Education system given right Royal treatment..

This write-up 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 for RCU, History of Royal College by S.S Perera, A History of the Diocese of Colombo – Edited by F. Lorenz Beven, M.A, History of Education in Ceylon 1796–1965 by K.H.M Sumathipala and Education in Ceylon – A Centenary Volume published by the Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs Ceylon.

By Varuna de Silva

IMG_551In 1831, Sir Robert Wilmot Horton became the Governor of Ceylon. The Secretary of State instructed him to implement the recommendations of Colebrooke and Cameron without much delay. Therefore, Horton took immediate action to close down Vernacular Schools and terminate the services of teachers with poor knowledge of English. The Governor then consulted the Archdeacon on the establishment of the School Commission and the latter vehemently opposed the plan. As he believed that such a commission would “only lead to disagreement, confusion and mismanagement” the Archdeacon was not willing to serve on it.

Governor Horton, who generally agreed with the Archdeacon, was compelled to set up the commission due to pressure from home. However, Horton had informed the Secretary of State later in a half-hearted way that it was untimely for him to express an opinion on whether the new arrangement would lead to beneficial results.In the same year, a 28-year-old Scotsman who had arrived in Colombo took up the position of mathematics and classics tutor at the Church Missionary Society in Kotte. He was none other than Reverend Joseph
who later started a tiny school which was to become the renowned Royal College.

When the Central School Commission was established in 1834, Rev. James Moncrieff Sutherland Glenie, by virtue of his appointment as Archdeacon, became its president. The other members were the Treasurer, the Auditor-General, the Government Agent of Colombo and the clergy resident in Colombo. Their duty generally was to superintend the school establishment and to submit the measures they thought it expedient to adopt for the establishment of schools and the extension of education, to the Governor.


In 1835, Rev. Joseph Marsh was appointed as the acting Colonial Chaplain of St Paul’s Church, Wolfendhal, in Colombo. This was when Marsh was appointed as the Secretary of the Central School Commission.

The very appreciative residents who wanted more boys to have this English education petitioned Governor Horton. Sir Wilmot Horton consented and converted the little private school to the Colombo Academy in January of 1836.

When Horton set up the commission under pressure from the Secretary of State back in England, he did not take immediate action to establish any college as the superior took more time to consider the matter further. It was reinforced further by the fact that Horton’s spiritual adviser, the Archdeacon, did not provide enough encouragement.

In spite of this negative backdrop consisting of the Archdeacon’s adverse advice, half-heartedness of the British Government and the indecision of the Governor, the actual foundation for a college was laid by Rev. Joseph Marsh, M.A.

Stone from the original building - Royal College

It was in 1835 that Rev. Marsh started a small private school in the back verandah of the church. It was called the Hill Street Academy and had around 20 pupils who were mainly from the upper class Burgher community.

The very appreciative residents who wanted more boys to have this English education petitioned Governor Horton. Sir Wilmot Horton consented and converted the little private school to the Colombo Academy in January of 1836.

The academy was located in a two-storied house at Messenger Street for a short
period. In July, it shifted to San Sebastian Hill. Cadjan (coconut palm thatch) sheds were used for many years before more permanent structures were built for the school.

Colombo Academy was now a state school operated by the government with a lower scale of fees enabling a larger number of boys in Colombo to gain the benefits of a good education. It had a lower school of 72 boys and an upper school of 31. Rev. Marsh continued to be the Headmaster of this school as well until 1838 when he was forced to take leave due to poor health. Sadly, he was on his way back home when he died at sea in 1839.

Rev. Marsh and Governor Horton are considered as the founders of the Colombo Academy which later became Royal College.

In 1841, Governor Stewart Mackenzie (1837–41) abolished the School Commission and introduced a remodelled Central School Commission. However, the School Commission in its seven-year regime had established 40 schools – 34 of them offering elementary education in the English medium and the other six the Tamil medium.

A total of 2062 (1808 boys and 254 girls) were enrolled in these schools. In addition, the government also maintained the Colombo Academy which had 116 boys on its roll.

After Rev. Marsh, the very young Brooke Bailey at 20 was the acting Headmaster for six months. Thereafter, the Rev. J.F Haslam, the Principal of the Church Missionary Society, Kotte, was appointed as the first principal of the academy. He resigned within a year as the CMS wanted him back there.

Brooke Bailey once again became the acting Headmaster for several months before being made joint Headmaster with Rev. A. Kessen for nine months. Bailey, who was very able, was considered too young and inexperienced to be principal. However, in 1845, he was appointed as Inspector of Schools and ordained as a priest in 1847.

The son-in-law of Rev. Marsh, Rev. Dr Barcroft Boake, an Irishman was the next principal from 1842 to 1870. He who wore a clergyman’s cassock and had long side whiskers.

Boake was a forthright personality but did not tolerate even well-meant criticism. During his time, many boys were sent to the University of Calcutta for higher studies. This is when Colombo Academy became affiliated to that university in India.

Boake then went ahead and established a private school named Queens College. The best senior boys were sent there for special attention and to prepare them for entrance into this university. Interestingly, in 1859, the school name was changed to Colombo Academy & Queens College.

However, after much debate and discussion mainly between Boake and Richard Morgan, the school was renamed as Colombo Academy in 1869. Though Morgan opposed the name change, the fact remains that he was a brilliant former student of Boake and was still very loyal to him.

