My Memoirs of the Plantations of Ceylon

Sepala Ilangakoon (2019)

(Originally appeared in the Island Newspaper 6th July 2003)

The elusive spoon

There was once a gala sit-down dinner at the club, where name tags were placed on the tables for the guests. Garry did a scrutiny and moved ‘Laughing Laki’s tag next to his place tag. Whilst she was engrossed in a hilarious conversation with her neighbour on the other side, Garry took her soup spoon and put it in her handbag which was near at hand.

When it came to eating the soup which was served, Laki searched for her soup spoon and could not find it. She looked round discreetly and since everybody else was busy with their soup, quietly took the dessert spoon and helped herself. That was the moment for Garry. "She Che - Look at Laki’s spoon. She is not sure which spoon to use. "Godaya!", he announced in a loud voice for all to hear. While pretending to look for the soup spoon, Garry casually opened the bag and for all to see, fished out the elusive soup spoon and proclaimed "May thiyenne! Gedara geniyanawadha?" ("Here it is! Taking it home?") amidst guffaws of raucous laughter. But as usual, she took it in her stride and laughed loudest, heaving her plenteous rolls of abdominal blubber in the process.


The irrepressible Gary was and still is, a practical joker par excellence. He reared pigs and as usual, piglings had to be castrated at about one year to prevent them from doing the work of his prized stud boar. Garry remembered his practical Veterinary Science at the School of Agriculture, Peradeniya, and performed the minor operation. He put the extracted testicles into a dish and in the refrigerator.

He had already hatched the details of his gruesome plan. He invited some friends including Laughing Laki and her husband for evening drinks and, very casually and much against Sriyani’s pleas, sautéed the testes and laid them out on a silver salver, complete with a tooth pick in each and a dash of tomato sauce, a choice imitation of the usual cocktail porkies. For added effect, he dressed the dish with a few sprigs of celery or parsley or whatever.

Garry held the special dish to Laughing Laki and surreptitiously avoided serving the other guests to whom he served the vast array of other short eats. Laki took a sizeable helping and must have savoured the special dish, for she asked for a second helping and took most of the balance in the salver, to her plate. Before she could start on the second round of ‘Porkies’, Sriyani could not hold back the truth any longer and blurted out the origin of Garry’s ‘Porkies’.

Laki was horrified. She went to the toilet and we heard her attempts at vomiting by tickling her throat with her fingers, to no avail. She did the next best thing and after diluting almost all that was in the bottle of Dettol, was gargling and spitting out. But Garry’s ‘Porkies’ were already being digested. She never heard the last of this practical joke, not even to date!

Since I had already recognised the innate and latent talents of Ken Balendra whom I described as a High Voltage Ball of Fire, he was the automatic choice for organising the second annual sports meet at HGT, which he accomplished with great panache and aplomb. I found that true to form, he had introduced numerous innovations such as a marathon, greasy pole, pillow fights, a cycle race from the rubber factory at 900 feet to the racecourse at 1800 feet and numerous entertaining events for the ladies. As usual, Ken, with his natural genius for organising, improved substantially on what I had suggested.

Ken Bala relates how he became Ken. He was at rugger practice and the new coach remarked, "Balendra is too long. Don’t you have a shorter name?" Bala didn’t have to stop to think - "Call me Ken". And Ken it is to this day, except to some like me, to whom he will always be Bala.

Bala was a winner perhaps from birth or perhaps from deliberate training and sustained effort. He was always a winner. His biographer will go from chapter to chapter in his success story, but I can recount what was indeed his greatest triumph.

When Bala was at HGT, he had no occasion to visit the hospital. He had taken my advice after I had broken many of my bones in various motorcycle accidents. "When one mounts a horse, the immediate inclination is to gallop; on a bike, to open full throttle. A motorbike always demands balance but gives no protection in case of loss of balance, for whatever reason such as speed. So, velocity is not worth it." I believe Bala took my advice and never had a motorbike accident. Young planters please note.

Ball of fire
My friend, Mark Bostock, the Big Boss of John Keells, phoned me one day to tell me he was on the lookout for a young Assistant Superintendent to be trained in tea braking. He qualified his request – the nominee need not be a very senior SD. I told him I would call back in a week. I did not take a week. In two days, I called him to say that I had found a "High Voltage Ball of Fire" for him - Bala! Mark got so excited that he got ready to write immediately; but I cautioned him that it would be more prudent to get Bala to apply for the billet than for it to be offered to him. And so it was.

Sometime after Bala settled down at JK, Mark ‘phoned again - "Sepala - your Ball of Fire has notched up another record. Whereas others take at least six months to get up on the rostrum and call for bids, your Ball of Fire did it in three months!

A worthy prize
A young lady doctor had taken up her assignment at the Ratnapura hospital. She was no ordinary lady doctor but someone really very special; so it was not long before all the young bucks in town were trekking up to the hospital and, Bala was among the lineup of the most eligible lawyers, engineers, executives, doctors etc. The odds were stiff, but Bala, never a loser, won his prize, Swyrie, much to the annoyance and chagrin of all his competitors.

