The Ceylon University College: Its First Fifteen Years, 1920-35

Thiru Arumugam, reproduced courtesy of THE CEYLANKAN August 2019 issue.

The Ceylon University College (CUC) was founded in Colombo in 1921 and prepared students for the external degree examinations of the University of London. It ceased to exist in 1942 when it was transformed into the University of Ceylon. This article traces the progress of the College during the first fifteen years of its existence and concludes with biographical notes about twenty distinguished alumni of the College who studied there during the first fifteen years.

College House, former “Regina Walauwa” beloging to the Warusahannadige De Soysas Fig 3. Former Royal College building transferred to University College, 1923

The Ceylon University Association was founded in 1906 and campaigned for the establishment of a University rank institution in Ceylon. Among the prime movers were James Peiris, Marcus Fernando and Ponnambalam Arunachalam. In 1912 the Macleod Committee appointed by Governor McCallum recommended that a University College be established in Colombo. It would be called the Ceylon University College (CUC) and be based in the buildings of Royal College. It would be affiliated to a British University, preferably Oxford, have courses in Arts and Sciences and be open to women students. It would be largely residential in character with student hostels. The College would in due course be converted into a degree awarding institution. The proposals were accepted by the Secretary of State for Colonies but there was no immediate progress due to the advent of World War 1.

Post War Progress

After the war was over, in 1920, the Government purchased ‘Regina Walauwa’ a large building standing on extensive grounds in Colombo at the junction of Thurstan Road and Queens Road. It belonged to Arthur de Zoysa, grandson of the philanthropist Sir Charles Henry de Zoysa who was reputed to be the richest Ceylonese in the 19th century. The building was re-named ‘College House’ and was the first home of the Ceylon University College which was officially opened on 24 January 1921 (Fig 1). The grounds of College House had sufficient space for three tennis courts and later on the University Press and the Junior Common Room were built on these grounds. The College was initially under the supervision of E Evans, the Director of Education and the President was ex officio, the Governor of Ceylon, W H Manning.

Affiliation was not to the University of Oxford as originally proposed but to the University of London. Lectures in Arts and Sciences were held in College House, but for Science Practicals the students had to go to the laboratories of the Ceylon Technical College in Maradana. In the first academic year, 115 students were enrolled and eight of them sat for the external degree final examinations of the University of London. Seven of them passed, two of them obtaining First Divisions, including S Nadarasar, later to become a Lecturer in Mathematics in the College.

Admission to the College was initially by invitation. Every year when the results of the Cambridge Senior Examination were released, those who obtained Honours level passes in this examination as well as those who passed the London Matriculation Examination received personal letters from the Registrar of the College inviting them to enrol in the College for degree level studies. All did not accept the invitation. A few who could afford it proceeded to UK for further studies. There were others whose family financial situations were such that they had to become wage earners immediately, and thus missed the opportunity of tertiary education. A popular occupation for them was to join the Government Clerical Service.

Professor Robert Marrs

At the beginning of the academic year 1921-22, Prof Robert Marrs MA(Oxon), was appointed Principal of the College (Fig 2). He continued to hold this post for nineteen years until he retired in 1939. He was succeeded by Sir Ivor Jennings who was mandated with the specific task of converting the Ceylon University College into the fully-fledged University of Ceylon, which he achieved in 1942. The initial staff of the College in 1921 included Professors of: English; Classics and Philosophy; Modern History and Economics; Physics; and Chemistry. In October 1922 the first Professor of Mathematics was appointed. He was C Suntharalingam and he was the first Ceylonese Professor in the College.

In October 1921, construction of the new CUC Science Laboratories and lecture rooms was completed and instruction in science subjects was moved to these new buildings  from the Ceylon Technical College premises. In October 1923 construction of the new buildings for Royal College was completed and the former Royal College Classroom block built in 1911 was handed over to the CUC, and Arts lectures were transferred to this block from College House (Fig 3). CUC now occupied about 17 acres of real estate in a prime location in the heart of Colombo, in the wedge between Thurstan Road and Reid Avenue, including spacious cricket and football playing fields. Within the next couple of years, King George Hall was built behind the lecture rooms. It is one of the oldest theatres in Colombo and is used as a theatre as well as for University functions. It has folding partition doors which enable it to be used simultaneously as two lecture halls.