George Todd was the next principal during whose time the school motto and colours were first mentioned. Todd taught a different class at the academy every day and would call up laggards and point to the motto Disce aut Discede. His houses in London and Rome were both named San Sebastian.

J.B Cull was the next to take the reins after Principal Todd. On August 1, 1881, Colombo Academy attracted the attention of Her Majesty Queen Victoria when this principal sought her approval to change the school name to Royal College. This is probably the first time this school drew the attention of the Head of the British Empire who aptly approved the name change.

Cull was a strict disciplinarian who frequently slapped the boys. It was during Principal Cull’s era that cadetting was introduced to the school.

When J.B. Cull left Royal College, the son of the first principal, Joseph Marsh (Jnr.) came to the hot seat to resume the Marsh legacy. During his time the Royal College Old Boys’ Union was formed in 1891 and has served the college in great measure over the years. Today, the RCU has evolved into a mammoth organisation which addresses all needs of the school.

Next, the period under Principal John Harward saw Royal College prosper both in academics and sports. His term was called the “Golden Age” of the school. He started the college magazine and under him the school had its first athletics meet in 1892.

Disce aut Discede

Harward’s reputation as a Classics Scholar was perpetuated with the award of the Harward memorial prize for Western Classics. He spoke Sinhala excellently albeit with a marked English accent.

In 1902, the very first lady teacher was appointed to teach French in the senior forms. Her name was Mrs. Grute.

With time, the site of San Sebastian was found to be unsuitable for the school. Apart from lake flies, dust and dirt, the buildings were dilapidated and dark, the roof leaked and there was insufficient room to hold classes. There was also no proper ground for sports.

The Governor agreed with the principal that the school should shift to a new site.

On August 27, 1913, the school moved to its new building at Thurstan Road (now the University of Colombo). It was Principal Charles Hartley who brought all 200 students and occupied this particular building.

The grand piano you find in the hall today is the one that was made for Royal College by H.W. Cave & Co. Ltd London in 1913. Principal Hartley also introduced boxing to the college and is remembered for caning the entire Sixth Form once.

When the young Royalists were led away from the dust and flies of San Sebastian in Pettah to the open spaces of Thurstan Road, the move was a heartbreak to them. After 78 years a tradition was broken. The students who had got used to old Pettah were leaving their tiny playing field which was the church yard of Holy Trinity church and their much-loved banyan tree – a landmark with many memories.

In 1915, World War I and the ethnic riots in Ceylon were to take their toll on the school. Some boys joined other schools and very few applications for admission were received. In January 1916, only 43 boys were present at the school assembly out of 89 boys on the roll.

In 1917, all classes in the Training College were added to Royal College and the students settled down finally in this peaceful, picturesque and quiet residential suburb. The roads were lined with Flamboyant trees full of flowers. There were an occasional slow-moving motor car, a few rickshaws and pedestrians and sometimes a pingo carrier shouting out his wares to the residents in bungalows. They were mainly from England.

On October 10, 1923, Governor Sir William Manning declared open the present buildings at Reid Avenue. A permanent abode for the oldest public school in the island had thus become a reality. It was the beginning of a new life.

The Principal Major H.L. Reed had served in France throughout Word War I before joining Royal College. He brought in a modern public school atmosphere and introduced the Prefect and House systems, tennis, and composed the college song which perhaps is his finest achievement.

When Royal College celebrated 100 years of excellence in 1935, L.H.W Sampson was the principal. He introduced Sinhala and Tamil languages to the curriculum. Swimming and gymnastics were added to sports during this period.

As part of the Centenary Celebrations he took the initiative and arranged for the school cricket team to take on a long tour of Australia in 1936. This was an enterprise far in advance of its time in the context of the development of cricket in our country.

The standard of the Royal College team amazed the headmaster of the Melbourne High School, W.M. Woodfull, who umpired the match against his school. He also was the Australian Test captain, and Keith Miller, who later became Australia’s finest all-rounder, played for his school against our team.

The young and dynamic E.L. Bradby was the principal during the World War II years. It also was during this time that he introduced scouting to the school. He is well remembered for the Bradby Shield he offered for the annual Royal-Trinity rugby encounter which is recognised as the most prestigious inter-school rugby match in the country.

The end of 1945 was a significant time for Royal College as the government introduced Free Education and Royalists did not have to pay school fees. Principal Bradby retired to end a period of 111 years of dedicated service by the British who built, developed and defended this great institution since 1835.

For all these Britons, every Royalist owes a deep debt of gratitude as they came 6000 miles to a distant land by sea to build this monumental establishment.

Quadrangle at Royal College

>> Varuna de Silva, former Consultant Director & Acting English Web Editor at the Special Media Unit of the Department of Government Information, served the RCU as its Chief Editor in the 175th anniversary year of Royal College and later as its Web Editor. He started his part-time media career in 1995 as a News Reader and Editor at 101.7 & 90 FM and continues to enjoy freelance assignments related to media and communications. However, he is better-known as a Business Development/ Marketing Consultant with a keen interest in delivering lectures on Customer Care and Communications.)     

About Editor Role

Check Also

Hillwood College Annual Sports meet -2024

The Annual Sports meet of Hillwood College Kandy (for 2024) was held at the Asgiriya …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Previous Next
Test Caption
Test Description goes like this
error: Content is protected !!