Poonagala Group in 1895

Royston Ellis (2022)

In 1995, British author Royston Ellis, a resident of Sri Lanka, visited the Poonagala group of estates, then managed by Vije Bede Johnpillai. While there, he was shown a visiting agent’s report, written a century before. Here are extracts from his article about it, published in Tea International in 1995.

In 1895, a Visiting Agent (VA) inspected the Poonagala group. It took him three days on horseback to cover all the estates. On Tuesday, 18 June 1895, he compiled his report in careful copperplate script.

His visit came one year after the railway reached Bandarawela. From the station it was 14 miles by steep winding road to the estate. The plantation’s elevation ranged from 2,500 feet to 5,000 feet above sea level.

He records that in 1895 the total area was 2,243 acres in four estates: Poonagala, Lunugala (Upper and Lower), Udahena and Cabragalla. Lunugala had a factory as did Poonagala. The owner of the four estates was Sir George Pilkington.

A reading of the yellowing manuscript of more than 5,000 words suggests that Poonagala had then only recently been purchased by Pilkington. The VA wrote: “Poonagala and Cabragalla together make a very compact valuable property and I consider the purchase of Poonagala in many ways largely improves the value of Lunugala, Udahena and Cabragalla…it also largely settles the question of outlet for all these properties.”

The transporting of tea to Colombo was a major problem. “It is a very difficult matter to keep up the labour supply on an estate when transport difficulties are so great. The tea at present has to be carried by coolies for some five miles to the cart road. Now that Poonagala has been purchased this transport difficulty (which is really a labour difficulty) may be largely reduced by sending down the made tea by wire (shute) to Poonagala factory and having it sifted, re-fired and packed there.”

The VA shows his concern about the labour force which at the time was recruited from India. “As more land is being opened up for tea, the cooly (labour shortage) will become more pressing and anything that will reduce (the need for) cooly labour in any way, in the matter of heavy transport, will be an important factor in keeping up the labour supply.”

The question of how people travelled to somewhere as remote as Poonagala in 1895 is partly answered by the VA’s summing up. “The outlet from all three properties is via private cart road to Koslanda and thence by government cart road to Haputale, a distance of some 15 miles. Had the government agent cut the proposed cart road from Bandarawela station…the outlet would probably have been by that route.”

Roads feature strongly in the report. The VA observes wryly that at Lunugala: “the roads on the lower part of the estate are not in good order, they have never been properly opened out or if they have, they must have slipped away down the hill.”

He comments that improvements are limited to the rate of one mile a year. Cabragalla is reported to have “one good riding road” but the estate manager (named only as Mr. Bisset) “informs me owing to the rough, rocky nature of the land it is a most difficult matter to get good roads in.”

The VA betrays occasional exasperation with Bisset whom he seems to regard as a bit inefficient. Of Poonagala he states, “Mr. Bisset informs me that the estimate for 1895 was 40,000 lbs of made tea but he was unable to tell me how much of this had been secured. I would put down the probable yield as the same as Cabragalla (about 450 lbs an acre) provided the tea gets a fair chance by the removal of large number of trees of different kinds there are growing on it.”

Of Udahena, the VA expresses his view that tea on 83 acres “has up to date been very heavily handicapped, originally planted without being holed or drained, and drained after planting. Considering the steep free nature of the soil, it is to me a marvel that it is as good as it is… The bushes seem to me to be very high and when pruned next I would have them cut much lower so as to encourage them to bush out instead of growing to a height.”

The VA was also worried about the effects of the winds that scour Poonagala. “This field is very much exposed to the wind, both during the south-west and the north-east monsoons and I would suggest that a large quantity of fuel trees be planted on all ridges.”

He adds approvingly about Cabragalla, “Grevilleas are planted throughout the entire estate, which are doubtless of great value in protecting the tea from high winds which tear up the valley.”

At Upper Lunugala, he observed the tea was: “In good heart and flourishing well…with careful pruning will yield 500 lbs an acre” Prospects at Lower Lunugala were not seen as so good. “The land there is of a very rough broken nature and the tea has been planted over a considerable area, under coffee, jack and other trees all of which handicap the tea considerably.” He put the yield wat 300 lbs per acre.

The bungalows on every estate are mentioned, and valued, in the report. The VA considered the bungalow at Cabragalla, “commands one of the best views to be seen anywhere over the large stretch of low country with the sea in the background.”

Of Udahena, he writes: “There are three sets of lines…in all about 30 rooms. A new set will be required towards the end of the year to hold the additional coolies necessary for opening the new clearings.” He reports 160 “coolies” on the estate which then consisted of 338 acres of tea, coffee and fuel-wood land. He notes with apparent surprise that “Poonagala and Cabragalla must be favourite estates with coolies [as] there are very few estates in the country with such a good position as regards labour at the present time.”

He also records the existence of “35 acres of fuel trees at Lunugala; five acres, mostly Grevilleas, at Udahena; 10 acres of fuel trees at Cabragalla and two acres together with 577 acres of forest patna, abandoned coffee land and waste” at Poonagala. He comments: “Cabragalla used to be considered one of the best coffee estates in Ceylon and I have no fear that it will grow good tea.

On weeding, the VA states: “Mr. Bisset informs me that the weeding all over costs Rs1.04 per acre per mensem. I consider the cost very reasonable.” However, he cautions: “Weeding of Lower Lunugala will give trouble for some years to come.”

Obviously pleased to note that the method of plucking was “a bud and two leaves, the VA adds: “Mr. Bisset informs me he is unable to get around the difficult fields plucking in less than 10 days… Judging from the leaf I saw in the factory, I would characterise it as medium plucking. I am of the opinion that a regular system of plucking every eight days is the best mode of securing the largest yield and also the best leaf.”

He concludes: “This, however, is a question of labour but even when the labour supply is insufficient, I would have all the best tea plucked every eight days and allow the poorer fields to run, rather than plucking should be kept back to 10 days all over.”

The total amount of “coolies” on the estates in 1895 seems to have been about 700. One hundred years later, the labour force was about 1,700 with a total of 1,147 families (4,472 people) living on Poonagala land.

The report looks at the possibilities of expansion, stating such things as “the 80 acres now coffee will doubtless be in tea before long.”

He records there was a five-acre nursery at Lunugala in 1895 which had 300,000 plants, with 350,000 plants in nurseries at Udahena; and “30 maunds of seed” (a maund was normally reckoned at 80 lbs) at Poonagala of which “eight maunds have yet to be paid for.”

At Poonagala, the value of 116 acres of tea over three years old was put at Rs62,000 or Rs540 an acre.

Its value one hundred years later averaged at approximately Rs30,000 per acre. The four estates, comprising 2,243 acres, and their factories, bungalows and equipment, were valued at £27,050 in 1895. In 1995, the plantation was double the size, with a value of around £3,000,000

The tone of the report becomes positive as the VA delights in finding “excellent, strong tea.” He estimates “the cost of placing tea in Colombo should not exceed 30 cents per lb.; assuming that 45 cents per lb. is not too much to expect as the Colombo value, this leaves 15 cents per lb. net profit.

A hundred years later, the profit did not come anywhere near that. With the cost of production at the equivalent of Rs29.47 a lb. (Rs65 per kg), the net sale average was Rs72 per kg. Unfortunately, the cover and title page of the visiting agent’s report have been lost. However, reading it, one could see how the unknown agent’s advice contributed to the progress of Poonagala over the next hundred years.


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