The Building Boom that transformed Colombo over 100 Years Ago

Hugh Karunanayake,  courtesy of THE CEYLANKAN from Sydney, Journal 86, Vol XXII, May 2019

Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then called, had hardly any commercial or mercantilism during the nineteenth century when it was gradually emerging from a peasant society into a plantation economy. There were two major factors which contributed towards the commercialization of Colombo as a city. The first was the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 which made a tremendous impact on trade relations between the occident and the orient.

The other significant factor was the construction of the South Western Breakwater enabling  the entry of steam ships into Colombo’s harbour.  Up until then Galle was the main port of Ceylon and the city of Galle was the main centre for shipping to and from the country. During most part of the nineteenth century, the Galle harbour apart from being the port of entry and departure for international travel, was also the centre of what could be described as a service hub for tourists.

During that time there were only two hotels in  Colombo that would serve the needs of international travelers the Royal Hotel which stood at the site of the present General Post Office in Queen Street, and the Galle Face Hotel, then known as the Galle Face Boarding House.. The city of Galle however had about half a dozen hotels  with desirable levels of occupancy by visitors arriving in the island. Excepting the Pavilion Hotel run by Mrs Braybrooke, located  across the road facing the Ramparts, the others were all located within the Fort of Galle. There was Eglington Hotel in Hospital Street, Loret’s Hotel in Middle Street,the Sea View Hotel in Church Street run by the Ephraums family, and the Oriental Company’s Hotel also in Church Street, later acquired by the Ephraums family and run as New Oriental Hotel. The other major  tourist related  industry was the gem and jewellery shops of which there were also about ten all located in the Fort and especially in Middle Street. With the opening of the South Western Breakwater,the first stages of the development of Colombo as a harbour city, commenced. It also heralded the beginning of the decline of the use of the Port of Galle and its related enterprises, as the ship chandlering businesses, and the jewellery and gem traders all moved to Colombo.

Although the first stream ship to traverse the Suez Canal to Colombo “The Wm Miller” arrived at the post of Colombo  on 10 February 1870, the facilities for harbouring of such a craft were not fully  available. A deputation from the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce  presented a petition to the government in September 1870 urging the government for better harbouring facilities. Two months later government plans to expand the Galle harbour were officially  abandoned.  In the following year, 1871, the walls of the Dutch Fort of Colombo were demolished and the surrounding moats filled. In 1875 the foundation stone for the construction of the South West Breakwater  of the Colombo harbour was laid by the visiting Prince of Wales. The completion of the project took a few years  and was carried out by Resident Engineer Mr John Kyle  under the direction of Sir John Coode the most distinguished harbour engineer in the world. He successfully implemented several  harbour and river improvement projects in various parts of the British Empire including Australia where he planned and oversaw some changes to the gradient of the Yarra River. Through his expertise,  the Colombo harbour was facilitated to receive any size of ship traversing the oceans by the 1890s.

The facilities provided by the harbour created a natural demand  for greater commercial activity.  At the cusp of  the new commercialization was a desire to erect  buildings  such as those that had been erected in other parts of the Empire. Possibly the first building to herald the late Victorian/Edwardian building boom in the Colombo Fort was the construction of the General Post Office on the site where the Royal Hotel stood. The Royal Hotel was the only hotel in the Fort. Built on neo classical lines. it was   run by a Sinhalese dubasher with the unlikely name of Morris! The GPO was planned by Mr Tunstall an architect and implemented under the supervision of Mr Tomalin of the PWD in the early 1890s. The GPO was the largest building of the time in Colombo and when completed  was open  to the public for several days during which thousands gazed in wonder at the masterpiece! During the security clamp of the late  20 th Century around Presidents House which stands opposite to the GPO, the building had remained unoccupied for many years, and remains so now. A sad finale to a building with a glorious past. It is heartening to note that there are no plans to demolish this splendid piece of colonial architecture which is part of our national heritage.

In about 1895 the Fort Land and Building Company acquired the block of land on York Street where National Grindlays Bank stands right up to the road facing the jetty. At the time the upper part of York Street consisted of small shops mainly jewellery and curio shops. The Company demolished the existing small buildings and constructed Victoria Arcade and the buildings in which the Grindlays Bank now occupy. On the opposite side of York Street stood Cargills then a single storied shop.  It was previously  a residence for Mr Phillip Sluyskens a Dutch resident who moved to his country house in Kelaniya after Cargills purchased his house. Walker and Sons the pre eminent engineering firm even then, were occupying a small building at the Fort end of Main Street, which they demolished and constructed a large elegant three storied building completed in 1911. Walkers were the contractors for a new building for Cargills Ltd and their newly constructed building in Main Street were let out temporarily to Cargills. A  large wooden carving of Minerva the Goddess was found during the construction of Cargills and it was placed in a niche in the new building and could be seen to this day.

