Chapter 8 - Colombo until 1960

St Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia

When I was transferred to St Thomas’ College, Mt Lavinia a new life awaited me.

College was also becoming more and more important as examinations for the GCE (General Certificate of Education) Ordinary Level, were fast approaching. I would catch the bus each way to College in the morning and evening and one looked forward to meeting your fellow students at the bus stop for the journey in a “Double Decker Bus”. Obviously we would immediately head up the stairs and find ourselves a seat at the front, if possible.

N.M.P.Billimoria in his book “75 Years at Mount” he states, quote “1955 was a red letter day in the history of Thomian sport because in Term II finally Rugby Football came to stay. Warden Stone had disapproved of the game, Warden McPherson had not encouraged it but in the last years of Warden de Saram’s rule it was introduced and went from strength to strength….Mr Lassie Abeywardene doyen of Thomian sports and old boy who was also Bursar of the College at the time, was appointed master-in-charge by the Warden and Mahes Rodrigo an old Royalist took over as first coach of the side….When the schools rugby season was about to dawn, we played our first game. S.Kanagasabai (Selva became a good friend when we met in Australia, several years later) was made Captain and we played a side which called themselves the Trinity Lions, while we played under the caption Thomian Tigers. It was a good and fast game; of course we lost 11-6 but the authorities were satisfied about our display”.
I trained with the rugby players, but never made the side. I also played hockey and “fives”.

In order to pass the “Sinhalese Language” subject at the “General Certificate of Education (Ordinary Level)”, my parents arranged for a private tutor to teach me to write essays and do precise’ in the Sinhalese language. I could speak the Sinhalese language very well, but was not proficient in the grammatically written language. My tutor made me memorize several essays in the Sinhalese language on topics that were likely to be presented on the examination paper and also memorize several précis’s on other topics that may have also been on the same examination paper.

When I sat down at the examination hall and opened the Sinhalese Language Exam Paper, my heart must have skipped a beat as it was like my tutor had some prior knowledge of the topics and I was able to select one of the multiple choice topics that I had memorized, both for the essay and the precise and confidently wrote them in fluent and grammatically correct Sinhalese. When I reported back to my tutor he was as pleased as I was and I am sure that my parents gave him a bonus when the results were published. St Thomas’ College records show that I passed Senior Schools Certificate GCE (Ordinary Level) in the following subjects.
December 1958· English Language - Credit
· Pure Mathematics – Ordinary Pass
· Geometry (Mechanical Drawing) – Credit
· Physics - Credit
· Chemistry - Credit
· Biology – Credit
· Religious Education (Christianity) – Distinction

July 1959· Sinhalese Language – Ordinary Pass
I was then promoted to College Form. The Senior Forms gave us certain privileges that we did not have before and it was great to be able to discuss various topics with teachers such as Mr Brooke D’Silva our Zoology teacher and Mr Pereira our Botany teacher and our Chemistry and Physics teachers. Sometimes getting Mr Brooke D’ Silva to talk about any subject other than his favourite “Athletics”, was impossible.

I joined the Senior Cadet Corps and really enjoyed my time in the troop that had Captain (Mr) Burder as the leader. N.M.PBillimoria states that, quote “1955…Mr Hensman’s place as master in charge of cadets was taken by Mr.V.D.Burder”. Some of the friends I made during this time are no longer with us, but I still see some of them on my regular trips to Sri Lanka.

Those of us who were members of the College Cadet Corps were proud of being in the “Army Reserve” and took our work very seriously. Rifle practice at the shooting range was always awaited with great anticipation. Trying to hit the “Bulls Eye” on the target and not get a kick into your shoulder from the butt of the “303” was a constant challenge.

The “Armoury” was a refuge where we regularly used to get away for a rest. Our Armourer, whose name I forget (maybe “Murugan”) would welcome us as he loved to talk about his “army days” and we were a ready made audience.

St Thomas’College Senior Cadet Corp
Non-Commisioned Officers

Harold Van Twest



Frankie David

Ed Rowlands

Parades were serious business as we had to practice for the annual camp at Diyathalawa by marching up and down de Saram Road.

Practice for the drills at the next Camp included marching in-step and in line, turning in unison and stopping all at once. It sure took a lot of hard work to get all this right and to Mr Burder’s satisfaction.

St Thomas’ College Cadet Corps at Diyatalawa Camp
Going by train to and from the Cadet Camp at Diyatalawa was also an experience that I shall never forget.

Major General Van Twest (father of my future brother-in-law, Harold Van Twest, who was in our Cadet Corp) was the Camp Commandant and a feared and respected soldier. His presence at Parades required a polished performance and we tried our hardest to make the grade.

