Saturday, December 24, 2022

J W Marasinghe; the Man for All Seasons at Gurutalawa


John William Marasinghe

The Hayman Era (1942–1963) is said to be the most prosperous period at S Thomas' College Gurutalawa. But tradition prevailed, thanks to a team of staff that took on the challenge of running the school in line with Dr Hayman’s ideals even after his retirement in 1963. The new Headmaster was Canon A J Foster. However, it was so unfortunate that he too passed away the following year bringing in a vacuum that raised concerns about the future of the school. The challenge now came upon a team of dedicated staff headed by Mr Kilto Chapman a pioneering old boy with other support staff; J de S Jayasinghe (Uncle J), M Chinnaiah, Selwyn Goonewardene, Oliver de Soyza, Lucian Amarasinghe all who devoted their life and time to the school.   Among them, there was one person, who was also an old boy who left college in 1954 and joined the administrative staff in 1957. as Dr Hayman’s secretary and did continue in the position as the Office/Headmaster’s Secretary.

Mr John W Marasinghe; was a chubby, curvy, and cherubic character. He was Billy Bunter at school. (The famous fictional chubby schoolboy character that appeared in a series of schoolboy novels, comic strips and a television serial then.) Mr Peter Weerakoon (brother of Bradman Weerakoon) reminisces about his contemporaries from 1947 to 1952 highlighting the train journey from Colombo to Nanuoya. 

“Those were the halcyon days of yore. The term would start with the boys from Colombo and beyond meeting on Platform 7 of the Colombo Fort Railway Station to take the Up Country Day Train. Besides the crying and the sad goodbyes to parents, there would also be a sense of joy and happiness of meeting up with old friends, whom I recall were L.M.Fernando, Majintha Perera, Nicky Rose, Micheal Silva, Bandu Wanigasekera, V V Vandersmaght, John (Billy Bunter) Marasinghe, Peter Ondaatjee, John de Vos and the two boxers, Joe “Louie” Somasunderam and D.G. Welaratne.”

Mr Marasinghe entered Gurutalawa in January 1948 as a student after completing his prep schooling at Kollupitiya (there had been students from Kollupitiya coming over even earlier). He left college in 1954 and later joined the staff in 1957, just as Mr Chapman and Mr Laffir did in their nominated positions fulfilling the wishes of Dr Hayman and Fr Foster. 

Mr Marasinghe was not on the tutorial staff but was very much the main administrator in running the school office for Dr Hayman. He managed the small office with Mr Benjamin Fernando as the Bursar Mr Patrick Phillips (Clerk), Mr Nadaraj (Bookkeeper/Pocket-money man) and Bernard the Peon. Together they managed the communications, linking the parents and the school while maintaining the required confidentiality and the safety of the academic activity in conducting term-end examinations etc. All the test papers were hand stencilled by subject teachers and the English paper was stencilled on the typewriter by Mr Marasinghe himself. Then the paper would be copied in the required number in a hand-operated Roneo Printer all by himself and packeted and security sealed for storage until the day of the examination when they would be handed to the relevant invigilating staff. This was done in such an efficient manner and never in the history of the school had had any record of an examination paper being leaked before the day or a repetition of a paper.

Though his main application and occupation were in the running of the college office he was multifaceted when it came to extracurricular activities and swimming. He was the Chief Scouter of the 3rd Nuwara Eliya Troop, Master in Charge of Swimming in general which included coaching the college team. He continued the Birdwatching Club started by Rev Canon A J Foster. He continued the screening of the film shows which was Dr Hayman’s undertaking before. Further, he was the house master of the Keble Dormitory; a subsidiary facility where boys were offered accommodation when the selective Junior and Senior House dorms became full. Outside these activities, he was a different personality with a multitude of hobbies be it music, photography, drama, snipe shooting, stamp collecting and indoor games like scrabble and card playing.


Scouting at Gurutalawa has always been special and unique from the early days. Conducted under the guidance of Dr Hayman who was the first Scout Master and later under Mr John Marasinghe and Rev Fr Harold Goodchild after Dr Hayman retired in 1963. Mr Marasinghe in his account about scouting at Gurutalawa from 1942 -1990 in the First 50 years records; … “Scouting started initially with the first Troop Meeting held on 20th May 1942 a very few days after the Gurutalawa branch was started. Therefore, it would be correct to say that Scouting was the first organized extra-curricular activity at Gurutalawa.”

