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Malcolm Harold de Run was a late beginner in the late 1950s, a fast finisher in the late 1960s, and way ahead of his time as a plantation manager.
He was not the traditional rookie into the Ceylon tea planting industry. He was a public servant in the Salt Department when he decided to follow his father, Dudley, then brothers Gerald, Carl, and Ralph into planting, which later brought Norman and Frederick into the fold. A proud group of seven who etched the name ‘de Run’ into the annals of tea planting history in Ceylon.
Malcolm’s two sons Nihal and Mohan, and Ralphs’s son Stefan went into the tea trade as Tea Tasters/Buyers, and Norman’s sons Elvis and Denver also became a part of the tea planting scape. So, the contribution spanned decades, from tea growing to valuing, buying, selling, blending, and exporting. Certainly, tea was in the de Run DNA.
Malcolm learnt the basics of being a tea planter and the Tamil language over several weekend trips to Dolosbage, where his brother Gerald was Superintendent of Penylan Estate. At 33 years of age, he gained his first appointment as Superintendent of Rickarton Estate, Maskeliya, a 500-acre property privately owned by the proprietors of the Times of Ceylon newspaper group.
Malcolm took up the challenge to tackle the ‘rabid’ workforce, which was on strike at the time of his arrival; fields with weeds higher than the bushes and a factory hardly in working order. He used his tremendous determination and organisational skills to win over the hearts and minds of his staff, the labour force, and the proprietors.
Within a few months’ tea bushes flourished, weeds vanished, roads were re-defined and repaired. The factory rolled over to regular operational life, producing more leaf and less stalk and the aroma of freshly manufactured tea, filled the Maskeliya air.
Jon Van Maurick (Moray Estate) was a keen observer of Malcolm’s progress, as was Wilfred Bond (Laxapana Group). Malcolm gained their respect for his enduring efforts and these mentors delivered encouragement, championing his cause with advice, and advocating the attributes of one so new to the industry. As an active Club man Malcolm soon gained the favour and admiration of many planters in the district.
A vacancy arose at the large Agency House of Whittall Boustead. Malcolm asked Van Maurick for his guidance to gain an interview. Van Maurick was a close friend of William James Childerstone (Childy), the Manager of Balangoda Group, a fine gentleman held in high esteem, where the vacancy for an Assistant Superintendent existed on Detanagala division.
Malcolm at age 35, married with three children, was selected as Asst. Superintendent for Detanagala Division, one of seven divisions of the 2500-acre, four-SD (“Sinna Dorai” or Asst. Superintendent) Balangoda Group. He joined Ranjan Wijeratne, Felix Peiris, John Rajanayagam, and then Henry Roberts. The other SDs under Childy – Huzam Cader, Grahame Croll and Allan Bolling – came later to Balangoda Group. This was indeed a dynamic group of people. Their personalities, under the master weaver Childy, became interwoven bringing a colourful tapestry of work and social change to a plantation. This work-life balance was unparalleled in the history of tea planting in Ceylon.
Balangoda Group was not just a tea estate, it was a large village-like community forged by Childy, who had been the long-standing Manager and ‘father’ of the plantation’s 2500 strong labour force and their families. Childy was a kind man with no racial bias. He loved all human beings and with a post war belief in “noblesse oblige”, wanted to see them all better off, especially those looked upon as the battling working class. Thus, Balangoda Group became the trail blazer in the move to provide better accommodation, healthcare, food availability, childcare, and recreational facilities to the workforce.
Malcolm and Ranjan Wijeratne, Senior Asst. Superintendent at that time, (later to become a leading politician and government Minister), were good mates. Led by Childy’s vision and supported by Felix Peiris, John Rajanayagam, Huzam Cader, Grahame Croll and Alan Bolling, they formed formidable teams. These teams not only achieved the plantation’s primary goal of producing a quality tea, finding the Auctioneers hammer as “Tinioya” and “Cecilton”, but also greatly enhanced the living standards of the workforce. Malcolm was the engine and wheels of that social change delivery, quite apart from his desire to have the lowest cost of production.
Gaining budget approval from the owners and Agency managers of the estate was always a battle for Childy, but he progressively managed to persuasively extract funds. The team fully enthused, improved line room accommodation by adding community kitchens, laundry amenities, and latrines, whilst building more housing to accommodate increasing family sizes.
