Anura Gunasekera (2017)


David Clare Perkins - picture from 1967 Tea Centenary Souvenir publication

David Perkins is the son of English parents. His father, G.G. Perkins, had been an officer in the British Army during the First World War, serving in the Western Front. At the end of the war, accepting a tea planting opportunity in Ceylon, he had moved to Hatherleigh Estate, Rakwana, in 1919. He had been joined by his fiancée in the following year and they had married at Christ Church, Galle Face. David’s older brother had been born in 1921, whilst Perkins Snr was still at Hatherleigh. In 1923 he had been appointed the manager of Rye Estate, Balangoda, where David had been born, in 1926. Perkins Snr had finally retired from Rye in 1956, five years after his wife’s demise.

David’s Words;”….. My father’s first name was Gerald. He was a machine-gun officer in the 10th Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment when he was shot through the left wrist on the third day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1916. His type of wound was nicknamed a “Blighty wound”, not life threatening but bad enough to take him back to “Blighty”, slang for England, for treatment. It was during his recuperation and continued service in England that he met George Crabbe, a Ceylon tea planter on leave, who offered him a job after the war, on Hatherleigh Estate, Rakwana. Crabbe was a well-known shikari and wildlife photographer, and I remember seeing his framed photos of wildlife on the walls of the old Ratnapura Club. He owned a bungalow in Diyatalawa where my parents spent their honeymoon, and he was there when he sadly committed suicide as a result of the stock market crash in 1929.

My mother’s name was Gladys, but my father called her Toni, short for her second name Antonia.

Compiler’s Note- The WW1 Battle of the Somme, fought near the French river Somme between June and November 1916, was possibly the bloodiest in history, with the British Army losing 57,000 men on the first day alone, with over 19,000 deaths.  When it ended, inconclusively,  after 141  days,  the British fatalities were estimated at 420,000 and the total, on both sides, approximately 1.3 million! In the cruelly attritional trench warfare of WW1, life expectancy was estimated at a maximum of six weeks for a British junior officer. Of the British and Commonwealth dead in that one conflict, 72,000 lie in unmarked graves.

David had schooled, first in England and then in South Africa, from the age of eight to eighteen, when, at his father’s insistence, he had returned to Ceylon to commence a planting career, as a more suitable alternative to joining the Indian Army, which had been David’s other option.

On the suggestion of W.J. Childerstone, Perkins Snr’s friend and, at that time, Acting Manager of Balangoda Group, David had been appointed “creeper” on Balangoda Group, under the tutelage of Childerstone. When the latter had moved to Moray, Bogawantalawa, on his next act, David too had moved with him. Incidentally, Childerstone, commonly known as “ Childy”, had, at the end of his act on Moray, been moved back to Balangoda Group as permanent manager, prior to retiring.

David's father Gerald Gordon Perkins (picture from 1967 Tea Centenary Souvenir publication)
The bloody battle of Somme in which David's father Gerald was injured
Rye Estate Balangoda 1993 (Photo sent by David Perkins)
Balangoda Group Manager's bungalow (Photo sent by David Perkins)

At the end of his creeping period, in April 1946, David had been appointed to Balangoda Group, again under his tutor, Childerstone. In 1948, David had been transferred back to Moray, as Assistant Manager under Lawson Annesley.

In late 1950 David had been granted six months home leave – commonly known as “furlough” in planting parlance – enabling him to make his first visit to England in ten years. On the return journey to Colombo, by ship, David had met the young lady who became his wife about one and a half years later.

To pick up the story in David’s own words……….. “  In November 1950, I was granted six months paid leave to England, travelling by first class on P & O. I had last been in England ten years previously, when I left to go to public school in South Africa, and I felt a complete stranger at first, despite being befriended by my many uncles, aunts and cousins. On the return voyage to Colombo in April 1951 I met a young lady, one year older than me, who was a qualified teacher of the deaf and was traveling to Australia to set up a school for deaf children in Ballarat. We fell in love and only a week after sailing from London she agreed to be my wife! I introduced her to my parents when they came to meet me on my arrival in Colombo and she continued on to Oz. At the end of her 14-month contract she came to Ceylon and we were married in Nuwara Eliya. We are blessed to be together still after 65 years….”

“ …. Penny and I were married at Holy Trinity Church, Nuwara Eliya, and had our reception at the Hill Club. Unfortunately, none of her family in England were able to attend…”

It is a charming, heart-warming story of a whirlwind, ship-board courtship, the stuff of popular romantic fiction but, in this instance absolutely real, culminating in a union which endures to this day.

On David’s return to Ceylon he had been appointed to Osborne on a one year act, at the end of which, an obviously noteworthy performance, he had been appointed PD, instead of one Benest, then Senior SD on Frotoft, who had originally been designated to assume duties on Osborne as PD, on his return from overseas leave. So, at the very young age of 24, David becomes a PD.

David’s words again-  “…… luckily for me my VA, Sydney Bolster, was so pleased with my work that Whittalls decided to keep me on in Benest’s place, so I became a PD at the age of 24..”

