Stps Bandarawela in the early years



by Arjuna Hulugalle

I was not a student of S. Thomas’ Prep School (STPS), Bandarawela; however, between the years 1942 and 1954 I had a ringside view of the progress of the school, from what was our home on Golf Links Road, where we spent every holiday. Our house was separated from the school by a valley.

When my holidays from Royal College in Colombo overlapped with the school term at Prep School, I went across to play cricket with the masters and boys. Mr. David Edirisinhe, one of the most senior teachers, lived on our property in a house belonging to my father. He had a dairy and we spent hours helping him feed the cattle, clean the shed and dispose of the manure.

Two of my brothers, Haris and Lakdasa, were in the first generation of Prep School boys both at Kollupitiya and Bandarawela. What I write today is from memory stretching back 68 years, when Prep School, Bandarawela was first started.

School at its inception

At the end of February 1942, almost four years after S. Thomas’ Prep School, Kollupitiya was started by W.T. Keble, the British Navy commandeered the school premises and ad hoc arrangements had to be made to accommodate the Kollupitiya students. This was the moment the school in Bandarawela, which was established the same year, on the 20th of January 1942 began to gain momentum.

Realizing that Keble’s predicament was a difficult one and having a vested interest as my two brothers were to lose their school in Colombo, my father offered his house to Mr. Keble. He felt that Mr. Keble’s need was greater than his. To evacuate us because of the war time situation, my father got an annex built at the bottom of the property. This was done at record speed, within six weeks.

By then, the Walden Place bungalow in Bandarawela, where Mr. Keble had started his School, had 39 boarders. Some had to be accommodated in the garage. Mr. Keble was able to double the number, especially after he had bought an empty shell of a building at Gangodawila, Nugegoda, belonging to an aunt of mine. This structure was transferred to my father’s property at Golf Links Road. The framework and the corrugated sheets were re-erected and became a commodious building which was partitioned for a dormitory, dining area and kitchen. The building had a sound foundation and proper drains to cope with the torrential rains.

Coincidentally, one of my aunt’s sons, the eight year old S.O. Wijesekera was in the first batch at Walden Place. Two pioneer students, Reggie Poulier, who in later years, was a Director of Carsons and Norman Gunawardena who a few years back was Chairman of Aitken Spence, have described to me their experience of sleeping in this building constructed with the materials from the Nugegoda cattle shed. Both looked back on the time as a great adventure. The morning dew would drip on their faces, as they slept. They used their raincoats to cover their faces. It was this rugged beginning that made them sterling executives of leading business houses in later years.

During wartime, everything was in short supply and no curtain material could be bought. Mrs. Keble was not to be defeated. She made curtains out of jute (cloth from gunny bags) and decorated them with beautiful embroidery. Aesthetics were not neglected at a time of deprivation!

A saint loved by the children

From the beginning, Mr. Keble had the unstinted support of Lydia Blanchard. She was the closest one could get to a saint. Though endowed with a small frame she had boundless energy and took on many a task that had to be attended to. She kept the accounts, taught singing, ran the tuck shop and at times provided boarding accommodation in her cottage, when room was not available in the boarding. She also nursed and counseled the students.

She lived in a wattle and daub cottage, which she named the ‘Little Thatch’, located on an isolated hill. Every day, she came down to School and in the evenings climbed back to her home. Sometimes she would drive her baby Austin, which was used sparingly, because petrol was rationed. As children we used to borrow books from her library. Winnie the Pooh was one of them. Then there was ‘Little Women’ the Arthur Ransome stories and a number of books by P.G. Wodehouse.

Once a year my mother would get Miss Blanchard’s cottage roof thatched with mana grass (Cymbogpogen confertiflorus), a variety of lemongrass, which the villagers used on their roofs to protect against insects and vermin. Miss Blanchard used to visit us then with a cake baked in her oven which was fabricated by a village mason. Her little garden round the cottage was a replica of illustrations found in picture books of nursery rhymes. There were petunias, marigolds, dahlias and pansies and a few lilies and agapanthus. She collected rain water for her home, and to water the garden. We collected cow dung from the patnas for her garden. Invariably she rewarded us with homemade sweets.

