A short Biography of Hilda Westbrook-Kularatne, Pioneering British Educationist

By Jane Russell

Dr. Jane Russel (BA Oxon. St Hilda’s College, MA in Education) educated at Winchester Girls High School, UK, was seconded to History Dept. Peradeniya University where she Studied for Ph.D, in ‘Political History of Ceylon 1931-1947’, under Professor KM de Silva and her thesis on “Ceylon Tamils Under Donoughmore Constitution” was accepted for Ph.D.(Perad.) in1976 while she continued to write numerous academic and newspaper articles published on Ceylon/Sri Lankan political history, constitutional affairs, art, literature and drama from 1974 to date.

Hilda Westbrook at Newnham College, Cambridge 1916

Hilda Westbrook was born in Dulwich Hospital, London in 1896. She died in Bayswater, London sixty years later, while serving as Warden of the Ceylon University Students Centre. Hilda was brought up as a theosophist by her British parents. But they also ensured that she had an exceptional education – first at James Allens Girls School in Dulwich, one of the finest girls schools in England, and then at Newnham College, Cambridge where she excelled in the Tripos in French and German.

 

Hilda Westbrook-Kularatne was a remarkable educationist. In a career spanning 35 years, Hilda was founding Principal of four Buddhist girls’ colleges – Ananda Balika, Colombo, Sri Sumangala in Panadura, Maliyadeva Balika in Kurunegela and Pushpadana Balika,  Kandy. She was also a Principal of Visaka in Colombo and founding Principal of Mahamaya College, Kandy.

 

The foundation she laid for Buddhist girls’ education was so significant that by mid-1970s, more students from Buddhist girls’ schools entered medical school than from any comparative segment (boys or girls) in the entire Sri Lankan school system. In 1952 Hilda was recommended for an MBE by the Ceylon government for her “contribution to the cause of education in Ceylon”.

Hilda Westbrook and Patrick de S. Kularatne – wedding photograph, Colombo 1920

 

As a graduate from Cambridge University in Modern European Languages, Hilda quickly acquired an easy command of Sinhala. Not only did she read and write Sinhala: she spoke it so fluently that by the mid-1920s she was making public speeches in Sinhala – speeches which helped raise funds for the Buddhist schools she and her husband, Patrick de S. Kularatne, were setting up.

 

Hilda also wrote articles on Buddhist philosophy for a number of journals. When Evans-Wentz, the American anthropologist and co-translator of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, came to Colombo in 1921, he asked Hilda to act as interpreter and amanuensis in his discussions with leading Buddhist monks.

Hilda Westbrook-Kuluratne in Maliyadeva Balika, Kurunegela just as it was being constructed

 

Finding herself exceptionally well qualified to bring about a quiet revolution in the education of Sri Lankan Buddhist girls, Hilda got on with the job with affable determination. Hilda Westbrook has been described by a Sri Lankan male historian as “the gracious Mrs. P. de S. Kularatne, an Englishwoman, who walked ungrudgingly in the shadow of her husband.”  To a certain extent this is true. For twenty years, Hilda Westbrook-Kularatne helped her husband in every possible way – by teaching, by managing schools, by raising funds to start, then improve and expand the schools they built; by meeting doubtful parents and by speaking to them in their own tongue and with the conviction of her Buddhist faith giving credibility to her passion, reassure and  convince them to send their daughters to these completely new schools, sometimes  not much more than a cadgan-thatched, half-walled mud and kabook structure with a few desks, chairs and a blackboard. On top of all the work to support their shared vision, Hilda also bore and raised three children with Patrick Kularatne.

 

Hilda Westbrook-Kuluratne in Maliyadeva Balika, Kurunegela

While Hilda may have avoided seeking the limelight, she not only had her own agenda but also inspired her husband to help her carry it through. For example, Hilda convinced P. de S. to do away with caning at Ananda College in the 1930s – this at a time when every boys’ college used corporal punishment as a matter of course.  When Hilda and Patrick separated, Hilda continued teaching, founding and running schools, training teachers, supporting university students, writing reports, and influencing policy makers. Most of her work went unrecognised but this did not seem to bother her at all.  Hilda had never looked for renown. The main thing was to get the job done – to make a difference.

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One comment

  1. Thank you for valuable hitherto unknown (to me) information about founder of my Alma Mater- Pushpadana Balika Vidyalaya.

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