Catharine Watson, Granddaughter of Sir Ivor Jennings, in Sri Lanka recently


Cathy Watson presenting some historic photos from the famly arachives to the Peradeniya university. Pic by Dharmasena Walipitiy

 "The last distinct memory I have of my grandfather is when he and my grandmother visited us in Toronto and we all holidayed in a summer cottage by a lake. I remember him being in pain, but as always stoic about it and not letting one murmur of complaint escape his lips." That was Catharine Helena Watson speaking about her maternal grandfather Sir Ivor Jennings. Her father, the Australian statistician Geoffrey Watson, was a professor in Baltimore at the time. It would have been in the summer of the mid 1960s since Sir Ivor died of cancer on December 19, 1965. His hundredth birth anniversary was marked on May 16, 2003.

As you would know from the picture carried on the front page of the Sunday Island a week ago on 23rd February, of the signing of the acceptance of the Constitution of independent Ceylon, Sir Ivor’s granddaughter, Catharine Watson, Head of Development of the international body, the World Agroforestry Centre, was in Sri Lanka. The picture had an accompanying article written by Cathy on her visit to the Peradeniya University and meeting with the Vice Chancellor, Atula Senaratne and several Deans. I had the good fortune of chatting to her about her grandfather, their family, her work, and ferreting out her opinion of Colombo and Sri Lanka as of now.

Sir Ivor Jennings

When William Ivor Jennings arrived in March 1941, to assume duties as the Principal of the Ceylon University College, he was apprised of the project to move the university away from Colombo to an expanded campus. The site had been selected but nothing else done. Due to his persistence, perseverance and get-things-moving attitude, the construction of the university buildings and very importantly, the laying out of the campus grounds were completed and the university was officially opened in Peradeniya in 1952. Every tree and little stream amidst the undulating land was planned and made to grow or flow as landscaped and the new campus built with Shirley de Alwis as local resident architect. The first time Jennings saw the site he proclaimed that no university in the world could have such a setting. He got the project completed in eleven years and moved to Peradeniya as the first Vice Chancellor of the University of Ceylon, which later was renamed University of Peradeniya. In 1955 he returned to England and was Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and its Vice Chancellor from 1961-63. He was appointed Downing Professor of the Laws of England in 1962.

Catharine Watson’s mother, Shirley, was the second daughter of Sir Ivor Jennings and his wife Helen Emily Konsalik. She and her sister Claire were sent to Kodaicanal for their studies and Shirley moved to the woman’s college at the University of Melbourne. There she met a young lecturer - Geoffrey Watson - who became a famed statistician and whose name is attached, among others, to a type of analysis called the Durban-Watson Statistic. They had four children and, as Cathy mentioned, each followed a particular interest or intellectual capability of their grandfather. Cathy so loved nature and trees, like her grandfather, that she founded NGOs in Uganda to help young people and the environment. In 2012 in Kenya, she joined the World Agroforestry Centre, a sister institute to the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), which is headquartered in Sri Lanka. One of her sisters entered the world of opera while the other studied ballet and is now a governor of the Royal Ballet School in the UK. Her brother is in academia – Professor of English in the University of Tokyo, Japan. She mentioned as an aside that her husband is slim and tall and quite resembles her grandfather. Cathy herself is petite, very pretty and has inherited in addition to the love of nature of her grandfather, his zest for getting things done.

Her mother and father were married in St Paul’s church in Kandy on February 7, 1953. She remembers the silver tray that the Prime Minster D S Senanayake gifted the couple on their wedding day.

Cathy and her husband, William Pike, moved to Kampala, Uganda, in 1986. Pike set up The New Vision, the leading national daily, and started radio stations. Cathy was at first a freelance journalist and correspondent for the BBC, The Guardian and other outlets, then a "social entrepreneur" with NGOs, one of which has paid for over 150 young people to become foresters. Later they moved to Nairobi, Kenya, where they live a very full life, her husband with a new newspaper The Star that he started in 2007, and she in public service at the World Agroforestry Centre. Agroforestry – trees on farms for multiple benefits - takes up all her time and fulfills her great interest in trees and birds. She travels widely. Their daughter is working in Burkina Faso for the UN and is about to start a PhD in demography, while their son is reading for his first degree in applied economics and international agriculture at Cornell University, New York.

Catharine Watson’s comments

Cathy came to Sri Lanka a fortnight ago to familiarize herself with the manner in which trees can be grown in cultivated land. It is already done on tea estates where the legume family gliricida tree gives green manure to the land, shade to tea bushes and serves as wind breakers. She is rather dubious about vegetables being grown on steep slopes in Nuwara Eliya and commented that the water levels in the Mahaweli seemed very low. Trees force water down into the ground, she said, which is vital for recharging the aquifer and helping the river have a steady flow. She is very keen to increase the growth of trees in cultivated land whether it be in tea estates or home gardens or large tracts of fruit trees.

She said she had a very beneficial time in Kandy at the University meeting not only the Vice Chancellor but Deans and other heads of departments of agriculture, the Faculty of Agriculture and the Post Graduate Institute of Agriculture in Gannoruwa. She wrote about her visit in the Sunday Island of last week. Theirs were fruitful discussions. "You have 45 PhD holders in the Faculty of Agriculture. You also have human resources aplenty and other resources. What more can you ask for?" she queried.

I enquired how she felt visiting the University of Peradeniya which owes its existence in large measure to her grandfather. She replied that she had visited Peradeniya – the university and the Botanical Gardens with her husband and two children in 2003. "I was bowled over by the campus; I felt a sense of nostalgia and closeness to my grandfather. His spirit seemed to be present in his beloved campus. We also loved Peradeniya and the Gardens."

Commenting on Sri Lanka or at least the parts she had traveled in and seen, she said: "Colombo is incredibly clean; there are many new buildings but the old architecture too is seen and better preserved. Traffic is not bad." I countered that most visitors complain about snarling traffic tying itself in knots and doing the same to motorists. "You should see the traffic in Nairobi and Kampala. You may be stuck for three hours in a traffic jam!" She also commented on the emphasis laid on education in Sri Lanka and the majority being educated; also on how teenagers and young adults maintain their interest and eagerness to be educated. "In Uganda, it’s only about five percent who enter university. Sri Lanka has done so well – 99% literacy among female youth aged 20-24!" Legacy of Sir Ivor Jennings

Sir Ivor Jennings wrote six major books including The Constitution of Ceylon (1948), which authorship has rightly earned him a place among the world’s law makers, educationists and writers. Thus the held belief that his writings are the legacy he left future generations of the world. When however Cathy telephoned her mother while she, Cathy, was at the University in Peradeniya, her mother had commented: "It’s the Peradeniya University that is his legacy. Not many people get the chance of such as he did in Ceylon and later back in London."

We fully agree with this sentiment which is the truth, at least for us in Sri Lanka. We older persons affectionately respect Sir William Ivor Jennings; the younger generation should be made to never forget that university education owes much to him. And now we have his granddaughter forging links with Sri Lanka and particularly with the University of Peradeniya academics and agriculturists in her work of encouraging the growing of trees on farms with benefit to humans and the environment.

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