My father, Vivian Louis Blazé, was born on the 11th December 1929 in Galle, Ceylon. He was the youngest son of Dr. Louis Gerard Blazé and his wife Claribel Louise Blazé (nee Arndt). Vivian was educated at St Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia where he excelled at sport, captaining the athletics and swimming teams. After matriculating in 1948, he pursued his sporting interests with energy, competing in various national athletic meets as a member of the Ace Athletic Club. Vivian then proudly represented Ceylon at the 1950 British Empire Games in Auckland – his event was the 440-yard hurdles – only six months after taking up a planting job with Scottish Tea and Lands. It is about his career as a Tea Planter that I write today. However, the qualities which contributed to what he described as his “enjoyable” – and what many others know to be his distinguished – planting career were apparent in his many different roles in life: his prowess as a sportsman, his sincerity and loyalty as a friend, his manners and polish as a gentleman, his poise and strength as a leader and not least of all, his love and affection as a husband and father.
When Dad died on the 29th November 2006, I discovered a short (and unfinished), handwritten account of his “planting days”. The following biographical sketch is based on the reflections found within this diary, but also on conversations we had and my own memories growing up on a tea estate from 1955 to 1972 when my parents migrated to Australia.
The Blazé family was an old Badulla family (Vivian’s grandfather had been Crown Proctor there and the family home, “The Lodge”, was still standing in the 1970s). Vivian’s uncle, Fred Blazé, Crown Proctor of Badulla, suggested he should seek employment as a Tea Planter in mid-1949. Dad was invited to meet Andrew Dryborough, Acting General Manager of Scottish Tea and Lands, at Haputale estate for “tiffin”. He describes in his diary “motoring up to Haputale, very smartly outfitted in grey flannel trousers, a blue blazer, white shirt and tie” and enjoying cucumber sandwiches, scones, strawberry jam and tea in the garden, quite aware that his table manners were being scrutinized! Vivian also noted that, although Ceylon had achieved independence in 1947, the world of planting was completely dominated by the British Raj, and that during these early years following independence, only a few Ceylonese were part of the planting profession. In 1949, Scottish Tea and Lands had only two Ceylonese planters – both assistant Superintendents (SDs) – Ruby Jayawardene and Robert de Kretser.
Vivan “crept” under Budge Birkett on Cocagalla Estate, Madulsima. In the diary, he describes a “creeper” as “a nothing, not accepted by his peers, the subordinate staff or the labour” before likening the position to “an amoeba, the lowest form of life”. Initially housed in a bungalow with a bucket toilet and no hot water, he later moved into the Birkett’s home, where he enjoyed the comforts of luxurious estate life. He “threw himself into the routine with great vigour, pruning eighty bushes a day and slicing his hands quite a few times in the process”. Some of his other duties included early muster at 4.30 a.m., balancing the Check Roll (he thanks the estate schoolmaster for assisting with this) and supervising plucking.
Despite being the “lowest form of life”, Vivian recalls this period of his life as a happy time. He speaks warmly of Club Day and tennis at the Madulsima club; of being commandeered to play as a winger in the Uva Rugby team (he had never played before – in his day, St Thomas’ did not play rugby); of his old World War 2 ex-Army 350 cc Triumph motorcycle; and the friendship of the Birketts, in particular Margaret Birkett who had been on the London Stage in her youth and was quite a character.
Appointed a Junior Assistant Superintendent on Mahadowa Estate in 1950, under Andrew Dryborough, Vivian was later transferred to Alnwick Estate in Uda Pusselawa. He describes Alnwick as a “lovely property of 675 acres with a hard-working labour force” and although he speaks well of the bungalow, he recalled on a number of occasions the ghost which haunted it. He would spend his twenty-first birthday there and purchase for himself a new motorbike – a Triumph 500 cc Speed Twin, which he enjoyed riding to the cinema and snooker games in Nuwara Eliya.
In the next few years, various transfers as an Assistant Superintendent within Scottish Tea and Lands followed – to Sarnia, Mahadowa and Cocagalla. At these places, Vivian indulged himself in a new 650 cc BSA Golden Flash, played tennis and rugby, socialised over drinks and dinner and learned the “highland jig”. Vivian writes of taking to rugby “like a duck to water” and “maturing into a pretty good attacking winger – fast and with a high knee action”. He recalls being “mildly surprised” when he was asked to attend the selection trials and selected to play for Up Country in 1952. But first and foremost, he loved tea planting – he worked hard and his commitment to “doing his best” enabled him to shine as a planter, even in this early stage of his career.
