Sunday, February 28, 2016

S Thomas' College Gurutalawa.......57th OBA & AGM

A Stroll Down Memory Lane

S Thomas' College Gurutalawa was founded in 1942; in order to re-locate S Thomas' College Mt Lavinia, when the military issued notice to vacate the school in five days subsequent to a Japanese bomber being downed at the collage grounds on 5th April 1942. The WW II had come to Ceylon.

Mr. & Mrs. Leslie de Saram who ran a livestock farm, with an orchard and vegetable garden on a ninety acre pristine property in Gurutalawa located in the Uva Hills, gifted their property in entirety with its buildings, furniture, equipment and the livestock to Dr. R L Hayman; to whom was entrusted the task of relocating the school by the Warden of S Thomas' College.

The old college gate is still there but a second gate is manned by uniformed security

The Official Entrance to the school as designed by Mr Shirley D' Alwis
Part of the school in Mt Lavinia came over here while there where two other re-locations one in Mutuwal in Colombo and another at Gatambe Peradeniya in Kandy.

The farm with its produce was a great support to run a boarding school during the war. The orchard and the vegetable garden was to be a veritable Garden of Eden.

Started with fifty five boarders and two day boys the school ran with eight teachers that included a matron in charge of food and a farm manager. With the war ending in 1945 the Gatambe branch was closed down and the boys transferred to Gurutalawa. Gurutalawa was to continue as the boarding school of S Thomas' College with Dr. R L Hayman as Headmaster.

The Junior Dormitories and Quadrangle with part roofs rehabilitated 
Dr Hayman contributed immensely both physically and monetarily towards the building of the infrastructure and development of the boarding school in Gurutalawa. In the year 1944 Mr. Shirley D' Alwis, the then University Architect was entrusted with the designing of the buildings of the junior dormitories and the chapel block and the result we have today is the simple stonework buildings that we all cherish with love and care. It was a difficult time in the country after a war; priorities in running a school overrode completing infrastructure. Lacking funds improvised the roofs of the new buildings to be thatched of Maana grass. A common form of roofing in those times in the central hills in Ceylon. Later on the buildings were covered with asbestos roofing sheets after the classroom buildings that were also thatched with Maana grass were torched by saboteurs in November 1948. The entire classroom blocks were destroyed in the inferno. The current classroom block was built in 1949 with the supervision of the first Engineering undergraduate produced from Gurutalawa. Mr. V. Tharmaratnam, who later went to become the first millionaire as well that STC Gurutalawa produced. He formed his own Construction and Engineering  practice in Nigeria.

A Fish Eye view of the Class Room Blocks

Entrance way to the Office and the Junior Dormitories where we played  REACH   
This farm is the gift to S Thomas' College of two well wishers of the College

The Beauty of it all......Dr Hayman's contribution to the school
It is interesting to note that the chapel was to be consecrated on the 3rd of December 1945. Everything was ready but for the bell-tower. It had been raining for weeks and there was concern in raising the tower continuously as the lime mortar [all stone walls were built with lime-mortar then, cement was sure a scarcity during war] needed time to harden to hold the stones intact. It is said that there was no time for niceties and the tower went on rising to its full height. Just four days before the great day the last stone put on the tower to every ones cheer ...........a crack appeared on the tower which ran down the full height. Everybody on the scaffolding and around ran for safety; but the tower stood firm with the crack running down its height. Following morning it was ordered to bring down six feet of the tower to reduce the loading and save it from collapsing. Nobody would risk to do so now and the stones set hard with the crack, which was later grouted with cement and the tower was secured safe.

The life size wooden statue of St Francis of Assisi placed in the niche of the chapel tower wall that you see today when entering the school was carved by Mr. E Scott from a solid log of satinwood timber [Burutha in Sinhala]. The statue was carved to a replica of a one foot statue of the saint placed inside the chapel. Its actual height being 5 feet 6 inches and weighing 500 lbs. It had taken four years to complete in Nov 1957 having stared in Jan 1953.

