British save the oldest public school paving way for new era

By Varuna De Silva
(This article is based entirely on “The Royal College – School of our Fathers – A Brief History and the Essence of its Spirit”, compiled By D.L. Seneviratne and “History of Royal College” by S.S Perera)

Royal College main hallThe present-day Royalists and others who are keen to know its history ought to know the rough times the college faced before local principals were appointed.
This is why it is imperative to know what took place during years of crisis in the British era during years of crisis in the British era and how those courageous Englishmen saved this great institution, paving the way for the dawn of a new era.

At the helm today is Upali Gunasekera facing a few challenges on his way to regaining glory for one of the most prestigious schools around the world. The challenges he faces seem manageable in comparison with what his British counterparts experienced.

The first such big crisis came as early as in 1843. This was when a committee reported that Uppers School fees be raised to one sterling pound. As a result, the attendance dropped to 20 in 1848. Few years later in 1851, Principal Dr Barcroft Boake had to face an absolute challenge when the Central Schools Commission and the Governor attempted to abolish the Colombo Academy which was later named as Royal College. The domineering attitude of Boake towards the commission during times of financial depression almost closed down the institute which was to gradually become thelargest school in the island later. However, appeals of 310 leading citizens and 104 Mudaliyars and the intervention of Sir Richard Morgan finally convinced Governor Sir George Anderson to allow the school to continue for another year, with a reduction in the fees. That one year’s grace period still goes on for more than 160 years to keep Royal College at the helm of great schools in this island nation.

Dr Boake was presented with a silver teapot by his grateful pupils when he retired. The 27-year reign of Boake was a golden era of the Colombo Academy. In his will he left the silver teapot and 250 pounds to the school. The Royal College Principal is the custodian of this teapot while the 250 pounds were used to build the Boake Memorial Gates at the entrance to the school.

Former Sinhalese principals of Royal CollegeLater, between the years of 1907 and 1916, several commissions sat to deliberate whether the school should be abolished or converted to a university. In 1909, Governor Sir Henry McCallum sent a communication to the Colonial Secretary stating that “The college as it stands today has practically fulfilled its purposes. A strong European view is that the institution is no longer required as a model of education. However, an equally strong ‘native’ view favours its retention and improvement. After weighing the pros and cons, the Governor concluded that the institution should be retained. Then in 1914, a committee suggested that Royal College upper school be converted to a University College. A memorable speech made by Fredrick Dornhorst in 1916, and the efforts of the Royal College Old Boys’ Union convinced Governor Sir Robert Chalmers to reorganise and retain the institution. So, once again the school was saved and a separate University College was established in 1921, on Thurstan Road. Royal College then moved to Reid Avenue in 1923.

During World War days, in December 1941, the school was taken over by the British Army to set up a military hospital. To make way for it, books, laboratory and sporting equipment were immediately transferred to the university premises next door. The U 6th Form classes, laboratory and school functions were at the University for a short period.The main part of the school consisting of 465 students moved to four bungalows as a more permanent arrangement between 1942 and 45. Carlton Lodge, Turret House, Sudharshan House and Firdoshi House.

Interestingly, forms 1-3 shifted to “Glendale” in Bandarawela. This very comfortable and spacious bungalow served as the boarding house for around 80 students. Classes were held in quickly erected semi-permanent buildings. A small cricket ground was made available to the students utilising available space. Both Headmaster and Hostel Warden positions were held by Mr J.T.R Perimpanayagam. Principal Bradby travelled to this residential school branch once a month. The British who built and developed this prestigious school bade farewell in 1945, ending 111 years of continuous service.

The first “native” principal taking over the reins was an alumnus named J.C.A Corea. This new principal moved the school back to its premises at Reid Avenue on May 18, 1946. Glendale continued for three more years and closed. It is now the home of Bandarawela Maha Vidyalaya. Corea made history by becoming the first Ceylonese and first Royal College alumnus to become principal.

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