‘Little England,’ a peep into the past

Saturday, 17 June 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



By D.C. Ranatunga

Nuwara Eliya is in the news. Reason: Protest by postal employees inn Nuwara Eliya alleging that the Post Office building is to be given over to a private party to run a restaurant. There has been no official reaction to the charge.

The iconic building is a beauty. There aren’t many buildings of that vintage in the country. While Galle boasts of Dutch architecture, Nuwara Eliya ranks high among outstation towns where British architecture can be seen and admired. Untitled-6

The PO building dates back to 1894. The Tudor-style two-storied red-brick building is thus 123 years old. The spacious building comprised not only of office space but also the postmaster’s quarters upstairs. This was the pattern where the officials who were Englishmen during the early years of colonial administration, found it convenient to have their quarters and office in one building. 

Being in the heart of the town, the clock-spire in the PO building would have been of much benefit to the people who could read the time even from a fair distance. Clocks, in any case, would have been a rare item in the good old days until the famous Seth Thomas clocks made their appearance. It was prestigious to have a Seth Thomas wall clock in the house. Now a much sought-after antique item, Seth Thomas is still synonymous with quality and most of the clocks dating back to many decades are still working.

Nuwara Eliya has been a popular holiday resort for both local and foreign tourists.  The main attraction is the cool climate where it is comfortable, particularly when it’s warm in most other areas. In the days when air conditioning was not available the Department of Archives was in Nuwara Eliya. One had to travel up to refer to old documents whenever there was a need. It was also fashionable for big companies to have a holiday home in Nuwara Eliya. They still do.

As to the origin of Nuwara Eliya, it is mentioned that a British hunting party found the place in 1819 – four years after the British took charge of the administration of the whole island following the capture of the Kandyan kingdom. Governor Edward Barnes (1824-31) is credited with making Nuwara Eliya a health resort for British officers in 1828. He had also built a huge mansion for himself which was later converted to Grand Hotel. 

Well-known British explorer, Sir Samuel Baker (1821-93 - also described as officer, naturalist, big game hunter, engineer, writer and abolitionist) who came in 1846 decided to have an agricultural settlement in the hill resort on the lines of an English country town. It is recorded that he spent a few months recuperating from malaria. He returned in 1848 to establish a ‘little English village’. He imported everything from England – from domestic staff, farmhands, blacksmiths, and artisans to farming machinery and firearms. The project was abandoned in 1856. The workmen stayed behind as pioneer settlers.  

Prince Waldemar, the first German prince to visit Sri Lanka wrote about Nuwara Eliya after his visit in mid-1850s: “The village itself comprises a score of small houses scattered in the copse. The roofs are thatched with straw, and the smoking chimneys are an amazing and a welcoming sight to the traveller. The rich dark soil is of clay and gravel and is suitable for growing a large variety of European flowers and plants such as roses, carnations and violets; also fruit such as deliciously tasty strawberries, gooseberries, red currants, peaches and figs; vegetables such as carrots, lettuce, cabbage, peas and beans and the finest potatoes grow here in abundance. Beneath the few trees that grow there – the acacia, snowball, apple and pear trees – the purple blossoming rhododendron arboreum shines through, and yard-long reeds cover the marshy ground. A very welcome surprise to a European to find a cosy chimney fire alight reminding him of home, in a place in the tropics. The fire is lit in the evenings and sometimes also during the day.” – ‘Early Prints of Ceylon,’ R.K. de Silva 

With the plantations – first coffee and then tea – the hill country became a busy place and progressed rapidly. With the expatriate community managing the plantations, hotels and bungalows were built, club life became a fashion and the atmosphere of Little England suited their lifestyle.

Where everyone is young

Leonard Woolf’s sister, Bella Woolf, who visited the country in 1907 was fascinated by what she saw and experienced in Nuwara Eliya. In her book, ‘How to see Ceylon’ (1914) she writes: “The visitor who finds a cheerful wood-fire blazing in the hall of the hotel, when he arrives in Nuwara Eliya, realizes, as he warms his chilled fingers, that Ceylon is an amazing little island, and he reflects that the residents of Ceylon are amazingly fortunate in having within seven hours of Colombo so health-giving a spot to which to fly when the low-country makes them ‘peak and pine’.

“Moreover, when he looks out of his window in the early morning and sees the whole world glistening under hoar-frost and the garden brimming with geraniums, pansies, sweet peas and every English flower, with never a palm in sight, he wonders if he is really in the Tropics after all. He does not doubt it when the sun rises higher and the hoar-frost melts away. He will do well to remember that a topee is just as necessary at this elevation, and that the sudden fall of temperature at sundown is full of danger unless extra wraps are put on.

“Nuwara Eliya has essentially a holiday air. There is golf of the best for men and women – tennis and croquet and bridge and dances at the United Club – Tournaments and Race Meets and Gymkhanas; in fact, Youth at the prow and pleasure at the helm’ is the motto of Nuwara Eliya. Everyone is young up there, or rejuvenated in the exhilarating air. For those who do not wish to join in all these amusements there is the quieter sport of fishing – and there are walks and drives and excursions in many directions.”