Also in 1949 the old swimming bath was replaced with a new swimming pool. The work was undertaken by Architect Mr. H F Billimoria. Work is said to have progressed in snail speed creating a pessimism about its finish date. On a lighter vein it is said when a school General Knowledge paper had a question "How long will the new swimming bath be?" One student had written 25 years instead of the correct answer which is 25 meters.

Definitely the Iconic Picture of Gurutalawa

Inside the chapel...only one of its kind

Carving that took four years to complete

It was only in 1955 the last building development of the Hayman Era had taken place. The Headmasters bungalow came up on a modified scale though with the cheapest cost. Until then Dr & Mrs. Hayman had been living an underground existence in a converted bathroom since 1948.

Headmasters Bungalow 
Thus were the pioneering days that we love to cherish with reverence. 

The Gurutalawa OBA was founded on 21st February 1959 as an enhancement to the development that the school needed to continue. The old boys of the Hayman Era where now is a position to interact in the management of the school.

Drive way alongside the Chapel
Gurutalawa until 1978 had classes from the Lower Fourth to the Upper Sixth with almost all the students who completed the Standard Five form at St Thomas' Preparatory School Bandarawela [STPSB] came over to Gurutalawa to continue schooling.  STPSB until 1967 conducted classes from the LKG to Standard Five only. In the year 1968 the last batch of students came over to Gurutalawa from STPSB. The termination of student transfer from STPSB was to be a crucial drawback on Gurutalawa. There was no other institution similar to STPSB that produced a student to match with the standard that Gurutalawa expected for its Lower Fourth form then.

It is said  that Dr Hayman had had hoped that the school will never exceed the mark or three hundred and twenty five students at any time....But went up to a four hundred and twenty five in the mid-seventies and rose to a further one thousand two hundred and fifty in 1985. This was the result of Gurutalawa having had to commence classes from the LKG to run the school.

Did this increase in number and the large school infrastructure that had to be built do any good to the school? I guess it is the answer to this question that everyone so dear and near to this school is lost for. 
This question and the doubt of the type of student that would walk out from the school had lingered in the minds of many a distinguished old boy in the past. It is noted that when such distinguished personalities were called upon as Chief guests at Prize Giving’s etc. had expressed their views and concerns openly;..... Senator J P Obeysekara  in the late sixties had said "The expansion of the school had gone enough and the need to concentrate on producing a quality student should be priority number one from now on"....... Mr. Bradman Weerakoon a pioneering students at Gurutalawa speaking at the 1974 Prize Giving said… "There are very many schools now to compete with....... and we will have to find a different level at which to operate S Thomas' College Gurutalawa."

These early signs of downfall in the quality of the student were to be witnessed in the late 80's. Both the staff and the student were seen to resist the Headmaster trying to get the school back to the traditional track when action taken to dispel those with large debts in school fees that was not honored even with extra-long grace periods granted for pay up. The Headmaster was earmarked to be eliminated during the unrest of 87'/89'. The most pathetic in the history of the school came by on 20th October 1989 when the Headmaster Mr. J B Gunasegaram and Mrs. Gunasegaram was gunned down inside the Headmasters bungalow.

Was it not this that Senator J P Obeysekara and Mr. Bradman Weerakoon seem to have noted and feared of when they commented thus...............?

School During Our Time

We happen to be one but the last group that came from STPSB in 1967. Having sat an entrance test for eligibility to enter Gurutalawa in December 66’ before school closed for Christmas Holidays, our parents were informed of our performances and almost all had qualified to enter Gurutalawa. We were all in Gurutalawa with other boys from Kollupitiya as well. A majority of them being the burgher boys whose parents were mostly attached to the Ceylon Government Railway who knew about the school very well having run trains in this difficult terrain. It was a new school…..with the same friends.

