Sunday Times Sep 27, 2009
Into the whirl of Colombo society By Elizabeth BostockI arrived in Ceylon, with my mother, at the end of December 1951, shortly before the tragic death of D.S. Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of Ceylon. Little did I foresee as I stepped ashore at the old Passenger Jetty in the Fort that I would spend nearly 50 years of my life on this beautiful island. My father had been appointed Senior British Naval Officer and Captain in Charge of the dockyard at Trincomalee and, like dutiful daughters were expected to do in those days, I was accompanying my parents.At that time Trincomalee was a thriving naval base with frequent visits from navies around the world and every year JET (Joint Exercises Trincomalee) was held there when the Pakistan, Indian and British navies assembled. Apart from the naval manoeuvres, there were fiercely contested games of hockey and football and it seemed as if most of the national squads from India and Pakistan were suddenly conscripted into the navy.
Having decided very early that I did not wish to spend the next two years in Trinco, I came down to Colombo and got a job as Personal Secretary to A.G. Mathewson (Sandy) who was a Partner in Heath & Company - a leading firm of tea buyers whose clients included Lyons, Tetleys, Twinings in London and the Tea Marketing Board in Australia and many others in the Middle East. It was in Sandy's office that I met my future husband, Mark Bostock, who was a frequent visitor on his broker's round. However, I did not abandon my parents entirely and made frequent weekend visits, catching the night mail on a Friday and returning on Sunday.
Mark and I were married nearly two years later, much to Sandy's delight, even though he bemoaned the loss of his secretary. We planned to announce our engagement while Mark as an R.N.V.R. officer was attending JET. A rather apt comment appeared in the Daily News - Full back, Mark Bostock, will not be appearing for the C.H. & F.C. as he is away in Trinco on navel manoeuvres. With a certain amount of trepidation we invited Sandy to give the toast to the bride, but he was very circumspect! We were married at Christ Church, Galle Face, by the Bishop of Colombo, the Right Reverend Archibald Rollo Campbell Graham. Our reception was held at the old Garden Club (now the Colombo Art Gallery) in Green Path. It was the last party to be held at the Club before it was taken over by the Lawn Tennis Club. We left there in somewhat unusual style, perched on a hackery with one of our groomsmen between the shafts while the bystanders set off a load of fire-crackers.
Being connected to the Bostock family opened up a whole new world. Social life having previously centred round the British Navy and visiting H.M. ships, I was launched into the whirl of Colombo society. Mark was a member of a bachelors’ 'chummery' and we all used to go off on wonderful expeditions to hockey, and rugby matches and tennis meets up-country. All rugby matches were followed by a black tie supper and dance in the host up-country club. We stayed overnight with planter friends and then usually turned up at the Nuwara Eliya golf course for a round of golf on Sunday morning. A good curry lunch gave us energy for the drive home, frequently stopping off at a rest house en route, for a cup of tea laced with whisky.
Mark was a keen shot and we often took off on shooting trips all over the island with a gang of bachelor men and girls. These continued well into our married days and one such trip took us to the island of Irainativu in the Gulf of Mannar. It was an eight-hour boat journey in a dhoni to get there and we set up camp in the home of the local Roman Catholic priest. We spent a very happy time there, shooting partridge and duck and going fishing. We were a great source of interest to the 100-odd inhabitants of the island. On our return to Colombo, our nanny remarked with great disapproval, "Lady is very dark". So much for my tan!
The chummery was well-known for hosting magnificent parties with the greatest one being a Bacchanalian party which was held as a farewell as by then two members were due to be married. We were all required to attend suitably attired and I was commissioned by my Boss to make an oriental potentate's outfit and even had to stick 'crepe' hair on to his chest to complete the effect. We left for the party by way of Havelock Road, with Sandy sitting on a bullock hackery with one of his junior staff (dressed as a centaur) between the shafts. I accompanied them as a dancing girl and thus we progressed from the traffic lights at Dickman’s Road to the far side of the Wellawatte bridge and on to the chummery.