It is noted that Dr Hayman continued recording in the Troop Logbook of – 16th (S Thomas’ College) Colombo which hints that he oversaw the Scout Troop at Mt Lavinia started in 1935 and retained the Logbook to continue with the 5th Badulla Troop at S Thomas’ College Gurutalawa. It was a different type of scouting to which the Colombo-educated scouts had been accustomed when compared to outbound  Gurutalawa.

Scouting was very popular among the students from the early days and there were Mr Habaragoda and Mr Pillai who helped Dr Hayman with the troop and other activities. By 1950 there was a need to start a sub-junior troop as the numbers increased among the juniors. However, it is noted by the end of 1950 all the support staff had left and Dr Hayman was running all three troops. But this was resolved with the senior scouts assisting him with the juniors and sub juniors assisted by the juniors.  When camping came up staff members visited the camps for assistance.

Mr Marasinghe records his initial involvement with the school; thus, “I had left college as a student at the end of 1954 and in July 1957 I re-joined, but this time as a member of the staff. One of the first things I was asked to do was to organize the Senior Scout Camp. This was a new experience to me but thanks to the staff and the scouts alike it turned out to be a memorable one at Buttala in Monaragala.”

When I joined in 1967 the troop was under Fr Goodchild and Mr Marasinghe and scouting restarted for the juniors after a lapse when the few senior scouts functioned under Fr Goodchild. The senior troop however ceased by 1968 and the junior troop flourished under a new registration as the 3rd Nuwara Eliya Group.

Both Fr Goodchild and Mr Marasinghe had achieved their Wood badge and the Bushman’s thong the highest awards for Scouters then. The camps in the outstations Batticaloa, Lahugala, and Yala were of very high standard. Many students turned out to be first-class scouts and a few went up to achieve the President’s scout badge by 1972.

I remember my 1st Class hike with the late Senaka Ratnayake which Mr Marasinghe had mapped for us. We were to hike from College to Ohiya .. pitch camp for the night opposite the Ohiya railway station and on day two traverse the bridal path up on the hillside laid parallel to the railway line to Idalgashinna. From Idalgashinna we went direct to Rathkarawwa as given on the one-inch map all the way down passing Anura & Srinath Dissanayake’s home and Sarath Weerasekara’s home on to the Haputale Boralanda Welimada road leading to college. I now understand that this was the same route that Dr Hayman had once plotted for M Rajagopal and Akram Suby much earlier. However, I must confess that at age 14 this was quite a tough walk with a backpack full of provisions, cooking utensils, a canvas tent and ground sheet a hand axe; a weight of approximately  20 lbs. on your back. That was the toughness of scouting at Gurutalawa even by 1970. We were so tired walking to college in the last lap when the bus from Haputale to Welimada stopped for us and the conductor mistook us for service personnel and offered to take us wherever we intended to. We did not disappoint the bus crew but rode in it up to Boralanda and walked the balance distance to college. Yes…. this part was omitted in the Hike Report for obvious reasons.

The Scout troop has continued to maintain excellent standards all these years, and in 1983 the troops recorded the largest number of First Class Scouts. The legacy left behind by Dr Hayman did continue.

Scout camp in Palatupana Yala 1969

Scouting in the Hayman Era

Author with Ratnayake cousins (MBR, HR, author & late SR)

Author's 1st Class Investiture

Scout Troop with Dr Hayman,  (first visit  1970)


Swimming again was under Dr Hayman at the beginning and it was to Mr Marasinghe that he entrusted to continue with after he left in 1963. However, Mr Marasinghe notes that he was also a member of the college swimming team up to 1957 and later oversaw swimming. He was a member of the first-ever swimming team that entered the Public Schools Championship in 1952. Seven swimmers comprised the team D D Wickramanayake, J W Marasinghe, D J Templeman Kluit, J Livery, T Mitchell, A J Robb and A W Senanayake. Competition in Colombo then was limited to St Josephs and S Thomas’ Mt Lavinia, and we were not up to the level of competing with these schools until 1962. In 1962 college had a super team that could compete with any Colombo school and Mr Marasinghe records the performance, “In early March 1963 we entered for Novices Meet and all those who were showing promise did well. We obtained 3-first places, 7-second places, and 2-third places and shortly after this meet Dr & Mrs Hayman left S.T.C.G. for England for their retirement. It could be said that it was the end of an Era.”