We polished the brass on the Ceremonial Uniform and “Blanco” was liberally applied to the belt and other equipment and our boots were polished until the toe cap shone like a mirror. The uniform was also ironed with all creases in the appropriate place. Fluff was removed from the cap to ensure a perfect turnout.

Boys being boys and away from home, we used to get up to the usual shenanigans. On one occasion we all stripped naked in our sleeping quarters and someone took a photograph of the “STC Naked Corps”. This picture circulated around for a while and eventually disappeared.

Enjoying a break from Camp activities

The train journey to and from camp was another experience that I shall never forget. Sleep was out of the question and the recollections of the excitement of the time and the competitions continued until we reached the Fort Station in Colombo. We arrived home exhausted but happy.

Waiting for the train to return to College 

In an article compiled by Major Anton Edema on the Ceylon Cadet Corps he states “While Officers commissioned into the Ceylon Cadet Corps received such levels of initial training compatible with that imparted to Officer Cadets of Arms and Service Units of the Volunteer Force; Senior Cadets, apart from training in Drill with and without Arms, received only rudimentary military training in subjects such as weapon training on the .22 and .303 Calibre rifles, Field Craft, Map Reading and First Aid. Cadets of the Junior Division were not inducted into rudimentary military subjects. The main aspects of their curriculum of training were, Physical Training, Drill, Firing the .22 calibre rifle and First Aid. Training programmes were drawn up by Regular Force Officers of the permanent Staff of the Corps. Training of Cadets under Supervision of their own Platoon Officers was carried out at School level twice weekly; and once monthly training was conducted under the supervision of permanent staff.
I recall our “firing” practice at the College Firing Range that was behind the classrooms and trying very hard not be injured by the “kick” of the .303 rifles that we had to use for target practice. It was hard enough trying to hit the “Bulls Eye” on the target without having to worry about getting an injured shoulder.

Collective Training at battalion level was conducted at the Ceylon Volunteer Force Camp, Diyatalawa. Coveted Challenge Trophies were presented annually to the best platoon in the Senior and the Junior Division; which made the preparation and competitions for overall efficiency very keen and enthusiastic throughout all Platoons. As time went by, Battalions of the Corps raised Western or Oriental Band Platoons, and as they grew in numbers and skills, the Band Platoons competed for the challenge Trophies special to them.

School Cadets and their Officers paraded to provide Guards of Honour to V.I.P visiting their schools and institutions; and participated in the annual Independence Day Armed Services Parade.

I recall our platoon taking part in several Independence Day Parades on the Galle Face Green and also taking part in the Funeral Ceremonies for the late Prime Minister Mr Bandaranayake, when we were part of a contingent that lined the road outside the House of Parliament.

Ceylon Cadet Corps Officers have amply demonstrated their combat preparedness, initiative, and their administrative and professional capabilities as teachers during a diversity of national emergencies and other exigencies, when attached on Active Service to Units and institutions of the Regular and Volunteer Forces of the Ceylon Army.
The reality of our position as Senior cadets was brought home when during the 1958 communal riots, the regular army could not guarantee the safety of St Thomas’ College, Mt Lavinia and Warden De Saram with the permission of the Army Commander, armed some cadets with loaded rifles to prevent any mobs entering the College grounds.

Two separate episodes during this period have gratified the Ceylon Cadet Corps. The majority out of the very first batch of ten prospective officer cadets selected for the Regular Force of the nascent Ceylon Army; and sent to England for training at the Mons Officer Cadet School in Aldershot and thereafter the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst in 1949, were one time Senior Cadets who cut their teeth on rudimentary military training in the Ceylon Cadet Battalion. Two of them went on to command the Sri Lanka Army later. In Pioneer Corps of the Volunteer Force, and be its first Commanding Officer, which appointment he held for five years”.
The communal riots of 1958 changed the multi-cultural utopia that was Sri Lanka, where for generations Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Burghers, Chinese, Afghans and other races lived in relative harmony. The peaceful existence of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews and other religions was brought to an abrupt end.

It did not change our boyhood friendships, but the trickle of Burgher migration that started after the end of the Second World War now became an exodus and the Rowlands family decided to emigrate to Australia.

A Wikipedia extract of the event is shown below.