The old Book Cupboard of J de S J is no more
Unlike at Bandarawela Gurutalawa was away from town and we had a Co-op shop for our retail purchases and the school ran a book cupboard as a store for stationary and exercise books. The campus here was very large with ninety acres to roam about and we felt more into adulthood when in here than at Bandarawela. There were no ayahs in the dormitories to wake us up. We had to be up by 6 O' clock to the school bell and be ready for prep clad in school uniform shoes and all at the second bell at 6:40 a.m. Many were always late with lame excuses of water running dry in the faucet etc. and ended up with detention orders; where one had to go over to the class room block for studies  at 11 O'clock on a Saturday when all the rest were at leisure playing. I now wonder of the frustration the Duty Master would have had on a Saturday to walk over to the class rooms to conduct detention at midday. The prefects in Gurutalawa had policing powers when compared to those in Bandarawela who were more the workhorses in the classroom; sweeping floors, bringing chalk and the registers from the office and carrying chits to other teachers. The prefects at Gurutalawa could punish students by giving 100 to a 1000 lines to be copy written from school readers. But this was not an issue to worry much over, as there were those who wrote lines for others for a small fee as pocket money.

The Book room of Keble Dorm then is no more

Breakfast was around 7:30 in the morning followed with classes. Five periods of 40 minutes each in the morning before lunch and another three periods in the afternoon when we had tea and everyone needed to be at sports. Mr. Laffir the games prefect would heard us all to the grounds every evening. The bath bell was at 5:30 in the evening after games and it will not be wrong to say that bathing was a rare habit in those cold chilly evenings. Hot water was never heard of.

General swimming times was in the mornings of the weekends and one class every week during school hours. There was fee levying club sports for squash, tennis, ping –pong [table tennis] paddar tennis and horse riding. Bird watching and scouting was for those who were interested and both these activities I would say was of a very high standard in Gurutalawa when compared to other schools in the country then.

Scout camps extended to about five days away from school mainly during the vacations in faraway Yala or Lahugala. The experience gained definitely carry lifelong memories. Bird-watching was of high class in the orchard with all those fruiting trees where almost all the passerine migrants were to be found in the migratory season.
Remembering Mr Chapman ...his abode 
The weekends were spent on hikes around the countryside in groups of five or more. Leave was obtained in a standard letter written in four copies one to the House Master Mr. A K Chapman and one to the relevant Duty Master, one to the Dorm Master and the last to the Food Matron from whom we collected our lunch which was a can of mackerel fish for five, a hardboiled egg and an inch cube of butter rounded off with a half a loaf of bread each. All this packed in bags we would leave early morning to the location and be back at school ready for evening prep at 6:30 P:M. We were all supposed to walk and no hitch hiking or bus rides were permitted.
Remembering Uncle...Mr J de S Jayasinghe

Sunday was Sabbath and we were free to play around the dormitories. REACH was the name of the game. One had to search the hiding rest. Once seen in hiding the name would be called followed with a shout REACH. This was not enough. The spotter needed to be at a distance of ten leaps or paces to the caller. These leaps end up with unbelievably long jumping strides. However if the spotter is caught or struck by the hiding member the game stars all over again. It was so interesting and was played only in Gurutalawa as far as I can remember.  Unfortunately the game was banned   when one ended up with multiple fractures in the leg trying to perform an extra-long leap jump over the canal that ran alongside the junior dormitories.

Rainy days permitted no sports but we were not permitted indoors either. Everybody had to run cross -country in the rain across muddy paths crossing swollen fords and creeks.  Soaked to the bone and back in warm clothes for evening prep after a bath, we all frequent the co-op shop for the hot yeast rotties gulped down with shredded coconut sambol that was chased down with hot tea.

The Co-op  shop still looks the same but without Mr Laffir the Manager
Dr Hayman had left the country in 1964 and his successor Rev Canon A J Foster had passed away. However the influence of the Hayman era was still alive with Mr. A K Chapman and Mr. J de S Jayasinghe and Fr Goodchild still in school. We had the honor to be ruled over by two Headmasters from 1967 to 1971. Dr Frank Jayasinghe and Mr. E L Perera, a founder teacher with Dr Hayman. He now came over from Trinity College as Headmaster.

Dr Frank Jayasinghe [1965-1968] left for India where he had an excellent carrier in private school management; later founded the Wycherley International in Colombo. A great disciplinarian who struck the cane with the golf sweep. I remember once he caned over 50 senior students’ three cuts each for having teased the Duty Master during prep in the dining hall on a rainy day. We juniors were flabbergasted.

