More on Jennings and Peradeniya


N.T.S.A. Senadeera
University of Peradeniya

The travellers entering the University of Peradeniya from the roundabout in front of the Botanical Gardens and passing through the monumental structures such as the Wijewardene Hall, Jayatilaka Hall, Shirley D’Alwis Roundabout, Arunachalam Hall, Three Arch Bridge and the Arts Theatre can now see a new monument at the turn off to the University Senate Building opposite the Vice-Chancellor’s Lodge. It is a statue erected to honour the memory of Sir Ivor Jennings. The statue was declared open by Ms.Rebecca Caine, a grand-daughter of Sir Ivor Jennings on 6th December 2017. The University of Peradeniya and its Diamond Jubilee Committee that celebrated the 75th anniversary of University of Ceylon deserve a special word of thanks for this most singular honour bestowed on Sir Ivor Jennings at a time his name has been nearly forgotten by the present generation.

When Dr.William Ivor Jennings arrived in March 1941 to assume duties as the 2nd Principal of Ceylon University College Colombo the long controversy over a suitable site to establish the first university in our country had ended and the New Peradeniya Estate had been acquired for constructing the university. 14 years prior to his arrival in 1927 the university site committee headed by Justice M.T. Akbar had decided that the university should be established near Kandy. At that time the site earmarked was not Peradeniya but Watapuluwa. In 1929 while considering the structure of the university the Buchanan Riddell Commission decided that the new university should be independent and residential. When Jennings arrived he found that the joint consulting architects Sir Patrick Abercrombie and Clifford Holliday with the assistance of Shirley D’Alwis, Assistant Architect of the Public Works Department were preparing the preliminary blue-prints of the main university buildings at Peradeniya based on the requirements initiated by Robert Marrs the first Principal of the Ceylon University College guided by the previously mentioned Akbar Committee and the Buchanan Riddell Commission recommendations.

Jennings observed that the space requirements suggested by Robert Marrs for some main university buildings were adequate for the requirements that prevailed in late nineteen twenties but they were not quite sufficient for the needs prevailing in early nineteen forties. It was due to his intervention that the seating capacity of the Arts Theatre increased to serve as the main auditorium of the new university and the planned four storied library that could accommodate 100,000 volumes became seven storied accommodating 400,000 volumes. Proposed Convocation Hall was also enlarged at his request. Quite apart from the need for increasing space requirements he was surprised to find that there was no legislative framework for establishing a university other than the decision taken by the State Council to amalgamate the two government institutions of higher learning i.e. the Ceylon University College and the Ceylon Medical College to form an independent and residential university at Peradeniya.

The documentary evidence

The documentary evidence in Jennings Papers indicate that it was Jennings who suggested to the Minister of Education C.W.W.Kannagara that the University of Ceylon should first be created in Colombo utilizing the resources available in Colombo and thereafter it should be transferred to Peradeniya when the new buildings are constructed. Not only did Jennings make this constructive suggestion but he voluntarily undertook the preparation of the necessary working papers for the State Council on behalf of the Ministry of Education to establish the University of Ceylon. The well-known legislative enactment entitled "University of Ceylon Ordinance No.20 of 1942" that created the University of Ceylon was drafted by Sir Ivor Jennings. The legal background of Jennings enabled him to complete this long delayed formidable task in a very brief time. The task of framing the University Ordinance is indeed remarkable because by using the resources of two government departments functioning under two different Ministries he had to create a framework for an independent and residential university avoiding direct state control but making the university so created responsible to the government through a Senate and a Council. Thus on 9th June1942 the proclamation establishing the University was issued and the University of Ceylon was established at the College House on 1st July 1942. Distinguished former Librarian University of Peradeniya H.A.I.(Ian) Goonetileke described the role Jennings performed in creating the University of Ceylon as " an exacting and intricate act of midwifery to expedite a long-delayed pregnancy".

Personal involvement

The personal involvement of Sir Ivor Jennings in building the permanent home of the new university at Peradeniya and his continuous voluntary supervision of University building operations at Peradeniya in the week-ends right up to transferring the University administration from Colombo to the newly developed university campus at Peradeniya on 6th October 1952 is too well known to merit repetition. But some details relating to his direct intervention in building the university at Peradeniya is not so well known. We are aware that the commencement of building operations at Peradeniya had to be postponed from 1942 until August 1946 due to the unexpected adverse conditions created by the 2nd World War. The proposed university land was occupied by the South East Asia Command of the British Army after their head quarters were shifted to the Peradeniya Royal Botanical Gardens in April 1944.

