During my career as a Tea Planter, I spent ten years on Laxapana Group in Maskeliya- four years as an Assistant Superintendent on both Valamalai and St Andrews Divisions and six years as Manager, during the period 1961 to 1971.
Mr.C. W. Bond was the Manager of Laxapana when I moved over from Delta Estate in Pussellawa where he was the Visiting Agent for a number of years. It was on this estate that I learned about V.P. planting as I opened up around fifteen acres of land which had hitherto been planted in Mana grass.
My early years on Laxapana were quite a struggle due to a rather aggressive labour force with close connections to the CWC and DWC, the largest and strongest Unions at that time. Over the next few years I planted about 5 acres of New Clearings on Valamalai Division and about the same extent when I moved over to St Andrews Division.
Mr.Bond decided to retire in 1964 and Mervyn Pelly was appointed in his place. Mr.Pelly came over with a reputation for being a hard taskmaster with both staff and labour. I commenced planting VP in a New Division named Hamilton about this time completing 10 acres in the first year. Matters took a turn for the worst about this time and the entire Estate went on strike. Mr.Pelly was due to go on furlough at this time and the Agents, Whittalls felt that the labourers were prolonging the strike because of this. I was asked whether I was willing to take over the property as Acting Manager immediately. I agreed to this and within two or three days of Mr.Pelly leaving, the labourers returned to work unconditionally after 28 days. The labourers unfortunately learned a bitter lesson by following their Union Leaders blindly, as they were only offered two to three days a week for several months thereafter. Mr.Pelly returned after three months furlough only to resign and I was offered the job as Manager in an acting capacity for six months. The timing of my appointment could not have been better because I tolerated no nonsense, enforcing discipline as never done before, knowing that the chances of the labourers taking strike action again were nil.
Flooding of Maskeliya and planting a New Division
About this time there were plans by the Government of the day to commence on the construction of a dam across the Maskeliya Oya, a slow-moving and meandering river which once flowed through Maskeliya town and fed into the Kelani Ganga, but now forms a part of the Mousakelle Reservoir. The objective was the construction of a Hydro-Electric Scheme, which resulted in the inundation of several thousand acres of land, the Maskeliya Town itself and seven Tea Factories. Laxapana Group lost approximately 150 acres of tea, The Tea Factory, Manager’s Bungalow, Office, several Staff Quarters and Ancillary Buildings. This necessitated the need to retrench a significant proportion of the labour force. With Government approval we were allowed to cultivate an equal extent of virgin land, belonging to Laxapana at a much higher elevation and a part of the Peak Wilderness. This was under the Tea Replanting Subsidy Scheme using cuttings from well-known clones, as against the earlier practice of tea seedlings. As all Tea Planters know, the planting of clonal tea has many significant advantages over seedlings, notably, the potential to a much higher yield, proven quality, and a resistance to certain diseases.
During my first few years on Laxapana, my then PD, Mr. Bond gave me an important assignment, viz, to maintain daily records of both minimum and maximum temperatures from three different locations which he thought could be suitable for the building of the new Tea Factory. After a year or two, and having studied the figures, he decided on the new site which was a small hillock, which had to be flattened using two small bulldozers and at quite a large expense. I mention this because it happened 50 years ago and I doubt whether any of the current owners or employees are aware of the thinking and immense wisdom that went into the choosing of this site: common sense and great foresight which has borne much fruit.
Obtaining labourers to work on a different Division named Hamilton and especially such a distance away, was always a challenge. However, I felt that I was now in the driving seat and this problem was overcome by a written agreement between the Management (myself) and the Labour Unions that retrenchment would not take place if the Unions agreed to the transfer of selected workers who would willingly work on the New Clearings, and that once the new tea was in production, they would also transfer to the New Division, named Hamilton. They also agreed to accept less work once the flooding took place, if this problem arose.
We commenced work on Hamilton by planting 10 acres in 1964, 15 acres during the following year and 25 acres per annum thereafter. Planting 25 acres of new clearings each year was a monumental task, and required a great deal of planning. Organising the Tea Nursery itself was no mean effort. We needed approximately 125,000 new plants each year, and for this, we put out around 140,000 clonal cuttings
Preparation of the land prior to planting was most important and this included the construction of new roads and a drainage system to minimise soil erosion. Over the next few years, Workers Quarters were constructed, and in due course the chosen labour were resettled, albeit rather reluctantly at first. Within a relatively short period of time, just 5 to 10 years, these fields were yielding well over twice as much as the surrounding seedling tea, and the workers reaped the rewards for their hard work by obtaining a much higher remuneration for their work. This result gave me much satisfaction being a “win-win” situation, and when I left the Island in 1971, I felt, and still do, that I left a “little part of me” back on Hamilton, which has now grown into a highly profitable Division of about 140 acres of beautiful tea which is a real joy to behold and anyone would be justly proud to own.
The New Factory
With the need to build a New Factory well above the flood level, once the site was decided upon, the supervision for the building of a new Factory was the next large project, together with a new Superintendent’s Bungalow, staff quarters, office, stores, maternity ward, etc. etc.
My London Directors were wise to determine that they were asking far too much of me if I was to successfully manage such a large property as Laxapana (over 1200 acres in extent) and overlook the building of the New Factory as well. As such, they obtained the services of a retiring British Engineer to be in charge of the building of the new Factory. This was a wise move because although I was present at the regular site meetings with the Engineers, I had more time to manage the estate.