Compiler’s Note- I recall Benest, in 1968,  as the highly reclusive PD of Amherst, when I was a creeper on Gordon estate, Udapussellawa. He was known to emerge from his estate just once a month, to collect labour pay, and also on infrequent fishing trips to Hortons, always driving his black-and-tan Morris Traveller, himself. I would also meet him from time to time, on my field rounds on Gracelyn division, which shared a common boundary with Kadawatha division of Amherst. He would always acknowledge me with a smile and a nod, but no words were ever exchanged! To the best of my knowledge, he never visited the Dicksons’ Corner Club, then a highly patronized planters club located a short distance up the Nuwara Eliya road.

Balangoda GP Detanagalla SD's Bungalow 1993 (Photo sent by David Perkins)
Osbourne Estate, Dickoya (Photo sent by David Perkins)
Gampaha Estate, our home from July 1955 to March 1962 (Photo sent by David Perkins)
Gampaha Estate 2 (Photo sent by David Perkins)

After four years on Osbourne, David was moved to Gampaha estate, Udapussellawa, then one of the best estates in the Whittalls portfolio, in the eastern sector.

David again –“…. After four years on Osborne I was again very lucky to be appointed to Gampaha, Udapussellwa, one of Whittalls’ choicest estates at that time, (in 1960 we recorded the highest yield ever achieved up to that time on any of Whittall Boustead’s estates), and from there to Brunswick in 1962. By that time I had been appointed VA of several estates……”

Despite the permanent self-deprecatory tone which runs through David’s personal narrative, constantly attributing the recognition he received to luck, his professional story is one of rapid, upward progression. The “Note Book” which we are celebrating, is clearly just one small example of his meticulous approach to his job and the constant pursuit of excellence, both obviously contributing to his success.

Another touching feature of his personal account is the clear projection of the love he has had for his job, and his adopted country and its people, still as warm and relevant, despite the half-century of physical separation.

View from Gampaha Estate towards Madulsima (Photo sent by David Perkins)
Brunswick bungalow (Photo sent by David Perkins)
Brunswick bungalow, office & factory & Sri Pada (Photo sent by David Perkins)
Brunswick garden (Photo sent by David Perkins)

Quoting David again- “….I must say I loved my job and was sad to give it up just as I was about to reach the pinnacle of my career, having at the age of 40 been offered the charge of Demodera, Ceylon’s largest tea estate. The offer came to me at Brunswick in 1966, before I was about to go on overseas leave with my wife and children, but by that time I had decided to move to England in order to give our children a British education so I reluctantly declined the offer”.

Compiler’s Note - David’s refusal to accept Demodera enabled the appointment of Lawrence Harvey to that estate, succeeded in 1969 by Ranjan Wijeratne, from New Peacock, Pussellawa, on the retirement of Harvey. Demodera,  at its peak, had two large active tea factories, supervised by a separate factory manager, and four or five Assistant Managers.  The offer of Demodera, then one of the most prestigious tea billets in Ceylon, is a clear demonstration of the prestige that David had then come to enjoy, as a plantation manager.  Ranjan Wijeratne, too,  was considered one of the best estate managers of his era. The latter is possibly best remembered for his subsequent entry to serious politics and his final appointment, as Defence Minister in the JR Jayawardena regime, and his assassination at the hands of the LTTE.

As was the case with most British planters and many of our Dutch Burgher countrymen, the impending changes that were casting their shadows across political and social landscape of the country in the nineteen-sixties, with the threat of nationalization of estates a powerful slogan of the left-oriented parties, a review of possible personal and professional consequences superseded all other considerations, for David as well. The following extract from one of David’s letters clearly exemplifies the general thinking, then.

David’s words again- “…..Also, hanging over us was the threat of estates being nationalized, as duly happened soon afterwards. I have only happy memories of my planting career, having never suffered a strike by the labour force or any labour problems. I was able to put in to practice a number of my own ideas and to pass them on to the PD’s of estates for which I was VA, and before I left I had set in motion a large scheme of replanting the old tea with VP material on Brunswick. I feel immense affection and nostalgia for the land of my birth and its peoples, Sinhalese, Tamils and Burghers, who were so good to me…..”

Apart from his pre-eminence as a plantation manager of the era, he had been a good rugby player, a flanker/wing-forward, having represented the Darrawela Club from 1948-1955, leading the team in 1955 and representing the Up-Country combined team against the Low-country in the Capper Cup encounters of 1949 and 1950.

The rigours associated with representative rugby in the plantation districts in that era – with the minimal road connections and transport facilities – would be inconceivable to the plantation rugby players of today.

