Revd Small of Richmond: Educationist Extraordinary

Simon Meeds with Joe Simpson**

In September 1973 Joe Simpson had my first encounter with the man who, 120 years after his birth, is still referred to as “Small of Richmond”.  Joe remembers the moment clearly. It was a typical morning for the south coast of Sri Lanka at that time of year, already hot and rather humid. Joe was a newly-arrived Cambridge University graduate, a teacher from Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). He had heard about Rev. Small from his VSO predecessor, another Northern Irishman who had served at Richmond a few years before. He remembers feeling wonderment on learning that not only had the Rev. Small been Principal as long ago as 1906, but also that at the age of 90 he still resided at the School.

 Walter Joseph Tombleson Small

Joe was chatting with some students outside his room, looking across the tops of the coconut trees towards the hazy blue of the Indian Ocean, when a tall, fairly erect but obviously venerable European gentleman dressed immaculately in white canvas hat, white long-sleeved shirt and white trousers appeared in the distance, striding towards the group across the playing field from the direction of the Principal’s bungalow.

“Reverend Small, I presume?” Joe queried with a nervous attempt at humour as the gentleman drew near. “Indeed it is I, and you must be Mr Simpson?” he replied with a faint glimmer of a smile. He then went on to explain that he was on his way down to the post office to buy some stamps, and asked me if he would like some. His kindliness and innate modesty were immediately obvious, and the impression left \ by that brief meeting was such that the passing years have not dimmed the memory.

The BGS connection

Walter Joseph Tombleson Small was born into a Methodist family in Boston on July 4th, 1883. The 1881 census shows the family living at Bargate End, Skirbeck.  Rev.  Small’s father, Walter T, a draper (junior partner), was born in Boston in about 1851. His wife, Emily F was born in Barton on Humber in about 1852. At the time, they had two daughters: Elizabeth and Emily; and three live-in servants: a cook, a nurse, and a housemaid.

Small was an outstanding student, securing a place at BGS, and winning the Parry Gold Medal in 1898 at the age of 15. At 16 he came top in the country in the Senior Oxford Local Ex-amination, and in October 1901 at the age of 18 he went up to Gonville & Caius College, Cam-bridge on an Open Scholarship. He gained First Class Honours in the Mathematics Tripos, being bracketed 7th Wrangler. Small went on to achieve First Class Honours in Theology, winning the University’s Mason Prize for Hebrew, and then earned a Lon-don University Bachelor of Science degree – all by the age of 23.

The call comes

Small had determined to enter the Methodist Ministry. Then, while visiting Germany with his sister in 1906, his last year at Cambridge and the same summer that he became engaged to Thekla Hermine Guenther, he received a surprise “call” from the Wesleyan Missionary Society. It invited him to replace Principal JH Darrell at Ceylon’s Richmond College, Darrell having died tragically in an outbreak of typhoid at the school’s boarding hostel. Thus began Small’s career as an educational missionary, one that led to him be described by a distinguished former pupil long afterwards as “one of the outstanding figures in the field of education in Sri Lanka in the early years of [the 20th] century… [who]… came out as a simple missionary…[and]… devoted himself to the teaching and  training  of boys   in   Sri Lanka, whom he learned to love, and to whom he gave of his best”.

Seventy years on, P de S Kuleratne still remembered vividly the day in November 1906 that Rev. Small made his first appearance at the School. The boys were all gathered in the Hall, looking up the Hill for their first sight of the new Principal. Suddenly a hush fell on the assembly: “[There appeared a] tall young man in cap and gown, bending down every now and then picking up something from the road as he came down the hill. Great was our amusement when we found out that he had been picking up the pieces of paper which we had probably thrown away as we came down to school from the Boarding House. No less was our surprise when we found out how young he was…” Kuleratne remembered not only that his new Principal was “tall” and “well built”, but also that he was “not so awe-inspiring as Principal Darrell”.


In a photograph of Reverend Small, in his 91* year, at the Galle Esplanade cricket ground (above) Small looks thin and frail, a far cry from the vigorous young man of almost seventy years earlier who was described by one of his pupils as able to “run and jump with the best of our athletes”. This annual event had a special significance for Joseph Small, for together with Principal FL Woodward at Mahinda College, Galle he had long before ensured the survival of the tradition of the “Big Match” between the two premier educational institutions in southern Ceylon, a tradition begun by Woodward and Darrell in 1905.

An old photograph survives of the two teams together at the time of the third “Big Match” in 1907, with Woodward and Small as joint umpires. The Methodist Joseph Small had recently arrived in Ceylon, while the Theosophist Frank Woodward was already well on his way to becoming a legendary figure in the South. By all reports, it was a most exciting match that year. Rev. Small evidently took his umpiring duties seriously, even racing after the bowler (Mahinda’s skipper, George Weeratunga), when the latter ran towards the boundary line to try to save the situation after the Richmond batsman had sent the ball past him, as the two Mahinda outfielders were quite far apart. How fitting then that in Richmond’s centennial year of 1976, at the suggestion of Dr. W Dahanayakc, the Richmond OBA donated the “Woodward-Small Shield” for a 50-over tournament between cricketing schools throughout the Southern Province.