Again by 1969, we had a promising team that included me trained and coached under Mr Marasinghe on the U 14 and U 16 age groups. We had Alan Goodchild (nephew of Fr Goodchild), C.C Ching, M. I Rauf, E.M Jayawickrama, T U K Wijesena, and M Sritharan. The standards we rising again but not to the level in 1963/1964. In 1970 the U14 did well at the Novices Meet.

By 1975 with many of the Colombo schools being provided with the infrastructure for swimming the swimming meets were very challenging. With the school changing by 1977, the interest towards competitive swimming did fade off and is now reviving with the upgrading of the pool.

General swimming continued after school for two hours under the supervision and watchful eyes of Mr Marasinghe. Almost every boy entering Gurutalawa could not swim but was an able swimmer when he left. Mastering the art of swimming was not taught by a guide in the water unlike today but it was more of a self-learning process. We started kicking the water holding the side wall of the breadth of the pool. This way we managed to keep our lower body afloat parallel to the surface of the water. Once this was achieved, we were allowed to use our hands and explore the breadth of the pool, in a comfortable style be it Breaststroke or Free Style crawl.

Finally, one had to undergo a passing out test to venture into the deeper end of the pool. The test was to swim four (4) lengths, 100 yards nonstop alongside the long end of the pool. This was no easy task, and many did qualify only after three (3) attempts or more.

But there had been a few rescue missions performed by Mr Marasinghe on strugglers swimming the breadth of the pool. Some strayed into the mid-pool area where one couldn’t get a foothold.  I remember when M M Uvais (Bumpy) started his swimming trial across the breadth of the pool and strayed into the mid area and had had two mouthfuls; Mr Marasinghe went in lock stock and barrel clad in shoes and with pockets all full to rescue Bumpy …. However, Bumpy did end up a good swimmer and represented the college.

Dr Hayman and staff member jumping off the high board

Junior Swimmers Hayman era

Inter-house swimming meet 1969

Mr Marasinghe in his comfortable Cat's Paw slippers and short trousers conducting the  Plunge Event. author with stick in hand to mark the Plunge limit. (Pix Curtsy Jayadeva)


Gurutalawa most probably is the only school that had a unique campus with orchards and treelined boundaries with large leafy canopies that attracted birds. In this special location was this ideal bird enthusiast Canon A J Foster. Gurutalawa being the first ever outbound school in the country it was Fr Foster who started a Birdwatching club and inculcated the subject of Ornithology as a hobby for those interested.

Gurutalawa during the migratory season is abundant with all the migrants that inhabit the hill country. Again, it was Mr Marasinghe who took charge of the birdwatching club after the demise of Canon Foster in 1964. The club prospered in a small way with interested boys keeping records of birds seen and identified on an annual basis. Recording the same bird revisiting the same tree in the orchard in the same week as the previous years. Boys contributed with their writeups to Nature Magazines and especially to the Loris the journal of the WNPS… the photography of birds and behaviour was recorded by Mr Marasinghe, and the binoculars and bird guides were those of Mr Marasinghe which he allowed the boys to use at any time.

There was a prize dedicated to the best birdwatching student and the first recipient of this prize is said to be Sarath Wimala Bandara Kotagama… who later made Ornithology his Profession and is today an Emeritus Professor of Environmental Sciences. He wrote to the college magazine way back when he won the birdwatching prize about his Bird book;

My book about Birds

Most of us are interested in birds.  We like to hear their cheerful songs, to see them as they fly down beautifully through the air, to watch them walk proudly on the grass or slip about bushes in search of food.  But like most wild things, birds are shy and if we wish to learn about the wonders of their lives, we must watch them patiently and quietly.

Most bird lovers keep a bird book in which to note such things as, the day when a certain bird was seen, the food it ate, it's colour and shape, the way it flew, the way it walked, when it began nesting, its song and so forth.  By keeping a bird book and making regular notes in it and perhaps drawings as well we get the greatest enjoyment from our bird-watching study.

