Sunday, February 19, 2006

Colombo Fort

Colombo Fort

Colombo City Map
Scrollable Hot Map

The Fort of Colombo begins where the Galle Face Green ends, at the old parliament building, now used as the Presidential Secretariat, and where the Beira Lake spills into the Indian Ocean. The town extends along Galle Buck and Queen Street on the west and Lotus Road towards the East, encompassing the Colombo Harbor and a whole arena of business and merchant enterprises. York Street, Prince Street, Bristol Street are some of the other streets within the town which eventually moves towards the bazaar town of the Pettah.

Old Colonial buildings criss-cross the town displaying their magnificence of structure and architecture along almost every street. Almost all large scale corporations abd businesses used to have their head offices located in the Fort in the fifties but many have now moved to various other prime new business locations within the city.

For those of us who have worked in Fort and enjoyed and lived its magnificence the nostalgia will always remain sacred and relished in our hearts and minds. The clippety clop of the smartly dressed mounted policeman at the Chatham Street-York Street intersection will never fade away in our minds. The stream of vehicular traffic that enveloped the town during the rush hour mornings and evenings were like rivers of metal flowing one way all of the time. The smartly dressed office workers in their mini skirts and shirt-ties was a proud relict of old Colombo. Double Decker buses, Morris Minor Taxi’s and rickshaws pulling people were an integral part of the town.

Life bustled in the Fort during the 9 to 5 working week day. On weekends things came to a grinding halt with only the tourists and touts walking the streets looking for trinkets and customers.

Chaitya Road (Marine Drive)The stretch of roadway from the Galle Face at the roundabout opposite the Presidential Secretariat moving along the coastline behind the Intercontinental Hotel is called Chaitya Road. It runs along the beachfront towards the new lighthouse and also where once stood the offices of the Immigration Department & Passport Issuance Department.

The old lighthouse was sited on a battery overlooking the Galle Buck lying to the south west of the Fort. It was known in Sinhala as ‘Gal Bokka’, meaning ‘Bay of Rocks’. In characteristic and jarring fashion, the Brits anglicized this phrase to ‘Galle Buck’. The old lighthouse was constructed between 1830 and 1836.

The Passport Office has, since, moved to Station Road at Bambalapitiya and recently again to Borella. The lighthouse used to be a great attraction for families and a place where children ran around and played on weekend evenings watching the ships entering and leaving the harbor. Today, it is a restricted area on account of security depriving the new generations of a whale of a time that many of us enjoyed in our childhood.

A replica of a Dagoba and Chaitya now stands tall atop a high pedestal at this location visible to all ships entering the Colombo Harbor.

The Ceylon Anglers Club is located along this street and many keen anglers used to gather here on Sunday mornings for their weekly fishing rituals.

The street continued in a semi circle bordering the offices of the Customs at Church Street and then alongside the Harbor crossing York Street towards the Pettah along Leyden Bastian Road.

The Mission for Seamen, a chapel where sailors could rest, stay over and even observe religious needs is located on the right opposite the Queen Elizabeth Quay gate.

Galle Buck Road and Flagstaff Street are also two streets parallel to each other between Chaithya Road and Queen’s Street.

Lotus Road
The street, moving eastwards from the Presidential Secretariat building roundabout, hugging the building on its left is Lotus Road. On the right many new five star hotels, the Galadari Meridian and the Colombo Hilton, have propped up in recent times. Further down on the left is the rear of the Fort Police Station whose front faces the extension of Hospital Road on the far side. The Police Station is said to have been the old Dutch Hospital in ancient times. The buildings within its premises still display the scars of its ancestry with tiiled roofs et al. It is here that the shade of a massive banyan tree brings comfort to weary travelers, beggars and street urchin who used to run around the area in old times. Loiteres are not allowed to walk this way anymore on account of the presence of the Hotels, the Secretariat, and the much needed security that is so vital in the life of a Sri Lankan today.

Lotus Road meets up another smaller roundabout where it meets Hospital Street and then extends itself on the right towards the Pettah along Lake House building.

Queen’s Street (Janadipathi Mawatha)

Right at this point, beyond the roundabout due north, is located the newly built Intercontinental Hotel bordering Queen Street and Galle Buck Road. The Fort extends all the way along the western coast towards the north bordering the Colombo Harbor at Queen Elizabeth Gate and extends towards Pettah, covering an area of active business and office complexes, with many head offices of local and foreign commercial banks located within its perimeter.

The Central Bank of Ceylon is located on Queen Street which extends all the way up to Queens House and the General Post Office where it takes a right angle right turn into Prince Street heading North towards the heart of Fort intersecting at York Street and then onwards to Pettah.

Ceylinco Building, the tallest building in the island at one time in the seventies, is located on the opposite side of the Intercontinental Hotel and Central Bank, on the corner at the entrance of Queen’s Street on the right.

The last King of Kandy, Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe, after being captured by the British, was brought to Colombo on Mar 6, 1815, and temporarily detained in an old Dutch dwelling house, which was subsequently occupied by the firms of M/S darley Butler & Company Ltd., where he stayed for almost a year until he was sent to India. This abode can still be seen today at the entrance to the mighty Ceylinco building. A quaint concrete cubicle in which a man can hardly sit is displayed in the courtyard of the foyer of Ceylinco House. This was the cell in which the King was imprisoned. The plaque reads,

‘Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe, last King of Kandy (1798-1815), was surrendered to Sir Robert Brownrigg, the British Governor for the coastal area of the Island, on 18 February 1815. After a successful invasion of the hill country, he was brought to Colombo and temporarily imprisoned in this specific chamber within the palace near the South gateway to Galle in Colombo Fort.

The ex King, his Queen, and the others were taken to the ship HMS Cornwallis under the supervision of Capt O’Brien and deported to Vellore in Madras on 24th January 1816 where he lived as a prisoner of War and died on 30th January 1832’

Air Lanka & the offices of M/S E B Creasy & Company were located next to Ceylinco. Several other shipping, airline and travel organizations also operated herebeing in close proximity to the Colombo Harbor and the business community. The Central Bank of Ceylon occupies a long stretch of York Street adjacent to the Intercontinental Hotel, stretching almost up to Upper Chatham Street on the northern side.