By 1935 the total number of students on the roll was 540 including 55 women students. During the period 1921 to 1935, the total number of CUC students who graduated from the University of London was 337 including 25 women graduates.

In 1935 the Professors in the College included E F C Ludowyk (English), S Whiteley (Classics), C Suntharalingam (Mathematics), S A Pakeman (Modern History and Economics), R Marrs (Philosophy), J P Andrews (Physics), A Kandiah (Chemistry), and N G Ball (Botany). Courses were provided in Science, Mathematics and Arts subjects including Oriental Languages. Among the Lecturers, most of whom later became Professors, were: H A Passe (English), J L C Rodrigo (Classics), U D R Caspersz (Mathematics), B B Das Gupta (Economics), W J F LaBrooy (History), G P Malalasekera (Sanskrit, Pali and Sinhalese), K Kanapathipillai (Tamil), A W Mailvaganam (Physics), and E L Fonseka (Chemistry).

Battle of the Sites

It was during the period reviewed by this article that the location of the future University of Ceylon was decided after the so-called ‘Battle of the Sites’. In the 1920s the battle became very vocal and attracted the attention of politicians as well as intellectuals. Those involved included D R Wijewardene, D B Jayatilake, Sir James Peiris, Sir P Arunachalam, Sir P Ramanathan and Prof Robert Marrs. They formed into two groups, with one group favouring Colombo as the site for the future University of Ceylon, and the other group favouring a residential University in the Dumbara Valley near Kandy.

In 1926 Governor Hugh Clifford appointed a Committee with Solicitor General M T Akbar as Chairman to propose a location for the future University. The Committee Report dated February 1927 said that they are of the opinion that no better site can be found than in the Dumbara Valley in the Kandy District. This was endorsed by the Legislative Council in 1928 and a University Commission was appointed to establish, incorporate and regulate the University of Ceylon. The exact site issue was again re-examined by a Committee in 1936 and in 1938 the State Council purchased the present site in Peradeniya.

Some Rules and Regulations of the Ceylon University College 

Some of the Rules and Regulations of the College during the period under Review were:

The College was open to women students (compared with this the first class of women students was admitted to the Harvard Medical School only in 1945).

Residential Hostels were in Government buildings leased out to organisations to run them. The hostel charges for full board and lodging was about Rs 100 per term.

The College was administered by the University College Council and Academic Committee.

Lecture fees payable by students were Rs 50 per term.

University of London examination fees were a little over Rs 100 per examination.

No student was permitted to leave Colombo during term time without permission from the Principal.

Any absence from lectures for more than two consecutive days required a Medical Certificate to be submitted.

A student can only sit as a private candidate for any other examination with the permission of the Principal.

Students can only proceed to the next year of a Course if they had attended 80 per cent of the lectures and passed any relevant examinations.

Numerous Scholarships and Studentships were awarded by the College

Four Scholarships, based on the results of the Final Honours examination, were awarded to students to proceed to UK for further studies, one each in Arts, Oriental Languages, Science and Mathematics.

College Hostels

The College had four Students Hostels which provided full board and lodging. They were all within easy walking distance of the College. They were invariably full because they were convenient and provided good value for money.

The University College Christian Hostel, better known as Brodie House, was located in Bagatelle Road. Subsequently it moved to Bullers Road. It was run by the Young Men’s Christian Association. The Warden in 1935 was J L C Rodrigo MA (Oxon). It was primarily meant for Christian students but non-Christian students were admitted if there were vacancies. The hostel fees varied from Rs 96 to Rs 108 a term depending on the room occupied. This fee included room rent, lighting, service, meals, laundry, games (tennis, volley ball and indoor games) and newspapers. No charge was made for retaining the room during the long vacation.

Union Hostel was in a large building in Guildford Crescent and had two branches, Arunachalam Hall and Jayatilaka Hall. It provided accommodation for a total of 70 students. The Warden in 1935 was A Ginige MA. Hostel fees and services were similar to Brodie House.