S.Kotagama: Upper 6th, St Thomas’ College, Guruthalawa – 1966

Sarath today is an authority on the birds of Sri Lanka, and it was Mr Rohan Pethiyagoda also another eminent Thomian scientist who said; talking about the Birds of Sri Lanka one needs to talk of the period before Kotagama and after Kotagama

During a birdwatching session (Pix Curtsy Jayadeva)

Film Shows

Film shows in boarding schools were quite a common feature then. I remember that even while at the Prep School Bandarawela we were entertained by a film show about once a month. These were 16mm films imported into the country by Ceylon Theaters Ltd and other such movie companies. The films were mainly Western movies with famous actors Jean Autry, and John Wayne to even classics like ‘Count of Montecristo’, and ‘It’s in the Air’ a comedy, which was some of the most famous films among us boys then. I remember we would have seen the same film five times during our stay in school. That’s once every year as there was a restriction on films imported into the country; they repeated the films.

The school had a 16 mm projector, again a personal gift from Dr Hayman who was a keen cinematographer shooting his own 8 mm films of all the college activities and scout camps in the outstations. He would then screen these at the OBA etc.

However, when Dr Hayman left in 1963, he entrusted the screening of films also to Mr Marasinghe, an after-dinner speciality that came up suddenly. The small windowpane above the office counter displayed a small note in Mr Marasinghe’s handwriting – “Tonight’s Show – It’s in the Air”.  Like Dr Hayman, Mr Marasinghe also loved photography and cinematography and many boys also showed a liking for these hobbies and assisted them during these shows in spooling the film to an empty spool to be returned to the agency.

A boy who assisted Dr Hayman then was Mr Chandran Ratnam who later made films his career in life. Gurutalawa, therefore, has moulded people outside of the curriculum who become authorities in their likings and hobbies.

House Master of Keble Dormitory

Keble Dormitory was the furthest located unit of the school away from all other facilities down in the far southeastern end of the campus. Today the junior school is in that area and is a different setup altogether. When all other dormitories were categorized under Senior and Junior Houses, De Saram, Garnier and Read so named after the Bishops, but Keble dorm was for all houses named after the founder Headmaster of the Prep school at Bandarawela. Generally, one would be going to the Senior dormitory from Keble when a vacancy was available. But many of us did continue our entire stay at Keble and I was one. It was an old house turned into a dormitory with bunk beds arranged within the rooms and the sitting areas, unlike the normal ward-type arrangement.

Mr Marasinghe too had a separate room in the house, and a door opened to the dormitory that he used as the entrance. A rear door provided access to the back garden. The two office assistants Mr Patrick Phillips and Mr Nagaraj (Yakadaya) also lived here with the Handyman and the Orderly named Jayasundara. Jayasundara was the man to watch out for… for he sneaked and carried all the mischief to the staff that ended up with a punishment.

Life was simple while we all were involved in any activity conducted by Mr Marasinghe and room time was spent listing to Holiday Choice over his large radio set or playing scrabble or 304 with him.

The rear part of his quarters became our kitchen at times when the stock of Ice cream and Pawkies from Elephant House came to the Coop Shop from Colombo. It was a novel way they transported the ice cream and the cold meat in a large wooden chest lined with aluminium sheets and packed with ice and salt transferred by the night train to Haputale. The ice was still hard when the chest arrived at school.

After the scout camps in the outstations, this rear part of the quarters became the darkroom when we all got together with him to develop the films and make contact prints. We learned our photography and film developing from him. He had two Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) cameras that used 110 film rolls.

And then in 1970 when Dr Hayman came back for the first time after his retirement, he brought him his first Pentax SLR camera and to develop 35mm films it had to be given out to Millers in Colombo.

Contact printing after Yala Camping trips

There were times when our pranks played on other boys went too far and we were punished just as we enjoyed staying with him. I remember once when we fixed the bucket of water for Ravi Rajendran (Ganja) to spill over when he came into the dormitory, but Ravi was delayed at the bathroom, and it was Mr Marasinghe who happen to get ducked. Even though it was not meant for him punishment was customary as the recipient was a staffer and the nature of the prank was serious to be discussed later.

