Nineteenth Century Opulence - The Story Of Alfred House

Hugh Karunanayake (2022)

Nineteenth Century Ceylon boasted of many stately homes such as Queens House, Horagolla Walauwa, and Alfred House. Alfred House achieved considerable fame as the venue for a much remembered dinner in 1870 for the visiting Prince of Wales, Prince Alfred then titled the Duke of Edinburgh. Alfred House was then a large mansion standing on 125 acres of land planted in coconut and cinnamon. The grounds of Alfred House covered almost the whole of Kollupitiya southwards from the present Walukarama Road to land adjacent to Station Road Bambalapitiya. Eastwards it covered almost the entirety of both sides of Thurstan Road and included the University premises as well as the grounds of Royal College up to Racecourse Avenue. It was easily the largest property in Colombo and the most valuable piece of real estate in Ceylon of the 19th Century.

The name Bagatelle seems to have originated when it was under the ownership of Arbuthnot & Co., which appears to have owned it from the time it was offered for sale by the Government. The property was first advertised for sale in the Ceylon Government Gazette of 9 March 1822 as "a thatched cottage with a tent roof, about two miles and half from the Fort of Colombo, to be disposed of by private contract." The owner at the time was believed to be a prominent businessman in the Fort with the quaint name Daddy Parsee. He was a well-known businessman operating from No 4 King Street in the Fort being a key importer of luxury goods and wines into the island. It appears that he had defaulted in payment of dues to the govt and hence the decision to sequester the property to recover dues.

The Ceylon Almanacs of the 1840s lists Bagatelle Estate as a property owned by Arbuthnot & Co., who were agents for the Government of Ceylon in India, and who were the sole exporters of cinnamon from Ceylon which was a government monopoly at the time. It would seem that Arbuthnot & Co. acquired the property from the government in 1822. A few years later the property was in the possession of C.E. Layard who lived there for many years. There is no information available as to whether the Layards owned the property (most likely) or were tenants, but during his period of residence C.E. Layard replaced the old thatched roof building with a substantial two storied house which was named Big Bagatelle. The Layards were an illustrious family from Bristol which was closely associated with the administration of public service and judicial institutions in Ceylon for many generations and have played a significant role in the colonial history of early British Ceylon.

Charles Edward Layard came to Ceylon in 1803. He was the Collector of Kalutara in the first batch of Civil servants. He had a house called “Mount Layard” on the banks of the Kalu Ganga. It is believed that the famous Teak Bungalow in Kalutara was situated there later. He retired in 1839 as District Judge Colombo North and died in 1854. He married at the age of 20, Barbara Bridgeteen Mooyart fourth child of Gualterus Mooyart, administrator of Jaffna under the Dutch. He had 26 children by this marriage of whom the youngest Barbara was born in Bagatelle in 1843 and died in a house called “Grimsthorpe” in Nuwara Eliya in 1914. Layard was a great horticulturist and during his residence at Bagatelle introduced several exotic plants to the island. Fertility seemed to have abounded there as in addition to the propagation of plants, we have the Layards with 26 children followed by the de Soysa with 14 children!

Around the mid-1850s Susew de Soysa, a pioneer native plantation owner became the owner of Bagatelle Estate. He was a pioneer coffee planter who together with his brother Jeronis, established initially in Hanguranketa Estate, and successfully steered his land holdings through the coffee crisis. They later owned the biggest acreage of plantations in the island ever. Susew called his residence Bagatelle Walauwwa. His nephew Charles Henry de Soysa to whom the property passed on, demolished the old homestead, and built a magnificent home comprising of around 100 rooms. The Fergusons Directory of 1871 lists Bagatelle as a cinnamon cum coconut estate of 125 acres.

The house was named Alfred House with the permission of Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, who visited Ceylon in 1870. C.H. de Soysa died in 1890, He was bitten by a rabid dog that strayed into Alfred House on 2 August 1890. It was originally decided to take him to Paris for treatment, but he chose to remain in Ceylon and receive native treatment. When he passed away, he was buried outside the Holy Emmanuel Church, Moratuwa, next to his son who died in n his infancy. His mortal remains were laid to rest, amidst a gathering, then described as the largest seen in Ceylon in the nineteenth century. His wife who died in 1914 was laid to rest beside him. He left behind a large family of 14 sons and daughters to inherit an enormous estate which in addition to Alfred House included several thousand acres of coconut, tea and rubber lands spread around the island. Over the years, the 125 acre Alfred House Estate underwent several sub divisions, some major changes being precipitated by the master plan for Colombo which foresaw many new roads across the estate.

The earlier sub divisions were however made by the de Soysa family itself, which constructed several stately mansions within the property. The ornate Lakshmigiri, which was built in 1910 by A.J.R. de Soysa, the second son of C.H. de Soysa, is a classic example of the extravagant building design of the time. This house with its extensive gardens and massive cast iron gates is at the southern end of Thurstan Road bordering Queens Road. It bears assessment No. 102 Thurstan Road and is much the same seventy years ago, as it was when constructed almost half a century earlier. Ten years after it was built, the house was mortgaged, and later foreclosed. It was then bought by the Adamjee Lukmanjee family and has remained in their ownership to date under the name Saifee Villa. Seventy years ago, there were no buildings between Saifee Villa and Queens Road.

Adjoining Queens Road is the house originally named Regina Walauwa by its owner T.H.A. de Soysa, the 4th son of C.H. de Soysa. It was named after his late wife Regina, who died at the age of 29 years. The house was built in 1912. An imposing building with multiple roofs, turrets, and towers, it was a palatial residence facing Thurstan Road. The owner was a keen turfite, owning many horses, and with a penchant for heavy wagers. The story goes that whenever he won over Rs. 100,000 at the races, he would hoist the family flag on the large flagstaff in front of the house to indicate to all and sundry that he had made a killing at the races. This ritual was locally referred to as "Lakseta kodiya" meaning "win a lakh of rupees and the flag goes up". Fortunes do however fluctuate, and by 1920 he was in financial difficulties and the house sold to the newly emerging University College. It was then renamed College House. The flagstaff or 'kodigaha' remains on the property to this day.