Catholic Hostel was in a large purpose-built building on Havelock Road opposite the Police Park. It was under Catholic management and the Warden in 1935 was Rev. Father T B Cooray DD. It could accommodate 30 students. It was meant primarily for Catholic students but others were accommodated if there were vacancies. The charges were Rs 90 per term. Facilities were similar to the other College Hostels but in addition it had a Gymnasium.

The University College Women’s Hostel was in a building named ‘Cruden’ on Queen’s Road almost opposite College House. It was founded under the auspices of the Christian Council in Ceylon. The Warden in 1935 was Miss E H Rutnam MA. The Hostel fees were Rs 132 per term. The facilities were similar to the other College Hostels, except that it did not have any tennis courts. The College House tennis courts were, however, across the road. It was primarily intended for women students of the College but other women students of University standing were admitted if there were vacancies.

This summarises the origin and growth of the Ceylon University College over the first fifteen years of its existence. It continued to prosper over the next seven years until it was transformed into the University of Ceylon in 1942.  Biographical notes about twenty distinguished alumni who studied in the College during the fifteen year period under review are appended below. Selection of the twenty names from the many distinguished alumni has been quite arbitrary.

Biographical notes about some distinguished alumni of the College between 1921 and 1935

Samson Felix Amarasinghe graduated with a BA Second Division in 1922. He was awarded a University Scholarship and studied in Cambridge University. He joined the Ceylon Civil Service and rose to the position of Secretary to the Treasury from 1956 to 1961. This is the highest post that can be held by a public servant.

Hamilton Shirley Amerasinghe graduated in 1934 with a BA First Class Classics degree. He joined the Ceylon Civil Service rising to the highest position of Secretary to the Treasury from 1961 to 1963. In 1963 he was appointed High Commissioner in India. From 1967 to 1980 he was Ceylon’s Representative to the United Nations. In 1976 he was briefly President of the UN General Assembly. His brother Clarence Amerasinghe started a motor car dealership called Car Mart and imported Peugeot and Volkswagen cars.

Sanmugam Arumugam graduated in 1927 with a degree in Physics and Mathematics. He proceeded to Kings College, London where he obtained a Civil Engineering degree. Returning to Ceylon he worked in the Irrigation Department. He was the first alumnus of the CUC to be recruited as an Irrigation Engineer. After retirement, he joined the newly formed Water Resources Board as a working Director. He was President of the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka.

Charles Percival de Silva obtained a First Class Honours degree in Mathematics from CUC in 1933. He joined the Ceylon Civil Service in 1935 and rose to the position of Director of Land Development in 1949. After retirement he entered politics as the MP for Polonnaruwa in 1952 and was appointed Minister of Lands, Land Development and Agriculture in 1956. From 1965 he was Minister of Lands, Irrigation and Power. He was an MP for 17 years.

  Anthony Theodoric Armand de Souza popularly known as “Doric”, graduated in 1934 with a BA English First Class. He was awarded a scholarship and proceeded to UK for post-graduate studies. Returning in 1937 he joined CUC as a Lecturer in English. He joined the Lanka Sama Samaja Party. During World War II days the party leaders N M Perera, Colvin R de Silva and Philip Gunawardena were jailed. Doric with the help of sympathetic jailers helped them to escape and arranged for them to be smuggled to India. In 1952 he joined the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, as a Senior Lecturer and later Reader in English. From 1957 to 1969 he was a Senator. From 1970 to 1974 he was Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Plantations when Colvin R de Silva was the Minister. He retired from the post of Associate Professor, Kelaniya University.

Christie Jayaratnam Eliezer joined CUC in 1935 and graduated in 1938 with a BSc Mathematics First Class degree. He was awarded a Government Scholarship and proceeded to Cambridge where he graduated in 1943, obtained a PhD in 1946 and a DSc in Mathematics in 1949. He was called to the Bar in the Middle Temple in 1949. Returning to Ceylon he was appointed Professor of Mathematics in the University of Ceylon at the age of 31 years. He was Dean of the Faculty of Science from 1954 to 1957. In 1959 he joined the University of Malaya as Professor of Mathematics, later becoming Dean of the Faculty of Science and finally Vice-Chancellor. In 1968 he joined La Trobe University, Melbourne as the first Professor of Applied Mathematics, later becoming Deputy Vice-Chancellor.