In addition to Bala being a role-model of a planter, Swyrie must surely have been a propitious influence on him, for with her beside him, within a record time frame he went from strength to strength to reach the pinnacle of his achievements – Chairman of the John Keells Group – and that by any standard, is some attainment! No wonder they say "Behind (or beside, in this case) every successful man is a charming woman". Young planters please note again. Felicitations Bala. You did it in great style.

Childy Childerstone

W. J. Childerstone, Superintendent of Balangoda Group, was a well-respected veteran planter of his day. His wife, shining in Childy’s glory, was known to all and sundry as Madame Childerstone; the usual style of Missis was too plebeian. Childy was less patronising but was indeed the Laird of Balangoda. They lacked nothing and lived in great style. When he retired, they settled in Malta; taxes were low, the climate was Mediterranean and the people friendly. They fitted well into the high society of the British colony.

Winds of change brought reform in the political structure of Malta and in the inexorable fall of the British Empire, Malta won its independence, resulting in drastic social transformations. Cancer had claimed another victim, Childy, and the Madame was finding the going difficult in an ambience hostile to the British. The once opulent Madame found herself in severe financial straits and was reduced to virtual penury, when she appealed to the Planters’ Association of Ceylon for support and succour.

Planters’ Benevolent Fund
Fortunately, in his heyday, Childy, as an act of pure charity, with no design of financial gain, had joined and subscribed to the Planters’ Benevolent Fund of Ceylon (PBF), a subsidiary of the Planter’ Association, where I attended to the Madame’s appeal. His benevolence when he joined the fund, came to the rescue of his widow long later. The PBF, through the active initiative of the inestimable Trevor Moy, Chairman of the PBF, saw to it that this very deserving case was relieved of her misery by being resettled and provided for in the UK. Three cheers for the PBF!

Merril Ilangakoon

Merril was a maverick from his boyhood. As a schoolboy, I shared a room with him, so I should know. Even in his later life, he took a great delight in taking the opposite view, very often with a poker face but chuckling inside only. The family called him The Leader of the Opposition!

A rolling stone
Merril was one of the earliest Ceylonese to be recruited for planting. He started under Bob Gregor at Opata, Kahawatte, working for James Finlays. Wisely, he changed his Agency House thrice. I stuck to one, with unhappy consequences. He had the last laugh on me.

Merril was one of the earliest Ceylonese to be recruited for planting. He started under Bob Gregor at Opata, Kahawatte, working for James Finlays. Wisely, he changed his Agency House thrice. I stuck to one, with unhappy consequences. He had the last laugh on me.

Gregory arranged for internal transport lorries to bring the tea and rubber to the nearest railhead and for rail transport to Colombo; similarly, transport of fertiliser and tea chests in the opposite direction. The financial advantage over prices paid to lorry transport contractors both ways was found to be well worth the switch over. Mackwoods required all Superintendents to arrange transport accordingly and to amend their budgets as necessary.

Merril was quick off the mark and sent his amended estimates which were received by Harilal Nonis the Director handling Merril’s estate, Udapola, Kurunegala at that time. Harilal had misunderstood our new scheme for external transport and he returned Merril’s documents requesting a more detailed submission. Merril responded obligingly, analysing the headings into sub - headings.

Harilal was still not satisfied and inadvertently directed Merril to submit details of his internal transport by rail to the near at hand Kurunegala railway station. This was too much of a farce for Merril who decided to pull the mickey out of Harilal. Playing true to form, he took his chance to ridicule his Director by forwarding very detailed estimates as demanded. He included the cost of miles of rail track and the number of sleepers, five level crossings, one railway engine and four goods wagons, three signal posts, one railway station at Udapola and one Station Master! Harilal had mistaken external for internal rail transport!

As usual, Merril’s letter came to Gregory as the allocation of estates to him included Udapola and he was laughing when he brought the letter to me before marking it for Harilal. The extent of Merril’s ingenue and his chimerical proposition were as great as Harilal’s naivete. Placing the letter in the office circulation file would have added to the stock of jokes on Harilal, so I did the next best thing and took the letter home. Merril, never content to give up a controversy midway, was determined to publish the correspondence in the Ceylon Planters’ Society Bulletin, but was persuaded to desist. He did grumble about the infringement of the rights of the individual! Harilal was a virtuous and god - fearing man.

Sunbeam Alpine
Well known for saying and doing the opposite of what others think, Merril bought for himself a Hillman Minx Station Wagon when he was yet a bachelor. It could seat six very comfortably and had a cavernous baggage section which never carried more than his single suitcase. It seemed to all, except Merril, that it was such a waste of capacity.

Almost as if to spite those who disagreed with him, he later did quite the opposite. He was married then, had one child and a fat ayah. And for that crowd, he sold the very appropriate Station Wagon and purchased a swanky little Sunbeam Alpine two-seater! His wife Gertrude and he sat in the seats which were the small bucket type usual for sports cars, and she had to keep their son Gihan on her lap. The luggage including suitcases, feeding bottles, the potee and various other paraphernalia, were all stuffed together with the outsize nanny perched sideways, into the narrow space behind the seats, meant by the makers to accommodate only an overnight zipper. When the canvas hood was used in rainy weather, the accommodation problem was doubled. But that was Merril! Ever the dissentient. God bless his soul. Truda was as always, patient, silent, kind and complaisant. The moral. By all means have contrary views, but in doing so, be reasonable.

