Hillwood Kandy turns 115
by Lalitha K. Witanachchi

When a ship from London sailed into Colombo harbour in January 1889 it brought to Sri Lanka two young ladies, Miss Elizabeth Bellerby and Miss Ethel James who responded to an appeal made by the Church of England Zenana Mission to send two missionaries to open a school for Kandyan girls.

The Christian Missionary Society had already founded the Kandy Collegiate School in 1872, renamed Trinity College in 1876 for Kandyan boys. The need arose to have a girls boarding school on similar lines so that the educated boys of Trinity could marry educated girls. The appeal was made by Rev. Ireland Jones and Rev. Garret.

No one in that ship would have imagined that Miss Bellerby, the little lady in her long white dress and prayer book in hand would found a school that would last more than a hundred years. As soon as she arrived in the country she described as ‘the scene of her labours’, she went to CMS School, Kotte to learn Sinhala. She then went to Kandy where she chose one of the most beautiful sites overlooking the lake, set in a wooded hill to start her school. Miss Bellerby bought Hillwood House with funds donated by the CEZMS to start the school which was first called Clarence Memorial School for Kandyan Girls, after the Duke of Clarence. The school was started on May 15, 1890 with seven girls on roll. Later the name was changed to the more apt and picturesque name Hillwood.

In the latter part of the 19th century Kandyan parents were prejudiced about sending their daughters away from home. The indefatigable lady walked along the narrow footpaths, across the paddy fields in the villages and visited the homes of parents. She explained she had some to start a school for girls who would be taught reading, writing, arithmetic, embroidery, home science and music.

‘If you educate a boy you educate an individual, but if you educate a girl you educate an entire family, she pleaded. By her charismatic charm she was able to win over many parents but there were instances however when some parents set dogs upon her when she was seen visiting their villages.

But when the little girls who were with miss Bellerby came home for the holidays and showed their prowess in English and other subjects they went back not only with their sisters but perhaps with a cousin as well. Soon girls from places as far away as Bibile, Mahiyanagana, Anuradhapura, Badulla, Ratnapura and Kurunegala were attending Hillwood.

The early missionaries upheld the customs, manners and mores of our land. While they gave the pupils the best of western education in literature, music and sports they respected our cultural heritage. The Kandyan half saree with the diaphanous manthe was the uniform. This costume was comely and modest and did not hamper the girls from playing netball and tennis and on many occasions beating girls who played in western dress.

‘To educate is to enfranchise and not to denationalise’ was the motto of our founder teachers of Hillwood. A number of qualified graduates came from England and students were sent for the Cambridge exams. In 1905 a milestone was reached when Nandumenike Rambukwella passed the Senior Cambridge exam. The principal herself accompanied her to the examination hall and the invigilator had special instructions to take care of this candidate whom, she referred to as ‘My ewe lamb’.

‘With the success of the school a blow was struck at the custom of early marriage for girls and the relationship of brothers to their ‘sisters underwent a marked change for the better’ states Miss Bellerby in one of her reports.

In 1907 Middlewood was built with a legcay left by Miss Middlewood. Boys between the ages of 5 and 8 were admitted to Middlewood. With the excellent foundation laid by Ms. Thatcher, Gave, Ryan, Edith Ratwatte and Bessie Samarasinghe the boys who later entered Trinity distinguished themselves in various fields and served Sri Lanka as ambassadors, ministers, professors, doctors and lawyers etc.

In those days the girls were taken to church in bullock carts referred to as Bandies. It was only in 1929 the girls were allowed to go for walks round the Kandy Lake. John Still who lived in a house close to Hillwood seeing the reflection of the girls in their coloured sarees referred to them as ‘Kandy’s bunch of sweet peas.’