No mean cricketer himself, Small made a century the following year (1908) when he played for the newly-formed Richmond Masters’ Club against the Galle CC, at the time a first class fixture. In 1910 Small scored 46 in the match where the Masters’ Club lowered the colours of the Colombo Club, at the time the premier club in Ceylon.

In 1975 Small wrote modestly to deny a rumour that he had once gained a Cambridge cricketing “Blue”. Not only was this “far from the truth” but he went out of his way to point out that he did not even get his College colours, although he confessed to having played “occasionally” for the Gonville & Gaius College 1st XI cricket team.


Apart from carrying on with the work of Darrell in taking the School to new academic heights, assisted by an extremely able teaching staff, Joseph Small successfully steered the School through some extremely difficult times in the second decade of the 20* century. During those highly eventful years Richmond experienced rigours such as the Great War, the upsurge of Ceylonese nationalism, the trauma of the 1915 Riots, the “One Hundred Days” period of martial law, and the global influenza epidemic of 1918.

1910 saw the arrival in Ceylon of Small’s German fiancée, Miss Thekla Guenther, a Lutheran pastor’s daughter and friend of his sister, whom he had become engaged to during the summer of 1906. Rev. Small described that summer as: “one of the most wonderful experiences of my life… to be a young man falling in love.” The marriage that took place in August 1910 would last for forty years until Thekla Small died in 1950.

The Great War

Thekla Small was perhaps the only “enemy alien” in Ceylon not to be interned for the duration of the conflict. Great must have been the anxiety of the Smalls throughout the war years in Ceylon, particularly in light of the 1914 “Emden scare” when wild rumours about enemy “secret agents” being in league with that legendary German battleship resulted in the unwarranted arrest and imprisonment of Engelbrecht, the one-time Boer POW who by then was a game warden at Yala. The strain of those war years may well have taken their toll on Thekla Small, and indeed concern about her health was cited by Rev. Small as the reason for his reluctantly made decision to leave Galle in 1922.

The “1915 Riots” and the subsequent “One Hundred Days” of martial law, coinciding with the nascent nationalism that was making its presence felt in the island colony, presented yet an-other challenge to the young Principal at Richmond. It was said of Small, that he knew “no barrier of race or colour – even the simple-minded could make a friend of him”. Long afterwards, it was remembered how he had secretly aided people financially in the dark days of the communal riots and their harsh aftermath, the wartime imported rice shortages, and the 1918 global influenza epidemic.

The 1915 crisis began with street confrontations between Moslems (mainly recently-arrived “Indian” Moors as distinct from the long-established “Ceylon” Moors) and Sinhalese Buddhists around Kurunegala and Kandy, and escalated due in large part to the prevailing official paranoia about German intrigue – even to the extent of believing that enemy spies disguised as Buddhist monks were conspiring to weaken the British Raj. Even in the British Parliament a senior Government Minister declared that “it was quite possible that German intrigue was at the bottom of the rising in Ceylon”. In the confusion the Colonial government panicked and declared Martial Law over all of central and south-western Ceylon in late May 1915. Over sixty Ceylonese, many of them nationalists were found guilty of “treason” during the next three months and sentenced to death. Punjabi regiments newly-arrived from India cracked down harshly on the local people. Many British planters joined the local militia and were let loose on the civilian populace. Buddhist clergy and nationalist leaders were imprisoned for no good reason. Moorish sho, £ were broken into around Galle, a mosque at Hirumbura burnt to the ground, and Punjabi soldiers camped on the Galle Fort ramparts. As the Richmond College 1994, Souvenir put it: “Rev. Small’s calm nature and balanced temperament were of much value in those troubled times”.

In the aftermath of the 1915 upheavals, nationalism in Ceylon received a severe setback. The “ruling caste” of British administrators blocked further reforms, and native Ceylonese appointments to the higher government posts failed to materialize. In this atmosphere of combined jingoism and paranoia, and recognising full well the sensitive issue of his wife’s German birth, Small’s moral courage was such that he quietly but positively supported the nationalist movement at Richmond College during the war years and beyond.


In 1914, the year before the Riots, the National Association was revived at Richmond, a tribute to the liberality of Joseph Small, who accepted the Association’s Presidency. This was a significant deviation from the political conservatism of Small’s predecessors at Richmond. Unlike many Europeans in Ceylon at this time, Joseph Small gave a place to indigenous culture, religion and nationalism. The nationalist spirit had always found fertile ground at Richmond. In fact, an earlier National Association had been formed with Rev. Small’s blessing in 1908, but after two years had become inactive as the key members had completed their time at Richmond and had left Galle. Among the revived Association’s stated objectives were: “to foster patriotism, to develop national ideals and to influence thought in every direction for the uplifting of the Ceylonese as a nation.” At the time Richmond College was the only school in Ceylon, of any denomination, with a National Association to provide a forum for pupils, staff and old boys to debate politics.