Merril was second in our family, next to Lyn; I was third, two years younger. Merril was a very heavy smoker from early years, carrying the telltale nicotine stains on his fingernails from age sixteen. To a large extent, he was the cause of my being a confirmed non-smoker. His physician told him, in his final illness, which was not in his lungs but in his knees which refused to obey him, that the cause was excessive smoking. When I told him that Merril quit smoking two years ago, his laconic remark was that he did so fifty-two years too late! Merril was called by his Creator in 1984 at age sixty-three.

Jayasiri Perera

Jaye to all who knew him, was short of stature but a giant in guts and wisdom. He was one of the very early pioneers among Ceylonese planters. Having started off at Depedene, Rakwana and Pelmadulla Group, Kahawatte, he went on to Madampe Group in Rakwana and ended his superintendence at Maliboda, Deraniyagala.

Jaye came to Colombo as Executive Director, Janatha Estates Development Board. He was my predecessor as Chairman, Investment Monitoring Board and later, Chairman, Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation. He retired after a chanceless innings of fifty-five years in the plantation service. He gave the best advice to all. Good going, Jaye! We are proud of you.

On a well-deserved vacation, he and his charming wife Chandrani joined their daughter Anusha, her husband and their two children in Australia. They were very much his heart’s delight. At the very end of his holiday in the company which he adored, he passed on to his Nirvana, quietly and peacefully in his sleep, with no lingering illness, no pain, no hospitalisation and no bother to his dear ones. My prayer to my God is that when I reach the end of my course on earth, He would take me suddenly and without warning, like Jaye.

Eardley Hermon

Eardley, hailing from a long line of planting stock (Father was Arthur Hermon of Geragama, Kadugannawa) went straight from wicket keeping for the first eleven at S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia, to planting with James Finlays.

Eardley was terse and unsmiling but appreciated wit and a good joke. He taught me the elements of planting and in return, I gave him the scientific background for the numerous estate practices. He married attractive Shielagh Oliver, his first love from Ladies College, Colombo. He is now living quietly in retirement in Nugegoda.

Dennis Fernando

Quiet spoken despite his powerful baritone voice, diffident, shy, modest, reserved, was Dennis. Most of our plantation careers were on the same or neighbouring estates. Hence, we saw a great deal of each other and shared many of our plantation and other experiences. He was the original ‘Mr. Cool.’ Nothing, just nothing, would disturb his equanimity. He never resented the fact that I overtook him to achieve Hapugastenne, the best billet in James Finlays.

Dennis was ill at ease in European company and in the early years, we were the only Ceylonese in a predominantly European habitat. They being what they were in those colonial days, snooty and presumptuous, tended to ignore Dennis who, equally, did not go out of his way to be sociable towards them. But he was very much the opposite when he was with us Ceylonese.

Many were the jaunts we did, he on his Aerial and me on my spanking new BSA 350 cc. He being my senior, I would refer any doubtful estate matter to him, and we would consult each other on a variety of subjects as and when they arose. He was a highly technical man, well versed in radio and electrical matters. He was good company, when we were by ourselves.

Rather late in life, Dennis found the ideal mate in Rene who used her adroitness and finesse to get him out of his shell. He was always enthusiastic on his hobby which was radio; TV not having made its appearance at that time. On his retirement, he set up an electrical shop and stocked it with all items useful to the general public, but business being quite alien to Denis’ nature and style, he did much of his dealings free of charge and the business did not succeed. He will most certainly reap his reward in heaven. May his soul rest in peace.

Nihal Ilangakoon & Sepala Ilangakoon

Perhaps for the same reasons and like me, Nihal gave up medicine for a career in planting with James Finlays. I believe, like me, he has no regrets about the switch although our parents thought otherwise.

Handsome Nihal has an exquisite sense of puckish humour and a storehouse of racy anecdotes, popular and appropriate for any crowd, male or female.

Nihal married petite and lovely Iranganie Dimbulane and they have two smart kids - dapper Amaal now doing very well in Melbourne and exquisite, ever-smiling, cute Anouk, the world authority on the Ceylon elephant and on aquatic mammals such as dolphins and whales. On an exchange of students programme with the USA, she lectured there and made an in-depth study of whales. Her perceptive knowledge of elephant behaviour is so acute that I suggested as the title of her thesis ‘The psychology of Elephas maximus maximus.’

A meteoric rise
Nihal rose rapidly in his vocation and went right to the top as Director, then Chairman, Sri Lanka State Plantations Board 2 - Nuwara Eliya; successive appointments being Director General Board 5 - Ratnapura, Chairman Central Board, SLSPC Colombo and with the reorganisation, CEO, Uva Sabaragamuwa Plantations Ltd. and Balangoda Plantations Ltd. He now lives in happy retirement in Maharagama; he has a wealth of knowledge on tea and rubber which is yet to be exploited.

