Royal College in Colombo: Its History-by Michael Roberts

Royal College in Colombo: Its History-by Michael Roberts

Michael Roberts


Lam Seneviratne, whose preferred title is 100 Years of Royal College at Reid Avenue”

A centenary in the life of an Institution is a very long period and calls for much celebration. However, for Royal College, now 188 years old, a grand celebration to mark 100 years at Reid Avenue may not be appropriate.



Rev. Joseph Marsh

It is opportune to look back to the 88 years of Royal College before its life at Reid Avenue  and make a brief sketch. In 1831 the Rev. Joseph Marsh, a 28-year-old Scotsman, arrived in Ceylon as a Missionary of the Church Missionary Society in Cotta (Kotte). He was a Mathematics and Classics Tutor and was appointed the Headmaster of the CMS. This Institute educated and trained young men to be catechists and priests of the Anglican Christian faith, to go out as missionaries and minister to the local people.

Rev. Marsh was at the CMS for 4 years till 1834 and had married a Miss Walker whose family was firmly established in Ceylon.  Gov. Horton in appreciation of Rev. Marsh’s ability transferred him as the Acting Chaplain of St. Paul’s Church, Wolfendhal in 1835.

Rev. Marsh started a small school in January 1835 in the verandah of the Church. It was called the Hill Street Academy and had about 20 pupils, mainly from the upper crust Burgher community. The Burghers petitioned Governor Horton for a bigger school to accommodate more of their boys and on January 4th 1836 the Governor named Rev. Marsh’s school as the “Colombo Academy” and made him the Headmaster.

The Colombo Academy was at San Sebastian, Colombo 12 and was now a State school, and offered the highest level of education, so that its alumni could take up positions of importance in the colonial Government.

Richard Morgan, the brightest student under Rev. Marsh and the first Head Boy of the school passed out as an Advocate in 1846, was appointed as a Legislative Councilor in 1857 and acting Chief Justice in 1874/75 was the first Ceylonese member of the Governor’s Executive Council in 1863, the supreme policy making body in the Island. Morgan and Muttu Coomaraswamy, were the first Asians to be Knighted in Britain’s Far Eastern Empire in 1874. Other illustrious sons of the school who were Legislative Councilors were James Stewart in 1849, C.A Lorenz in 1856, Muttu Coomaraswamy, James Peiris and brothers Ramanathan and Arunachalam Ponnambalam, the last four being Knighted too. It can be noted that the last three have Halls of residence named after them in the University of Peradeniya.

In the elections in 1866 for the First Municipal Council of Colombo, 6 of the 9 Wards were won by former pupils of the school. This was a trend that has continued to this day, where the alumni of this State school have assumed  political leadership to govern the affairs of this country.

Rev. Barcroft Boake

With the passing away of Rev. Marsh at the young age of 39 years, Rev. Barcroft Boake, an Irishman became the Principal in 1842.  He had a formidable appearance and  brooked no opposition. He is said to have been irascible, where all the different meanings of this word are a description of him. He was to ‘rule’ for 28 years till 1870, and the school was sometimes called Boake’s School or ‘Boake  Gedara’  Yet, he was an exemplary Christian, and influenced his pupils to cultivate their moral faculties.

Rev. Boake sent the Best students to Queens College, University of Calcutta for higher studies. Amidst much opposition, he even changed the name of the school to the ‘Colombo Academy & Queens College’ for 10 years till he was forced to revert it back to its former name.

The two large rooms on the ground floor of the Principal’s bungalow was the Boarding, primarily for the sons of Planters and Ratemahatmayas who lived in distant outstations. Rev.Boake who occupied the upper floor joined the boarders at 10.00 am for breakfast and at 4.00 pm for dinner. Rev. Boake was made the Chaplain of the  Holy Trinity Church which was built next to the Academy  in 1847. He led his pupils for “Chapel” every morning to this church.

Rev. Boake who had lost his wife, married again in 1861 at age 47 to 28 year old Agnes Jane, daughter of Rev. Joseph Marsh. Dr. Boake was conferred the Doctor of Divinity in 1969, and after his retirement in 1870, resided in Melbourne, Australia and was appointed the first Vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Balaclava.

The Masters

The Masters were called the Second, Third and upto Fifth Master which was a reference to their hierarchy in the school. Samuel Lister MA who was appointed from England was  a stout muscular man, is remembered as the first Ceylonese schoolmaster to be fined 20 shillings in the Lower Court “for throttling and pummelling a boy”

In 1846, the appointment of A. Nicholl as the Teacher of Drawing and Design was a significant landmark. He introduced water colour as a medium of art to Ceylon. During his short stay of four years, he executed about four hundred water colour paintings on Ceylon subjects.