The workforce had to travel vast distances on foot to reach bus routes to obtain food supplies from Balangoda town after pay day. The idea of a co-operative store on the estate was born and Malcolm led the development of infrastructure and vendor rules. A not-for-profit co-operative store, under the watchful eye of selected independent Committees, was created, being the first on such a scale on a tea plantation.
Personnel were appointed for purchasing, costing, setting selling prices, merchandising and inventory control. All this to give the labour force a large grocery/produce store with fair and competitive pricing to conveniently buy their day-to-day groceries; staples such as rice, flour, sugar, oil, kerosene, and condiments. Festive occasions saw fresh meat and poultry available, which was considered special. The workforce could now shop within the plantation boundaries.
The co-operative store model was so successful on Balangoda Group that many years later, Malcom was brought back as an expatriate from Australia by Ranjan Wijeratne to establish co-operative stores and sports on the same model across several plantations in Sri Lanka.
This was another of Childy’s ventures which Malcolm took to a further level. The piggery, which had a fair number of piglets being fattened for sale to Danfoods in Nuwara Eliya, was expanded and sizeable loads regularly shipped off to Danfoods to demonstrate the alternative agricultural opportunities estates had at their disposal. Pork, poultry products and vegetables produced on the estate were also sold through the co-op store for the benefit of the labour force and staff. Malcolm was a passionate animal husbandry proponent, learning as he went along in developing breeds and yields. The estate derived a dividend from these ventures which was ploughed back into developments to meet the broader vision for the workforce
Crèches were established with salaried carers for the children of labourers, especially mothers who needed to have their children cared for and fed during the hours when most had to earn their living as tea pluckers etc. Nursing mothers were able to feed their infants and return to the field. The estate funded an experienced nursing aide to be on duty at the crèche. These were pioneering initiatives driven by the wives of the planters on the estate at the time, primarily, Mary Childerstone, Delande Wijeratne, Romany Peiris, Dora de Run, Maggsie Roberts, and Nancy Conran. They recognized the plight of young mothers and were influencers of the social changes that occurred through their husbands. The culture was indeed unique and broad-based.
A fully equipped hospital, under the overall management of a doctor, supported by a SMO (Snr. Medical Officer), Apothecary, matron, mid-wife, and adequate ward staff, provided for emergency and routine medical needs including minor surgery and midwifery. More complex and serious cases were sent by a patient transport vehicle to the Balangoda or Ratnapura hospitals. An immunisation program was provided with co-operation from the Ratnapura Hospital. During Malcolm’s tenure on the estate, Dr. Gordon Conran, Dr. Aruliah and Dr. Fred Gunasekera were successively in charge of the Hospital and its services.
Schools were available from kindergarten to grade 6 but for secondary schooling children had to go outside the estate. At about age 15, most boys took to a labouring job on the estate and girls usually became pluckers, thus earning a wage and helping the family in their shared accommodation.
Malcolm was a keen sportsman, having represented St. Peters College, Colombo as a long-distance athlete, cyclist and rugby player. Together with Ranjan Wijeratne they organised sports meets for the children of the schools in the Group, mirroring privileges of Colombo schools. This developed into wider sports meets with participation by adults in events such as sprints, long distance running and tug-o-war.
From these events an athlete with potential was spotted viz. V. Govindan, ‘the barefoot miler’ who came into the limelight. Malcolm entered Govindan to run in the All-Island Athletic Meeting held in Colombo. At his first attempt Govindan ran admirably but failed to gain a place.
Malcolm then started on a training plan which included certain improvements to Govindan’s diet. He worked long and hard with Govindan and another “up-and-comer”, Mariappan, to get them ready for the same event, the 1500 metres, at the following year’s meet. Govindan won that race to become the first estate labourer to win an open race in Ceylon’s athletics history and Mariappan was placed. This made headlines in the tabloids of the capital.
Other sports which were promoted and fostered included Cricket, Volleyball (Inter divisional competition), Soccer and Tennis. Ladies participated actively in the Tennis competitions. There were no social exceptions; anyone with prowess was encouraged to join and enjoy.
Malcolm realised that one sports ground in the Pinnawela Division, for the entire estate spanning several miles across, was insufficient. He managed to gain approval and some funding to reshape some spare land and build a second sports facility in the Maratenne Division. The ground became the training track for Govindan and other young athletes and a splendid soccer ground for the enjoyment of all.