I for one, never regretted the mutation as, with my record of outstanding achievements at Hapugastenne, I had the good fortune to be invited to join Mackwoods Estates as a Director and later to be their Managing Director and Chairman; thence to The Planters’ Association of Ceylon where I was Secretary General and simultaneously, Chairman of the Investment Monitoring Board and later, Chairman Sri Lanka Tea Board, all of which took me all over the world attending international conferences etc. and also once round the globe and more importantly, to the pinnacle of the plantation sector to be conferred a national award Desabandu, for - "a lifetime of devoted and illustrious service to the plantations of Sri Lanka", according to the citation.

As for me, for the record and lest we forget, I married the extremely sought-after and comely Sunetra Seneviratne, daughter of L.J. and Sita Seneviratne. There is a story related by one of the very eligible suitors of the time, a member of the now defunct, elite Ceylon Civil Service. When he asked L.J. why he gave his only daughter to a mere planter, when there were so many suitable professionals around, his crisp reply was, "If professionalism is to be the criterion, I know that in addition to other essential criteria, he is a better professional than you will ever be; and in any event, I do not believe in disrupting the course of true love". The CCS man took the snub and backed off gracefully!

As for me, for the record and lest we forget, I married the extremely sought-after and comely Sunetra Seneviratne, daughter of L.J. and Sita Seneviratne. There is a story related by one of the very eligible suitors of the time, a member of the now defunct, elite Ceylon Civil Service. When he asked L.J. why he gave his only daughter to a mere planter, when there were so many suitable professionals around, his crisp reply was, "If professionalism is to be the criterion, I know that in addition to other essential criteria, he is a better professional than you will ever be; and in any event, I do not believe in disrupting the course of true love". The CCS man took the snub and backed off gracefully!

Ours was "The wedding of the century" on 6 February 1953 - L J and Sita made sure that it was. Thank you Mummy. Thank you, Daddy.

Sunetra arrived straight from the Colombo milieu to the remote Thotam as the newly wedded bride of a mere Assistant Superintendent and was watched by all, with natural concern, for any signs of home sickness. But my arrangements for her adaptation to the new environment must have been so perfect that she settled in very speedily and with so much heart and soul, that the new chapter in her life and mine was opened with no hiccups nor contrition. She was an instant success in the plantation backdrop and continued that way through numerous estate transfers, to the final shift of our home, sixteen years later, from the estate scenario to metropolitan Colombo. Here she had a host of school friends for company in addition to those she had made during her sojourn on the estates. She was always a good friend, ever faithful, ever true.

The family
Also, for the record, our son, manly Yevindra Sepala married lissom Ymara Dharmaratne and they begat exquisite Yenushka and fast-growing Yovaan - the Y family. Yevi had done a degree in Microbiology at Manchester and after many vicissitudes through Marketing and Management, was the Managing Director at Delmege Forsythe. He is the world authority on the epicurean Shitake mushrooms. Having committed himself and his family to God, he is confident that he will ensure greater largesse for their future happiness.

Our daughter, gorgeous Premila Riyanjani, married her sports-crazy friend from school days, Dhamitha Perera and they have three personable boys – the eldest handsome, elegant Shamitha, was captain of the STC rowing team that won silver at the Hongkong regatta. The smart good-looking twins, Preshith and Rishan, are ardent college cricketers following in their father’s footsteps. The episodes which they have experienced as identical, absolutely identical twins, are already legion and will keep increasing over the years. How I wish I were an absolutely identical twin when I was twenty! Great fun. "No, no, not me; must be the other guy". Shamitha is at Monash University, Australia, doing Finance and Business. He has grown to become a splendid man in every way.

Yovaan is the twelfth male descendent in the genealogy of the Ilangakoon family in its recorded history and the fifth generation Ilangakoon at S. Thomas’ College. (Fully documented in another chapter) Like his cousins, Yovaan is a budding cricketer, determined to win his cricket colours – the first Ilangakoon to do so. Yenu is a swimmer and a scholar, with enviable records in both.

Allan Jinadasa

A reticent man with a subtle sense of humour, was Allan. He hailed from planting stock; his father was a Superintendent in the Aitken Spence Agency. In February 1950, James Finlays sent him to me as a creeper at the Amunutenne Division of HGT – although I myself was only a junior SD with a mere two years’ experience in planting. I was astounded but was complimented to know that Finlays had a high estimation of my planting science and of my ability to impart it to others.

Allan was the first of my many creepers and perhaps the best in many ways. Our early association developed to the extent that I chose him as my Bestman, three years later. We continued our camaraderie for many years, over numerous escapades, some absolutely hilarious but too numerous to recount here.

At a Pelmadulla Club dance, Christine Weerasekera introduced Allan to lovely, petite Kumari Jayawardene. They married after a somewhat lightning romance. Their progeny are Tiruni, Monesh and Prasad – all three endearing kids, now married.

Allan used to relate a true-life drama. A Creeper arrived with his bag and baggage, Sarman in Tamil, and after the usual polite preliminaries, was shown by his training PD into the room upstairs, which he would occupy. He was told that dinner was at eight and he could have a warm water bath before he changed for dinner.