After serving the school from 1989 to 1910 Miss Bellerby retired and her place was taken by Miss Lena Augusta Chapman. She was the great builder of Hillwood. She would blast the hills and level them and put up buildings that can be seen to this day. There were beautifully laid out gardens and playing fields. A sick room called the Annexe was put up in one of Kandy’s most picturesque sites overlooking the lake in 1911. In a secluded spot away from the bustle of school she built the Chapel, her house of prayer, in 1922. Here many of the past pupils and teachers have got married and several babies were baptised. We still recall the memorable sermons delivered by the Rt. Rev Lakdas de Mel, Hillwood’s chaplain and friends.

Hillwood excelled in music thanks to the efforts of Mrs. Marianne Stainton who came from the Leipzig Conservatoire. She taught at Hillwood for nearly fifty years and her pupils were the first to win the Gold medals of the Royal College of Music., London, besides learning to play the piano she taught us musical appreciation and to this day music has been one of the special subjects in which Hillwood excels.

In 1930 Miss Chapman retired and went in charge of the Evelyn Nurseries as its warden. The Nurseries were the 'Special child of Hillwood'. It was a home for orphans. The buildings were put up with the legacy left by Miss Chapman's sister Evelyn. Miss Chapman was awarded the MBE for her great service to Ceylon. She passed away in 1944 and her ashes were interred in the chapel she built. In 1932 Miss Mary Dorthy Rigg who had been Vice principal took the place of principal. She continued with Miss Chapman's policy of following our customs, encouraging the study of Sinhala and gradually encouraged the girls to go for higher studies. I was in the first University entrance class and she taught English Latin and History while another graduate Miss Kathleen Chapman taught geography.

Miss Rigg had the difficult task of running a boarding school during the war years. She overcame the problem of food rationing by allowing the parents who owned paddy fields to provide rice in lieu of school fees. This was a boon to the parents while the boarders themselves experienced no food shortage. Books were handed down from class to class and parents did not have to buy text books. We were taught to look after our books with care. We were also taught to care for those not so fortunate as ourselves. Every July 26 which was Miss Chapman's birthday we had Pound day when with our pocket money we bought a pound of whatever we could afford to replenish the larder of the Nurseries. The Golden Jubilee was celebrated in 1940 and one of the highlights was the production of the epic 'Savitri' dramatised by George Keyt and produced by Harold Peiris, Kathleen Chapman, Edith Ratwatte and Peggy Keyt.

With the fall of Singapore one by one the British teachers left our shores Miss Rigg herself went on furlough in August 1944 confident that she would return to the school she had served so faithfully for 32 years while Miss Foss would take charge. She was seen off to the harbour by Sister Mabel of Bishop's College. "I saw her into her rickshaw at 7 am with only a little hand luggage. She went off smiling typical of a true Christian pilgrim travelling light on the road to our home in God - after a noble and self sacrificing life in Ceylon."

A few days after school reopened in September we got the sad news that Miss Rigg had lost her life at sea. The ship SS Troilus in which she travelled was torpedoed in the Indian ocean.

For Miss Rigg and all those who toiled for Hillwood I can do no better than quote Pericle's ‘Oration’. So they gave of their bodies to the Commonwealth and received each to his memory, praise that will never die, and with the grandest of sepulchres not that in which their mortal bones are laid but a home in the minds of men where their glory remains. For the whole earth is the sepulchre of famous men, and their story is not graven on stone over their native earth but lives far away, woven into the stuff of other men's lives."

In 1947 the first Sinhala principal, Mrs. Somakumari Samarasinghe was appointed. She was followed by Miss. Barbara de Alwis, Mrs. Nirmala Perera and the present principal is Miss. Sumithra Ratnayake. In 1954 Hillwood opted to be a private school. Many girls have entered the university. Buddhists and Christians, participate in each other's religious activities. New subjects have been introduced to the curriculum to meet the challenges of the new millennium.

Today we celebrate the 115th birthday of our school. We are thankful for the lessons we learnt in a school where honest work, beauty, good manners, fellowship and moral values are cherished.

We are dedicated to follow our motto 'The utmost for the highest.' And we are ready to face the future with hope just as our founders were guided with hope when they embarked to establish a school that has fulfilled all their wishes and lasted a hundred and fifteen years.


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