Walkers & Sons were in charge of the construction of both the Tea Factory and Manager’s Bungalow while I obtained the services of a most reliable building contractor (Mr. S.K. Chandratillake) to construct all the other buildings as stated above.
Laxapana Factory was a state of the art design with 14 withering troughs on the first floor and the rolling room, dryers and sorting rooms on the ground floor. The Factory Office was strategically placed so that an excellent view of what took place could be observed from this one position. Factory workers were reduced by 50%, (110 to just 55) each day and the use of troughs and rotor vanes were a new experience not only to me but to the entire factory staff as well. We had to play around (experiment) with the number of reverse vanes, type of end plate, plus slow moving conveyors, etc, before mastering the art of producing good teas. Fortunately, I had an excellent Factory Officer, Mr. D. L. P. S. de Silva, who proved to be a real asset to the company. Special emphasis was made on the highest standard of green leaf and over a short period of time Laxapana teas improved and there was a marked increase in the prices as well, the highest ever obtained on Laxapana and quite often the best in the district as well. For this, the Directors presented me with 3 bottles of Scotch Whiskey as a token of their appreciation, which I gratefully accepted and savoured.
Key to Success
Much of the success I enjoyed on Laxapana was due to hard and consistent work put in, not only by myself but from the many Assistant Superintendent’s I had the pleasure to work with. They all need to be congratulated on Laxapana’s success as well. Malcolm Furlong and Allan Bolling need a special mention because they were my SD’s when I took over Laxapana in an Acting capacity in 1964 and some of the Colombo Directors “very suddenly” found weeds and couch grass and poor plucking in certain fields as though they never existed before. After a few years of hard work and with improved plucking standards, my London Director was most pleased on his next visit and I was confirmed as Manager and even afforded 4 months overseas furlough in 1969. Leslie Abeyasekera, Siva Sivalingam and Anthony Perera followed as my Assistants and worked hard to maintain and even improve the standard of work on the property. To all of them, I owe my sincere appreciation.
Hard work, discipline, honesty were three requirements I stood by at all time with insubordination never tolerated. I repeatedly told my staff that I expected all workers and staff to work hard and came down hard on any form of dishonesty. One incident that comes to my mind was when I returned home around midnight after a visit to the Club. An hour later, I got into my car and drove to the Factory with my lights off. On inspecting the withering in the troughs, I found that the hygrometer readings had been recorded for 2.00 a.m, 2.30 a.m, 3.00 a.m and 3.30 a.m. I summoned the Night Supervisor who was in charge and inquired of him what the time was. He said it was 1 am. I then asked him why he had recorded the readings for the next 2.5 hours? He stated that it was a “mistake”. Needless to say, he was summarily dismissed and never given work in any capacity thereafter. This for sure kept all other staff on their toes!
With the continued increase in profit due to the higher yields and better tea prices, all staff benefited and the Assistant Superintendent’s annual bonus often topped what Managers were paid on neighbouring estates.
On a lighter note, I must state that living at the foot of Adam’s Peak, we could choose the best days to climb the Peak, with a view to see the brilliant sunrise and shadow of the Peak. I climbed the Peak on three occasions, once through Moray Estate and the other two occasions through Dalhousie. On my third climb Allan Bolling accompanied me. On our descent Allan noticed one of the guys seated and begging for money cover his face as we approached him. He recognized him and requested him to show us his face. It happened to be one of Allan’s labourers who was making more money begging than by working on the state. Needless to say, he was taken to task.
On another occasion, I was on a field round with Allan on St Andrew’s Division. Allan, very suddenly in a loud voice requested me to stop the Land Rover we were in as he saw a figure diving into the tea bushes as we approached him. Allan alighted from my vehicle, came back most upset saying, “That was the dhoby’s son and he was wearing my sarong”. Boy didn’t hell break loose. To cut a long story short, the son received the biggest hiding of his life from his father while a furious Allan stood by.
I will always remember Laxapana Group and especially Hamilton Division for the 10 wonderful years I worked on this property despite some very challenging times. I have visited the Estate on 4 occasions since I left the Island in 1971. In 1984, 1993, 2002 and 2013. On our last visit in 2013 my wife Rosemary and I, together with our daughter Janice who was born while I was on St Andrews, together with her husband and three teenage children visited the estate and the younger folk all climbed Adam’s Peak and experienced the beautiful sunrise and shadow of the Peak.
My wife and I were so pleased to see the immaculate condition of the Manager’s Bungalow and the well-maintained garden. Rosemary was especially thrilled to see the garden because she had supervised the planting of the lawn in 1966 or so with many tuffs of bluegrass brought across from the lawn of the Old Bungalow prior to the flooding as well as lorry loads of large stone for terracing the garden. Our congratulations and thanks are due to Asanka de Tissera for his brilliant work in maintaining the estate in such an immaculate condition and obtaining the highest average tea prices and largest profit across the island.
Sadly though, and as has to be expected, after 42 years, all of the staff and most of the workers I worked with have moved on. I realized with a pang of sadness and nostalgia that I was now just another face in the crowd, another inquisitive visitor. My memories, however, will last until I take my last breath on this earth.
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