Meanwhile, the PD was reading the newspaper when his wife rushed to say there was a leak somewhere, as there was a stream of water flowing down the stairs. The boss investigated and found that the Creeper had filled the bath, worn his bathing trunks and was seated on the bathroom stool using the toilet bowl to pour water on his head in true ‘argudoos’ style like he did from his childhood. He had not realized that the water was flowing under the bathroom door and down the stairs. When questioned, his prompt response was "We live to learn!" Quite unabashed and unapologetic.

Allan’s untimely demise, suddenly and peacefully at age sixty-nine, was an irreparable loss to his wide spectrum of friends. He would look down and smile at us.

Sam Salgado & Gamini Salgado

Sam was the father figure to all planters as he had the wisdom and experience of many years of planting on estates under Agency management. Hence, to all of us, he was endearingly known as ‘Sam Pappa’. Sam and Iris were good, God-fearing Christians, looked up to by all.

Sam planted at Rilhena, Pelmadulla for many years and served the Planters’ Association of Ceylon in various posts at the highest level, which he held with aplomb and distinction.

An unforgettable attachment which he had was towards his well-used khaki pith hat. Come rain, come sunshine, he would wear it unfailingly - sometimes, it was said, forgetfully, even inside the house as he was so comfortable with it!

Even in retirement, Sam and Iris were visited in their Moratuwa home by a host of his estate friends to recall old times and swap yarns.

SJ and SG - Sam and Gamini and there the similarity ended, except that Gamini, Irene, Iromi and Gihan were also faithful Christians.

Gamini was very much the Anglophile. Even his clipped Oxford accent was not an affectation as some critics thought, but acquired by years of close association with the colonial British, both in his official capacity and in social life, ever since he left Royal College after excelling in cricket, the Englishman’s game, to join George Steuarts, a major Estate Agency House.

Gamma, as he was called by some of his estate friends, planted mainly on up-country estates, but descended to Houpe, Kahawatte, more or less as a swansong - "No hard feelings, old chap; nothing against you low country types!" His stature and his demeanour were also in line with his British attitude and slant. He was always amiable and a dependable friend.

Allan & Jennifer Raffel

Allan and Jennifer of Mahawale, Ratnapura and Pelmadulla Group, Kahawatte, were everybody’s friends. Allan was fatherly and benign. He managed to haul his outsize frame over hill and dale in the meticulous supervision of his fields. He never failed to send his pipe mechanic whenever my father’s bungalow water system failed at nearby Nugawela Group.

Leslie & Pam Marshall

Leslie and Pam mainly of Pelmadulla Group, Kahawatte, were a popular couple at any club party. Leslie, a man of action, was very helpful to me when I was Acting Superintendent there for six months. As a matter of interest, from the upstairs verandah of the ‘big bungalow’, I could see my own home, the bungalow at Nugawela Group, on the opposite hill! We could have sent smoke signals if we were so inclined. Pam was always the elegant and charming hostess. Always smiling and ever friendly.

Shirley & Clinton Rodrigo

Shirley and Clinton were as different as chalk from cheese; one was well set up while the other was tubby; one quiet, the other voluble; one placid by nature, the other feeling he has to be loud; one content, the other ambitious, but both virtuous men. Kanthe and Yvette were ideally suited to be their respective spouses, with personalities to suit each husband.

Sherard & Srini Mendis

Sherard and Sirini were a Bambarabotuwa Valley couple, mainly at Galbodde, Ratnapura. Both were slim and elegant, tranquil and God fearing. Later, they migrated and built their home at Kandy. Right opposite their home, they erected a small but well-fitted and fully equipped 10 room hotel, SCENIC SUMMIT which commanded a panoramic view of the Dumbara Valley and the Knuckles range of mountains. Their clientele were tourists as they were a short haul from Kandy and the seasonal Kandy Perahera crowds. They deserve all God’s blessings for the work they are doing for St. Paul’s Church, Kandy. Sirini is herself an A1 pianist and teaches music.

Victor & Myrtle Seneviratne

Victor and Myrtle recently returned from Malaysia, were senior in age if not in service. Victor was a willing songster and at the slightest opportunity, would burst into song, the most popular of which for us, was the Malay favourite - Burungkakatua. They were an amiable couple with attractive children.

Harold & Moyra Duthie

Harold and Moyra were also an HGT couple. Harold a full-blooded Scotsman, but so different from the Scot, Buster Young, was one of my four SDs at HGT and Moyra came out from Scotland and married Harold. They adapted themselves easily to the Ceylonese milieu. They made a bonnie Scots couple. Since there was no one else to perform the rite, I gave away the gorgeous bride at Scots’ Kirk, Galle Face, Colombo 3. They later moved to India where Harold continued with tea planting.

Charles & Lilani Ramanaden

Charles and Lilani were a happy young couple at HGT, occupying the Rathganga Bungalow. He was as good at squash as at tennis.

When they had transferred up country, pretty Lilani drove the Morris Traveller over the bend and suffered severe injuries including a fractured arm. This was the genesis of the Managing Agents’ directive that estate vehicles must never be driven by planters’ wives. Long later, Charles died on the court while playing tennis. He was a good man. God bless his soul.

Wickrema & Lakshmi Jayawardene

Wickrema and Lakshmi were with me at HGT where, being the most senior of my four SDs, he was Factory Superintendent. We had a happy crowd of executives at HGT at that time – Wickrema, Harold, Bala, Victor and Charles.

