Hilda Westbrook Kularatne: unstinting service to girls’ education in Ceylon

By Rehan Kularatne

A short tribute to an unsung lady, educationist Hilda Westbrook Kularatne, by one of her grandsons Rehan Kularatne

Hilda Westbrook Kularatne (1895-1956)

Hilda Muriel Westbrook was born in Dulwich, south London, on 28 November 1895. She was the daughter of W Francis Westbrook, later Chief Registrar of the Colonial Office, and Jessie Duncan, a Scottish poet and scholar, the sister of Royal Scottish Academician John Duncan, a noted Celtic Revivalist painter. Jessie Duncan Westbrook was to publish a number of verse renditions of Persian, Sufi and Hindu poetry in the 1910s. She and her husband, being Theosophists, were both extremely interested in eastern religions.

Hilda was educated at the highly-respected and progressive James Allen’s Girls’ School (JAGS) in Dulwich, founded in 1741. Having excelled in modern languages (French and German) as well as in team sports like hockey, in addition to having Gustav Holst as her music master, she proceeded to Newnham College for a degree in Modern Languages in 1914, the year the First World War broke out. (Though she completed her degree in 1917, she had to wait 30 years to be awarded her MA, as Cambridge was the last university in England to accept female graduates.)

JAGS Hockey Team

After returning to JAGS to train as a teacher, she applied and was accepted for a position as English teacher for Ananda College that had been advertised in The Theosophist. However, arriving in Ceylon in early 1920, she was inducted instead as Principal of the Buddhist Girls’ College, now known as Visakha Vidyalaya. But that same year she had met the visionary educationist Patrick de Silva Kularatne and, before the year was out, she was to marry him.

P de S Kularatne, born in 1893 in Ambalangoda, excelled at Richmond College, Galle, and won the Government Arts Scholarship that enabled him to attend the University of London in 1913, where he was awarded a BA and a BSC and an LLB within four years. He was called to the Bar at Middle Temple but, having been offered the post of Principal of Ananda College, returned to take up the post in 1918 at the age of 24.

P de S and Hilda married in Colombo on 11 December 1920, both of them wearing versions of the ‘national dress’ that were becoming popular among progressive nationalists.

According to the strictures of the time, as a married woman Hilda had to resign her principalship. However, she was able to continue teaching ‘post-seniors’ at Ananda College, as well as maintaining a variety of teaching positions at tertiary level, while also bringing up a family of three children: Ananda (“Andy”), Parakrama (“Malli”, my father) and Maya.

Hilda was able to make public speeches in Sinhala by the mid-1920s, and she went on to be the founder of four Buddhist girls’ colleges: Ananda Balika Vidyalaya in Colombo, Sri Sumangala (Girls’) College in Panadura, Maliyadeva Balika Vidyalaya in Kurunegala, and Pushpadana Balika Vidyalaya in Kandy. She had also been the principal of Visakha Vidyalaya in Colombo, and was the founding principal of Mahamaya Girls’ College, Kandy.

Hilda with one of her sons, Parakrama (Rehan Kularatne’s father)

She had to face many setbacks in her life, notably the death of her eldest son Ananda, a bomber pilot who was lost in a bombing raid over Germany in 1944. She and her husband P de S eventually separated, and she split her time between Ceylon and the UK in later years. She was awarded an MBE for her services to education in 1953, when she was the Principal of the Girls’ Senior School in Bandarawela. Soon afterwards she moved back to London, where she took her own life in January 1956.

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