When Ashley Walker joined the Staff as Mathematics and Boarding Master in 1876 a great change took place. A Cambridge Blue at cricket, he had even played against W.G. Grace. He became captain of the All Ceylon team and was justly called the “Father of Ceylon Cricket”. At the Academy, Walker made the youngsters interested in the game and together with the Sub-Warden of S.Thomas’ College the Rev. T. F Falkner, himself  a Cambridge Blue, initiated the Royal Thomian cricket series in 1880. The Beira lake stretched beyond the present railway line at Olcott  Mawatha upto the bottom of San Sebastian Hill and the two teams rowed across in boats to the Galle Face Grounds, which is today the site of the Taj Hotel. The Academy won this first match by 62 runs. Since then this “Battle of the Blues” is the highlight of the year for both schools.

Name Change & Motto

As the school was administered by the British Colonial government the imperial colours of Britain, Royal Gold and Blue, were adopted in 1877 as the School colours.

In 1881 by a Royal decree of Queen Victoria, the Colombo Academy was renamed as the Royal College, the first time the use of the word Royal was permitted in the wider realm.

The school Motto Disce aut Discede in Latin means Learn or Depart, a stern watchword to the students that their studies are of primary importance. The complete hexameter is  “Aut Disce Aut  Discede, Manet Sors Tertia Caedi,”  learn or leave, there remains a third fate, be caned. No one took the 2nd option, some have proudly owned the 3rd, but all have learned.

Premises at San Sebastian

The school had no proper grounds for games, and had to use the tiny Church yard of the Holy Trinity Church for all its outdoor activities. In athletics the 100 yards event would have been run on a curved track and in cricket, a fast bowler would have begun his run-up from near the boundary line.

The Principal’s bungalow was a former Dutch dwelling house which the British colonial government acquired. This 300 year-old building still exists and is today the bungalow of the Principal of Mihindu Maha Vidyalaya. The old school building too exists and is now used as horse stables by the Mounted Police Division.

To Colombo–7

The San Sebastian area  became noisier, dustier and more crowded. The school had inadequate space, the roof was leaking and the Beira Lake flies were a nuisance. So after 78 years in Colombo 12, Principal Charles Hartley led his 200 students in 1913, to its new premises in Thurstan Road, Colombo 7, a salubrious area with tree lined roads. These premises were soon allocated to the Colombo University and after 10 years the school shifted to its present new building at Reid Avenue. The Principal in 1923 at that time was Major H.L. Reed.

Royal College being a State school, the Governor Sir William Manning lent his patronage to it and presided at its Prize Day on 10th October 1923. On this occasion he declared open this new building.

Reid Avenue

The move from 88 years in the confines of Hulftsdorp and Thurstan Road to the 100 years of Reid Avenue saw a significant change in the ethos of the school. The new magnificent school building set in 24 acres, had large classrooms, newly equipped laboratories, a huge Hall and plenty of ground area for a range  of sports activities. Principal Reed brought in a modern public school atmosphere and introduced the Prefect and House systems. He also composed the stirring College Song, which perhaps was his finest achievement. This permanent abode was the beginning of a new life and Royal College our country’s first Public School, could stand comparison with any other in the British Empire.


As part of the  school’s centenary celebrations in 1935, Principal L.H.W. Sampson  arranged for the Royal College cricket team to tour Australia  and play their leading schools in Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne. This was an enterprise far in advance of its time. The standard of the Royal team amazed the Headmaster of the Melbourne  High School, Mr. W.M.Woodfull who umpired the match against his school.  He was the Test captain of Australia and Keith Miller who later became Australia’s finest all-rounder played for his school against our team. Pat McCarthy our star batsman later emigrated to Australia and excelled as a State cricketer. E.L. Bradby Principal during the World War II years, will be eternally remembered for the Bradby Shield he offered for the Royal-Trinity Rugby encounter, now the most prestigious Rugby match in Sri Lanka.

A solid foundation had been laid by the British Principals and starting from the first Sri Lankan Principals J.C.A. Corea and Silva, both old boys of the College, Royal has forged ahead to maintain its status as Sri Lanka’s premier Boy’s School. The boys of the school receive not only the highest standard of education, but participate in activities of several Societies  and are able to pursue their skills in at least 25 different games.

This overall balanced education imparted by the school has enabled Royal College to win 1st place in 2018, in the competition conducted by Microsoft in the selection of the Best Innovative School in the world.

This is where we are now, and Royal will continue to innovate and at the same time engage with several schools in the outstations to promote and initiate programmes, to enable them to develop to higher levels. The school has 8970 Students, 350 Academic Staff,115 Non-academic staff, 175 Classrooms and 12 Laboratories.

The school hall is large and can seat 600 people. On the high side walls are 20 Panels, each 20 feet high x 4 feet wide on which are written about 3000 names of Prize Winners. At a lower level are 75 photographs of its distinguished old boys.

The Hall is thus a repository where the names of its illustrious sons are permanently etched, many of whom have played a prominent role in our country since 1835.

Royal College will always move forward, adapting to changes in education methods and curricula that are accepted worldwide, where Royalists will be identified for being true to the lines in their College song “ Learnt of books and learnt of men and learnt to play the game”.

D.L. Seneviratne …. R.C. Union

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