Wickrema later planted at Matale. He bought a block of land with a bungalow, tea, spices and jungle. He expertly converted the bungalow into a Guest House, Grassmere Farm, for the tourist sector, which was flourishing, especially in Kandy. She dished out mainly local fare with curries cooked in clay pots over an open hearth of three ‘lipgals’, which emitted a quaint aroma and flavour and which was a unique display for the tourists. As always, she is a jolly hostess, full of laughter all the time (Laughing Laki).

Wicks is more reticent and cares for the garden, accounts, building and staff with aplomb. They deserve every success in their venture which they undertook with a substantial investment of capital and an enormous initial risk which they willingly and bravely took. Three cheers for you, Wickrema and Lakshmi!

Upali & Shervanthi Wijesekera

Upali was briefly in Finlays at HGT where he crept under Ernie Daniels, my successor there. I knew Upali and Shervanthi much later at New Peacock, Pussellawa, with their daughter Sharmalie and son Yasantha. They are good company at any time. Upali is the master of spontaneous humour, often at Shervanthi’s expense and is very quick on the uptake. He never lets an opportunity pass to make a crack at any person, regardless of that person’s standing in society. He gets away with it always as everybody makes allowance for him. He is a party man and compere par excellence! For whatever reason, Upali has the quaint pet name ‘Fafa’!

Mohan & Chitra Wanigatunga

Mohan and Chitra were in the Rupee Companies’ two estates to start with and finally reached the pinnacle – Hapugastenne. They entertained well. After a long, deliberate lapse of time, I returned to look round HGT at Mohan’s insistence. The estate was not what it was in my time, through a succession of Superintendents. No slur on Mohan. A mighty fall for a great estate!

Stanley & Margaret de Silva

Stanley and Margaret were also in the Rupee Companies’ two estates, Opata and Wellandura where he served with distinction for many years. Margaret, British, soon acquired the Ceylonese lifestyle. They were always a popular couple.

Ernie & Jean Daniels

Ernie was another Creeper when I was at HGT factory bungalow which was teeming with gekoes – ‘hoonas’ to which I had an inherited revulsion. From long range, I would knock them down with a broom and Ernie using a pole, the Cruncher, would squash them on the ground and we collected them in a paper bag. In one night, we crunched two and a quarter pounds of geckoes!

Ernie was of a humorous disposition and had a wealth of witty stories with which he would regale any company, with appropriate gesticulations. He married attractive Jean Brohier from Colombo and soon got her tuned to the estate way of life.

Kit Norwood Brown

His age did not deter him from sharing a joke with his juniors and guffawing with loud laughter while vigorously rubbing his left forearm with his right palm, a routine habit while laughing.

Kit was my PD at Wikiliya, Balangoda, the absolute Siberia of the Finlay estates as it was on the edge of the South Western dry zone of Ceylon, receiving a mere 32 inches of rainfall for the average year, whereas HGT would get about 215 inches making it ideal for tea. But Kit persisted with Wikiliya which had an added handicap in a quartzy soil profile on which only Cashew trees would grow uncomplainingly. But to equate with other estates more favourably endowed, the factory was so situated that Kit was able to turn out some quality teas which commanded premium prices. And Kit was a classy tea maker.

Kit used a small Bantam BSA motorcycle for his estate rounds. He was a born showman and would thrill the workers with his expert acrobatics by riding round the many hairpin bends up the sandy Wikiliya road, with his hands stretched sideways and steering with his feet on the handlebar! Don’t you ever try it.


Joan Brown was a kindly person who went out of her way to make people feel at home. Since I was the only SD, she would insist on me having tiffin with them. Her avocado sandwiches were really classic. Their daughter, comely Cyraine had just returned home from completing her schooling in the UK and was very much the cynosure of the young bucks. On inquiring whether her name was French, she stoutly maintained that it was home-made by her parents and therefore there was no other Cyraine in the whole world. Lovely name for a lovely lass. When Pathma, my sister-in-law was scouring the earth for an uncommon name for her second daughter, I proposed Cyraine’ and it was a winner. She is only the second Cyraine in the world!

David Cameron

Despite David having been the PD for many years, Meddakande was a prime property. Good for Meddakande! David would expect his field staff to be efficiency plus while he took life easy. He would motor down to the post office to collect the mail before the tappal peon did so, only to see if there were any snorters from the Colombo agents.

Indolent David
David did most of his supervision from the comfort of his easy chair on the bungalow verandah, through his high-powered telescope which he would focus on the workers and ground conditions on the distant hillsides. He would scan the fields and locate areas with weeds. He would then summon the Weeding KP and announce to him with an air of absolute authority - "Field No 4 has a heavy growth of weeds on the Northern boundary" and while the stupefied KP was pondering how the boss saw the weeds without leaving the bungalow, David would pull him by the ear and give him a knock on his head.

David was never a great walker; nor did he pretend to be one. When I was taking over from him as Acting Superintendent while the Camerons’ went on their six months’ furlough, David flatly refused to walk the fields to show me their condition as was done traditionally, but assured me that he would reciprocate by again refusing to walk round when he was taking back the estate from me on his return. Quits!