Queen’s Street meets Chatham Street at the Lighthouse Clock Tower and extends further with the Mercantile Bank on its left, now occupied by Hatton National Bank, and Chartered Bank on the right. The jewelry shop of Deen Ismail & Sons, a famous gem & jewelry family from the Fort Galle, is located just before the Chartered Bank. Several other small utility, curio, and corner stores are located before it. The National restaurant and bar is also located here.

History of Hatton National Bank:
1888: RD Banks and AT Atkin established a small, private bank called Hatton Bank to cater to the needs of investors and laborers in Ceylon’s tea plantations.

1948: Sri Lanka attained its independence and Brown & Co., an engineering concern, bought the interests of the original investors.

1961: The Government of Sri Lanka forbade foreign banks to accept deposits from Ceylonese nationals.

1970: Hatton National Bank (HNB) was formed to take over Hatton Bank and the Kandy and Nuwara Eliya branches of Grindlays Bank. (Grindlays had inherited these branches from its merger with National Bank of India (NBI). NBI had established the branches in 1892. By giving up the two branches Grindlays earned the right to continue to operate its branch in Colombo, which NBI had established in 1881, serving corporate business.) A share issue shortly thereafter brought the ownership structure of Hatton Nation Bank to 37% Brown & Co., 28% National & Grindlays, and 35% public ownership.

1974: HNB acquired Mercantile Bank of India’s branches in Pettah and Colombo as well as a part interest in Mercantile (a subsidiary of HSBC since 1959, which retained its branch in Colombo).

1989: HNB acquired Dubai’s Emirates Bank’s branch in Columbo and with it a Foreign Currency Banking Unit.

1996: HNB acquired Banque Indosuez’s Colombo branch, which dated from 1979 or '80.

1997 Mr. Don. Harold (Harry) Stassen Jayawardena, arguably the country’s most powerful businessman, who had been charged for defrauding customs to the tune of billions in rupees, was again charged for violating Central Bank directives by obtaining 35.97% of the issued share capital of the Hatton National Bank, all most double the allowable limit of 18%.

2000: HNB opened a representative office in Karachi, Pakistan, and another in Chennai, India. Harry Jayawardena, in a hostile and highly resisted bid, acquired 44% or more of Sampath Bank via HNB (9%), Stassen Holdings and other related and nominally unrelated entities. (Sampath Bank commenced operations in 1987 as the Investment and Credit Bank, and was originally promoted as a Buddhist Bank but later presented as a financial institution of and for the “sons of the soil.”) HNB made controversial purchases of Sampath Bank shares and also invested in shares of the DFCC Bank.

2002: HNB acquired the Sri Lankan branches of Habib Bank A.G. Zurich. It planned to use them as the base for Islamic banking.

The Chartered Bank
The Chartered Bank building, a massive brown stone pillared structure of British architectural fame, also housed many other businesses within its multi floors. Carson Aitken Spence & Company Ltd., Cumberbatch & Company Ltd., and Muller & Phipps were two of them. The bank occupied the ground and basement floors.

Built on the site of the religious houses of St Augostino from Portuguese times, the building stands in a very prominent and prime location in the Fort, adjacent to the GPO and facing the Presidents House. The structure of the construction is very solid in its frame and viewed beautifully from the corners, with its arched entrances, majestic columns, and the eight carved elephant heads complete with tusks that stick out at its extremities.

The bank was originally established in 1852 by a group of East Indian Merchants in order to provide suitable banking services for the rapidly expanding trade between Britain and the East. It was incorporated by a Royal Charter, in London, in 1853. The first overseas branch was opened in Calcutta, in India, and neumerous other btanches rapidly spread throughoutg the orient even extending to Beijing.

The Colombo branch was opened in 1880 at the Queen Street premises where it has stood for many decades until recently when the management had no option but to move to the ANZ Gridnlays bank premises at the York Street/Prince Street intersection, on account of the Fort area closer to Presidents House being declared a high security zone. Chartered Bank had already acquired the businesses of ANZ Grindlays and hence the move was convenienet and timely too.

The massive growth of the tea industry in Ceylon contributed to the development and success f the bank as many British based tea companies and estates chose to manage their finances via the Chartered Bank in Colombo, on account of its British connections and also very large network of branches across the globe. The rubber, coconut and spice industries too provided much impetus to the banks success.

In 1927 the bank purchased the land on which it stands at Queen Street in the Fort and work on the building was started in 1930 and completed in 3 years.


The General Post Office in the Fort is located on Queen’s Street facing the Presidents House. The building was designed by a British Engineer cum Architect, Herbert Frederick Tomalin. and constructed by a Moorman, Wapchi Marikar Baas, grandfather of Sir Razik Fareed, in 1891, Wapchi Marikar Baas constructed many English styled buildings in Colombo. NMLA building in the Fort, Victoria Memorial Eye Hospital at Maradana, The Colombo Museum at Maitland Place, The old Public Library, Colombo Customs Office & Victoria Arcade in the Fort, Finlay-Moir Building, Clock Tower, Battenburg Battery, Masjid E Careem on 4th Cross Street in the Pettah, and a row of shops along Darley Road adjoining the New Olympia Theatre, are some of his work of great grandeur and splendor. The GPO was handed over to the Postal Department in 1895.

The basement of the building is designed on Doric lines, the ground floor is Ionic, and its upper portion, Corinthian. A handsome flight of steps leads through lofty arches to the public hall whose floor is laid with Intaglio tiles of different colors. The ceiling is of plaster with papier mache enrichments.

Here, as indeed throughout the rest of the Island, one can find red pillar boxes similar to those in Great Britain. Later on Blue and Green boxes were also installed to cater to inland remote and Colombo mail respectively. This is one oif the most grand public buildings in all of Colombo.

George Steuart & Company Limited
George Steuart & Company Limited is the oldest Company in Sri Lanka. It is also one of the oldest existing Companies in the world. It was founded in 1835 by an intrepid and high-principled sea captain James Steuart, who sailed the southern ocean at the beginning of the 19th century and in the course of a voyage to Ceylon, as it then was, saw the potential of the island for economic development and commerce. As his substantive position at the time as Master Attendant of the Colombo Port, precluded him from engaging in any trade, he secured the business to his brother George and named the firm after him.