I remember another incident when he had gone snipe shooting at the paddy field behind the dormitory with Mr Nadaraj assisting him in flushing the snipe for him. He had cleaned the double barrel for storage and Anura Dissanayake and I pulled the triggers just for kicks. He noted that someone had meddled with the triggers, and we had to own up only to receive three of the best and the gravity of the situation explained had the barrels been loaded.

Gurutalawa flourished during the Hayman Era and the immediate post-Hayman Era. The secret being that few teachers were devoted to the school. Among them, three were very eligible bachelors…Uncle J, Kilto Chapman and John Marasinghe. The three did produce and act in dramas with the senior boys and Uncle J produced the famous Ralahami series dramas and staged them in college and Colombo.  However, this bachelor bond was broken when Mr Chapman married Betty Chapman in 1970 and later Mr Marasinghe wedded in 1973. Uncle J continued as a bachelor all his life.

Mr Marasinghe continued to live in the Keble dormitory premises while the junior school also came up in the vicinity. Later when their daughter Shamindri was to attend school she was enrolled in the junior school as the girls of the staff members were permitted up to grade 5. When she finished her 5th year in school it was time for the family to move out of Gurutalawa. An exception was made by the board of governors permitting Shamindri to continue in college which she did from 1979 to 1989.

He was the Master in Charge of the Computer Science Society as well ..... he was ever ready to absorb new technology 

The family moved to Colombo the following year and Mr Marasinghe was now working for Douglas & Sons an enterprise of an old boy. I remember meeting him at this place once to get some photographs of Fr Foster to turn out a life-size cutout for an exhibition in Mt Lavinia. He was very helpful, and I remember him visiting the stall in Mt Lavinia.

It is so unfortunate that I did not meet him after this event as I was out of Colombo. When I took up an assignment at the BIA in Katunayake I met Mano Gnanaraj at Sri Lankan Catering, and it was he who recounted the tragic demise of this humble character in 2004. My heartfelt condolence to the family. But he for sure lives in our hearts and minds every day. 


  1. Well written Uditha. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your informative and entertaining account of life as a student at STCG. It brought back many fond memories of friends and events that have lain hidden in the recesses of my memory. Thank you for what was obviously a long, time consuming and at times tedious pursuit into information that could not have been readily available. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for a job very well done.

    1. Great Article. ..brin& notgs back so many memories. ..!! He saved my brother " Bumpy "....which is also mentioned. ..!! & he also had a great stamp collection of only birds...!! I & my brother " Bumpy " were lucky enough to be there at a time when there were some excellent Masters. ...JDSJ. .. my cricket coach/biology teacher ..A.C. M. Lafir...Dr. Hayman. ..etc...not forgetting Headmaster Etisalat. L.Perera...

  2. Hats off to you ❤️for the piece of writing about our beloved mentor, and guru Mr. J W Marasinghe. You have recorded the amazing Gurutalawa memories in the cyberspace, well done my friend allow me to commend your efforts wholeheartedly. Every Thomian, who has origin from Guru should read your writing. Why, I myself was a beneficiary of all that extra curricular activities while in College (1971-1975). But did not know the real traditional flow, from Dr Haymans Directions to shape our destiny by preparing the future students for life. Dr.R L Haymans Directions (vision ) connectivity and continuity was only possible thanks to the dedication of people like Mr Marasinghe.
    I was taken back to my nostalgic memories, I was a scout under Mr Marasinghe and Mr Bandusena Kadawathage. Won the best Junior and Senior Scout prize, including Dr R L Haymans prize for Ornithology. thank you so much for your thoughtful gratification appreciating the contributions of extra ordinary people like Mr Marasinghe

  3. He was a Great school boy Spring and Hard Board Diver and won many titles at Public Schools, I remember him cracking the spring Board at Colombo Swimming Club. RIP.

  4. Nice write up Uditha. Took me on a nice walk down memory lane. I think i am in the scout group picture

  5. Laknath JayawickrameDecember 24, 2022 at 9:30 AM

    Great memories of a respected person who loved the College so much .Was popular amongst the students.May his soul rest in peace.


  7. Asuntha JayawickrameDecember 24, 2022 at 9:33 AM

    A true legend of STC Guru.