If there was a born optimist, that was David. He, the VA and I would walk along an estate road and the VA would remark on the very poor standard of pruning in the field we were passing. Without any hesitation, David would declare and avow that it was the area where the pruners started their work and that the standard of pruning was much better round the next bend. Both he and I knew that he had not visited the field ever since pruning was started! I would look at him questioningly and he would wink back surreptitiously! David got by somehow, where others would have failed miserably. He trusted to luck and, with him it paid off almost every time!

Alan Passingham

Quiet spoken, ever-polite, never-ruffled, self-confident, resolute, kindly, knowledgeable and severe was Alan Passingham, a tall and well-proportioned Englishman, perhaps one of the most illustrious Visiting Agents the industry ever saw. By his own wish, other than all the Finlay estates, he limited his visits to only a few outside Finlays.

I was privileged to have the good fortune to work directly under Alan’s guidance at Galbodde and to be visited by him on the other estates where I worked later. He and his wife Gwen, were the last permanent occupants of the VA’s Bungalow at HGT. She was the perfect wife for him and the solicitous mother to their daughter Jill. They made a very happy family. When the Passinghams’ went on furlough, they took separate flights as they were concerned that Jill should not be left an orphan in her childhood. Air transport was not all that crash free in those days.

Seeing is believing
I copied his technique of pulling himself up the road bank at any point on the road and climbing straight up the tea, regardless of foot paths, to the top of the hill and straight down the other side. This way, he would glean a good cross section of the field and in the process, find unweeded areas, inefficient pruning and forking, silt thrown below the silt pits and not carried up the field etc.

He was a relentless walker and had a penchant for locating sub-standard work in the field or factory. He saw as much as he could during his visit, quite unlike his successor Jimmy Craig who tended to go where he was taken and who, after lunch, started nodding in the front seat of the Morris Traveller, while I drove and while the chauffeur nudged the Assistant Superintendent in the back seat and pointed to the VA - all visible to me in the rear view mirror and ignored for the sake of protocol. Alan’s reports were explicit, succinct and masterpieces, quite the opposite of his successor’s.

Alan’s manners were impeccable. One would hardly hear his knife and fork on the plate. He was easy to feed, omnivorous and not fussy about hot curries etc.

I was Acting Superintendent on Halgolle, Yatiyanthota, while Harold Bredee (pronounced Briday) and Audrey were on their six months furlough. Alan Passingham, the company’s Visiting Agent came on his visit to Halgolle, which went on for two days and ended with our visit to Wewelthalawa Division to reach the top of which, one had to negotiate twenty-two sharp hairpin bends in about a mile! Going uphill was easy enough, but the hazard was in driving down, due to the perilous drop of about 900 feet.

Lucky thirteen
When we approached the first hairpin bend on our way down, Alan politely asked me to stop and got off the car to walk down the hair pin bends and to join me at the bottom. I was rather hurt as I fancied myself to be a better than good driver! On my reassurance, Alan changed his mind and joined me in the car, but sat on the edge of the front seat. We successfully negotiated twelve bends and came to the thirteenth, on a very steep slope when he casually remarked - "Beware No. 13!".

I smiled and took my Vauxhall Wyvern to the not very sturdy two-foot stone barrier which separated us from the sheer drop to oblivion. I braked, put the hand brakes on, changed into reverse gear, revved the engine to the maximum, released the hand brake and then released the clutch. The car lurched, not back but forward! And my reflexes were just sharp enough to de-clutch and brake simultaneously, stopping a mere two inches from the weak barrier!

Alan, red, shrieked "Stop" which I had already done. He got off the car, slammed the door, didn’t look at me but walked down beyond the last hairpin bend before rejoining me. No words were spoken till we reached the bungalow and had a cup of welcoming tea.

We both knew that instead of engaging the reverse gear in my new Vauxhall Wyvern, I had accidentally got into first gear!

God’s angels protect the careless good from their heedless actions. I said an extra prayer that night.

Bed tea
Eardley Hermon was the Superintendent of Poronuwa Estate, Kahawatte. Alan Passingham, the VA, (affectionately called Pas), had arrived for his customary visit. Eardley and Sheilagh greeted him and after the preliminary chat and pleasantries over a ‘Sun Downer’, Sheilagh ordered dinner which, for the VA, was always the most delectable and sapid which she could turn out. Having washed it down with a cup of Nescafe on the verandah, it was time for bed. After the usual "Good Night" and "God bless you", Alan went to his room and slept soundly till morning.

As was the standard custom, the second servant knocked on the door, on the dot at 6.00 and brought the tray of bed tea which he placed on the bedside table. Alan does not dilly dally. He immediately sat on the edge of his bed and took the pot of boiling hot tea in his hand to pour himself a cup which he held in the other hand. Heaven help! The handle of the pot was firmly gripped in his hand, but the pot of steaming hot tea fell on his lap! And to make matters worse, Pas was wearing his favourite silk pyjamas! His immediate reaction, what he shouted or did, no one knows. He is usually not a shouting man: he whispers.