This Company, set up in 1835 as a partnership, acted as a managing and financing house for coffee plantations and in this capacity played an important role in the opening of forest lands for the cultivation of coffee.

As a result of the coffee blight in 1870, coffee was abandoned and tea was planted in its place.

The Company continued to take an active part in development by financing the transition from coffee cultivation to tea. From that time until 1975, when all large plantations were nationalised, the Company continued to finance and manage some 25,000 hectares of tea, rubber and coconut lands owned by both British and Sri Lankan Companies and was one of the largest and leading managing agency Companies in Sri Lanka.

The Company was incorporated in Sri Lanka and became a Limited Liability Company in 1954.

The Head Office building, owned by the group, was developed to make way for a new high-rise-building-Steuart House-in the heart of the Colombo's business and financial district.

The nationalisation of plantations in mid seventies prompted the Company, well known for its caution and dependability in business, to diversify into various other fields of activity.

George Steuarts ventured into a number of new lines; and the group's current portfolio of activities are represented by the Export of Tea, Import & Distribution of Pharmaceuticals, Airline Ticketing, Inbound & Outbound Tours, sale of Travellers Cheques, Assembly & Installation of Telephones and allied services and products, Manpower Recruitment for prestigious overseas principals, General Sales Agency for Airlines, Insurance and Freight Forwarding.

The Parent Company presently has seven Directors. The Directorates of all the subsidiaries are comprised of main Board Directors and Executive Directors selected from the senior staff of the respective Companies.

The President’s House (Queen’s House)
Many years after Colombo was wrested from the Portuguese, the Dutch Colonial rulers built a house on the location where the Presidents House now stands. It was then known as Government House. The last Dutch Governor in Ceylon, Van Angelbeck, lived in it and continued to make it his abode even after the Britsih captured Colombo.

Government House, which faced the sea on the Galle Buck side, was a massive and magnificent building that had two floors. It had a flat roof, an especially large arched cubicle portico and several windows that provided a healthy supply of natural light and ventilation. The ground floor had, besides the two reception rooms, a spacious hall 300 feet in length. Council meetings were usually held in here.

At the rear of the building was a sunken garden, elegantly landscaped and most pleasing to the eye. Rows of buildings extended on its two sides and housed the various government offices and also afforded accommodation for a small cavalry unit. It is also said that there was a ‘tower’ on which a bell was hung.

The Dutch Governor, Van Angelbeck, died on the 3 Sep 1799 and it is said that his funeral procession paraded through the streets of Colombo by torchlight and his body was laid to rest in the family vault besides the remains of his wife, whose skeleton could be seen through a glass on the cover of the coffin.

In 1804, at the end of the Dutch Colonial era, the building was occupied by Major General Hay Macdowall, who commanded the British Troops. In the early part of the last century, Sir Thomas Maitland was the first British Governor to occupy the building, and, thereafter, it became the property of the Government and the city residence of the Governor. It was also the meeting place of the Executive Council of the Government.
The old house was demolished and a new building was constructed and completed in 1856 which was then referred to as ‘Queen’s House’. There is no trace whatsoever of the old building anymore. In 1972, when Ceylon resumed her ancient title of Sri Lanka, the name of the ancient mansion was changed from ‘Queen’s House’ to ‘President’s House’

The house and garden occupy about 4 acres in extent and the site is exquisitely laid out with palms, ferns, shrubs, flowering plants and trees, and even massive trees amongst spacious and salubrious green grassy lawns. The portico at the rear entrance faces the garden with an open recreation ground for entertainment. The house has seen many distinguished guests, including royalty. It is now used for official governmental functions and ceremonies of the state at the highest levels.

The mansion itself, which is over 200 years old, has a very valuable collection of paintings and antique furniture.

This palatial, yet gracious and elegant abode, stands like a sentinel in the Fort, watching over Colombo, calmly and quietly, over the many and splendorous pages of time.

Presently, service personnel, wearing their ceremonial regimental colors and uniform, stand at attention on sentry duty, at the massive wrought iron gates facing Queen’s Road and Galle Buck. At the northern gate stands a fine bronze statue of Governor Sir Edward Barnes (1824-1831), who was responsible for constructing the famous Colombo-Kandy (A1) Road.

All British Governors and Presidents of Ceylon and, later, Sri Lanka have lived in this mansion and still continue to do so. Lately, the access roads to the building have been curtailed by heavy security barriers and sentries on account of the Sinhala-Tamil ethnic conflict and the separatist cry for Tamil Eelam by some section of Tamil Militants. that created chaos and confusion in the island after 1983.

Gordon Gardens
Adjoining Presidents House, at the rear end towards the harbor and Colombo Customs area lies the famous ‘Gordon Gardens’ named after British Governor, Sir Arthur Gordon (1883-1890). It was formerly known as the Fort Esplanade.

Gordon Gardens was gifted to the people of Colombo in 1889 by Governor Sir Arthur Gordon to commemorate the Jubilee of Queen Victoria. In 1890 the Garden was handed over to the Colombo Municipal Council.

The gardens have a variety of stately standing trees and an imposing white marble statue of Queen Victoria erected in 1897. The ten ton boulder of rock on which was chiseled the Cross of Christ and the Court of Arms of Portugal, found in 1875 in the Colombo Harbor, now lies close to the statue. The notable church of the Augustine Friars, dedicated to St Francis and built by the Portuguese, stood behind the gardens. It was in this Church that the remains of King Don Juan Dharmapala (1551-1597) were buried in 1597.

Later, this Church was destroyed by the Dutch who built a church of their own on the same site. A Dutch Governor who died in Ceylon was laid to rest here, and, in 1813, the British transferred his remains to the Wolfendhal Church on Wolfendhal Street at Kotahena, built in 1749.

On the site subsequently occupied by the Police Hospital in the Fort was the City Jail. The story is much discussed and told in the fortress at that time about how the gallant Sinhala General Vidiya Bandara, imprisoned here by the Portuguese, was clandestinely rescued by his beautiful wife Samudra Devi. It is said that the prisoner escaped one night with the help of some plumbago miners who dug a tunnel up to the prison, underground. How this ever happened has vexed the Portuguese for a long time.