But some of us juniors were not so lucky with Mrs. Jayasinghe the English class teacher in the Lower Fourth. Wathuhewa and Arshad Hassanali were frequent visitors to the Headmaster with a chit from her. And they would sneak back into the class silently blushing in pain. I will not be rude in saying that she favored the burgher boys and hated Hassanali for no reason. Probably Mr. Jayasinghe knew this and Hassanali on some days walked in with a sarcastic smile on his face.

Mr. E L Perera [1968-1974] a man of short stature came over from Trinity. Before him his Trinitian nickname found the way to school. He was short enough to peep through a keyhole with ease. Every nook and corner…. and behind every closed door read the words Keyhole was here. He was different to Frank Jayasinghe and was more a preacher; conducting meditation sessions where much of the students with closed eyes were dreaming while some actually dozed off. He also taught mathematics to the senior classes. He was not happy with the cane even though he used it….his short stature never got the cane to strike where he wanted. Thus his command before corporal punishment would be “hang on the wall "....... one could not resist the giggle before pain.

But once he too went violent when Gifford Miles did a mural of a huge guitarist in charcoal on the newly painted staff room. Gifford was caned six cuts in public during assembly. Gifford a heavily built burgher boy and E L Perera just around 5 feet clad in coat and tie... was more like David meeting Goliath  .

This culvert remembers that there was a  Farm here even in 1936
The way up to the Farm still looks the same but for the Farm itself

The cows gone in the meadows.....but definitely not in the Orchard 

 The poultry sheds in the farm have all gone
The Orchard being encroached for classroom blocks 

The Orchard its no longer a Garden of Eden 

The only New Building that came up during our time was the New Hayman Laboratory Building

The New Foster Memorial Hall that came up in 1974

School Today at the 57th OBA

I guess if I am qualified enough to write this bit of the story when compared to people like Mr. Kamal Nilaweera who frequents very OBA all the way from the UK. My presence at OBA’s are still within the single digits. However I have risen to the call of the school when in need.

Incumbent Headmaster Rev Nihal Fernando
The present Headmaster Rev Nihal Fernando I guess is the youngest of them to have steered Gurutalawa up to now. Definitely he has a past to fear and a present to tread with fear…. his ambitions are large and his optimism dependent on the OBA and the Board of Governors. He has set about with the gigantic task of overhauling the buildings that were built 75 years ago.  The renovation of the roofs with ZnAl sheeting has commenced with philanthropic old boys. There is still much to do. The rehabilitation of the Swimming Pool commenced with this 57th OBA celebrations. It’s a continuous call for fund raising.

The Project to rehabilitate the old Swimming pool commenced on the 21st Feb 2016

The old filtration plant of the swimming pool 
On the contrary we see much of the old school glory been lost forever never to come back. The expansion of the school in the 80’s had paid the prize. The wealth of the trees planted by the pioneers have been harvested but with no programme to preserve the environment. The Garden of Eden …..the orchard which was a heaven for the mischief maker then…. who smuggled in ‘fags’ from Banda’s boutique to be puffed off behind the bushes of  Chinese guavas  are no more. It is a total scrub forest and the farm cow and the migrant birds don’t go there anymore. Surely one can only say that there was Bird–watching in this school in the past…...that habitat is lost forever.

The farm which had milk cows and poultry enriching the protein and the vitamin intake of the students has been let out on lease. The conditions are far below the standards from then in the 60’s.

New stallions housed in the old staff lodgings
It is good to note the re-introduction of horse riding but the animals are housed in the old staff lodgings close to the senior dormitories. This could be as a contingency plan until proper stables are built for them in the farm area. 

The Keble dormitory then is no more and is replaced with a complete new sub junior dormitory and this area is now dedicated for the Junior School.

