VINTAGE VIGNETTES – By Vinodh Wickremeratne

VINTAGE VIGNETTES – By Vinodh Wickremeratne


Vinodh Wickremeratne reminisces his childhood/adolescence and anecdotal ‘renderings’ of many ‘elders’

 In the unique pursuit he is involved the ‘young’ are about ages 50-60 middle aged are 70-80 and the elderly are over 90. The challenge being to find people with good memory.

 (This note is disjointed, but it will be restructured in 15 year segmented periods or by subject. Also Indicated will be clear ‘cut-off’ periods of the discussion under review, the ‘hotch-potch’ placings will be ironed out, loosely thought of from 1890 to the end of Ceylon in 1972. Obviously events before the writer’s birth and childhood are from anecdotal sources >grandparents, greatgrandmother and doing the ‘rounds’ in elders’ homes’ and reference to an extensive ‘home archive’ Ferguson’s Directories, Times Books, old  newspapers , there is an almost complete 1898 CEYLON STANDARD with a ‘wealth ‘ of information. The writer is a Consultant to the National Railway Museum and is the  Co – Chair of the Industrial Archaeology Committee  of the NATIONAL TRUST,  the Co Author of CEYLON RAILWAY HERITAGE, Editor of the LANKA RAILWAY DIGEST, Convenor/Chairman of the CEYLON RAILWAY ENTHUSIASTS ‘ CIRCLE.

Persons with Jewish ancestry had come to Ceylon with the Portuguese ‘experience’ and the subsequent Dutch ‘involvement’ and the later British ‘experience’.

With the opening of coffee plantations the Jewish persons of note were the de Worms brothers who established Rothschild Estate in Pusellawa, the Rothschilds were financiers in Europe. Sogama Estate in Pussellawa was established by three Jewish brothers SOlomon, GAbriel and MAthew.  The name of the estate is off the first two letters of their names, not about a village with sorghum.

 Jews of note in the 20th Century were Marie Museus Higgins who was involved with the school, ‘Dusty’ Miller  who was the Chairman of Colombo Commercial Company, the Borstieiners, sometimes remembered as Borstiens who played with a band at Galle Face Hotel, Meyer a Hungarian Jew who was the Chief Cutter of Colombo Apothercaries ‘ Tailoring Dept, (Gents’ Outfitters Dept) the House for Bespoke  Tailoring, Leon Monk (Architect), Ulrik Plessner (Architect of Danish descent who was involved with the Geoffrey Bawa school of thought ) and many others in the mercantile sector (my notes have them and can be elaborated when a book is commissioned)  Sir Sydney Abrahams>Chief Justice, Anne Ransinghe(nee Katz).> Poet. Rhoda Miller. There  had been a Synagogue  in Kollupitiya,  Galle Road. The Jewish experience faded away in the 1970s with the political ‘culture’ of the period.

The Lower Middle Class and the Middle Class experienced a better way of life when compared with today’s standards. There was

MAIL ORDER and VPP (which has almost made a ‘come back’ with the advent of E BAY )

Home delivery orders for groceries were catered to by Elephant  House and Cargills. VPP was ‘Value Paid Postage where an item was delivered and the value including postage was paid to the Postman delivering the item. More Ceylonese spoke English and the Lower Middle Class was also more WESTERN  ORIENTED in their lifestyles, habits, mannerisms and outlook. Global Warming was way in the future > it was not unusual to see ‘standard looking’ persons wearing ‘full suit’ to ‘office’.(usually light coloured).

 The TRAMWAYS offered flexibility and rapid (that is not their speed but they arrived in quick succession-there was no need to wait a long time at a halt )  moving around in the central and metropolitan areas of Colombo.  

There were many Department Stores, Cargills, Millers, Whiteaway & Laidlaw, Simes, Colombo Apothercaries, Titus Stores, Chands (toys), Abdul Rahims, (household, kitchen items and tableware) Victorias (groceries, wines and spirits. And Eastern Silk Stores and Hidramanis of Chatham Street sold materials, jewellery shoes & were tailors

The writer of this note was employed at Colombo Apothecaries Fort for 3 years which was a good knowledge base and a place which was rich in modern history, anecdotes of staff and customers dating from the 1920s some customers as children in the 1920s. There were many old-fashioned names for the various departments. Haberdashery handled sewing requisites. The Writing  Instruments Dept was just a glass showcase with some ‘fancy’ pens which was combined with the Stationery Dept. In the early period it had been a large ‘walk in’ section with its own Manager, salespersons, and technician. HUNTERS had a range of home tools and gardening implements, in addition to being the agent for Raleigh Bicycles of Nottingham.