That was not the only procession in which we took part, as it became a tradition for an exchange of visits between the Colombo Hockey & Football Club and the Ceylonese Rugby Football Club on Independence Day each year. The visiting club was required to come in procession as a topical event and we chose Prince Philip's 'durbah'. We hired an elephant from the Zoo and 'Philip' and 'Queen Elizabeth' rode in splendour, accompanied by six horses ridden by lancers. They were followed by assorted drummers, dancing girls and we even had 'Gandhi' being pushed along in a wheelchair. Thus we progressed from Reid Avenue and down Buller’s Road to the C.R.& F.C. where a game of soft ball cricket was played by all participants and a jolly good curry lunch made up the rest of the day. The C.R.'s return visit caused quite a stir at the Thunmulla roundabout when the 'corpse' in the Muslim funeral casket lifted the lid as he needed a breath of fresh air. Percy de Silva (the Legal Draftsman) looked out at the horrified passers-by.
Life in the early days was not all fun and games and a little recorded but most important episode affected our early married life. In 1958 there was a crippling Communist-led strike in the Colombo harbour which threatened to cut off the life-blood of the island, namely the export of tea. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike ordered senior members of the tea trade to send a team to make arrangements to open up the port of Trincomalee which had never previously been used as a commercial outlet. Mark was in charge of this team, recruited from various tea firms, to start up the Trincomalee Tea Administration. So, together with our nanny and small daughter, we set off for the Sea Anglers Club. Mark had to start from scratch and find suitable ex-RAF hangars to convert into warehouses; establish a small office at China Bay and arrange for a local mudalali to provide lighters to transport the tea out to ships waiting in the harbour. Bringing the tea consignments from the railway siding to the jetty also presented a major problem as, very early on, the chap in charge of the 'shunter' managed to tipple off his wagon and run himself over.
Thereafter, the wagons literally had to be shunted by manpower with everybody lending their weight. It was all very hard work but a great team spirit built up and many problems were overcome and the tea export business was saved and the strike broken.
Thanks to the generosity of my father-in-law, Norman Bostock, we were able to have a family beach bungalow at Bentota and many a happy weekend was spent with friends and visitors. Our visitors' book included many illustrious names, headed by Earl Mountbatten and his daughter, Lady Patricia Braburn. We often hosted members of visiting sporting teams, including the M.C.C., London Welsh and Combined Oxford and Cambridge rugby teams, as well as many other visitors to Ceylon. It was indeed a very sad day for us all when our bungalow, together with several others on the 'Spit', was taken over by the government for a German tourist resort. Many years later we found another idyllic but very different spot at the mouth of the Dedru Oya north of Chilaw.
Norman Bostock bought and planted Aislaby tea estate and, with Mark's expertise and the hard work of various Superintendents, soon turned it into the leading tea estate in Uva with probably the most up-to-date factory in the island. Mark had a passion for all aspects of cultivating, manufacturing, tasting and selling of tea and he was devastated when his beloved Aislaby was nationalized in November 1973 under Land Reform. It was many years before he could even bear to visit the bungalow and 50 acres we were allowed to keep. We were thankful that, at least, his father did not live to see that day.
However, Mark was always a confirmed optimist and continued in his love of the island which he passed on to me and our daughters and even our grandchildren who love to visit Sri Lanka. A lasting tribute to his love of Ceylon/Sri Lanka is in the magnificent Victoria golf course outside Kandy which he pioneered in his retirement.
Many Colombo wives spent a lot of their time playing bridge but that was not my scene and I became involved in a certain amount of social work and served on the Committee of the Child Protection Society and even tried to teach spoken English to the children at their Girls' Home. This was great fun but I am not sure how much English the girls absorbed. Usually when I asked, 'How are you today?', the reply came back, 'Today is Tuesday'.
Each Christmas I combined with some of my friends and we hosted a coffee morning when all the guests were invited to bring with them a toy or gift for a child. These were then individually wrapped and named and distributed to the children in the homes we supported. To see the delight on the children's faces as they opened up their very own presents more than made up for the work involved. At the other end of the scale I helped Mrs. George R. de Silva with the Bishop of Colombo' Appeal for the Leprosy Hospital’ and each year we visited the patients at Hendala and once travelled to the island colony off the coast at Batticaloa. I also used to visit foreign seamen hospitalised in Colombo on behalf of the Missions to Seamen.
Our two daughters attended the Hill School until the age of 12 when they had to return to England for further education but they were still able to come out for at least two holidays a year and we all enjoyed family expeditions to the jungle, Trincomalee and up-country. Other families did the same thing and great friendships grew which spanned the generations and still stand. I think, possibly, Ceylon/Sri Lanka is unique in the number of associations which have been formed so that we can all meet and enjoy reminiscing on the 'Old Days'.