Frederick Dornhorst and Royal College

Senaka Weeraratna

Please note that the following article was provided on the 9th of July 2020, before the Dornhorst Memorial Prize was amended to be awarded to the Most Outstanding Royalist on the 16th of July 2020

 “All Royalists of the present generation should specially remember two great Royalists, whose defense of the College in its darkest days saved Royal. They are Sir Richard Morgan (1851) and Frederick Dornhorst, K.C. (1916)” ….. ……. S.S. Perera in  History of Royal College    


Named after one of the schools’ greatest sons for his remarkable oratory and highly persuasive speech delivered at a Royal College Prize Giving (1916), that led to the abandonment of a proposal to replace Royal College in favour of a University College, the Dornhorst Memorial Prize has shone as the most coveted Prize awarded to the most outstanding student during the year at the Annual Royal College Prize Giving held under the patronage of the Chief Administrator of the Country (Governor or Chief Secretary in the absence of the Governor)           during the colonial era or the head of the State in the post-independence period.       

Frederick Schultz Dornhorst, KC, enjoys an iconic status in school history and is widely regarded as the ‘Great Spokesman of Royal College’ like Sir Richard Morgan before him, for the championship of his Alma Mater, when there were moves at the highest level of Government to abolish the institution and replace it with a university. His memorable speech at the school Prize Giving on the 10th of August, 1916 moved the Chief Guest, the then newly appointed Governor, Sir John Anderson, to assure the gathering that he was not unsympathetic to the views expressed both by Frederick Dornhorst and Charles Hartley (Principal), in favour of the continuation of Royal College as in the past, and added that it was not fair for Royal College to be reduced to the size of a finishing school for only a few boys.

The eloquent speech of Dornhorst had a ripple effect in the corridors of power leading to Royal College being spared from abolition.  Instead, it was shifted from its then premises at Thurstan Road to Reid Avenue (previously called Serpentine Road) in 1923 and consequently, the newly established Ceylon University College took over the buildings left behind at Thurstan Road.

Dornhorst Memorial Prize

The Dornhorst Memorial Prize for the most outstanding student was commenced in 1930 and has always been considered as the pride of Royal College prizes and the equivalent of the prestigious Victoria Gold Medal of St.Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia, Ryde Gold Medal of Trinity College, Kandy and Fritz Kunz Memorial Trophy for the most Outstanding Anandian.

In his last Will, Dornhorst, who died in 1926, made provision for an endowment of a prize. It is this endowment which provides the funds for the Dornhorst Memorial Prize.

The important criteria for selection for this high honour are the display of outstanding qualities of leadership, discipline, respectability, a good personality, high achievement in academic studies and sports, and close personal involvement in and self- less voluntary contributions to the welfare of others in society via Clubs and Societies and other College activities. Mere popularity alone will not suffice for this Award.

In 1993, the Lalith Athulathmudali Memorial Award for the Most Outstanding Royalist was inaugurated and in turn, the Dornhorst Memorial Prize was re-designed to be the Prize for the most popular student, to be awarded on the basis of winning the highest number of votes from an electoral base comprising teachers, students, Prefects all of the Upper School, and the Principal.

This Dornhorst award should not be confused with the Turnour Prize the oldest prize in the school which had been awarded since 1846 and the Lalith Athulathmudali Memorial Prize awarded to the most outstanding Royalist of the year since 1994

Notable Prize Winners 

The Dornhorst Prize winners in the pre-independence period were:

  • F.C. de Saram (1930)
  • B.A.Kuruppu (1931)
  • A.C.Ebell(1932)
  • D.C.T.Pate (1933)
  • R.S.Cooke (1934)
  • P.G.B. Keuneman (1935) – leader of the Communist Party, former President of the Cambridge Union(1939)  and Minister of Housing and Construction( 1970  -1971)
  • F.H.De Saram (1936)
  • M.Sivanathan (1937)
  • A.E.Keuneman (1938)
  • B.Mahadeva (1939) – reputed International Civil Servant
  • B.St.E.De Bruin (1940)
  • Neville Kanakeratne (1941) – former Ambassador to UN
  • S.G.Salgado (1942)
  • C.G. Weeramantry (1943) – former Judge of the International Court of Justice
  • Lakshman Wickremasinghe (1944) – former Bishop of Kurunegala
  • L.C. Arulpragasam (1945)
  • Upali Amerasinghe (1946)
  • Nihal Silva (1947)
  • Tony Anghie (1948)