With time, the school farm was built close to her cottage and she was not totally isolated. She had given her own funds to the school to buy the land. The Keble’s built a house next to the farm. It gave her great joy to watch Keble’s’ son Anthony grow up.

One story about Miss Blanchard haunts me to this day. In the fifties my father built another house in Bandarawela, on the hill close to the ‘Little Thatch’. Around 1952, I went alone to Bandarawela for my holidays and was preparing for an exam. One evening I set fire to some mana grass in our compound. I watched the progress of the fire. As a child I had often done this, especially before the rainy season. To my horror the small fire was carried by a strong wind. It started to move towards Miss Blanchard’s cottage and I was in shock. By chance the Watcher saw the fire spreading. With shouts and hoots he summoned his companions from the neighboring valley. They came running and brought the fire under control using improvised aids. Divine providence saved Miss Blanchard’s cottage. She was too good a person for any harm to come to her. She continued to live a life of love and service and in 1976 she died at the ripe old age of 93.

Contribution of the great pioneers

In the midst of a world war the constraints were innumerable. There were no class rooms but that did not defeat Mr. Keble. He had a supreme self-confidence veneered with humility. He held classes in the open air. In the bracing climate of Bandarawela it was a tonic for both mind and body. Encouragement was given to develop essential life skills, independence, self-reliance and the ability to live in a community. All these laid the foundation to face challenges in later life.

Digging roads, building a swimming pool and an Amphitheatre, wandering on the patnas, hiking and going on excursions to Diyatalawa and Ella, climbing Pidurutalagala, Adam’s Peak, and Horton Plains, and the innumerable picnics made the boys sturdy and healthy.

The boys learned about trees, birds, cows and poultry, about manual work and to brave the rough weather of the mountains. They learned about the starry skies which are clearly seen from the patnas. They bathed from the spouts that originated in the wetlands.

Naturally, religion and spirituality pervaded the school, its activities and its spirit. Though a Christian school it was never bigoted. Mr. Keble was a student of all religions. He had acquired a deep knowledge of the theologies and philosophies of all faiths. This was evident in his writings.

Mr. Keble naturally laid the foundation of the spirit and character of S. Thomas’ Prep School, Bandarawela. Yet, he had an almost uncanny ability of inspiring others to help him, and he got advice and assistance from a large number of public spirited people. Among his own compatriots, he would have had an array of scholars and public figures like Sir Thomas Villiers, R L Hayman (the founder of S. Thomas’ Gurutalawa) and the Millers who owned the departmental store.

Of the Ceylonese, he had unstinted support from friends like J.L.D. Pieris, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, C.P. Jayawardena, Sir Claude and Lady Corea, P.E.P. Deraniyagala, D.R. Wijewardena, J.H. Chandrasekera, Deva Suriya Sena, Sydney Ellawela, Dr. John Blaze, N.K. Choksy, S.P. Wickremasinha, Dr. C.C. de Silva, L.J. de S. Seneviratne and my father, H.A.J. Hulugalle, just to name a few.

Keble, the gentle visionary

Keble was endowed with the qualities of humility and simplicity. Only great and superior human beings are blessed with these qualities. If he had a fault, it was in not being too concerned about money and its management. I suppose, if he had been a hard headed manager and depended solely on money the school would never have started because there were many moments, at its infancy, when the future looked dismal.

Keble had a vision complemented with a well-trained mind. He had confidence in his staff and friends. Most of all he had faith in divine providence. That is the reason why he chose the words "The Lord is my Shepherd" as the School Motto.

(This article appeared in Footprints…….(a collection of ‘memories’ Reminiscing a Journey through 70 years) commemorating 70 years of St Thomas’ College Bandarawela. The book is edited by Kanthika Abeyesundere and priced at Rs 2,500. Copies are available with Buddhika Kurukularatne (Tel no 077-7789858) among others.

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