A serious one-day cricket match was organised by Malcolm – Balangoda Group vs Whittall Bousted (Agency House from Colombo) for an inaugural trophy, during which there was much revelry. The locals were extremely excited to see the home side pushing for a win until Alan Bolling, one of the key batsmen, was felled by a nasty bouncer, losing his front teeth and Henry Roberts ran out of partners. The Colombo side went back with the trophy.
Another noteworthy event was the Gala Sports Meet attended by AA officials, W. A. Chandrasena, Julian Grero, Basil Henricus and Maurice de Silva. This was the first time the AA had a fully accredited Sports Meet on a Tea Plantation. Malcolm was immensely proud to count this amongst his achievements.
Malcolm brought a Circus to the estate. What a joy that was to all the labourers who had never ever witnessed such a spectacle. Tight rope walkers, fire eaters, fire walkers, trapeze artists, hoola hoop girls, clowns, carousel, well-of-death and globe-of-death motorcyclists. The Circus went on for a week to the delight of thousands. Another epic first.
The Staff Tennis Club was well-established not only for the staff but also for their families on the estate. There were more than thirty members when Malcolm arrived at Balangoda Group and the popularity of the club was increasing exponentially.
Some good tennis talent was on display with the likes of Felix Peiris, Childy, Opatha and Pereira (latter from office staff) and they were joined by Henry Roberts, Grahame Croll and finally Allan Bolling (who was a superb player). The club was a vibrant place for social interaction, with Christmas parties and talent quests for the children, culminating in the arrival of Santa Claus, all of which were indeed memorable.
Charles Dymock-Green the Managing Director of Whittall Boustead’s Ltd. was also Deputy Scout Commissioner of Ceylon. Dymock-Green used his business and personal friendships with senior planters such as Arnold Helling (Gonapitiya) and Childy to foster Scouting on plantations.
The Scout troop on Balangoda Group was functioning well under the leadership of Childy, Ranjan, Felix and John Rajanayagam and Malcolm added to this team the drive and zest for which he was well known.
Malcolm and Ranjan aspired to send a young estate worker to the World Jamboree in Manilla, Philippines in 1961. Young Kitnasamy was selected, trained, and went on to represent the troop, the district and Ceylon at that world Jamboree.
The welcoming party for Kitnasamy as he disembarked from the bus bringing him home to the estate was a tearjerker. A simple estate worker, now a distinguished Scout. Certainly, a badge of achievement. He had done his estate “family”, mentors, and country proud. In 1963 Sivarajan, another Scout from Balangoda Group, went to the World Jamboree in Greece.
Estate staff and workers were generally Hindu, with some Buddhists and Christians. All requests for building, renovating, or repairing places of worship were dealt with fairly. One that stood out was the Assembly of God Church (AOG) operating from a shed run by Brother John. A devout and sincere man who provided pastoral services and person to person prayer for the people in the remotest parts of the estate.
Malcolm answered his call to build a Church. Land was allocated with the permission of the Agency House, labour was provided and with AOG funding Bro. John got his Church built, which stands today. The AOG members still express their appreciation of Malcolm’s support for this Church.
Balangoda Group was a model tea estate with a tremendous ethos between management, the staff, and the labour force. Much of this credit must go to W.J. Childerstone for his kind and gentle, yet firm and persuasive leadership style.
He was backed by a team of dedicated, hard-working, goal-oriented people, chief among them during the years 1958 to 1968 Ranjan Wijeratne and Malcolm de Run. Childy had the vision, Ranjan delivered the orientation and Malcolm was the make it happen engineer. This triumvirate was awesome in action.
Ranjan went on to be promoted as Superintendent of New Peacock Estate and then promoted to the five-SD, Demodera Group. Then he decided to go into estate Management before entering politics as a UNP parliamentarian. Sadly, he met his demise at the hands of terrorist bombers in Colombo. A Defence Minister renowned for his honesty and eloquence was lost to Sri Lanka.
Malcolm was promoted to Torrington Estate, Agrapatna as Superintendent and then Nayapane Estate, Pussellawa before returning to his beloved Balangoda Group as Manager, for his final assignment in planting. During that phase he was heavily engaged in large scale new clearings using Vegetative Propagation, on the slopes of Maratenne, which today stands out as a picturesque carpet of Tea bushes.