1958 riots in Ceylon1958 riots in Ceylon also known as 58 riots was first island wide ethnic riots that targeted the minority Sri Lankan Tamils in Ceylon after it became an independent country from Britain in 1948. The riots lasted from May 22 until May 27, 1958 although sporadic disturbances happened even after the declaration of emergency on June 1, 1958. The event is generally termed as an ethnic riot, but in some geographic locations in its scale of its destruction, it was a pogrom. The estimates of the murders range based on recovered body count from 70 the to 300. Although most of the victims were Sri Lankan Tamils, some majority Sinhalese civilians and their property was also affected both by attacking Sinhalese mobs who attacked those Sinhalese who provided sanctuary to Tamils as well as in retaliatory attacks by Tamil mobs in Batticalao and Jaffna. As the first full-scale race riot in modern Sri Lanka in over forty years, the events of 1958 shattered the trust the communities had in one another and led to further polarization leading up the Sri Lankan civil war.BackgroundIn 1956, Solomon Bandaranaike came to power in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon), on a majority Sinhala nationalist platform. The new government passed the Sinhala Only Act, making Sinhala the sole official language of the country. This was done despite the fact that nearly a quarter of the population used Tamil as their primary language. The Act immediately triggered discontent among the Tamils, who perceived their language, culture, and economic position as being subject to an increasing threat.

In protest, Tamil Federal Party politicians launched a satyagraha (Nonviolent resistance) campaign. This led to an environment of increased communal tensions and to the death of over 150 Tamils in the Gal Oya riots in the east of the country. Eventually Bandaranaike entered into negotiations with them and the Federal party and agreed to the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957, which would have made Tamil the administrative language in the Tamil-speaking north and east regions. But he was forced to cancel the pact under pressure from Sinhala nationalists and some Buddhist monks, particularly the United National Party, which organised a 'March on Kandy', led by JR Jayawardene.

Meanwhile, 400 Tamil labourers were laid off when the British navy closed its base in Trincomalee. The government proposed to resettle them in the Polonnaruwa district. This angered the Sinhalese population there, which began forming gangs and threatening vigilante attacks on any Tamil migrants to the region.

Trains Attacked
The Federal Party was to hold a convention in
Vavuniya. Sinhala hardliners decided to disrupt party members travelling there by rail. Polonnaruwa station was the first to be attacked, on May 22. The following night a train from Batticaloa was attacked, and two people killed. It later turned out there were hardly any Tamils on the train. The Polonnaruwa station was attacked again on the 24th, and nearly destroyed.

Farm violenceSinhalese gangs attacked Tamil labourers in Polonnaruwa farms. Tamils who tried to hide in sugar-cane fields were surrounded there and the fields set ablaze by the mobs. Those who fled were clubbed down or hit by machetes. In Hinguarkgoda, rioters ripped open the belly of an eight-month-pregnant woman, and left her to bleed to death. It has been estimated that 70 people died the night of May 25.

Polonnaruwa had only a small police presence. Those Sinhalese policemen who tried to protect Tamils were attacked by the mobs; a few had their brains bashed in. The next morning, a small army unit of 25 men arrived, but found itself confronted by a civilian Sinhalese mob of over 3,000. The crowd dispersed after the soldiers fired a Bren gun at them, killing three.

The violence spreadsOn May 26, Prime Minister Bandaranaike said the riots had started with the death of Nuwara Eliya mayor D.A. Seneviratne the previous day (actually the riots had begun three days before). This gave people the impression that Tamils were behind the riots. Soon gangs began beating Tamils in Colombo and several of its suburbs. Shops were burned and looted.
I recall that the Senior Cadets of St Thomas’ College were asked to protect the College from the marauding gangs in Mt Lavinia as the regular armed forces did not have the man power to protect private property. We were issued with rifles and ammunition, but thankfully never had to resort to the use of them.

In Panadura, Tamils had cut off the breasts of and murdered a woman teacher. In revenge, a Sinhalese gang tried to burn down the Hindu Kovil; unable to set fire to the building, they pulled out a Brahmin priest and burned him alive instead. Gangs roamed Colombo, looking for people who might be Tamil. The usual way to distinguish Tamils from Sinhalese was to look for men who wore shirts outside of their pants, or men with pierced ears, both common customs among Tamils. People who could not read a Sinhala newspaper (which included some Sinhalese who were educated in English) were beaten or killed.

One trick used by the gangs was to disguise themselves as policemen. They would tell Tamils to flee to the police station for their safety. Once the Tamils had left, the empty houses were looted and burned. Across the country, arson, rape, pillage and murder spread. Some Sinhalese did try to protect their Tamil neighbours, often risking their own lives to shelter them in their homes.

I also recall that during this period, gangs came down our street looking for Tamil people. When our family and the neighbours had to hide the wife and daughters of Doctor Gulasakerum, a Tamil, who lived at No: 20 Palmyrah Avenue, from the marauding mobs, it was a very frightening experience.

Revenge attacksTamils in the east carried out a few attacks as revenge. In Eravur, fishermen from the two communities fought on the seashore. In the same town, Tamil gangs set up roadblocks, beating up motorists believed to be Sinhalese. 56 cases of arson and attacks were registered in the Batticaloa district. No deaths were reported in Jaffna district, but some Sinhalese merchants had their inventories burned. Several Sinhalese were severely beaten, including members of Marxist parties, who stood for parity of status. A Tamil mob destroyed the Buddhist Naga Vihare temple, which was rebuilt afterwards.

