it is on record that the youngest of Layard's 26 children, named Barbara, was born in Bagatelle in 1834.
The Ceylon Almanacs of the 1840s lists Bagatelle Estate as a property owned by Arbuthnot and Co, who were agents for the Government of Ceylon in India, and who were the sole exporters of cinnamon from Ceylon, which was a government monopoly at the time. Around 1858 Susew de Soysa, a pioneer native plantation owner became the owner of Bagatelle Estate, which was thereafter called Bagatelle Walauwwa. His nephew Charles Henry de Soysa to whom the property passed on, demolished the old homestead and built a magnificent home comprising of around 100 rooms. This was the location of a historic dinner that was accorded by the De Soysas to the Duke of Edinburgh when he visited Ceylon in 1870.
The house was named Alfred House with the permission of Prince Alfred, the Duke. C.H. de Soysa died in 1890, and his wife in 1914, leaving a large family of 14 sons and daughters to inherit an enormous estate which in addition to Alfred House included several thousand acres of coconut, tea and rubber lands spread around the island.
Over the years, the 125 acre Alfred House Estate underwent several sub divisions, some major changes being precipitated by the master plan for Colombo which foresaw many new roads across the estate. The earlier sub divisions were however made by the De Soysa family itself, which constructed several stately mansions within the property.
The ornate Lakshmigiri which was built in 1910 by A.J.R. de Soysa, the second son of C.H. de Soysa, is a classic example of extravagant building design of the time. This house with its extensive gardens and massive cast iron gates is at the southern end of Thurstan Road bordering Queens Road. It bears assessment No.102 Thurstan Road and is much the same fifty years ago, as it was when constructed almost half a century earlier. A few years after it was built, the house was mortgaged, and later foreclosed. It was then bought by the Adamjee Lukmanjee family and has remained in their ownership to date under the name Saifee Villa.
Fifty years ago there were no buildings between Saifee Villa and Queens Road. Adjoining Queens Road is the house originally named Regina Walauwwa by its owner T. H.A. de Soysa, the 4th son of C.H. de Soysa. It was named after his wife Regina, and was built in 1912. An imposing building with multiple roofs, turrets, and towers it was a palatial residence facing Thurstan Road. The owner was a keen turfite owning many horses, and with a penchant for heavy wagers. The story goes that whenever he won over Rs. 100, 000 at the races, he would hoist the family flag on the large flagstaff in front of the house to indicate to all and sundry that he had made a killing at the races. This ritual was locally referred to as "Lakseta kodiya" meaning "win a lakh of rupees and the flag goes up". Fortunes do however fluctuate, and by 1920 he was in financial difficulties and the house sold to the newly emerging University College. It was then renamed College House. The flagstaff or 'kodigaha' remains on the property to this day.
On the opposite side of Thurstan Road was the Univeristy of Ceylon buildings constructed in 1913 as the home of Royal College. The school occupied the premises till 1923 when it was acquired by the Ceylon University College. Royal College later moved to the new premises on Racecourse Avenue, where it functions to this day.
Next to College House is a property extending to over 3 acres, purchased from the Dc Soysa family in 1926 by the Imperial Bank of India. It was earlier used as the dairy for Alfred House. The Bank commissioned Walker and Sons to construct an impressive residence for its manager, and the house was named "Carlowrie". In the mid l950s it was acquired by the Government of India as the official residence for its High Commissioner, and has since been called "India House". Many distinguished visitors have been entertained here, including Prime Minister Nehru, and later his daughter Indira Gandhi who have planted trees in commemoration of their visits, in its spacious gardens.
Adjoining India House were two bungalows belonging to Brooke Bonds Ceylon Ltd, the tea company. Hammerfaest was at No 80 Thurstan Raod and was the residence of its Managaing Director H. Broome.
In the adjoining home lived his Deputy Roy Collins, and later S. E. Satarasinghe. At No. 76 was Chitrakala one time residence of Percy Gunasena of M.D. Gunasena and Co. whose mortgage on the property was foreclosed by the bank.
Next to the University property was Thurstan College established in 1949 in the premises earlier used by the Government Training College, prior to its shift to Maharagama. Adjoining Thurstan College was Royal Primary School, whose Headmaster Major A.F. de Saa Bandaranaike resided in the official bungalow at No 13. Mr. J.C.A. Corea the Principal of Royal College occupied the adjoining bungalow. The buildings and grounds of Royal Primary School stood next.
Around fifty years ago the school was under the Headmastership of Mr.H.D. Sugathapala and Mr.H.P. Jayewardene under whose leadership the well facilitated school hall known as "Navarangahala" was built. It acquired a permanent place in the history of the island, when the constituent assembly convened to draft the 1972 Constitution, was held there. It was also the occasion for the change of name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka.
On the opposite side of Thurstan Road facing Thurstan College were the ends of Bagatelle Road and Alfred Place conjoining at the intersection with Thurstan Road. At this point along Thurstan Road were a few commercial buildings including a small restaurant known as "Villas" a haunt of generations of Royal College students who dropped in after school for a 'cuppa' often combined surreptitiously with a cigarette. Many were the abortive raids conducted by the college prefects in attempts to rein in the offending delinquents.
Next door was Thurstan Café run by Noel Perera. Further on towards Flower Road, near Pedris Road was the home of K.H.M. Fernando, who owned a successful motor spares shop in the Pettah.
Adjoining Pedris Road was the home of Mrs. A. Wijewardene. Her son, the entrepreneur Upali Wijewardene who disappeared tragically in his Learjet in 1982, built his house designed by Geoffrey Bawa in part of the land in the 1970s. Her sons-in-law Dr. Atttygalle and Prof Stanley Wijesundera the latter killed during the JVP insurgency of 1989 also lived in houses within the same property. Adjoining was the entrance to 5th Lane, which was neighbouring the dental clinic of Dr. Ian de Silva.