Junius Richard Jayewardene, better known as ‘JR’ (Fig 4), entered CUC in 1926 and followed courses in English, Latin, Logic and Economics. However, in 1928 he left CUC and joined Law College where he qualified as an Advocate. He was elected to the State Council in 1943 and was Finance Minister in Parliament from 1947 to 1953. On the death of Dudley Senanayake in 1973 he became the leader of the United National Party. He became President of Sri Lanka in 1978 and held the post till he retired in 1989.

Evelyn Frederick Charles Ludowyk graduated with a BA English First Class in 1928. He was awarded a Government Scholarship and proceeded to Cambridge where in Part II of the English Tripos he got a First Class and won the Oldham Prize for Shakespeare. He later completed his PhD from Cambridge. He joined the staff of CUC in 1932 and was appointed Professor of English in 1936. He was Dean of the Faculty of Arts in Peradeniya in 1952. He expanded the scope of the University’s English Dramatic Society’s productions to make it accessible to the general public and also made a significant impact on the development of Sinhala drama in the University. Due to his wife’s ill health, he took early retirement in 1956 and moved to London where he was a Visiting Lecturer in the University of London. He wrote several books but he is perhaps best remembered for his play written in 1942, “He comes from Jaffna”.

Arumugam Wisuvalingam Mailvaganam graduated in 1926 with a BSc First Class in 1926. He was awarded a Government Scholarship and proceeded to Cambridge where he passed the Natural Science Tripos in 1928 and obtained a PhD in Physics in 1938. Returning to Ceylon he was appointed Professor of Physics in the CUC in 1939, a post he held until he retired in 1966. He was Dean of the Faculty of Science in the University of Ceylon from 1948 to 1954 and also acted as Vice-Chancellor on several occasions. He was awarded the OBE in 1949 and Vidya Jyothi in 1985. He was President of the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science.

Garrett Champness Mendis  obtained a second class honours degree in History from CUC in 1925. He went to UK and studied in the London School of Oriental Studies where he examined the chronicles of Ceylon and obtained his PhD in 1931. Later on, the University of London awarded him a DLitt in 1957. He was a Lecturer in CUC from 1937. He was a pioneer historian on the History of Ceylon and wrote numerous books and articles.

Robert Hoisington Paul graduated with BSc First Division in 1924. He was awarded a Government Scholarship and proceeded to Cambridge where he studied Electrical Engineering and passed the Mechanical Science Tripos First Class. He joined the Ceylon Technical College where he rose to the position of Director. He worked tirelessly to obtain recognition of the Engineering Degree level classes held by the Technical College and in 1942 the University of London gave provisional recognition for the students to sit for their external engineering degree examinations. In 1950 after producing 104 engineers, these classes were taken over to form the Engineering Faculty of the University of Ceylon and he became the first Professor of Electrical Engineering. He was Dean of the Faculty of Engineering from 1965 to 1966.

Eustace Oliver Edwin Pereira passed the BSc with First Class Honours in 1928. He was awarded a Government Scholarship and proceeded to Cambridge to study Civil Engineering and passed the Mechanical Science Tripos in 1931. He was the first Professor of Civil Engineering in the University of Ceylon and the founding Dean of the Engineering Faculty in 1950. From 1969 to 1971 he was Vice Chancellor of the University of Ceylon in Peradeniya. In 1986 he was awarded the title of Vidya Jyothi, the highest honour for science in Sri Lanka.

Nanayakkarapathirage Martin Perera, better known as ‘NM’, entered CUC in 1925 and passed the Intermediate Arts examination in 1926. He switched over to the Intermediate Economics course in 1927 but left a few months later to study in the London School of Economics where he obtained a degree, a PhD, as well as a DSc in Economics. He was founder member of the Trotskyite Lanka Sama Samaja Party in 1935. He continuously held the Ruanwella or Yatiyantota seats in Parliament from 1936 to 1977. He was Minister of Finance from 1970 to 1975.