Opposite the Gordon Gardens was a two floored building which housed the Legislative Council Chamber, the Secretariat, and other principal administrative departments of government.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Also known as the Ministry of Defence in the last century, the Foreign Ministry located opposite the Presidents House on Queen Street, was originally the office of the Colonial Secretary. The Colonial Secretary also held the position of Lieutenant Governor to Administer the Government of the Colonies in the absence of the Governor.

This building, or Secretariat, consisted of many Government offices of which were The Auditor Generals Office, The Treasury, Record and Patent Offices and the Government Archives, which comprised of the Colonial Dutch Manuscripts and official records of the Dutch Government from 1640 to 1796. To these were added he records of the British Raj. The Government Printing Press Office made up the rest of the building. More than 300 people were employed within the press which produced all types of printing, including postage stamps and railway tickets.

In 1929, the Secretariat offices and the Legislative Council moved to the newly constructed classical style premises by thed Galle Face Green where the old parliament also stood The building was renovated in 1948 with all of the interior being re-planned and the exterior given a well deserved face lift. The Prime Ministers Office, Cabinet and Senate were also house there until the new parliament was ready at Sri Jayawardhenapura.

The area is now called Republic Square, and although t is no more open to the public for obvious security reasons, it can be visible from the edges of both sides of the Fort to which some access is still available.

The Garrison Church of St Peter (The Mission for Seaman)On the southern side of President House was a sunken garden with a fountain overflowing with cascades of water. This building appears to have been erected on the original sites where Portuguese Monasteries of the Dominican Order once stood.

The Garrison Church of St. Peter, now wedged between the Police Headquarters and the GOH, is housed in the banquet hall of this Dutch residential building. It was first used for Divine services in 1804 and was consecrated by the Bishop of Calcutta, Dr Thomas Middleton, in 1821.

Today, this church is referred to as The Mission for Seaman.

Chatham Street & the Lighthouse Clock Tower
At the beginning of Chatham Street, where it intersects Queen’s Road, on the western end, is the Light House Clock Tower. Many have considered this as the most significant landmark in the Fort since old times and even until today.

Built in 1857, this Victorian monument, still stands tall and proud of its heritage even though now dwarfed by the many skyscrapers that have sprouted all around it. It is still one of the very proud legacies of the architecture of the British Raj in Colombo. The idea of constructing it in the Fort was initially put forward as far back as the year 1815.

Built in 1857, this Victorian monument, still stands tall and proud of its heritage even though now dwarfed by the many skyscrapers that have sprouted all around it. It is still one of the very proud legacies of the architecture of the British Raj in Colombo.

The idea of constructing it in the Fort was initially put forward as far back as the year 1815. The design was created by Lady Ward, wife of Governor Sir Henry Ward. The closk was commissioned in 1872 but kept in a warehouse, due to economic reasons, until 1914 when it was finally nstalled and running.

The four dials are created according to a standard British design showing the tme to all four points of the compass. In its heydey the lighthouse, standing at 132 feet above sea level, had a white revolving double light which showed a triple flash lasting a second with an eighteen second wait. Powered by keresone oil the light could be seen from a distance of 18 Km away in clear weather.

The lighthouse was discontinued after the construction of large buildings in the Fort which obscured its purpose in 1954. A new lighthouse was commissioned at Galle Buck where it still strands and operates as a beacon to all ships entering Colombo Harbor.

Further west of the clock tower is Upper Chatham street which extends towards Galle Buck. Many old businesses plied down this small stretch and later on newer ones were constructed and thrive until this day. Baurs travel department is one of the many large business enterprises that stands here. The Bank of Credit & Commerce International also had its offices on this small stretch of street until it was liquidated after suffering a major financial crisis in the nineties.

The Childrens’ Bookshop, a stationery cum gift shop cum record bar and cafeteria, stood at the corner of Upper Chatham Street and Queens Road on the Central Bank side. It was managed and run by the Wickremasooriya family who later on went on to become a famous music recording company under the Sooriya label. Netaji Wickremasooriya, son of Gerald, took over the business from his fatherwho was a devout music lover and contributor to the development of music in Sri Lanka.

Sonna Meedin had his small tailoring establishment on Upper Chatham Street from where he also did a very lucrative buying and selling business involving electronics and other knick knacks.

From the Clock Tower, Chatham Street extended to meet York Street at a very busy intersection. This stretch of the street was littered with Jewelry, Curio and other tourist attraction shops. Nanking Chinese Hotel was situated on the corner of Chatham Street and Queen Street on the Chartered Bank end. The premises and several adjoining shops are owned by Inneth Caffoor, wife of Iqbal Caffoor of Pendennis Avenue fame. Inneth used to run a small juice & sandwich bar next to Nanking. She is the daughter of M H M Mohammed of Barnes Place. Nanking was always a favorite haunt of bankers, government employees and private sector white collar workers as it provided a very cosy and comfortable atmosphere complemented with delicious Chinese cuisine at reasonable prices.

Next door to Nanking is the famous jewelry store of Ishak & Company managed by Nilam and his family members of Dickmans Road, Bambalapitiya. On the opposite end of the street is the magnificent, tall and glamorous, NMLA building in which the Ministry of Imports & Exports was once situated in the sixties. Velona had its showroom on the ground floor.

Hirdaramani and Lakshmi’s, famous textile merchants, had their much patronized showrooms and offices down Chatham Street.

The Fort Mosque was also located on Chatham Street adjoining Noor Hameems jewelers. In modern times the Mosque has been expanded with the purchase of Noor Hameems and several other adjoining businesses and stands as a three storeyed building providing religious facilities of Muslims in the Fort area.

Pagoda Restaurant, a member of the Rodrigo Restaurant chain of ehich Green cabin at Bamba was another famous haunt, is located a few doors before the Mosque. Famous for their Chinese Rolls and Milk Coffee this restaurant, catering to a high end clientele was also a very famous place for families to gather while shopping in the Fort. Air Lanka stewardesses and other counter staff were also found meeting here for a quick snack or lunch. Lump Rice was another savored specialty that was served here in dried banana leaves.

On the opposite side corner of Queen’s Street stood the massive NMLA building. Alongside it further inwards are the establishments of Diana & Company and Chands, sports goods agents, Marikar Bawa’s, reputed men’s tailors & fashioners, Zainudeen & Company, a tourist shop from way back when, and Vogue Jewelers, to name a few.