Radios, record players and tape recorders were available with Maurice Roche (Phillips), St. Anthoneys (Grundig and Matsushita-National), Browns (Sierra), Richard Peiris had (Murphy) Siedles Cineradio represented the Sony Corporation. Millers Ltd had some British brands including Echo radios. The radiogram was a combination radio +recordplayer with inbuilt speakers which adorned the living rooms of elite homes sometimes matching the furniture . There was the CEYLON TAPE-RECORDER CLUB , the Society of Model Aeronautical Engineers, the Ceylon Model Railway  Club> all these niceties fizzled out  with the IMPORT BAN. The earliest domestic  usage of television had been at the residence of Arthur C. Clarke.  There was a wired (to homes and offices in Colombo) service REDIFUSION  for radio and music operating from a location at UNION Place.

Hire Purchase was  a  ‘WAY OF LIFE’, there was a firm THE HIRE PURCHASE COMPANY which was ‘heavily active in this field.

Walker Sons were agents for Austin motorcars, the British Car Company represented the Nuffield Group for Morris, MG and Wolesley, Globe Motors represented the Rootes Group> Hillman, Humber, Sunbeam and Singer. Browns had Standard/Triumph, Jaguar was serviced by Browns , Daimler was represented by Rowlands,  Collettes had BMC trucks and Holden cars, Tuckers Autodrome represented General Motors > Cadillac, Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Vauxhall and Opel and the British Riley, Chevrolet was handled by Rowlands, BSA motorcycles were represented by Cargills, the motorcycle workshop at Staple Street is now Food City.

sri lanka

Other motorcycles noticed were Triumph, NSU,BMW (the agent being Wallys), Zundapp, Norton, AJS, James scooters and in the late 1960s Lambretta.

Walker & Greig had a few British franchises> Jowett etc, Clarence Amerasinghe secured the agency for the Volkswagen and Vespa, and Cart Mart (which was also owned by Clarence Amerasinghe) was the agent for the Peugeot. DKW & Simca motor vehicles were sold by Associated Engineering Co.  In the 1920s the agents for Peugeot had been Don Carolis, for a brief period Richard Peiris before being represented by Car Mart. Ford was handled by the Ford Motor Company of India and briefly Peerless Motors, before Richard Peiris got the agency. Colonial Motors had Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Citroen and Land Rover. Heller &Co the agents for Mercedes Benz had to wind up during the 2nd World War, succeeded by Diesel and Motor Engineering Co Ltd. Borgward Cars were sold by Steuart Motors, DKW and Skoda cars were sold by Continental Motors. United Motors had Hudson , Kaiser and Jeep Corporation. It took a few decades for the Japanese motor industry brands to establish, Associated Motor Ways Ltd represented Nissan/Datsun, Toyota was represented by Freudenbergs. United Motors by virtue of their Jeep Corporation franchise got the agency for Mitsubishi which assembled Jeeps in Japan. Popular medium level cars were priced Rs. 6,000-12,500/-(today scale model cars can cost as much or more)

 As an outing for the family were those once a month visits to the breakwater at twilight in small groups, neighbours, parental office  friends or extended family in 3 or 4 cars. Carrying ice boxes, small kerosene cookers, +utensils, folding stools and folding tables, plates and dishes, Petromax lamp adequate water for drinking, cooking and washing, servants and two cooks to help around, an angler in the group would ‘land’ fish, a cook would prepare ‘those’ for dinner  or cocktail accompaniments, hoppers were made , there were enough ‘beverages’ including chilled aerated waters  for the evening. When the session was over the servants cleaned up the place, all debris was removed, >as if nothing had happened.

A guitar or accordion completed a good moonlight ‘sing-song’.

Baluchs and Pathans> Commonly misnormered  as Afgans  were MONEY LENDERS famous for their big motorcycles and turbans.