Peter of Alcantara Pillai, better known as Peter Pillai, as a schoolboy obtained distinctions in all eight subjects in the Cambridge Senior Examination, the highest number in the British Empire. He graduated from CUC in 1923 with a BSc First Class and in 1925 with BSc First Class in Double Mathematics. He was awarded a Government Scholarship and proceeded to Cambridge where he obtained an MA. He entered the Oblates of Mary Order in Belgium. He was ordained as a Priest and obtained a PhD from Rome Dominican University and a Doctorate in Divinity from Rome. In 1940 he was appointed Rector of St Josephs College. He was the Warden of CUC’s Catholic Students Hostel. In 1953 he founded the Aquinas College of Higher Studies which conducted degree level classes.

Murugeysen Rajendra graduated with a BA History Second Class in 1933. He joined the Ceylon Civil Service in 1934 and held positions of Government Agent and Commissioner of Lands and Land Development. His final position was Secretary to the Treasury and Head of the Public Service from 1968 to 1971. After retirement he was Chairman of the Freedom from Hunger Foundation.

Bamunusinghearachchige Don Rampala entered CUC and passed the Intermediate Science examination. He joined the Ceylon Government Railway as a Special Apprentice in 1931 and in 1933 he passed the BSc London as an external candidate. In 1949 he was appointed as the first Ceylonese Chief Mechanical Engineer of the CGR and was later the General Manager from 1955 to 1970. He improved the railway system and introduced Diesel Electric Locomotives in 1953, Colour Light Signalling in the 1950s and initiated express trains like the Uda Rata Menike and Yal Devi. In 1956 the Institution of Locomotive Engineers, London, voted him the best Diesel Locomotive Engineer east of Suez.

Ediriweera Sarachchandra entered CUC in 1933 and graduated with First Class Honours in Oriental Languages in 1936. At his parents’ insistence he sat for the Ceylon Civil Service examination and came first in order of merit, but did not join the service. He went to Santiniketan in India to study Indian Philosophy and Music and joined the University of Ceylon as a Lecturer in Pali in 1947 and ultimately became an Emeritus Professor. He is recognised as Ceylon’s leading Playwright and wrote the Sinhala dramas Maname and Sinhabahu. In 1988 he won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Literature.

Lokusatu Heva Sumanadasa obtained a BSc (General) Second Class Honours degree in 1931. He was awarded a Government Scholarship and proceeded to study Aeronautical Engineering at Imperial College, London. After graduating, he was employed by the aircraft manufacturer, Handley Page. He returned to Ceylon in 1942. He was Head of Civil Engineering at the Ceylon Technical College, Maradana. He was the founder Director of the Ceylon College of Technology, Katubedde which is now the University of Moratuwa. He was Vice Chancellor of the University of Sri Lanka.

Herbert Ernest Tennekoon passed the BA in History with First Class Honours in 1934. He joined the Ceylon Civil Service and rose to the highest position of Secretary to the Treasury. He was the Country Representative to the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT). He was the country’s Ambassador in Japan. In 1971 he was appointed Governor of the Central Bank.

Victor Tennekoon, brother of Herbert (above), passed the BA (General) degree in the second division in 1935. He subsequently entered Law College. In 1965 he was appointed Solicitor General and in 1972 he was appointed Attorney General. He was appointed Chief Justice in 1974. He was the Chancellor of the University of Peradeniya from 1979 to 1984.


Filed under accountability, British colonialism, cultural transmission, education, education policy, heritage, historical interpretation, island economy, landscape wondrous, life stories, literary achievements, performance, Royal College, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, teaching profession, unusual people, world events & processes

2 responses to “The Ceylon University College: Its First Fifteen Years, 1920-35

  1. Dear Dr Roberts
    This is Prof Enoka Corea from the FAculty of Medicine, University of Colombo. I would like to highlight the role of the CUC in its centenary year at the annual research symposium. Would be grateful for more information and documents about this place.
    Enoka Corea (0777808439)

  2. EMAIL COMMENT from Chandrasena MALIYADDE in Sri Lanka, 9 November 2021:
    “Very interesting and informative. We being students of University Ceylon become nostalgic with its beginning and evolution. Ironically when we celebrate its centenary, it has got the most fitting Chancellor.”

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