A short cross road from this end, leading to the rear of Ceylicno House, was the entrance to Hospital Street, which ran parallel to Chatham Street, down to the Fort Police Station.

Many well patronized restaurant bars, from very old times, like the Globe Restaurant, Dominion, Lord Nelson etc also catered to the thirsty public who sought some cheer, be it night or day. The smoke filled atmosphere within these ‘western’ type saloon bars always reminded one of the American Wild West sans the red Indians and the horses.

The section of the street beyond York Street was called Lower Chatham Street where the head office of the national airline, Air Lanka, was located. The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce also had its offices here. Although the street didn’t continue for vehicular traffic on this stretch it provided access to foot passengers who had to walk down a flight of concrete steps leading down towards Bristol Street and thereon towards Lotus Road behind the Lake House building.

Transworks House building in the Fort, constructed in typical British Imperial architectural style, with its striking red brick color has always been a very pretty and colorful sight. This was then the Public Works Department. Later it became the office of the Post Master General. It also housed the head offices of Air Lanka at one period of time.

The tallest building in Sri Lanka, the World Trade Center Twin Towers are located here today.

Going back in time
The Big Ben of Colombo - the Chatham Street clock tower
"Colombo landmarks - We pass them every day but do we know their significance? In our new series, Dr. K. D. Paranavitana delves into the history of some of Colombo’s famous names and places"
Sunday Times June 25, 2006: Any clock or watch is designed with two hands. The hour hand makes exactly two complete revolutions in a 24-hour period and must rotate at as uniform a rate as possible so as to show the correct time at the intermediate hour.
The first known mechanical clock was made in Italy around 1335. The first domestic clock apparently was also made in Italy in 1364 and depended on the same type of mechanism as the tower clock, though smaller. This was followed by the spring driven clock introduced about 1500. In 1658, Christiaan Huijgens, a Dutch mathematician, worked out in detail the mathematics of the pendulum and designed a clock controlled by a pendulum.
Navigators and sailors often used sundials and the hourglass to measure the hours of the day. Sri Lankans had a similar instrument called pe tetiya, in which a cup with a tiny hole in the bottom was placed on a container of oil and the time taken to fill the cup was considered as an hour.
The mechanism of the clock reached Sri Lanka with the Dutch. However, there is no reported instance of the construction of a clock tower anywhere in the island. Only a few know that in the Fort of Colombo there is a clock tower, facing Galle Face to the south, Chatham Street to the east and Janadhipathi Mawatha to the north. Almost three decades ago, this area of the Fort was the busy city centre filled with public servants, shoppers and vendors. Things have changed with the passage of time and it is now a high security zone.
The clock tower at the Chatham Street-Janadhipathi Mawatha junction is 148 years old. It is two years older than the ‘Big Ben’ of Westminster in London, the chime of which we hear daily over the BBC world service. The ‘Big Ben’ of Westminster was cast on Saturday, April 10, 1858. Its history even goes back several decades. George Meurs, the then British master bell founder states that the ‘Big Ben’ took 20 minutes to fill the mould with molten metal and 20 days for the metal to solidify and cool. The ‘Big Ben’ rang across London for the first time on May 31, 1859. The British Parliament summoned a special meeting to decide on a suitable name for the monument at which Sir Benjamin Hall (MP), a large and ponderous man known affectionately by colleagues in the House as ‘Big Ben’, delivered a lengthy speech on the subject of the new tower clock. At the end of his speech the House erupted in laughter and decided “why not call the new clock Big Ben”.
Getting back to our country, the ‘Big Ben’ in Sri Lanka which is two years older than its counterpart in London, also has a fascinating story. The ‘Big Ben’ in London celebrated its centenary on May 31, 1959 and the Chatham Street clock tower celebrated its century on February 25, 1957.
The need for a clock tower to the city of Colombo was felt as far back as the early days of the British administration. Governor Robert Brownrigg (1812-20) in 1814 suggested that a clock tower be built in Colombo. A clock was imported from England. Nevertheless, it was not a time to concentrate on such minor affairs as they were on a war footing with Kandy, later suppressing the rebellion of 1818, etc. Therefore, the clock was left in abeyance at the commissariat or the government stores and the matter faded from everybody’s memory. It was left unnoticed by a number of successive governors. Some 42 years later, Governor William Anderson (1850-55) took the matter up but at the tail-end of his tenure and it was too late.
Governor Henry Ward continued to carry the momentum and as P. M. Bingham records in his famous work on the History of the Public Works Department, the Chatham Street clock tower was designed by Lady Ward in association with the Governor Henry Ward. The arduous task of construction was entrusted to J. F. Churchill of the Public Works Department. ‘The clock originally cost 1,200 sterling and was abandoned in the stores to avoid the expenses of ‘putting it up’. Governor Ward stated that ‘It is highly creditable to those who had charge of it that the works have not been injured during the long period though they have incurred cost of 280 sterling for cleaning and oiling’.
As the tablet inside the tower-arch confirms, construction was completed on February 25, 1857. It was handed over to the citizens of Colombo the following month. The clock which had been imported in 1814 ultimately got a permanent house in 1857 at a height of 96 feet. After another 50 years, in 1907, the clock gave trouble and was beyond repair. It was replaced with the present machine that ticks the seconds and announces the time quarterly and hourly with a mechanism of three bells. The present clock has a six-foot dial glazed with opal glass for illumination.
Until recent times the clock was fitted with a mechanism for synchronisation with the master clock at the Meteorological Station in Colombo and was checked daily for accuracy. But a recent inquiry made from the Meteorological Department resulted in a negative reply to say that the system has been abandoned. The process of keeping the clock dead accurate according to the Greenwich Mean Time has ceased to exist. The clock tower served a dual purpose, not only keeping time for citizens but was also as a light house indicating direction to seafarers in the Indian Ocean.
This function of the light house commenced ten years after the construction of the tower, in 1867, with oil lamps. This was further improved with dioptic flash lights installed in 1885. In 1897, oil lamps were replaced with gas lamps. The brightest beam from the light house flashed across the Indian Ocean to an approximate distance of 16 miles. The fascinating pattern of tiled glasses magnified the stream of lights across the sea. The dioptic flash light was replaced in 1932 with a 1500 candle power electric bulb. After nearly a century, the light house shifted to the new tower and doused its flashes giving way to brighter flashes from Galle Buck Tower.