Branded Consumer PRODUCTS . Lever Brothers had Gibbs S.R toothpaste in addition to Pepsodent, Lifebouy soap, Sunlight at that time was positioned in the market as multipurpose. CEYLON MINERAL WATERS had the brand SCHWEPPES, Ceylon Cold Stores Ltd  had the Elephant Brand for Orange Barley, Lanka Lime, Lemonade, Ginger Beer, Soda Water as mass sellers and the ‘niche’ sellers Dry Ginger Ale, Bitter Lemon, Tonic Water (popular in the Malarial Districts due to its content of quinine ) Ceylon Meat Products had the GOLDI range of processed meats.. The Government Marketing Department (MD range)and Milk Board had processing facilities in the Narahenpita area. Mc Callum Breweries produced  and marketed the THREE COINS and SANDOZ range. CEYLON BREWERIES had the LION range of brewed products. S&J TWINS LTD had a range of processed fruit products. KIST was a range of processed fruit products of the Pure Beverages Co. Elephant House had a food division manufacturing processed meats and processed fruits in addition to a creamery producing ice cream etc.

The TRIPOLI and TUNISIA Markets were located within the old Railway Workshops in Maradana. TRIPOLI had large cold rooms for refrigerated storage.

The confectionery trade was represented by MALIBAN BISCUIT MANUFACTORIES., Ceylon Chocolates Ltd with the Kandos  brand.

Zellers had a range of small chocolates, NEOPOLITANS , In the cocoa growing areas there were local brands as delicious as some imported varieties of today. FRANCO in Rambukkana and some ‘cottage ‘ level home made chocolates in the environs of Mawanella .

Mechanical Engineers of yore were B.D.Rampala and P. Rajagopal (both with the Railways,)

The noted Civil Engineer was Dr. A.N.S. Kulsinghe.

  1. J. Wimalasurendra is recognized as the father of electricity for the masses in Ceylon 


1st Class was really 1st Class, Clean well appointed fittings all over. Toilets disinfected with JAY ES FLUID and everything worked.

There was classless travelling for a while due to cheap politix, suddenly 1st Class was only for Sleeping Berths and the Observation Saloon. Christmas Day 1969 was spent in a train between Peradeniya and Bandarawela. The Restaurant car had a Christmas tree and was aptly decorated. Waiters with starched uniforms and a three course meal for lunch with a well laid out table. The caterer of the day (U.K. Edmunds) had token gifts for children. Since the train was at 10 mph it was a comfortable experience. A YEAR LATER ALL THESE NICETIES WERE HISTORY. There was no 1st Class only black tea and buns hard as rock, One wondered whether they got buns and rusks confused. Trains were late, dirty and crowded.


A one pound loaf of bread was 34 cents, an egg was 25 cents, beef was 1.50 a pound, cigarettes were 10 cents per stick. Aerated waters were in the 10-25 cents range . Locally made strong drinks were less than Rs. 10 a bottle, beers were in the 2/- 5 /- range

The bus fare from Dehiwela to Mount Lavinia was 5 cents for the ½ ticket. The air fare Colombo to Jaffna was 110/-.  a seat in the airconditioned coach of the Yal Devi train was similarly priced.

A good (very) pair of shoes was about 100/- today rubber slippers can be more than this.

G.C. Roche imported Globe butter (then in paper wrappers) after the IMPORT BAN this was not available and there was a bland apology for a table spread Blue Band which got nicknamed Blue Bland

Party Catering was just a phone call away with Cyril Rodrigos (Pagoda Tea Room), Fountain Café,>Elephant House, Joe Wallace, Thegis  Appuhamy, >they had to be informed> number of persons, children and adults,> cultural and religious meal restrictions of the gathering >uniformed waiters would be sent with the correct selection of food and drink in the correct quantities and  service requisites.

There were no 3 wheeler TUKS then, taxis were Morris Minors with their hiring car registration numbers in red on a white background the meters were electro mechanical devices branded Halda or Argo, the first’ section’ was 50 cents probably for ½ mile after which the meter clicked rapidly in further 10 cent multiples. Quickshaws had a radio monitored taxi service with a fleet of Renault 4 CV cars. Towards the end of the 1960s taxis were black with a  yellow roof.