In June 1953, while at Cocagalla, he married Charmaine Moldrich, and in 1954, they kicked off their married life with six months “furlough”, travelling to England on the Willem Ruys, and driving through France, Italy, Holland, Belgium and Switzerland.
He talks of driving up to Edinburgh in Scotland with Charmaine, to dine with the directors of Scottish Tea and Lands, and staying at the Roxburgh Hotel, opposite Edinburgh Castle. This was the first of many “furloughs” and other exciting trips over the years to Hong Kong, Australia, Europe and England. Vivian’s and Charmaine’s marriage was a strong partnership. They were a splendid pair, the toast of their colonial world. As a couple, they presided together over the tea estates he worked on, Vivian over the tea and Charmaine over the home, family, friends and fun times. They were renowned for their hospitality throughout the planting community.
Planting life was not all peaches and cream. It was here, at Cocagalla, that Vivian witnessed an incident which he spoke of many times throughout his life and which, undoubtedly, left a deep impression on him. One day he was called urgently to the factory. There he found a factory labourer – who had been using the rolling machine – “scalped and with his stomach wide open, intestines hanging out”. Despite rushing the man to the local hospital, he died on the way. Vivian spoke many times during his life of his lasting memory of this man’s agony and hearing the funeral drums beating through the night. Most of all, he expressed his disgust that the company did not pay any compensation to the bereaved family.
Vivian continued planting as SD on Haputale (Golconda Division) and later (in about 1955) was transferred as “SD in charge” to Annfield in Hatton. It was while he was at Annfield that “slope pruning” came into vogue and he spent a great deal of time perfecting the technique, together with subsequent “tipping” and plucking. Vivian was always very proud of his velvety green fields of tea – he often took Charmaine and the family on lovely evening drives around the various estates he managed, admiring the fields and pointing out examples of good plucking. Vivian carried his pruning-knife in his back pocket while doing “field rounds” right throughout his planting days (so attached was he to it that he even brought it to Australia and used it to prune the twenty-five beautiful rose bushes he cultivated in his garden in Perth, West Australia). He took great pride in his work at Annfield and this was obviously recognised when he was promoted to “act” for Stan Clowes on Rahanwatte in Lindula. The job he did there was praised in a “glowing report” and he was quickly promoted to take over as Manager of Haputale Estate. Donald MacRae (who was later to become General Manager of the Company), and Neil Ranawana were his SDs. Social life revolved around the Bandarawela Tennis Club and it was here that he played regular tennis, billiards, bridge and poker, competed in the annual tennis meets and enjoyed the dances. I clearly recall the Bandarawela Club: watching Dad playing tennis, Sebastian the barman, and socialising with Dad’s friends, especially Eric and Irene Witham and my great uncle, Dr. Tommy Blazé.
In late 1959, Vivian took over from Ken Gilbert to become Manager of Edinburgh Estate, Nanuoya, an estate which had been purchased by Scottish Tea and Lands only two years earlier. In his diary, he describes taking over an estate whose labour force was in the throes of a strike but gradually steering it in the right direction and making it a “showpiece” property. He had the factory painted with a “cream roof, soft blue cladding and the moving parts of the machinery in red”. He also put in new accommodation for some of the staff and refers to presiding over a significant boost in morale of people working on the estate. Vivian proudly quotes the yield in 1961 as “exceeding 1300 lbs per acre” and refers to “achieving the best price for a break of tea in the London Auction island-wide”. While at Edinburgh, he played Rugby for Dimbula with Mike Waring, Gamini Tennekoon, Yasa Ratnayake, Raja Adihetty, Brian Faithful and Larry Schokman. The Radella Club and the Grand Hotel “in town” were central to his social life. However, he declined to become a member of, or even visit, the Nuwara Eliya Golf Club, where Sri Lankans had traditionally been excluded on account of their race. When “a large number of expatriates left, and such institutions were finding it difficult to maintain their membership,” many Sri Lankans had rushed eagerly to join these clubs, but not Dad.
Vivian was promoted to Mahadowa Estate Madulsima in 1962 – he speaks of “loving the property” and his memories of being an SD there, and how he had eagerly awaited the transfer. However, early in October 1962, four days prior to his departure from Edinburgh (early October 1962), the Conductor on Edinburgh was attacked, beaten and “cut up” by some labourers. Vivian was deeply affected by the severely injured man’s plea to him to “take care of his wife and five children”. Vivian rushed the man to his friend Dr. Chinthi Wijesinghe at the Nuwara Eliya hospital, for life saving surgery. He then telephoned the General Manager of Scottish Tea & Lands and against significant opposition from the company, insisted that the injured man be transferred to “the best available private Nursing Home in Colombo”. This was finally done, and the man made a full recovery. The attackers were arrested and later found guilty of attempted murder. In his account of this incident, Vivian is outspoken about the plight of those who exposed themselves to risk for the wellbeing of “the company”.
