House for a College and University: Its hundred years since its foundation laying


BY Dhanesh Wisumperuma

Many of the readers might be able to recognize the building in this old photograph. Although its façade is now much covered by trees planted in front of it and certain other buildings are erected around it, it is not difficult to identify it as the present Mathematics Department building of the University of Colombo. Many graduates of the university have this building at the background of their batch photograph. However, most of them – sometimes those who studied at the Faculty of Science – might not be aware of the fact it was not designed to host a university, a fact that is fairly common among the science students of all sorts. It was designed to house the ‘Royal College’, which was the then government school for higher education, in the second decade of the twentieth century. Actually, within few days time, it is almost a century since the foundation laying ceremony of this building which took place on 31st May 1911.

Story of the Building

Royal College was the higher education institute under the British colonial Government of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) at that time. It was established in 1835 and by this period it was situated at San Sebastian, Pettah. Although that area was fitting for a school in the mid 19th century, the landscape had been changed rapidly with time. The unhealthy nature of environment made the problem further serious, as the school was closed for a week in October 1905 ‘in consequence of the danger to health’. The lack of sufficient space for the school was a serious issue too. Hence the need to shift the school to another site was finally agreed by the government. A location was also selected; the triangular shaped land plot at the junction of the Serpentine Road (later named as Reid avenue and at present renamed as Philip Gunewardene Mawatha) and the Thurstan Road (present Munidasa Kumnaratunga Mawatha). It was a crown land adjoining the Government Training School.

This new proposed edifice is mentioned as the ‘new Royal College’ in various government records and newspapers. According to the records available, it seems that the first designs of the new building of the Royal College (which is the topic of this article) were drawn by the officers of the Public Works Department in 1905.

However, the construction delayed by years. This was partly due to serious issues – whether the government was to continue with the school and the insufficiency of funds allocated for such a construction. Finally it received the sanction of the government in 1909 and the Governor agreed to increase the sum allocated to building from Rs. 150,000 to 250,000. Accordingly the plans were revised.

As mentioned above, the foundation of the building was laid on 31st May 1911 by the Governor, Sir Henry E. McCallum, at 5.30 pm in the presence of a distinguished gathering. The event is well illustrated in local newspaper descriptions. From those descriptions it is clear that the foundations of the building were erected up to the floor height and the ‘foundation’ stone was laid on it. The stone, which is still there at the entrance to the building, says;




31ST MAY, 1911

It took about two years to complete the building. When the building was completed by 1913 and the classes of the school were transferred in the third term of that year. An opening ceremony was held with the presence of the governor in August. We can expect that the new location was definitely a better place than the San Sebastian, apart from the new building was newly equipped.

Royal College Days

When it was built for the Royal College it consisted of a main building (present mathematics department of the University of Colombo) and a science block. Records reveal that the land allocated for the school contained approximately 17 acres and the ground occupied about 15 acres. The cricket ground was in use by 1915.

The two-storied main building was 200 feet long and 70 feet wide and had a square central tower which was about 60 feet in height. The building has space for ten class rooms, a library, art room, principal’s and masters rooms, armoury and stores etc. It was connected to the science block with a corridor.

The science block consisted of physics and chemistry laboratories, lecture halls etc. This science block is the building which houses the present Science Library of the university. However, it seems that considerable modifications have been taken place in this building since then.

Further, few out houses and a bungalow for the principal of the Royal College were also constructed in the same time. Interestingly, the colonial style mansion that serves as the present ‘medical centre’ of the University was built as the principal’s bungalow of Royal College.

One could wonder whether this building alone was spacious enough for a school that had the responsibility of higher education. When the Royal College shifted to this location (1913) the number of students on register was about 153, mainly because of the transfer of lower forms to the English School of the Government Training College. However, these forms were amalgamated later and by 1920 the average number of students on register was 535. Due to the lack of space in the new location, about half of these students were taught at Training College. Further to this, these numbers are no wonder when we consider that a period where school fee were charged and the population of the entire country were just above four million.

School to University: the Transfer

Even at the time of the opening of this new building of the Royal College, there was an uncertainty about how long it will house the school there. A plan was there to establish a university college in Sri Lanka was in the minds of the colonial authorities. However, it was just a proposal by that period.

After it was decided to establish a university college in Sri Lanka, the next issue to be solved was buildings to house it. Selecting an appropriate site for the University College seemed to be a matter of discussion as it was first proposed to build it on the ground facing Race Course or on a portion of Training College premises. Finally it was agreed to establish the university at the premises of the then Royal College, with necessary additions of science laboratories. It was also proposed to build a new Royal College facing Race Course Avenue (present Rajakeeya Mawatha). This was partly due to the need of more spacious buildings for the school.

It took few years to the idea to mature. This was the (First) World War time and every such action was delayed with the limited finances available in the colony. Construction of the two-storied science laboratory building commenced in 1918. It was erected adjoining the already functioning Royal College building, which was aimed to from part of the university later. There are descriptive accounts of this building in the records and it was designed to contain botany, chemistry and physics laboratories, two lecture halls and other relevant rooms. This building with science laboratories, which is still serving the students (behind the building which hosts the Department of Zoology) and probably could be the oldest building designed and built for the university! One can notice the architectural similarities in this building and the then Royal College building.

Finally the university college was opened by the then Governor in January 1921, with 155 students. Arts classes were held in College House building (Regina Walawwa, acquired by the government for the purpose) and science classes were held in Technical College, since science block was not ready by that time. Science block was opened in October 1921 only.

The much expected Royal College building was relieved only in 1923. It was due to the delay of constructing the new buildings for the school, which was started in August 1919 and completed by 1923. The school shifted to the present location between May and September 1923. The building was transferred to the University College in the same month and was immediately in use. According to the records, its rooms and halls were initially used for arts lectures, professor’s rooms, senior and junior common rooms, etc.

Monument in Education?

This building which once housed a school and now a university is still used with certain modifications that have been taken place during the past. Thus it could be considered a landmark of the history of education in Sri Lanka. It has provided facility for the education of hundreds and thousands of school children and university students. This building could be considered as a monument of present education system and as a part of our heritage.

Although we can see it in an excellent preservation, continuous maintenance might be necessary to withstand the tropical climate - recently I was informed of such a scheme. By doing so, the university could provide a model for other state sector agencies, as some such historical buildings have been neglected and decayed without being maintained properly. Such landmark buildings should be preserved for the future as our ‘heritage’. It is the most appropriate time, as the centenary anniversary of the completion or the opening of this building comes within two years time.


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