Mr WJF Labrooy: A Historian Teacher from the Top Drawer

Basil Labrooy responding to a request from Professor KM de Silva**

William Justin Frank La Brooy (referred to as Justin) was born on 21.10.1910. in Tangalle.  He was the 5th child of Frank La Brooy (proctor in Tangalle) and Maud (nee Poulier). His father was from Colombo where he had attended Royal College before training in Law. His mother was originally from Kandy where she had briefly worked as a teacher before marrying Frank in her late teens.

Justin had his primary schooling in Tangalle before moving to Wesley College Colombo, where he was boarded, for his secondary education. While he participated in sports, he did not distinguish himself in any. Academically he was one of the brightest students who went through Wesley at the time when Rev Highfield was Principal. He entered University College on the basis of outstanding results in the Cambridge Senior examination.

His undergraduate studies in the University were in Arts, majoring in History with an Upper 2nd Class from the University of London. His mentor, Professor S. A. Pakeman is on record as saying that he had expected him to get a First Class and that he was disappointed that he did not achieve this.

Following his graduation, he taught briefly at his old school, Wesley, with which he maintained contact throughout his life. I believe there is a block of class-rooms named the “La Brooy Block” commemorating the family of 4 brothers who were students there, before moving on to a variety of professions, between the 1910’s and 1930’s. He then worked for a short time in the Income Tax Department in colonial Ceylon before being recruited by Professor Pakeman to a position in the History Department in the University in the early 1930s.

He spent the whole of his subsequent working life in this Department. This encompassed the transition of the University College in Colombo into the University of Ceylon around the time of independence, with Ivor Jennings who was intimately involved in formulating the constitution of the new nation, as its first Vice-Chancellor (Robert Marrs had headed up University College, Colombo, before). When the Arts Faculty shifted to the new University campus in Peradeniya, he moved there in 1953. He continued to work in the History Department in Peradeniya, till he retired in 1975 (?) and maintained close contact with it till he died at home in 1979 having been driven home, by Erica, from a lecture he had wanted to attend in the University.

While he enjoyed teaching and encouraging others to undertake research, his own research output was limited.  This was undoubtedly contributed to by the breakdown of movement across to Britain due to the 2nd World War and his delayed return to study. Though he commenced work towards a PhD through the School of Oriental and Asian Studies in London University, with sabbaticals while working on this in 1952/3 and 1958, he did not complete this. What he most valued from his work in the University were the students he helped mould. These included his wife, Erica (nee Christoffelsz) who was one of his earliest students and his daughter-in-law (Nirmala Dissanayaka) who was one of his last students, and more importantly many historians who were students or colleagues in the History Department.

 The Labrooys in London in 1951

Justin and Erica married in 1937.  Their family arrived after some delay: Justin Theodore was born in 1946 and Franklin Charles in 1947 while they were still living in Colombo.  Basil Henry was born in 1953 in Kandy after they had shifted to Peradeniya.

They lived first in a bungalow in Mahakande from 1953 to around 1955, then in a University bungalow on Sanghamitta Hill before moving to the Principal’s bungalow at Kandy High School around 1957.  When Erica completed her time as Principal of High School, they moved to another University bungalow close to the Mahaveli Ganga in Getambe. Their final move was in the 1970’s to a house on the block which Professor KM de Silva bought from them some years later. My father was living there till he died.

Abiding interests outside of his work included his work in the church, with schools where he was on a number of governing boards, and the support he gave to his extended family.  A number of nephews and nieces, his mother, mother-in-law and various sisters and members of their families lived for considerable periods of time, with him and his family.

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A NOTE from Michael Roberts

When I entered Peradeniya University and pursued Western History as one of my first year subjects, I found myself in a tutorial group guided by Mr Labrooy — one that included Trevor Roosmale-Cocq, Russell Forbes, Ananda Wickremaratne and Jayantha Dhanapala if my memory is on the mark. Once I chose to spend a further three years pursuing a History course oriented towards the Modern Era, I came into greater contact with Mr Labrooy, though also benefiting from a cohort of excellent teachers: Fr Pinto, Karl W Goonewardena, S. Arasaratnam, Shelton Kodikara, and KM de Silva for instance.

Mr Labrooy was our Head of Department and when I ended up with a good degree by 1961, he offered me a job with the stipulation that I would have to teach in Sinhala.  I took up that challenge of trying to improve my Sinhala, while also deciding NOT to sit for the CCS examination because I felt that I could not survive in that circuit in the the situation prevailing in the 1960s (how wise that reading is now in retrospect).

Mr Labrooy’s benevolent duty of care was exemplary. He took the trouble to visit me at my sister’s home in Wellawatte and urged me to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship — something I was not thinking of doing because one had to finance one’s journey to UK , calling for a sum of money beyond my pockets and beyond my pater’s reach. Mr Labrooy overrode my fears: he stressed that the Rhodes stipend in UK would more than make up for the initial voyage.

So I did apply.

That made my future.

To WJF Labrooy my eternal thanks ….. and so too to him and Erica for supporting me, Shona and our two kids when we were struggling financially on a paltry Assistant Lecturer’s salary in the late 1960s. Their attentiveness to a duty of care was truly exceptional.



Filed under cultural transmission, education, European history, heritage, historical interpretation, life stories, literary achievements, performance, religiosity, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, unusual people

2 responses to “Mr WJF Labrooy: A Historian Teacher from the Top Drawer

  1. Dear Michael, ….. What a pleasure it was to read these affectionate tributes to my dear History lecturer at Peradeniya University! My own wonderful memories of him come flooding back and I have enjoyed sharing them with his son Justin. ………………Thank you very much for sending this to me.
    ……….. Stay safe and well and all the best …. ERROL FERNANDO in Melbourne, 20 April 2020

  2. Hiram labrooy

    Hi Michael, it was great reading and I always love to know more about Labrooy family.
    Hiram labrooy

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