Mahadowa is described by Vivian as a “large property, comprising 1300 acres of tea in bearing, 400 acres of gums and about 250 acres of patna”. The yield when he took over was 900 lbs per acre and he states, “I am proud to record that the yield later increased to 1500 lbs per acre”. Initially, his SDs were Rob Bowie, John Ferrier and Nimal Fernando. Later, Jivaka Atapattu, Monte Holsinger, Manfred Claasz (who had crept with him on Edinburgh), Hilary Marceline and Nelson Wijewardene would be his SDs. Whilst on Mahadowa, Vivian had a series of “creepers” – these young trainees were a source of entertainment for us children and we often played practical jokes on them. He names Ronnie Munaweera, Panditha Jayatunge and Harish Weerasekera as “three fine young men” who “crept” with him. Vivian was very happy managing Mahadowa: he says, “this property was my love” and cites knowing most of the labour force by name (a legacy from his days there as a young SD) as a huge advantage. Highlights he identifies during his “happy and eventful” seven years there were the “new clearings” he planted and the nurseries he “laid down”, mainly comprising “clonal cuttings of the 2020 series popular at the time”.
A “great source of enjoyment” to Vivian and the other planters in the district was the little Madulsima Tennis Club where club tea was “laid on” on Wednesday afternoons by various planters’ wives. There was subtle competition among the ladies, each one wanting to provide the most delicious tea. This was capitalised upon by the “bachelors” who were always on the lookout for a well-cooked meal. Afternoon teas usually comprised beef curry, pol sambol, bread, butter and jam, sandwiches, patties and cake. “Club Tea” was a practice at all planting clubs and was enjoyed after tennis, and prior to an evening in the bar. Vivian became President of the Madulsima Club in 1964 with Brian Parker (who was on Verellepatna) as Secretary. Saibo was the barman and the club enjoyed excellent tennis meets, dances and bar sales during this era. Vivian also captained the Uva Club Rugby team while he was on Mahadowa – the “Merry Men of Uva” had a very successful season under his leadership.
Another step up the career ladder came in the form of a transfer to Sarnia Group Badulla in about 1969. He was to remain here until he migrated to Australia in 1972. During this time, he acted as General Manager of Scottish Tea and Lands and was appointed Visiting Agent for many upcountry estates – Vivian was at the peak of his career. He wrote that “good leadership must come from the top”: his day still began very early and after a quick cup of tea, he would show up for muster, returning to the bungalow for breakfast before he did his field rounds. These were often on foot because he believed a planter could not ascertain the health of the fields from the seat of a Land Rover. Afternoons were spent in the estate office, attending to labour matters and administration. Despite a busy work schedule, he still fitted in regular sport – playing tennis and rugby at the Uva Club where he was the President. He was also very proud to coach the local village school athletics team.
Vivian was a man who worked hard and played hard. His other interest aside from planting and sport was enjoying the jungles of Sri Lanka. He was introduced to snipe shooting by his uncle Tommy Blazé and was a brilliant shot. Shooting trips to the East Coast became the standard Blazé family holiday and while on Mahadowa, Vivian and Charmaine bought a beautiful holiday home on the East Coast from a retired planter who was returning to England. Family holidays at “East Wind” included swimming in the beautiful bay, lobster trapping, fishing, boating and shooting.
When Vivian left Sri Lanka in 1972, he did so with great regret. However, his strongly positive demeanour and impressive characteristics stood him in good stead in his new, and very different, life in Perth, West Australia. His work ethic, natural leadership ability, sense of self-esteem, family pride and ability to mix easily with people from all walks of life defined him right to the end of his days. A man who seemed to stand taller than everyone else around him – and not just in a physical sense – he was certainly one of the tallest poppies of his era. His speedy ascent through the ranks of Scottish Tea and Lands reflected not only his dedication to individual excellence and his sense of duty but also his ability to marshal and manage others. He was well served by a natural unstudied charm that never failed to engage bosses, peers and subordinates alike. He was modest about his achievements as he remembered his “most enjoyable career” as a planter. As his daughter, I remember him as a consummate gentleman, the proud head of our family, a friend to all.
About the author: Vicki Vanden Driesen (nee Blazé) is the eldest child of Vivian and Charmaine Blazé. She immigrated to Perth, West Australia in 1977 and lived near her parents until their deaths in 2006.
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