Malcolm was motivated to take an active interest in the CPS, an association of Planters which, for want of a better description, was the Planter’s Industrial Relations Unit. Some planters were the subject of disciplinary action or even dismissal due to disputes or breaches of their employment conditions. The first point of complaint with a request for mediation or representation was the CPS. Malcolm championed the cause of these members and often met with the bosses or the Agency employers of the disgruntled member to seek pardon, compensation, or honourable discharge, via mediation.
The annual Dinner Dance of the CPS was a gala event involving organisation, at which Malcolm excelled, with the support of the ladies. He also encouraged the Ladies to participate in the periodic CPS magazine which published their recipes and gardening tips. Malcolm served as Branch Representative, then National Secretary and finally Vice-Chairman before his retirement. He was known for his tenacity and negotiating skills and as a person who neither traded favours nor could be bought
After his stints at Detanagala, Maratenne and Cecilton, Malcolm was promoted to his first Superintendent’s post on Torrington Estate, Agrapatna and then to Nayapane Estate in Pussellawa. Nayapane was a long-term assignment. Here, he engaged in the replanting of a large acreage of the estate and introduced animal husbandry through pig, poultry, and dairy farming.
When Childy announced his retirement in 1968, Balangoda Group was divided into two estates. Cecilton Estate comprised Cecilton, Drumlanrig and Pinnawela. Balangoda Estate then comprised Detanagala, Maratenne, Upper Pambogala and Lower Pambogala. The magnificent “big bungalow” remained in the latter estate. (Later the estate was re-named Balangoda State Plantation.)
Malcolm took over from Childy and gained his long-held ambition of managing Balangoda Estate, residing in the much admired, grand “big bungalow”.
Malcolm was renowned as one who “took the bull by the horns” and seized every opportunity to bring about social justice and equity with particular interest in enhancing the morale of managers, staff, and labour alike. He took great delight in seeing people smile and progress. Balangoda Estate gave Malcolm a sense of ownership. He got a feeling of one-ness and belonging, where independence and self-sufficiency mingled with productivity and livelihood.
The authors wish to especially acknowledge the long and distinguished service of WILLIAM JAMES CHILDERSTONE, OBE. Without his guidance, leadership and encouragement Malcolm may not have been able to accomplish all of his applaudable deeds.
Some tea planters will be remembered for their fortitude and their strong disciplinary style. Others for their gentlemanly ways and their compassion. Childy falls into the second category. He was caring, firm and fair in achieving his goals, with no bias against anybody. The way in which he championed the cause of the estate worker was the hallmark of his 24 years on Balangoda Group. He gave the estate and his Executive staff and their families, a quality of life that was unsurpassed. Sunday mornings began with tennis, badminton, tenniquoits or croquet over drinks, tea, cakes, and sandwiches. Wives and children played or roamed the gardens. At midday, the swimming pool was opened for kids and adults to frolic. Some days the executive team and their wives returned at dusk for drinks and dinner over snooker, billiards and finished the night with card games, usually poker. No matter what time the night ended, the team was up and present for muster at 6am. Life was fulsome and rich in camaraderie.
Mr. Childerstone was deservedly awarded an OBE for his services to the Tea Plantation Industry of Ceylon.
We acknowledge, in no particular order, other Superintendents who maintained the good work on this special place as - Bill Hanks, Eddie Bolling, Shan Shanmugalingam, Sene Seneviratne, Dhyan Caldera, Ananda Pilimatalauwe and Siva Sivalingam (Asst. Suptd.) These are names which the writers can recall, and they apologise for any omissions.
This article would not be complete without a special mention of Dora, Malcolm’s wife. She supported him in all his endeavours, including his career in planting. Gifted with a “green thumb”, her flower and vegetable gardens were a delight, with bountiful plots of carrots, cabbages, cauliflower, beetroot, beans, and broccoli. She also managed to raise turkeys for Christmas sale.
Malcolm and Dora lived a full and eventful life in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and finally in Australia. Their children who survive them recall with nostalgia and fondness the enjoyable times spent growing up on the plantations they loved and called home. They will ensure the next generations will remember the history of this industrious man, who gave much of his life to raising the living standards of those who were less fortunate than himself.
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