One of the abiding intellectual interests of Joseph Small’s life, no doubt deriving partly from his outstanding mathematical ability, was astronomy. Joe Simpson   remembers   spending clear, star-lit nights on   Richmond Hill with Rev. Small and his   impressive,   German-made brass telescope.  On one such occasion, Small remarked that he wondered if he would make it past his 100th birthday to see Halley’s Comet return in   the mid-1980s.    He    remembered standing with his new bride in 1910 on the same spot, watching the comet brighten the night sky-so much that a newspaper could be read.  After a disappointing performance in the early 1970s by   the   much-heralded   Comet Kohoutek, Small is said to have commented that there had been “some disintegration between the promise and the fulfillment”.

Small donated his telescope to the Galle Astronomical Association, a small group of friends who used to meet in a house in Galle Fort under the patronage of Rev. Small. On one occasion, members viewed slides loaned to him by Arthur C Clarke.


In September 1915, just after the dark period of martial law, a different kind of tragedy occurred at Closenberg Bay, Galle harbour that was to leave its mark on Joseph Small for the rest of his life. Along with some other masters, the Principal had for some time been taking groups of older boys for Saturday morning swimming sessions at Closenberg, in an area now built-up but then secluded and natural, and considered safe for bathing. On September 18th, 1915, an abnormal current carried some of the non-swimmers out of their depth, and one master and two boys drowned. The swimming entry in the 1976 Richmond Souvenir, probably written largely by Small himself refers to the tragedy but modestly makes no mention of his own heroism that day, recalled long afterwards by local people, in swimming out into the bay to rescue several of the drowning bathers. Joseph Small said that the incident had come as “a terrible blow”.


Principal Small played a significant role in founding the Richmond Scout Troop, after FG Stevens, the initiator of Ceylon Scouting, gave a talk at the School. In October 1915 the Richmond Troop was registered at London HQ as the 2nd Galle Troop. That December Lord Ba-den-Powell wrote a personal congratulatory letter to Rich-mond. By the end of the following year the School had 7 King’s Scouts and in 1917 the number rose to 37.

End of an era

By the time that Joseph Small left in 1922, Richmond College’s place in the social and economic life of the country was assured. In his time the School provided the island nation with many of her finest leaders. For instance, CWW Kannangara became independent Ceylon’s first Minister of Education and introduced the Free Education Scheme, and EFC Ludowyk (Jnr.) became the first Ceylonese Dean of the University Arts Faculty. Rev. Small had introduced commerce as a subject in 1912, preparing boys for the Chamber of Commerce Examinations, and by the time he left Richmond was one of the foremost commerce teaching institutions on the Island. The list of achievements goes on and on. A former pupil said that the Principal “walked among us, radiating an influence for good on all who came to him”.

 Revd Small visiting Boston

After Richmond

After leaving Richmond in 1922, Joseph Small spent four years at the Methodist Church’s Peradeniya Training Colony as Vice Principal, and then returned to Britain where he was a circuit minister in Cardiff for two years. The East called him back in 1928, this time for three years as a member of the teaching staff at the United Theological College in Bangalore, India. From 1931 to 1942 he was a circuit minister in England, and then in retirement a supernumerary minister at Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire until 1950, the year that his beloved Thekla died. After three years as Chaplain of the Methodist International House in London, Joseph Small, by now in his 70th year, returned to Ceylon in 1953, initially as Warden of the Peradeniya Training Colony until it became a government-controlled institution, and then as minister at Nuwara Eliya’s Union Church. It was around this time that Small applied his scholarly and linguistic gifts to compile the “Topical Sinhalese Concordance of the Bible” and as chief editor of “The History of Methodism in Ceylon”.

Finally, in his early 80s, Joseph Small “came home” to Richmond Hill in 1965 as a permanent guest of the College. His residence for most of the final years of his life consisted of a simple, sparsely furnished, single-room annex of the same bungalow atop Richmond Hill where he had resided with his dear wife years before. From there he continued quietly to minister to the sick and needy among his former pupils and their families, to whom he would unostentatiously provide both spiritual and practical help as the need arose, to visit and correspond tirelessly with friends both old and new, to study German, Hebrew and Sinhalese literature, to keep up with global events by means of his venerable wood-encased wireless that seemed permanently to be tuned to the BBC World Service, and on clear nights to view the star-filled skies through his treasured telescope.

This article was compiled by Simon Meeds, principally from information supplied by Joe Simpson (, who knew Rev. Small while working in Sri Lanka in the 1970s. His monograph **A Morning Star: Remembering ‘Small of Richmond1″ will be placed in the mini-museum at BGS together with supporting documents.

** This article was presented in the Old Bostonian, Autumn/winter 2004


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  1. Pingback: Remembering Revd WJT Small, A Saint In Our Times | Thuppahi's Blog

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