The clock tower, eased from the burden of housing the light house, however kept on ticking.

Posts exchanged between Gladys Skeen, Hugh Karunanayake and Phillip Somervall, re the Skeen Family and their businesses in Colombo, Ceylon, on the Sri Lanka Genealogy Website Message Boards.


William Skeen was appointed the first Government Printer of Ceylon in 1849. His brother Henry born 16 July 1831 arrived as his assistant on 11 July 1852. He died six months later on 26 December 1852 and was buried at the Galle Face Burial Grounds.

William Skeen purchased J.Parting's (who introduced photography to Ceylon) photography business for his son William Louis Henry Skeen, born in 1847, and who returned to Ceylon around 1863 after studying photography at the London School of Photography. W.L.H. Skeen managed this business until his death in 1903.The shop was at 41 Chatham Street, Fort, Colombo.

William's second son G.J.A. Skeen was appointed Government Printer in 1881 and served in this position until his death in 1906. F. Skeen. another son of William, joined the firm in 1878 and left to establish a similar business in Rangoon in 1887. He returned to take charge of the business upon the death of W.L.H. Skeen in 1903.

The Skeen family produced excellent photographs of 19th Century Ceylon several of which I have been fortunate enough to acquire. William Skeen was the author of thebook Adam's Peak, and a book of poems called "The Knuckle"- a range of mountains in central Ceylon. Both items are rare and almost impossible to find. A modern reprint of Adams Peak was published in India in 1992.

William's magnum opus however was the 426 p book called 'Early Typography' published in Colombo in 1872 which reviews the history of printing and typography from the 15th century. A truly remarkable book.

You may be able to find more information on the Skeens if you publish a notice in "The Ceylankan" the journal of the Ceylon Society of Australia. There is no cost involved.

Please let me know if you want it arranged.


Hugh Karunanayake


Rather late in the day, I have come across your fascinating exchange of information with Hugh Karunanayake concerning William Skeen (1822-1872), Govt Printer in Ceylon.

William's father, Robert (1797-1879), was also a printer - in Clerkenwell, London. Robert published his autobiography in 1876, which runs to fifty pages. In it he talks not only about William in Ceylon, but also William's various brothers and sisters – including one brother who was an early settler in NZ (in 1843), and another who was ordained by the Bishop of Down in 1869.Robert was apprenticed to a printer, Mr Lochhead in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, as were his brothers William, Alexander and John. This William was my 3x great grandfather - who later had a distinguished career as a journalist in London.I have a lot of information on this family of Skeens, going back to their roots in Elgin, north east Scotland, where their ancestor, an earlier Robert Skeen, was born in 1727.Going back to William (1822-1872): he married twice, both times at the church of St Dunstan-in-the-West, London. His first wife was Louisa Matilda Kemp (b. 1821/2, d. pre-1865), whom he married on 11/7/1845. Their children were William Lewis Henry (b. 1/7/1847), George Lewis Athelstan (b. 1852/3, d. 11/7/1906), Robert (b. 1856/7), Louisa Justina Mary (b. 19/9/1858), and Frederick Albert Edward (b. 29/4/1861). His second wife was Frances Elizabeth Ann Johnson (b. 1821/2; d. 12/12/1899), whom he married on 17/6/1865; they had no children that I am aware of.William (1822-1872) was baptised into the Moravian Church, which his parents, Robert and Sarah, had joined in Sept 1820 – they were members of the Fetter Lane Moravian Congregation, City of London. The Moravians were not, however, allowed to get married in their church, so marriage ceremonies at that time had to take place in an Anglican church in the parish - hence the use of St Dunstan's.Please feel free to ask for more info; I’ve got quite a lot of it, which I shall be delighted to share. Meanwhile, you might be interested to know that I am in touch with descendants of William (1822-1872)'s brothers Robert and James, among others.With regards,

Philip Somervail

The Knuckles

The Knuckles (Colombo, 1868)
Title The Knuckles (Colombo, 1868)
Reference GBR/0115/Y303D
Creator Skeen, William Louis Henry, d 1903, photographer
Covering Dates 1868
Extent and Medium 7 images in 1 volume; The prints are in fair condition, with some overall, and in places extensive, fading and yellowing.
Repository Cambridge University Library: Royal Commonwealth Society Library
Content and context
W. L. H. Skeen was the son of William Skeen, the first official Ceylon Government Printer from 1849 to 1872. W.L.H. Skeen and Co. was a commercial photographic company active in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

A volume of poems by William Skeen, Government Printer of Ceylon, containing albumen prints measuring approximately 145 x 95 mm, pasted in beside the text.

An advertisement by Skeen and Co. at the end of the book states the different editions of the work available: at 10 shillings with two photographs, at £1 with seven photographs, and 6 shillings without illustrations. The poem of the title is a history of the Knuckles planting district in five cantos of poor verse, with occasional pieces and 'The Christmas Tree' by R. Skeen at the end of the volume.

Access and Use
Please cite as Cambridge University Library: Royal Commonwealth Society Library, The Knuckles (Colombo, 1868), Y303D

Further information
'The Knuckles' was first published in: Skeen, William (1868), 'Ceylon Observer', Colombo, March-June.

This collection level description was entered by SG using information from the original typescript catalogue.

This collection is available on microfiche: South Asia, fiche number 90.

Index Terms
Skeen, William Louis Henry (d 1903) photographer
Hospital Street
This street lies parallel to Chatham Street, beginning at the rear of Ceylinco building as Hospital Lane curves its way down to where the Fort Police Station stands facing the southern end of York Street.

It was famous for its hot and tasty meals where many office workers and visitors to the Fort relished their lunch. Jaffna Hotel was one such place that boasted the best hot crab curry in all of Colombo.

The street also boasted of a famous Saville Row style gents tailoring outfit that was the talk of the town for all budding bridegrooms and also a state of the art hand crafted made to measure shoe store.

Many betting shops for horse racing were also located here. Punters used to be seen hanging around them, cigarettes hanging from their lips, anxiously wetting the race paper trying to pick the best horse for the day.

Another street named Canal Row also winds its way from Hospital Street towards the Police Station.