In this adversity Jennings lost no time in finding a strategy for having access to the army occupied university site by deciding to serve as the Deputy Civil Defense Commissioner assisting the then Civil Defense Commissioner Sir Oliver Goonetilleke. Many are aware that Jennings served in this capacity but they are not aware of the reason behind his decision to serve in this non-university related strange job. It is said that the goodwill he maintained with the army during this period as the Deputy Civil Defense Commissioner was gainfully used by him to open up the presently used New Galaha Road by the army which had been designed by the university architects at a higher elevation in order to avoid the threat of Mahaweli floods inundating the old access road (Old Galaha Road) to the proposed university. It is also said that the Three Arch Bridge of the New Galaha Road was also constructed by the Army before commencing the university building operations to divert the Meda-Oya then crossing the road and flowing in the middle of the land earmarked for the university playing field.

How Jennings planned the transfer of University of Ceylon from Colombo to Peradeniya on 6th October 1952 while the building operations were still going on is found as follows in an article he contributed to Ceylon Today Vol.1 No.1 1952:

Faculties of Oriental Studies and Arts

"The removal of the Faculties of Oriental Studies and Arts to Peradeniya, which will take place on the 6th October, will be a major operation. Fifty-two students of Law, Agriculture and Veterinary Science are already in residence. They will be joined by more than 800 other students. The Halls of Residence erected and in course of erection, provide rooms for 632 men and 301 women, but one of the women’s Halls (holding 133 women) will not be ready until the end of the first term, while two men’s Halls (holding 352 men) will not be ready until the end of the session."

What happened on 6th October 1952 was not a mere transfer of two faculties with more than 800 university students from Colombo to Peradeniya. On that day the university administration and the library were also transferred from Colombo to Peradeniya. It was indeed the commencement of an independent full-fledged residential university for the first time in our county.

A vivid verbal picture of the new residential university springing into action on October 6 and 7, 1952 in the words of Sir Ivor Jennings is obtainable from his personal diary maintained from October 1951 to September 1953 containing 52 hand-written pages which was handed over to the Library when he finally left Sri Lanka in January 1955, with an embargo that "it should not be made available for 20 years". In these diary notes there is no reference to any official ceremony held on 6thOctober to mark the opening of the new university at Peradeniya but he mentions that he planted a tree opposite the Lodge at 9.45 a.m. on that day. The entry relating to planting the tree is as follows:

"I planted an Amhersta Noblis opposite the Lodge this morning at 9.45 a.m. The time had not been mentioned and so only Len, Peeris and the gardeners were present. That was how I wanted it. In 50 years time when it will be a magnificent tree the students will perhaps ask themselves why the first Vice-Chancellor planted it on 6th October 1952. That is all I want."

What is the reason behind Sir Ivor Jennings not having any official ceremony or at least a meeting to announce the opening of the new university at Peradeniya on 6th October 1952? Why did Jennings plant this tree without giving any publicity? These are indeed pertinent questions that may arise in the mind of any reader.

A clue to find an answer to these questions is found in an article entitled "The University of Ceylon" by Sir Ivor Jennings contributed to the "Illustrated Weekly of India" on 10th February 1952. It says "The new buildings in Peradeniya, the first of which will be formally opened by the Duke of Edinburgh this month." As stated by Jennings in this article the first new building of the University of Ceylon was due to be formally opened by the Duke of Edinburgh in February 1952, but what we know is that the University was declared open at the entrance to the Senate Building on 20th April 1954 by the Duke of Edinburgh in the presence of the Queen Elizabeth II. The plaque recording this important event contains the outstanding expression:



Unexpectedly postponed

What transpired is the opening ceremony arranged in February 1952 had to be unexpectedly postponed due to the demise of King George VI. Therefore the opening of University of Ceylon at Peradeniya had to be rescheduled for a date after the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The earliest possible date was 20th April 1954, but Sir Ivor Jennings did not want to keep the university administration, the library and nearly 800 students in Colombo for another 26 months until the new buildings at Peradeniya are officially declared open. Hence he brought the students together with the university administration and the library to Peradeniya on 6th October 1952 before having the official opening ceremony.