Government response
For five full days the government did nothing. Finally, on 27 May, a
state of emergency was declared. The Federal Party and Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna were both banned. Most of the country's senior Tamil politicians were Federal Party members and were later arrested. Within two days, the military had restored order in Colombo and eventually the rest of the country. Nearly 12,000 Tamil refugees had fled to camps near Colombo. The government secretly commissioned six European ships to resettle most of them in Jaffna in early June. The army was eventually withdrawn from civilian areas in the rest of the country, but remained present in Jaffna for a quarter century.On 3 September 1958 the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act - which provided for the use of the Tamil language as a medium of instruction, as a medium of examination for admission to the Public Service, for use in state correspondence and for administrative purposes in the Northern and Eastern Provinces - was passed, substantially fulfilling the part of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact dealing with the language issue.Percy was now growing up fast and he kept me on my toes.

In 1956, N.M.PBillimoria states that, quote “The Royal Thomian this year was played again at the Oval on the 16th and 17th March. Led by Dan Piachaud…..The Royal Thomian ended in a draw. :Though also the match was drawn two of the greatest centuries in the series were chalked up during those two memorable days. Our own Ronnie Reid broke Siebel’s long standing record with an unbeaten 158 and T Jothilingam replied eloquently with a picture book 121”. I was very fortunate to witness this memorable event from the Members Stand as my Mum was doing the drinks catering for the Members Pavilion. Her “Ginger Beer” made by the gallons in our bath at home was drunk with gusto and I was given the job of serving the beverage during the match to the distinguished patrons and mingling with our cricketers, during breaks.

It was during this time that some of us who lived near the Bambalapitiya junction would meet every morning at, what I recall was the Green House Café, and get a lift to College in the car of one of our friends, whose name I cannot remember.

I was a member of “Stone House” that was the Day Boys house and was appointed a prefect. Our main duties were to ensure that no pupil entered a class room before the morning bell and discipline boys who threw paper, etc on the ground rather than in a rubbish bin.

Another occasion that we looked forward to was the annual “Royal Thomian Cricket Match”. Once, some friends who were not Thomians, together with some College friends who will remain nameless, hired an “Austin 7” car from a friend of a friend in Kirrilapona. The car had been in a shed for a number of years, but the body and engine was in good condition. All it needed was a new battery. Unfortunately, money was in short supply and we had to scrounge a second hand battery of the right size from Michael Seibel’s father who lived nearby.

An Austin 7 similar to the car we hired
As I was the only one with a drivers licence, I got the job as driver. The battery was duly placed in the engine compartment and after many heart wrenching moments, the engine finally spluttered into life. The shouts of “Hooray” that accompanied this happening could I am sure be heard for several miles. The car was then decked with “Black and Blue” streamers, the College colours and placards and other decorations.

On the first morning of the Royal Thomian Cricket Match that was in those days held at the Sara Oval, we picked up the car and with an assortment of pupils brought it back to Palmyrah Avenue. We thereafter proceeded in a convoy of cars driven by other Thomians, to “Visit” the “Girls Colleges”, such as Methodist College, Ladies College, Bishops College, etc, where we drove in through one gate and out the other, before the Principal could prevent our entry. The shouts from the girls in the class rooms were all we wanted to hear.

By the second day onwards, the gates to the girls colleges were closed. After play for the day had finished we joined others at restaurants such as the “Sarasvathi” for a good meal. Unknown to us, the battery charger on the car was not working at a 100% and on the final day, during the night we could not use the lights on the car as the battery has nearly run out of puff. This meant lighting our way with torches until we got home exhausted.

Our escapades had been brought to the attention of Warden de Saram, who on questioning me found out that I as the driver and that I did have a drivers licence. I got a severe reprimanding and this was the last “Royal Thomian Escapade” that I took part in.

Going to the “pictures” was another popular past-time. Whether it was the :Savoy” in Wellawatta, or the Majestic in Bambalapitiya or the Regal in Colpetty or the “Empire” in Maradana, we visited them all to see the films of the day. The favourite spot was the “Gallery” at the front of the theatre that cost I think about 50 cents and was within our meager budget. Smoking was in those days allowed in the theatre and we would buy the “cheroots” that were basically a rolled tobacco leaf and sit on the hard benches and create a smoke haze. When films like “Rock around the clock” with Bill Haley and the Comets screened we would join the queue to see the show hours before it started.
I studied hard to try and attain an entry into the Ceylon University and for my efforts was awarded the Class Prize for Upper 6D at the College Annual Prize Giving of 1957. Dad and Mum and the family were present that day at the College Hall and we enjoyed the celebrations that the College put on after the event.

Empire Theater (picture)

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