Alfred House in 1871 Any discussion on Alfred House in its heyday cannot be complete without reference to the magnificent dinner hosted by Charles Henry de Soya at Alfred House in honour of the visiting Prince of Wales, the Duke of Edinburgh. The story is best related by John Capper who published the book “The Duke of Edinburgh in Ceylon” published by Provost and Co, London, and dedicated to His Royal Highness Prince Alfred Ernest Albert, the Duke of Edinburgh, in October 1870. Two chromolithographs from the book are reproduced on the back cover of this journal. “The tables at the reception were arranged in the form of a cross, the building being brilliantly lighted and decorated; and as the numerous company stood round the well filled boards, the Prince and his party at one end of the cross, the scene was striking in the extreme.

The plates, goblets, and knife and fork provided for his Royal Highness were of massive gold, set with rubies, emeralds, and pearls. The usual loyal toasts were given, the Prince bowing his acknowledgments for that of his own health. The Prince and his entourage remained till 2 o’clock in the morning. A few days later, The Prince H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh hosted a reception to the de Soysa’s at Queen’s House and conferred the title of Gate Mudaliyar (Wasala) on Susew de Soysa and Justice of the Peace for the Island on Charles Henry de Soysa (the latter had declined the title of Mudaliyar). Alfred House was demolished in the 1930s to make way for road expansion to serve the civic needs of a burgeoning Colombo population thereby erasing a historical landmark which should have been preserved.

Many of the de Soysa family built stately homes on part of the de Soysa estate during the early years. They include the ornate previously discussed Lakshmigiri built in 1912 by second son A.J.R. de Soysa, and Regina Walauwwa or College House as it is presently known, built by T.H.A. de Soysa. In addition, there was Rheinland built by E.L.F. de Soysa, and Villa Venezia on Queens Road by son-in-law Sir Marcus Fernando. The grounds of Alfred House ended in the South near today’s Station Road Bambalapitiya, adjoining which was Brodie House, and where Unity Plaza stands today, “Nellidith”, the home of Dr. W.H. de Silva Opthalmalogist, and son-in-law of C.H. de Soysa. The property was sold to the Gulamhussein family where Onally built his well-known “El Patio Yveony” in the 1950s on its grounds.

At the Bambalapitiya Junction was “Glen Aber” by the sea, also on the original Alfred House estate. It belonged to J.W.C. de Soysa, the eldest son of C.H. de Soysa. The house is no more but is commemorated by the road that led to it “Glen Aber Place”. The son-in-law of C.H. de Soysa Dr. Solomon Fernando also built his home within the Alfred House Estate and the house was named “Sigiriya”, remembered today by the road Sigiriya Gardens off Bagatelle Road. Another stately home is the residence of the Indian High Commissioner formerly known as Karlowie on grounds purchased from the Alfred House Estate by the State Bank of India in the 1920s. It faces Thurstan Road and stands next door to College House.


Twenty nine years after the death of Sir Charles Henry de Soysa (knighted posthumously) a grateful public contributed to the construction of a memorial to him, unveiled 100 years ago, in 1919. He is still remembered for his magnanimity, having donated the cost of several public institutions like the De Soysa Lying in Home, Victoria Memorial Eye Hospital, many churches, temples, schools like Prince of Wales College, and many more.

Alfred House is no more, and its grounds now form the heart of Colombo’s residential and mercantile sector. Many roads exist to this day to remind us of the history of a great house and the family associated with it. Bagatelle Road, Bagatelle, Gardens, Alfred House Gardens, Alfred Place, Charles Circus etc. are still there, some replaced by names that do not endure as much as the original. Very few (or none) of the descendants of C.H. de Soysa live in the original homes built on the Estate. Like in most families, fluctuating fortunes combined with extravagant living had seen an end to much of what Charles Henry de Soysa left to his heirs. A large family such as his has spread widely and the number of direct descendants may now number well over 300. The Ceylon Society of Australia had in its membership roll, some of the de Soysa descendants such as Srini Peiris wife of the late Tony Peries and granddaughter of Sir Marcus Fernando, who was married to a daughter of C.H. de Soysa.

Chandra Senaratne, our Social Convenor since the inception of CSA, was himself a great grandson of C.H. de Soysa and also his late wife Marlene whose paternal grandfather was A.J.R. de Soysa of Lakshmigiri. Chandra has in his possession a set of the monogrammed sterling silver cutlery from Alfred House with which I have dined at Chandra’s residence on many occasions. We also had as a CSA member the late Lalith de Soysa (son of Sir Wilfred de Soysa) who until his death in Melbourne a few years ago was the only surviving grandson of Charles Henry de Soysa. (There may be other descendants of C.H. de Soysa in the CSA membership of over 350, of whom I am not aware as a student of Sri Lankan genealogy. My apologies in advance for any inadvertent omissions.)

Apart from the dissolution and distribution of the largest ownership of real estate the country ever knew, the material goods such as the gold plates served at the Royal dinner, and those items of furniture which reflected a life of luxury, have all but disappeared. It is a pity that our Museum could not retain any of them to remember the remarkable indigenous entrepreneurship and extraordinary acumen of the pioneer de Soysa's, of an order which no doubt befitted its times, but also served as a beacon for others to follow. The grandeur, and opulence of the pioneering de Soysa's is part of the history of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.


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