Sir Ivor Jennings expected the Amhersta Noblis he planted at the turn off to the Senate Building opposite the Lodge will be a magnificent tree in 50 years and then the students will perhaps ask themselves why the first Vice-Chancellor planted it on 6th October 1952. Although many trees he got planted after careful planning to beautify the university park have grown so well and they are blooming as a mark of respect to his great contribution to higher education in Sri Lanka, the tree he planted to mark the opening of the university in its permanent home at Peradeniya regrettably failed to mature as a magnificent tree. It disappeared before passing the 50 years he anticipated. The writer came to know the Diary of Jennings in 1992 while going through the Jennings Papers in the Peradeniya Library where the manuscript of "The Kandy Road" by Sir Ivor Jennings is also found. (Those who have read "The Kandy Road by Sir William Ivor Jennings" are aware that it was published under the editorship of former Librarian H.A.I. Goonetileke as a Golden Jubilee Publication of the Peradeniya University Library in 1993.) After reading the entries relating to October 6th and 7th 1952 in the Diary of Sir Ivor Jennings, just to satisfy my curiosity I examined the location where the tree was planted. To my dismay I discovered at the turn off to the Senate Building in front of the Lodge a decaying Amhersta Noblis together with a stone slab bearing the following inscription:

I reported this matter to the university authorities as well as to the Curator stressing the importance of restoring this tree. Ten years later while preparing a paper relating to the 50th anniversary of the University of Peradeniya previously known as the University of Ceylon Peradeniya falling on 6th October 2002, I reexamined the location where Amhersta Noblis was planted and found no trace of it including the stone slab at the foot of the tree. I have mentioned these details in the paper that appeared in the Sunday Times on October 6, 2002 under the title "Peradeniya University 50 years today". Same contribution was republished by the Alumni Association of University of Peradeniya Colombo Chapter under the title "Recollecting the memories of University of Ceylon Peradeniya on 6th and 7th October 1952" in their publication commemorating 50th anniversary of University of Peradeniya.

Right from the time the University of Ceylon was established at Peradeniya there has been a distinguished tradition of paying tribute to the principal pioneers of university education in Sri Lanka. This theme is well articulated by Jennings himself in the contribution he made to Ceylon Today in 1952 which was mentioned earlier in this paper. The detailed explanation made by Jennings is as follows:

"The men’s halls have been named after the principal pioneers of university education in Ceylon, Sir Ponnambalam Arunachlam and Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, Sir Baron Jayatilaka, Dr.Robert Marrs, Sir James Peiris and Sir Marcus Fernando. All of them wanted a university established in its own buildings and regarded the "pocket-handkerchief" in Thurstan Road, Colombo as a temporary phase. Some favoured a residential university near Kandy, some a semi-residential university near Kandy and some a semi-residential in Colombo. The university does not distinguish among its pioneers. One whose name is specially associated with Peradeniya Mr.D.R.Wijewardena will be commemorated in the next hall. His name does not appear among the first six merely because he was still living when those Halls were named."

These details revealing the norms followed in naming halls of residence clearly disclose why a hall could not be named Jennings Hall at Peradeniya when Sir Ivor Jennings left Sri Lanka finally in January 1955 to serve as Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. The first and final tribute of the University of Ceylon to Sir Ivor Jennings was the Degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa conferred at the General Convocation held on 22nd October 1954. While conferring this degree the University of Ceylon Peradeniya also resolved that a Hall of residence should be named Jennings Hall.

After leaving Peradeniya Sir Ivor Jennings served as the Vice-Chancellor University of Cambridge from 1961 to 1963. In addition to the Degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa conferred by the University of Ceylon honorary doctorates in Law have been conferred on him by the Universities of Belfast, Bristol, Hong Kong, Leeds, Manchester, Paris and Southampton.

It is unfortunate and regrettable that many decades had lapsed, the tree Jennings planted on 6th October 1952 withered and disappeared and the significance of the first university Jennings established at Peradeniya had faded away with the establishment of many other universities in Sri Lanka, when the Peradeniya university authorities named a new hall of residence using his name. No active interest or support to this long overdue obligation was forthcoming from the university students. My view is naming a hall using the name of Sir Ivor Jennings at present is no great honour to his important contribution to University of Ceylon Peradeniya now known as University of Peradeniya. Constructing a statue at a suitable location in the University of Peradeniya to perpetuate his memory no doubt is a much better honour and it can be regarded as a most singular outstanding honour because no statue had been erected previously in the University of Peradeniya to honour anybody else.

I am not aware of the criterion adopted in selecting the location of the statue. The simple reason for selecting the location may be that it is the place from where the access road to the Senate Building which is the main administrative and academic complex of the university begins. Sir Ivor Jennings planting a tree at this location to remember the opening of the university at Peradeniya may or may not be another reason. No matter what the reason is, constructing the statue of Sir Ivor Jennings using the venue where he planted a tree to remember the opening of this university has indeed enhanced the honour bestowed on him.


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