The scene shifts to Eardley. When Alan did not turn up for breakfast at 7.00, Eardley knocked on the door. Not receiving an answer, he pushed the door open and found no Alan. So he rightly assumed that his guest was in the toilet and courteously gave him ten minutes. Still no Alan! So he knocked on the toilet door and heard a faint "Come in."

Bright pink mess
On entering, Eardley was stupefied to find Alan in the bathtub, up to his neck in cold water and looking very sheepish. On taking a closer look, Eardley saw a mass of raw, bright pink where the most sensitive parts of Alan’s groin region were.

Rather than attempt to bring out the First Aid Box, Eardley wrapped Alan in a sheet and gingerly took him in his car to the Kahawatte Hospital. The DMO was not unduly surprised by the second-degree burns. He did the needful to relieve Alan’s excruciating pain – bottles of pink Calamine Lotion and soft gauze, an antibiotic jab and a couple of Disprins.

Nobody would have heard this embarrassing episode, but women are notorious for not keeping secrets. Sheilagh was a woman.

Nonstick gum
Sheilagh was apologetic. It transpired that the House Boy had accidentally broken the tea pot handle while washing up the previous day and instead of reporting it to the mistress of the house, he had pasted the handle to the pot with office gum. An ineffective repair! (There was no UHU in those early days). The following morning, the gum had melted with the heat of the tea! Alan for once, had to cut short his visit. One is left guessing what Alan’s wife Gwen’s reaction was when she beheld the damage!

Adrian Wright

Adrian was the son of Oswin, that well-remembered school master at Trinity College, Kandy, and the brother of Raine, Romany and Malcolm Wright the ruggerite. When I saw Adrian, I wondered how he, physically handicapped, could ever be a successful planter; Adrian was a polio case and had a severe limp due to a gammy left leg. But I was not reckoning with Adrian’s indomitable spirit of never say die. He was determined to be a planter and ended up well on the way to becoming one, before he was snatched by Aitken Spence as an executive in their Colombo office.

A winner
I soon realized and honoured the fact that Adrian’s sense of determination did not warrant sympathy; on the contrary, he resented it. So, when I saw him struggling uphill through the tea, to keep pace with me and sliding down road banks and steep, slippery foot paths on his buttocks, I took no notice; nor did I avoid these hazards for his sake.

Adrian played a champion game of tennis and squash and was a popular ballroom dancer. He was quite a draw with the girls, until Carmen Jackson ‘Tackled’ him in rugby style, the one game he did not play. Although they are domiciled in Australia, they never miss an opportunity to visit their roots.

Gracie was Adrian’s doting mother. Much to his annoyance, she was in the habit of cautioning him in public against falling. A more exasperating habit was her insistence on accompanying Adrian on his social rounds. She was a drag on him though with the best of goodwill and Adrian, in this knowledge, tolerated her.

Adrian and Carmen migrated to Australia as did his brothers Raine and Malcolm and sister Romany. We missed Adrian and Carmen and Gracie very much.

Other colourful colleagues

Some of the other conspicuous characters of the time, are worth recalling.

Roy Hinton and Betty. One is loquacious and loud; the other quiet spoken and demure. They were enticed to leave the plantations for the glamour of a Colombo job in the estate management agency, Aitken Spence, where, in due course, he reached the top. They loved Ceylon and visit Sri Lanka as often as possible and dine with us when they do.

Jimmy Henry and Shirley. Jimmy married Tiny Creighton’s daughter who was visiting Ceylon and was persuaded to leave this country to work Down Under with the in-laws. I liked Jimmy, a mediocre man.

Brian Trewin was a loner, very quiet spoken, placid, friendly and reliable. When he left Halgolle to join Finlay’s Colombo Office, he lived in his house at Dehiwela with a dubious string of boys to do his work. I liked Brian and called on his mother in Paignton, Devon, in the South of England when we were on our furlough.

W. J. Thompson of the Finlay office in Colombo was the tough guy who did not hesitate to make unpopular decisions and was, therefore, very unpopular with the planters.

Robin McMichen who rose to No. 1 in the Colombo office, was kind and weak, using his sidekicks - Maclaine and Hector de Witt, who generally called the shots and took undue advantage of their positions of trust.

Berry Cocking of Rambukkanda, Ratnapura, was highly eloquent and absolutely fearless of consequences. He expressed his views from the bar at the end of the hall where the Planters’ Association Meetings were held and hotly contested any ambiguous statements made by even the Chairman.

Tom White of Alupola, Ratnapura, was not very popular with the planting fraternity, but his wife is said to have had a soft corner for Jimmy Findlay, referred to elsewhere.

Derek Cowling of Poronuwa, Kahawatte, later moved to Mahawale, Ratnapura. He was rather insignificant.

Ricky Peel was Factory Superintendent of Alupola before I replaced him. He was a financial whiz kid who eternally dabbled in the share market. He later moved up country to Ragala Estate. His wife was reputed to be a good shot.

Harold Bredee and Audry of Halgolle, Yatiyanthota, lived quietly with occasional visits to the Talduwa Club. She was an attractive woman and an artist and dexterous with her hands. Her model of a wooden catamaran with a cloth sail, as a table lamp shade, was the winner at an exhibition in Colombo.


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