New Keble dormitory and the old water well now hidden in the growth
I would like to note the Headmasters address at the OBA /AGM. It is so sorry to hear of a Code of Conduct having had to be imposed on the Old Boy of this school. It consist of five clauses that include only Past students who could participate, meal times not honored and most sad to have to stamp down that no alcoholic beverages to be consumed in public within the school premises. As a result the most prestigious OBA Dinner for the very first time in the history of the school was at a Reception Hall in Boralanda. Need I comment?  

Young Old boys at the grounds

We older ones of the 60's now in our 60's
This again shows the responsibility of the young old boy of the school. I do agree a little spirit with reunion goes a long way. Similarly I remember OBA’s during our times when many used to travel by train and the single bus arranged by the OBA Colombo branch arrived at school; there was a canteen of spirits with many a participant. But we never saw them consume and we never heard of intoxication. That was the responsibility of the society way back in this country then.

One needs to understand that times have changed ever since the country's economy was liberalized in the mid 70’s, so did liberalize our social habits and attitudes. Today there is no train travelling old boy at the AGM and one cannot expect one to travel by rail in this fast moving society. But moral and responsible behavior in public towards others cannot be flouted for any reason. This was something that the society before the mid-seventies inculcated and respected with reverence.

And guess that is why we call it the Golden Seventies and the Enchanting Sixties. Of course I’m proud to say I am a product of Gurutalawa of the Sixties. But I'm aware that those who came out before me in the 50's stand above us in many ways while it is without malice that I say that there are but some who came out after us who need to wear their tie knot neater than that; or for that matter should not wear that tie at all.

In conclusion I would ask the question …

‘Whither bound Gurutalawa?’ The answer I do not know……..

Headmaster Rev Nihal Fernando will have all our blessings and moral support in getting his ambitions fulfilled in the refurbishment and rehabilitation of the infrastructure………

But none of us have addressed Mr. Bradman Weerakoon concern………”There are very many schools now to compete with....... and we will have to find a different level at which to operate S Thomas' College Gurutalawa."

We could bring back the buildings to the old glory but for the quality of the student who walks out from school?

My personal opinion is that......... It was a wrong decision to set off St Thomas’ Prep School Bandarawela as a separate S Thomas’ College in Bandarawela. This cannot be compared to Dr, Hayman requesting for Advance Level classes in Gurutalawa then in the 50’s. There definitely has no potential to have two similar schools in the Uva Province; and it will not carry any argument in comparing two similar schools in Kollupitiya and Mt Lavinia. Down in Urban Colombo there is potential for two similar schools.

It's going to be a long wait and see……we may live a few more years to see the changes taking place.

There are but two silent observers who had witnessed all what happened here in the last 74 years and will be seeing many more years of change to come.

They are the Warden’s Hill and the Gonagala Hill standing majestically above all …..Shadowing this pristine ninety acre property that Mr. & Mrs.  Leslie de Saram gifted to S Thomas' College.

The Warden's Hill and Gonagala Hill will keep watching over the school for many more years to come


  1. Hyyyy Uditha, firstly my appreciation for the excellent JOB; indeed you’re keep trying to do good work, and hope that it leads to more good work. I was highly impressed after surfing your article they were absolutely true facts; those who’re studied during end of ’70s could realized what you mentioned there illustrated with beautiful photos….. Also, proud of you on preparing your BLOG…..
    St. Thomas’ Gututalawa College has a good history and it's a long journey…..
    Uditha, Keep up the good work…..
    Padma Salgado

  2. Uditha, I was at Guru from 1964 to 1969 and I will NEVER NEVER exchange that period in Guru for studying in another College. I am still thankful to my late parents for packing me off to Guru after Prep School education.
    My only regret now is the decline in the Guru environment but I suppose it had to happen because of the expansion of the College. Sorry also about the Farm.
    Most of all, I am sorry for the atmosphere now lost during OBA AGMs and the following Fellowship and Dinner. No drinking what?

  3. To all our friends around the globe - (not so ) Old Boys, members of Thomian families of Guru & well wishers who toured in Uditha's memory lane - Guru need all your support & let us all rally round Fr Nihal Fernando & the OBA to bring back the glory of Guru back - please get in touch with Rev Fr Nihal Fernando ( or SVP OBA