The Dutch Hospital
Hospital street was named after the Dutch Hospital that existed at its northern end where the Fort Police Station now stands. It is the oldest building in Colombo. Built in 1616 on half a hectare of land it has the features of typical Dutch architecture. The building has an upper floor which was then occupied by the resident surgeon. The Fort Police Station used the building until recent times. The mortuary at the hospital is to converted into a library for the public.

Baillie Street
The first cross road off Queen’s Street after Chatham Street is Baillie Street. It’s a narrow straight road that ends at York Street and lined with many shops that cater to tourists. The Bank of Credit & Commerce International first opened their offices down this street and later moved to more plush accommodation at Upper Chatham Street. One section of Chartered Bank bordered Baillie Street. The old Indian High Commission and the State Bank of India were also located in the same premises down this street.

Birsam & Company, owned and managed by the Sameen family of Wellawatte, catered to money exchange, gems, jewelry and tourism. Mudalige, the famous gambling Mudalali also had his offices here. Nectar Café, a large and widely frequented meeting place, was located at the intersection of Baillie Street and York Street. One end of Cargills bordered the opposite corner. Many other small businesses, viz Boot works, Printing presses, Watch makers, the YWCA cafeteria, and jewelry shops, also operated, successfully, here.

Prince Street (Sir Baron D B Jayatilleke Mawatha)
Prince Street starts where Queen’s Street ends and runs perpendicular to it towards York Street and then onwards to Pettah. It houses many important buildings where large businesses operate. The Apothecaries building is ine such Colonial structure that stands tall till today. On the right is Millers building which adjoins Cargills building on York Street.

Sri Lankan Airlines moved their head offices from Lower Chatham Street to Prince Street in the late seventies.

Across York Street on the right were the buildings of the Times of Ceylon and YMBA. On the left stood the sprawling offices of H W Cave & Company, booksellers, Mercantile Bank later renamed to Commercial Bank, and the magnificent Ghaffoor Building. Here is located the Gems & Jewelry offices of the Abdul Caffoor family of Pendennis Avenue, Kollupitiya, fame. Many offices and businesses are also housed within its multi floored structure.

History of he Commercial Bank of Ceylon, Colombo Fort
1920: Eastern Bank, a British overseas bank, opened a branch in Ceylon.

1957: Chartered Bank (another British overseas bank; see below) acquired Eastern Bank but ran it separately.

1961: The Government of Ceylon forbade foreign banks to accept deposits from Ceylonese nationals.

1969: Eastern Bank incorporated its branch under the name, Commercial Bank of Ceylon (CBC), and took 40% of the equity. CBC got Mercantile Bank of India’s branches in Kandy, Galle and Jaffna as part of a deal that would remove the government’s limit on deposit taking in Mercantile’s remaining branches in Colombo and Pettah. The branches actually transferred in

1973. (HSBC had acquired Mercantile in 1959.)

1971: Eastern bank amalgamated with Chartered Bank.

1975: Chartered Bank merged with Standard Bank to form Standard Chartered Bank.

1997: Standard Chartered divested itself of its 40% stake in CBC. DFCC Bank (ex-Development Finance Corporation of Ceylon) acquired 29.5%.

2003: CBC acquired Credit Agricole Indosuez's two branches in Bangladesh at Dhaka and Chittagong to become the first Sri Lankan bank to establish operations outside the country. Banque Indosuez had opened its branches in 1980.

Source: Green, E., and S. Kinsey. 1999. The Paradise Bank (Aldershot: Ashgate).

York Street

The heart of Fort is York Street which connects one end of Hospital Street to the Harbor. The many shops catering to tourists and the many Colonial buildings still housing many important businesses will always be a tremendous legacy to Colombo.

The Grand Oriental Hotel (GOH), since renamed to Hotel Taprobane in 1963, lies at the Harbor end of York Street and still maintains its ancient aesthetical style and demeanor in many ways. The long row of shops that run alongside it towards Prince Street are pockmarked with travel agents, banks, curio and tourist shops, gem & jewelry establishments and newer businesses in recent times. The Bank of Ceylon has its head office located on this stretch.

The GOH was built in the late nineteenth century. It was originally a palatial residence of a Dutch Governor. It was converted to GOH on Nov 5, 1875. The hotel was widely acknowledged both in the east and the west as ‘a grand luxurious hotel of the east’ and contained many modern facilities for that era.

On the opposite side of the street is the building of the ANZ Grindlays Bank which has stood tall there, undergoing many refurbishments and modernization since old times. Towards the harbor is another large building housing the shipping company of Messageries & Maritimes known as M&M then. Small money exchange shops used to be strewn across the Fort in old times where tourists could easily change their currencies to Sri Lanka Rupees. Since of late they have all been regularized and managed by the Central Bank as official money changers under license and control.

The brick red building of Cargills, one of Ceylons very first department stores, is located on York Street between Prince Street and Chatham Street. Opposite to it was the old and dilapidated Bristol Building which has since been demolished. The Bristol building was the home of many small offices and businesses from very ancient times. NCR had its offices located here during the era of the mechanical accounting machine.

Cargills was established in 1844.. Its building was first a typical Dutch villa built by Sam Cargill. It had a deep verandah with pillars running along its full length forming an arcade. At the time the Dutch surrendered to the British it was occupied by a wealthy man named Captain Sluyskens. He is supposed to have been famous for the Kaffir Band that he owned. The Kaffirs will be long remembered for their instrumental and vocal music and the Kaffringa dance. These delicatge pieces of entertainment have strangely enough assumed a national character today in the form of the very popular local ‘baila’ he villa was previously occupied by the Dutch Commander of Colombo.

When the first British Governor, Frederick North, came to Ceylon in 1798, he occupied this villa until he found himself a permanent residence.

The original villa stood at the Prince Street-York Street corner until it was demolished to make room for the present Cargills building which stretches all the way to Chatham Street. The foundation stone on the wall of the old building had the date AD 1684 inscribed on it.