To quote David, in one of his emails to me – “You mention that Chris Mossop was your first substantive Manager when you were his SD on St. Leonard’s. He and his wife were good friends of my wife and me for many years until his death in 2015 at the age of 93. I first knew him when he was the SD on Kotiyagalla in 1947 and we both played in the Dickoya team. At that time I was one of the three SD’s on Balangoda Group and in order to play Rugby at Darrawella, the senior SD and I used to have to walk up through Maratenne to Feterrosso Estate to be met by Mossop or one of the other SDs in Bogawantalawa district and taken by car to the Club for the match, followed by a gramophone dance and much drinking. We returned through the jungle by torchlight. Now of course, there is a motor road with a regular bus service between Balangoda and Hatton.

In 1950 I played in the Up-country tea against the Low-country on what was then the Colombo Racecourse during so-called August week.

Judge Noel Gratien introduced the teams before the match to the Governor Lord Soulbury, and I have a photo taken from the Times of Ceylon of me shaking hands with the Governor. My parents’ dear old Kandyan head servant, with whom I grew up on Rye Estate, said that he was very proud that the “Little Master“ had been picked out by the Governor for the honour!

…….I played for Dickoya rugby as wing forward, these days known as ‘flanker’. I have to say that much as we enjoyed our rugger and were keen to do well, we never did any serious training and were never coached, and most of us smoked and drank alcohol. When I was captain I found great difficulty in getting 15 men together each Saturday, indeed for one match against the CH&FC we had to travel with one man short!

Our opponents were Dimbula, Uva and Kandy upcountry, and CH&FC, CR&FC, Havelocks, and Kelani Valley in the low-country. Happy days!....”

Brunswick Bungalow (Photo sent by David Perkins)
Darrawela v Radella 1948
Darrawella v Radella 1949
Darrawela v Radella 1954

Compiler’s Note – It will be recalled that Justice Noel Gratien himself was a rugger player of reknown, having represented both the CR&FC and Ceylon, as a feared second row forward.

The Up-country club teams – comprising then almost entirely of planters – despite the difficulties and shortcomings described by David, still used to compete on an equal footing with the best clubs in Colombo, then. It is a great pity that the very same Up-country clubs are now experiencing difficulty even in fielding combined teams and have frequently been relegated to the lower divisions of the national club competitions;  a sad commentary on Up-country rugby prowess, given that in 1952 Dimbulla won the Clifford Cup, a feat repeated by a combined “ Dim-Dicks” team in 1962.

The highlighted segment of the extract from David’s email to me demonstrates the passion they would have had for the game, represented in equal measure by the commitment that David, and other planters of his calibre, extended to their profession as well. At the time of his premature retirement, David had been the Visiting Agent for Ingestre (Dickoya), Craig ( Bandarawela), Cobo (Badulla) and Maskeliya (Maskeliya), an impressive portfolio of prestigious tea properties.

David Perkins’ story is not unique in the context of the circumstances of the era. Like his father Gerald, many others of British extraction, having served in the British Army in the First World War, after demobilization, sought employment in the British colonies, India perhaps being the first preference, but also in Ceylon. In many instances, their sons followed the paternal footsteps, as in the case of both David and his elder brother, Ian, who himself, very much like his father, was a soldier turned planter.

David’s Words once more;”…….. My brother Ian, was also a tea planter. Born on Hatherleigh, Rakwana, he attended boarding school in England, followed by a year’s basic agricultural course at Reading University. He was with Colombo Commercial Company, London, when WW2 broke out in 1939.

After joining the army and being commissioned, he opted to transfer to the Indian Army, and was assigned to the 17th Gurkhas. He joined the regiment in Burma as they were retreating before the invading Japanese, who were stopped only by the onset of the monsoon rains on the frontier of India in Assam. After serving the rest of the War in India and being married in Shillong, he was demobilized in January 1946 and travelled to Ceylon by train with his wife and baby daughter to take up creeping on Mooloya Estate, under Jack Ritchie. Having then, like me, been taken into the Whittalls’ agency, he served as SD on Gonapitiya and then High Forest. His young wife died tragically a year after the birth of their second daughter, but while on leave in England in 1951 he married Jill, one of our cousins. He acted on Uda Radella, Luccombe, Batawatte, Edinburgh and Fernlands, six months each, and in 1955 was appointed as PD of Sandringham, Agrapatana, to which later was added the charge of nearby Balmoral. In 1965 he retired from planting and came to live in England with his wife and daughters( two by his second marriage). He died at the age of 90”.

David’s narrative is a period when life was much simpler and objectives, both personal and professional, clearer, along with concomitant values, which were not amenable to compromise. His was an era when a conscientious estate manager could manage the property in his custody efficiently, largely free of intrusive interventions outside his area of control. That era is long past and bears no comparison with the prevailing industry environment. Yet, there are in his story, many elements of great value which would be of relevance, still.

David Perkins
David's wife Penny with their three children

Compiler’s Note -  David Perkins, with wife Penny and three children, left Ceylon in January 1967, to live in England. He worked for a charity fund-raising organization for 21-years, retiring as a Director at the age of 65. Since 1968, they have been living in Wimbourne, in the county of Dorset. They have made three visits to Sri Lanka, the last being in 2007, taking the opportunity to visit all the estates that David has been connected to during his planting career.

Anura Gunasekera



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