The TRAMWAYS introduced 1899/1900 offered  travelling flexibility to move around rapidly in the Colombo metropolitan, central and northern areas. .The Pettah Power Station which was at Saunders Place supplied the 110 volts DC required to propel the tram cars. The tramway service radiated from a shed at Gaswork Street in central Pettah, the termini of the routes being Borella, York Street Harbour main entrance near GOH and at Grandpass at the end of Nagalagam Street, The COLOMBO ELECTRIC LIGHTING  AND TRAMWAYS CO LTD was a London registered company represented in Ceylon by Boustead Brothers which was subject to a major crippling strike by the leftist movements which ‘left’ the general public  inconvenienced  and which ‘left’  the Company in a bad financial state where the company lost interest in expanding the network, upgrading equipment or maintaining the system. The Company gave up its lighting operations by 1931 and the Department of Government Electric Undertakings (DGEU) took over lighting operations. The Stanley Power Station in Kolonnawa which was coal –steam powered augmented the power generated by the 4 steam engines of the Pettah  Power Station. The neglected tramways system was subject to regular breakdowns and the company sold the decrepit system to the Colombo Municipal Council in 1943, the CMC  TRAMWAYS DEPARTMENT operated the diminishing system until 1960.           By 1953-54 it was decided to phase out the tramways and instead electric trolley buses were introduced by the CMC almost on the same routes with the addition of Maradana to Kotahena route run along Panchikawatte, the trolley bus shed was at Prince of Wales Avenue, and after the service was stopped following a strike in 1964 the trolley bus shed was subsequently the SUGATHADASA INDOOR STADIUM

Domestic flying was in Air Ceylon’s DC3 ‘DAKOTA’ then sporting a yellow and red livery. The smiling ladies were known as AIR HOSTESSES. International flights had many stops . From Colombo to Bombay, then Karachchi> Teheran > Athens >Rome> Paris and finally London sometimes taking as much as two days before the jet age. It was ‘usual’ for travelers to fly westwards and return by ship to bring household ‘things’ in addition to  the joys of a voyage.

In the 19th century the Colombo city had developed northward resulting in elite settlements in the Hulftsdorp, Kotahena,  


Mutwal and Grandpass areas. When the city expansion northward hit the limit of the Kelani River, the next settlements were in the Cinnamon Gardens, Koombi keley, Kompanna Veediya, Kollupitiya and towns southward.
The boys’ schools were the Colombo Academy of 1835 which was on San Sebastian Hill (later the Royal College) which was relocated in the Cinnamon Gardens, The school of Saint Thomas the Apostle was established by Bishop James Chapman in the Mutwal- Kotahena area in 1851 (which was relocated in Mount Lavinia by 1918).The Buddhist Boys’ English School of 1886 was later Ananda College. St. Joseph’s College was established at Suduwella in Maradana and a branch school was set up as St. Josephs Colombo West at Bmbalapitiya which is now known as St. Peters College. Wesley College was founded in 1874 in Pettah and then moved to its present location.

The air-conditioned cinemas were the Liberty, Majestic, Regal (before 1928 it was known as the Empire Picture Palace), Empire Theatre which was the Public Hall, the Rio and the Savoy. The New Olympia had a ‘temperamental’ central air-conditioner> halfway through the show it was ‘Central Heating’. Cinemas had shows at 10.30am 2.30pm 6.30pm and 9.30pm, The 9.30pm screening usually finished around midnight but there was a CTB bus service available to go home to any suburban destination. The introduction of television in the late 

1970s diminished  cinema patronizing. Admission tickets were structured Rs.4.50 for the Balcony seats, ODC was 3.50, DC (Dress Circle) was  2.50, there was another class at 1.50 and the Gallery was 50 cents>popular with  ‘the working class’ Smoking was allowed> there were many advertisements for cigarettes and drinks on screen (very much ’taboo’ today. If arranged with the bar and the row/ seat number given a waiter would bring your drink to the seat. The vernacular expression for cinema going was going to the ‘bio-scope’  

The Colombo Gas and Water Company had their Gasworks in central Pettah. A ‘piped gas network supplied gas to street lights and some residences for cooking. This system was referred to as TOWN GAS. There were gas meters in homes which were read monthly and a bill issued. The big school laboratories were also supplied with Town Gas. 