Mymoon, a gems, jewelry & curio shop, owned by S M Abbas of Ketawellamulla Lane, stood sprightly at the corner of Bristol building on York Street where it intersects Prince Street. Its many black and brown carved elephants used to be seen displayed proudly in the window attracting tourists arriving at the Colombo Harbor. A M S Deen & Sons is another jewelry store that was located on the ground floor of Bristol building. The offices of Aeroflot Russian Airways and also the Bank of Ceylon Fort branch were located side by side here. The Hemas Group of companies also had their offices in this location. A large banyan tree stood at the corner of the building on York Street where many taxi cabs, rickshaw pullers and commuters took shelter from hot noonday sun. The ground beneath the tree was splattered with white spodges of dried crow dung. Sunset in the Fort saw the mass re-entry of millions of crows to their nests, for the night, atop these massive banyan trees that were located in the town.

A notable feature of the arcades that fronted many of the Colonial buildings in the Fort were the multitude of pavement hawkers who brought their wares ans trinkets for sale, seated on the floor, atop plastic sheets and pieces of cloth. There was nothing you could not find within the arches of these long and busy arcades.

Bristol Street
Parallel to York Street, towards the Pettah, lies Bristol Street joining Lower Chatham Street to Prince Street. It was once the location of street hawkers and peddlers known to everyone as ‘The World Market’ where cheap goods were available in plenty on the sidewalks.

The magnificent building of the Moors’ Islamic Cultural Home (MICH), the pioneer Muslim social organization in Sri Lanka, stands tall here and the Peoples Bank Head Office occupy the ground and first floors. The land for this edifice was granted to the Muslim community by the British government before Independence and the building was constructed much later by the organization.

Duke Street
At the rear end of Bristol Street, parallel to it ran another road, called Duke Street, from where the Colombo Fort Central bus services began and terminated. This street was choked with commuters during the morning and evening rush hour being the main hub of transporting the working and shopping masses to the Fort.
Colombo Harbor
Colombo Harbour completed 1885 [Construction of South-West Breakwater, Colombo Harbour, 1875-1885]
Reference GBR/0115/Y303C
Creator W L H Skeen and Co
Covering Dates 1875-1885
Extent and Medium 16 images in 1 album; The prints are generally in good condition.
Repository Cambridge University Library: Royal Commonwealth Society Library

Content and contextAn album containing mounted albumen prints by William Louis Henry Skeen and Company, measuring approximately 260 x 210 mm with captions pasted onto the page beneath the prints. The album is inscribed: 'Sir W.C. Sergeaunt K.C.M.G. with Sir John Coode's compliments'. The album documents the construction of the breakwater from the laying of the foundation stone
to its completion in 1885.

Construction of the Colombo Breakwater.

The creation of an artificial harbour to increase the shipping capacity of Ceylon was first suggested by the Earl of Carnarvon in 1866. At this time the favoured location was Galle at the extreme south of the island, but in 1870 the Governor, Sir Hercules Robinson, reported in favour of Colombo (whose commercial status was rapidly growing as a result both of the completion of the Suez Canal and of the Colombo-Kandy Railway) and Robert Townsend, the engineer responsible for Plymouth Breakwater, was sent out to make a feasibility study. He too was impressed by Colombo's natural advantages over Galle and advised the construction of a breakwater across the harbour mouth. In 1872 the great harbour engineer Sir John Coode drew up plans for a breakwater running north from Customs House Point at the southern entrance and enclosing 500 acres of sheltered moorings. This plan was accepted in 1873, with land reclamation for a coal depot and the dredging of shallow portions of the harbour also included in the project.

John Kyle was appointed Resident Executive Engineer and arrived in May 1873 to organise such necessary preliminaries as the opening of a quarry at Mahara (11 miles from Colombo), the formation of a blockyard at Galle Buck near the works, and the construction of a railway to transport stone from one site to the other. The main body of engineering staff arrived in Ceylon in June 1874. The blockyard site was levelled, workshops and cranes installed, and in October the first trainload of rubble was delivered to Colombo. 300 convicts were used for loading the trains and over the period of construction never less than 100 tons per day (with a record of 600 tons) were shifted. By December 1882 the commercial advantages of a sheltered anchorage were becoming evident, and in the June of that year the P and O Royal Mail steamships abandoned their base at Galle in favour of Colombo.

Between 1883 and 1889 the value of shipping passing through Colombo increased by 60% and steady growth continued throughout the century. The breakwater, 4212 feet long, was completed in April 1885 at a cost of £705,207.

In 1891, Sir John Coode was asked to design a further breakwater but his death in 1892 prevented him working on the project. The work was therefore entrusted to Sir William Matthews who erected two further breakwaters, at the North-East and North-West corners of the harbour, so
that by the turn of the century Colombo was able to provide 640 acres of enclosed anchorage, impervious to the effects of either the SW or NE monsoons.

Purchased by the Royal Colonial Society in May 1892.

Access and Use

Please cite as Cambridge University Library: Royal Commonwealth
Society Library, Colombo Harbour completed 1885 [Construction of South-West Breakwater, Colombo Harbour, 1875-1885], Y303C

Further informationFor a general account of Colombo Harbour and harbour trade statistics for the late 19th century see: Wright, Arnold (1907), 'Twentieth century impressions of Ceylon', London: Lloyd's Greater Britain Publishing Co, pp.369-378.

For a detailed technical account of the SW breakwater see: Kyle, John (1886), 'Colombo HarbourCeylon

For a portrait of Sir John Coode see R.C.I. 1/19.


This collection level description was entered by SG using information from the original typescript catalogue.

This collection is available on microfiche: South Asia, fiche number 89-90.
(Minutes of proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers)', vol.87, pp.76-91.
The Pettah
When one moves northwards from the Fort along Lotus Road, Prince Street or Galle Buck Road, one eventually enters the town of The Pettah, the bazaar town of Colombo.


abdulcader said...

Until the time of the Central Bank bomb blast, I ran my photographic business under the name of Queens Studio at 35, Queen Street, Colombo 1 which started in 1951-

Awaiting a District Court Judgement with regard to a partition case, the studio is closed for business.

Anuk De Silva said...

Hi there, I'm very much interested to know more about the history of the Chartered Bank in Sri Lanka. Would you have any sources to back up the historical milestones mentioned here? Would appreciate it very much.

Faz said...

Please see the Chartered Bank FB page at this link"

Anuk De Silva said...

Hi Faz, thanks for the FB link. But do you have any historical books/sources that would verify the history of Chartered Bank as per the information on this blog?