  8. A jovial but an understanding person.

  9. Uditha, Fantastic write up ...I was not in the boarding at Guru, as such the reading was interesting. We certainly had very dedicated teachers. I think you covered Lafir, Uncle and now Marasinghe. I guess guest is Chapman and Chinniah

    Happy holidays and best for 2023

  10. WOW!!! What great memories Uditha, It was indeed the many extra-curricular activities that made all of us such versatile human being who were able to fit into any avenue of life. With regards to the train journey, I vividly recall that we were regularly co-travellers. I used to be in regular contact with Mara even later on as he used to help me buy tyres for my car. RIP Mara

  11. What great memories about a wonderful man. Did swimming and scouting with him and remember him well.
    Still remember him updating us on the Apollo 11 moon landing, he told us they had found 3 legged kangaroos 😂
    Thanks for the memories , a great read

  12. Thank you Uditha. You write so well. We owe so much to people such as Mr. John Marasinghe.

  13. After Dr Hayman left, it was Mr Marasinghe who was our swimming coach, and also he was my dorm master, Keble Dorm.

  14. Great administrator.
    Lovely character.

    1. Are you any relationship of Mr.A.C. M. Lafir. ..? Who was a Great Master too..

    2. Yes , Jumpy…
      Mijward is Mr Laffir’s son …. He was a kid then… in fact Bumpy is in the scout uniform in the Yala camp photo if you did not make him out … he is the one on the right

  15. He was known as 'Mara'. I remember his tiny office in the corner close to the stream. He was always there to have a chat with you. He was one of the cheeky amongst the staff. Remember him with respect and affection. 🙏👍

  16. Sachchidanandan CoomaraswamyamiDecember 24, 2022 at 7:28 PM

    I will never forget a such a great person he was my swimming master he made me.the college swimming captain and he was my scout master too and he made me a president scout also such a great man he respected. The college

  17. An absolute tribute to “Mara”, brilliantly articulated. Well Done @Uditha Wijesena!

  18. What a lovable man I can remember him from the days I was there from 1958 to 1962..

  19. Mr. John William Marasinghe, (MARA) Former College, Secretary
    more than 14 years I had worked with him. he was a real gentleman, who loved the college like his family, it is a great loss to Guru, ESTO PERPETUA.

  20. He encouraged me to swim in the first few days.The shallow end was 4ft.My height was 3.11.

  21. Exemplary Character, great losss to STCG fraternity.

  22. Great Man of Guru. I was with him as a student in Keble from 1970 to 1972. Learned swimming from him. Very strict and disciplinary person. We learned a lot from him other than the studies. Anyone from Guru will never forget him .

  23. Great account udith Yr hiking partner senake is no more

  24. Always a pleasure to get to read such good information about Guru. I wish the present students get to read these informative articles.

  25. Had a great stamp collection. ...of only birds ....!
    Great Master.. !!R I P

  26. ……he jumped into the pool....fully clothed , when my brother got a cramp & was struggling in the deep end. ..& got him out. ..
    My brother later swam for College. ..!!

  27. Great. ..!! Brought back so many memories
    ..!! & you mention my brother too. ..- " Bumpy "...& the swimming pool incident..!!! This is " Jumpy "

  28. Mara was a very loyal asset to college
    and very helpful to the students during
    our time 51/59 may he be blessed

  29. Dorothy Lilian WijesingheDecember 25, 2022 at 10:29 PM

    SO ENJOYED THE MARSSINGHE FAMILIES FRIENDSHIP WHEN BERTIE AND I WERE AT S.T.C. Gurutalawa. Would like to meet anyone of them now. I live near S T.C Mount Lavinia

  30. Thank You For Sharing He Was My Swimming Coach with Dr Haymaker He was Such a wonderful Person

  31. My Dear Mr. Marasinghe, my entire gratitude to you for all you have done as my swimming master at STC - Guru, which I will never forget you you till my life long....

  32. Mr Marasinghe was the best of the best not only was he my swimming Coach that motivated me to work hard but he was also a teacher who encouraged me I will never forget you and never forget how you saved a student who was drowning in our pool

  33. Very friendly & knowledgeable . Keble house first boarding master in 1960. Thank you Uditha for paying such a lovely tribute to this great Guru Thomian, JWM. Very well penned.

  34. Just saw this Uditha, well written, and a great tribute to our dorm and scout master.