Motor vehicle registrations were handled by the Police Department initially. The alphabetical prefixing series for numbering  was district based> Jaffna District had H as the prefix, Puttalam District had R, the Colombo Municipal area was C  and when the numerals exceeded the allocated digits an’ eXtra’ series of numbering was introduced. These were the X series numbers. There was no Y prefix though Z was a prefix in the pre war era (the Second World War !). The original English letter numbering and prefixing for motor cars was to make up C E Y L O N. In progression the prefixing was CE, then CY, CL and CN. Each series was allocated up to 9999  After the C series was exhausted the prefixing was EY, EL and EN. After 1956 the SRI series prefixing was introduced, The first car registered with a SRI number was 1 SRI 1 the number issued to Sir John Kotalawala to register his personal Cadillac.

Commercial   Vehicles  had CV prefixed numbers for petrol fueled vans, lorries and buses ,diesel fueled vehicles had IC as the prefix sometimes confused as Internal Combustion, the thinking was really for Ignition by Compression. Tractors were LV for Land Vehicle.    After the SRI prefixed numbers were issued in the late 1950s, the CV series was replaced with 33 SRI, for petrol fuelled vehicles, diesel powered vehicles ( buses and lorries) with 22SRI and 23 SRI, trailors of tractors which were T registered were replaced with 44 SRI. Tractors were registered  55 SRI  .The electric trolley buses followed the petrol commercial vehicle registration numbering fashion. Vehicles of the Army were prefixed AY, replaced with YU-HA, NAVY vehicles were prefixed with NY replaced with NAA-HA, AirForce vehicles were prefixed with AF replaced with GUWAN, all services vehicle number prefixing was replaced with Sinhala lettering.  

The early fuel filling stations have had a glass gallon on top of the dispenser. A gallon of fuel was hand cranked into this glass gallon container , another lever was pulled which emptied its contents  to the vehicle tank by gravity along the hose/nozzle.

Before the Nationalization of bus services in 1958 an assortment of private companies operated the passenger bus system. The South Western Bus Company of  Sir Cyril de Zoysa operated Galle Road services from a comprehensive garage facility which is now the Ratmalana CTB Depot. The Panadura Motor Transit Company of Leo Fernando held sway on some of the Galle Road sections.

M.J. Madanayaka had a bus company in Peliyagoda  within the Kelaniya area. His palatial  house is now the Police Station for Kelaniya  , the bus garage is now the CTB Depot Kelaniya.

The  OIL COMPANIES were operating before they were nationalized around 1961.CALTEX , ESSO and SHELL had their tank farms and network of FILLING SHEDS. MOBILOIL was also active. The Petroleum Corporation was established in the early 1960s. Petrol was 2.55 a gallon.  In the early days of motoring petrol was sold as MOTOR SPIRIT available in tins in hardware stores and pharmacies  The ANGLO ASIATIC PETROLEUM COMPANY was at Rudds Lane (Vnayalankara Mawatha) archival photos show  SHELL branded vehicles, The premises is now Delmege Forsythe. The Insurance business was very competitive and operated by the  private sector. When oil companies are discussed the names SO CO NY and STAN VAC surface.

In the early to mid 20th century many stenographers were males> a letter was dictated, taken down in ‘SHORTHAND’ and typed on ROYAL, UNDERWOOD or REMINGTON type writers.

Another feature seen upto the 1960s was that of the PETITION WRITER, These persons operated outside Court houses and Kachcheries on folding stools with a portable typewriter on their lap  typing letters.

In the ‘first wave’ of NATIONALIZATION in the early 1960s the Insurance companies along with the oil companies and schools were TAKEN OVER Import  controls and a subsequent IMPORT BAN were enforced. There was mass RETRENCHMENT, some big stores CLOSED DOWN It was impossible to obtain an imported item unless from an overseas traveler, or an Embassy auction. This situation prevailed until imports were liberalized in the late 1970s

Refrigerators were kerosene oil operated Ammonia gas heat exchange process type. Electric ‘fridges’ were introduced later. The brands noticed were Electrolux, GEC, Kelvinator ‘.Leonard. Fridges were usually placed in the living rooms of Ceylonese households in view as a status symbol.