Next-door was the home of the General Manager of the Shell Co P.D. Finn. The house there was built on a property, which was earlier known as "the Monastery" The roundabout here links Thurstan Road on the south, Cambridge Place on the north, Racecourse Avenue on the East, and Flower Road on the west.
Racecourse Avenue in its entirety on one side provided boundaries to Royal College and Royal Primary School. At its western end was the Orient Club founded in 1894, and at one time an exclusive social club for the elites of Colombo. Its tennis courts border the southern end of Cambridge Place, near the roundabout. On the opposite side of Cambridge Place at No. 32 was the home of Sherman de Silva, the proprietor of a well-known produce company of the time.
Adjoining was the large home earlier called Cambridge House and later renamed Florence House when Sir Wilfred de Soysa, the sixth son of C.H. de Soysa, occupied it. Sir Wifred's sons Bishop Harold, Terrence, Cecil, Ryle, Anura, and Lalith, all grew up in this home, and were later to acquit themselves with great credit in adult life, whether it be business, sports, or in the "service of the Lord". Ryle was for many years the opening batsman for the Ceylon Cricket team then known as "The All Ceylon Cricket Team". As a schoolboy at Royal College he was a member of the unbeaten Royal team that toured Australia in 1938. Florence House stood on a large extent of land. It was demolished in the 1950s to give way to a cluster of large bungalows and a new roadway named Cambridge Terrace.
Adjoining Florence House was Mackinnon House the official home of the Managing Director of Mackinnon Mackenzie and Co. the well known shipping agents. H.W. Tatham lived in this house situated in a large garden enclosed by a high wall. In the late 1/950s Mr George Chitty the very successful criminal lawyer purchased this house and named it Goodwood. A humanist and a lover of people and company, he was a man of varied interests, and was an expert on cameras and photography, music, art, forensic medicine, woodwork, and motorcars. He led the successful prosecution in the Bandaranaike Assassination Case, at the invitation of the Crown. As in all neighbourhoods, romance is always in the air, and it was no different in Thurstan Road. His son Ajit married Rapti, the daughter of Y.D. Gundevia the Indian High Commissioner who lived in India House on Thurstan Road, thus linking the two roads Thurstan and Cambridge by marriage!
Two doors next to Goodwood was "St Catherine" the home of C.H.Z. Fernando whose father C.M. Fernando was a son in law of C.H. de Soysa of Alfred House. D.J. Wimalasurendra who pioneered hydroelectric schemes in Ceylon earlier owned St Catherine's. At the end of Cambridge Place fronting Edinburgh Cresecent was "Lynwood" the home of Francis Amarasuriya a popular race horse owner of the time. His elder son Rukman ended his life tragically, at an early age, committing suicide in 1957 in Nuwara Eliya. Facing the Museum on the opposite side in Cambridge Place, in a house called "Brentham" lived Leslie de Saram the head of the legal firm F.J. and G de Saram. He sold the house to the Australian Government, which purchased it for its embassy. Leslie de Saram was a remarkable man known for his generosity and many acts of philanthropy. He was educated at Royal College, and Clifton College in England, but gifted Gurutalawa Farm of 35 acres of cultivated land, and buildings, to St Thomas College, which established a branch school there. He also gifted his unique collection of rare antiques to the University of Ceylon, when it established at Peradeniya, and was described as "the greatest benefactor and friend the Ceylon University ever had". After his retirement he settled all his affairs in Ceylon and migrated first to England and later to Australia where he lived in Canberra. Next to Brentham was "Oakleigh" the home of another legal luminary F.C. Rowan the senior Partner of Julius and Creasy. Rowan was the advisor and confidante to almost every leading mercantile firm in Colombo in the 1950s.
Further down Cambridge Place at "The Eyds" lived Stanley de Saram the brother of Leslie, and no less remarkable. He was also a partner of the family firm of de Saram's but in 1946 relinquished it to take up a position as a Director of Leechman and Co, an Agency House, the first Ceylonese to be invited to the position. He later became the first Ceylonese Chairman of the firm. Stanley and his wife were well known personalities in the mercantile world of that era, and were renowned for their legendary hospitality. Stanley and his wife at "The Eyds' who became close friends of the De Sarams hosted Lady Churchill on a visit to Ceylon in 1953. Later, Sir Winston and Lady Churchill played host to the De Sarams when they were asked to dinner at their home in Chartwell. After Stanley's death in the 1970s, "The Eyds' was demolished and several new homes have come up on its grounds. Somewhere between "The Eyds" and Oakholme stood a house called Gresham, which has since been altered structurally. At around this area in Cambridge Place, was the intersection with Edinburgh Crescent.
Further on, adjoining the Orient Club was the Women's International Club. The Thurstan Road /Cambridge Place belt still remains a salubrious area of Colombo, but its quiet and leafy environment may not be the same as it was fifty years ago, as the student population in the educational triangle, which it adjoins, has expanded dramatically, making the area a traffic controller's nightmare during school hours. Mercifully, the commercial sprawl that is evident in most areas of Colombo has spared its blight here, and Thurstan Road and Cambridge Place together with its immediate environs, are still an absolutely charming area within Colombo.
(The writer wishes to acknowledge assistance given by Vinodh Wickremeratne, a fellow "streetscape connoisseur" especially in verifying the location of properties some of which have long since gone to dust)- courtesy The Ceylankan (Australia)
The Weekend Standard - Sat Mar 4 2006