In about 1915 the new building for Mr Abdul Cafoor the gem merchant was constructed in Main Street, and from the time of its opening the firm of HW Cave and Sons  were the principal tenants, having moved from  Amens Corner where the Bogala Building stands in Upper Chatham Street facing the Baurs Building. The Bogala building was originally the property of Sir Charles Henry de Soysa, the first Ceylonese millionaire.Sadly, the Gafoor building  has passed its use by date and in recent years rendered unsuitable for occupation due to instability. Measures were afoot to stabilize the building, but this writer is not aware of the outcomes.

Now here is the story behind Australia Building, a building in the heart of Colombo  named after Australia, a quizzical name which kept many wondering about its  background. In about 1895  the old Millers building on York Street, a single story unkempt building, was auctioned. The buyer was Kerri Davies an Australian timber merchant who  had business connections  with Mr R B Carson the founder of Carson Cumberbtch and Co. Mr Davies constructed the new building which was to house Millers  Ltd and the building was named Australia Building to honour the nationality of its owner..

Bristol Hotel was under the management of Mr WST Sunders  who decided to add a new wing with a theatre but the construction proved to be unsuitable and the wing was used to create more bedrooms for the Hotel which was then very upmarket. Incidentally, the Bristol Hotel was the first  building in Colombo  to boast of ceiling fans.The honour of being the first building to be supplied with electricity goes to the Colombo Club on Galle Face which was”electrified” in 1893.The Bristol Hotel followed shortly thereafter.

St Andrews Church stood on Prince Street, and moved to its new premises on Galle Road Kollupitiya in 1912. Its site was used to construct the building of another large departmental store Whiteaway Laidlaw and Co already well established in places like Hong Kong, Saigon and Singapore. Part of the Whiteaway building was sold to Freudenberg and Co to subsidise cost of construction. Soon after, Harrisons and Crosfield  whose predecessors Crosfield,Lampard and Co occupied a site on Victoria Arcade sought to construct a new building. The new Harrisons and Crosfield building five stories high brought the Fort landscape to new heights. All these new structures which appeared during the last decade of the 19th Century and the first two decades of the twentieth century, gave Colombo a new look and an air of sophistication and confidence which did the British Empire proud.

Many, if not all the major building around Colombo, were constructed  by the engineering firm of Walker Sons and Co established in 1854. It engaged two principal contractors to work under its supervision Messr UDS Gunasekera and Wapiche Marikkar.  In 1904 the company published a booklet containing testimonials and illustrations of some of the principal buildings erected by them in Ceylon of which many were in Colombo. They included  Australia Building, the Victoria Building, the Pand O office, the National Bank of India Ltd, Messrs Cargills Building, Whiteaway Laidlaw and Co, Miller and Co.  The role of Walkers in the rebuilding of Colombo is little remembered today, but the strikingly beautiful Victorian and Edwardian architecture that dominates the Fort landscape does the country proud, and the  buildings now preserved for posterity. Fortunately many of the buildings referred to, have been left intact, with Commercial development in recent decades  mainly  occurring along the Galle Road and Duplication Road areas. The Fort area being subject to security containment due to the location of Presidents’s house  within the Fort, has in recent decades seen some unintended consequences in the preservation of the beautiful old Victorian and Edwardian structures. It has to be remembered that the concept of the multi department store as was seen in Cargills Ltd, Miller Ltd, Whiteaway Laidlaw and Co, Colombo Apothecaries Ltd now seems to be obsolete. In its day and age when Britannia ‘ruled the waves’ and also” waived the rules” products from Britain totally dominated the market. Those days are now long past, and so are the products from the Metropolitan power that fed those large departmental stores. Post World War 2  developments saw the emergence of Japan, Korea, China  and other countries of the East emerging as the dominant leaders of markets for consumables. The supermarket concept has arrived and is bound to dominate commercial activity relating to the household sector for years to come. The significance of the Colombo harbour as a passenger port also has greatly diminished with cheaper, faster, air travel, now being the popular mode of international travel. However the challenge is for our urban planners to make a viable “heritage precinct” within the Fort retaining the Department Store as a feature of the City’s heritage. Harrods in London, and the House of Tang in Singapore are two colonial departmental stores that have withstood the challenges of modernism, and perhaps the time is opportune for us to take a closer look at similar opportunities. Despite the onward march of time,  the old Fort of Colombo  holds some treasured memories for those of us who lived through that quiet, almost forgotten, genteel era and the time may be ripe to preserve the spirit of a bygone age to be savoured by present and future  generations.






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