Air conditioners were rarely seen in homes, other than in Embassies and foreigner occupied houses.> the makes noticed were Carrier, Admiral  , Hotpoint, Fridgidaire.

Horse Racing was a popular past –time.

Golf was played n many courses, Anderson Golf Links near Narahenpita, the flats stand here . Where the BMICH stands today was the Havelock Golf Links at one time known as Victoria Golf Links. The Ridgway Golf Links /Royal Colombo Golf Club still exists at a location  in the Borella area.

In the Mercantile ‘circuit’ the prominent names were Mallory Wijesinghe (son in law of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke) B.R. Jesudasan

  1. Chithru Peiris, Sohli Captain,Marsh Dodanwela, N.M. Udeshi, J.N. Bathusha, G.C. Bobiese, M.T.L.. Fernando, D.S.Jayasundera  Mark Bostock, S. Cumaraswamy, Justin Kotalawala, J.D.N. Banks , Pinsiiri Fernando, N. U. Jayawardene, Scott Dirckze, Trevor Moy, Thilo Hoffman, Ranjan M. Canekeratne, were in the corporate ‘scene. A.Y..S. Gnanam’, H.W. Jayawardene are further names which get ‘remembered.’                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Mabel Stores was famous for WAR SURPLUS material.

The famous places for pre-owned goods were DNW Auction Rooms , Shockman & Samarawickreme, Earle H. Nicholas

The YWCA had a sales outlet> the NEARLY NEW SHOP.

Book Stores of days gone by were CAVES, MC CALLUMS, LAKE HOUSE, K.V.G. DE SILVA, M.D. GUNASENA, DANIELS, ZUBHAIR MAKEEN, and the Department Stores  had specialized ‘book departments’

Most family run pharmacies, grocers’ and wine shops were initially established and run by the Baratha community, Gomez, Paiva, Fernando (not Pranandhu), Alvarez(Kalutara) Gonsal (Kurunegala),Pinto, Costa, de Croos, Silvera, Morais.  

Architects of yesteryear were Geoffrey Bawa,(Edward Red & Begg) J.C. Nilgiriya, Homi Billimoria, Leon Monk, Ulrik Plessner

Legal ‘Eagles’ G.G. Ponnambalam, Colvin R de Silva, H.V. Perera, H. H. Basnayake, Mervyn St. S. Casie Chetty, Herbert Wanigatunga N.K. Choksy, K. Shinya, R.L. Perera and the firms of Julius &Creasey, F.J. & G de Saram, D.L.& F De Saram 

Chartered Accountants’ firms were Ford Rhodes & Thornton, Duncan Watkins > later evolved as Turquand Youngs, Cecil Arsecularatne, Carter de Costa, Pope & Co,. Alles Martin.,

Clocks and watches were sold and serviced by K. Don Willies, Silvas , Wimaladharma and David Pereras.

The establishments for furniture were, Anglo Oriental (Colombo Apothecaries), Don Carolis, Decarnes, Broughams, Ceylon Furnishing House associated with J. Botticelli

Engineering firms were Walkers, Browns, Colombo Commercials, Hoare &Co, Hayley &Kenny, Parakrama Engineers, Jinsena Foundry, The GOVERNMENT FACTORY, Walker & Greig, D.K. Mody, Fentons, Hendersons

Opticians were COLOMBO OPTICAL SERVICES on Upper  Chatham Street> later known as Eric Rajapakshe., Albert Edirisinghe’s,

Colombo Apothecaries William  Pedris

The recognized hotels were the Grand Oriental, Galle Face, Bristol, Mount Lavinia, in Kandy Queens and Suisse, in Nuwara Eliya, the Grand (in the early 1960s a room was Rs.37.50) and St.Andrews, New Oriental> Galle and some of the better Rest Houses.

A telephone call required dialing 0 to get the OPERATOR .If it was an ‘OUT OF AREA’ CALL the Operator would indicate how long the connection would take to complete due to the queue of waiting call requests it was usual to be told 3 hours> a situation today which  would invite a ‘maternal reference.’ Old telephone switchboards were of heavy wood construction with jacks and inlet input sockets which the operator manually ‘fed ‘ in and out, later there were more ‘user friendly triggers’


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