Biographical sketch

Frederick Dornhorst (1849- 1926) was one of Ceylon’s brilliant lawyers who though failing to win a Prize at the Colombo Academy, was able to shine at the Bar. He was on the staff of the Colombo Academy from 1868 to 1873. He was born on April 26, 1849 in Trincomalee and passed out as a lawyer in 1874. He was called to the English Bar in 1902. He was sworn in as a King’s Counsel in Ceylon in 1903 with Ponnambalam Ramanathan  and Thomas De Sampayo the first “silks” of the Bar of Ceylon.

In his day he was known as the “lion of the Ceylon bar’.  He declined several offers for high judicial appointments.  Frederick Dornhorst will be remembered as having fought and defeated Thomas Norton, ‘the lion of the Madras bar’ over the Jeronis Pieris Will Case in 1903, the second being for the prosecution in the Dixon Attygalle murder case of December 1906 (when his brother-in-law John Kotelawala, father of Sir John, was involved—he was to die on April 20, 1907 by committing suicide in prison) and the third in connection with the Pedris shooting incident during the height of the Sinhala-Muslim Martial Law riots in 1915.

Family History

His grandfather, the founder of his family in Ceylon, was known as John Christian Dornhorst. He was of German origin. He is said to have come to Ceylon from Germany in 1791 and gained employment in the Dutch Service.  He was afterwards employed under the English in the Naval Stores or Dockyard as a Gunner in the Artillery and died in 1828 at the age of 65 years.

Frederick Dornhorst was the youngest in a family of nine. His father, Frederik Dornhorst (1803-1854)was a Notary and had worked for a long time as the Secretary of the District Court of Trincomalee.  He lost his father when he was five years old. The family fell on hard times. In 1856 when he was seven years old his mother had decided to shift residence and left Trincomalee to come to Colombo.  Dornhorst had his early education at St. Thomas’ and Royal (then known as the Colombo Academy) and at the Training College.  He entered the Colombo Academy in 1861, when Dr. Barcroft Boake was the Principal.

Frederick Dornhorst himself had eight children. In a remarkable document entitled “To My Children” written around 1887 -1888, Dornhorst has left a short account of his life with the primary purpose of awakening in his children a desire to live respectably and maintain their name unsullied.

He says:  “You see my children that you have reason to be proud of your descent, and although your success in life and your social position will depend upon your individual character and although I should not like, to foster in you the pride of family, still I would like you to know that I have always been taught to lay stress upon respectability. While not despising others of low parentage you must make it your endeavour to live worthy of those from whom you are descended. Be select in the friends you keep, but be more select in the marriages you contract. Don’t marry beneath your station, and if possible, don’t do your children the injustice of being ashamed of their parents. There is a growing tendency in our midst to deprive the respectable Burghers of their undoubted social position. It will depend upon you and others of your generation as to how far that tendency will be encouraged. When the time comes for you to settle down in life, choose your spouses from families having something more to boast of than wealth or only social position. I would rather that your future partners were poor and of good birth than that they were rich but of doubtful parentage. Don’t misunderstand me. The pride of birth without individual character will be an offence and a stumbling block. But only remember that good birth to one who has attained a good social position is and will always be an inestimable advantage. Don’t despise those who have worked themselves up to a high social level, because they have no mound of ancestry to stand upon. But at the same time while you mix freely with them in society you should avoid mingling your blood indiscriminately. Especially do I address my daughter now, for remember a man raises the woman, no matter who she may be, to his level, but a woman sinks down to her husband’s position if she marries beneath her.” (Jepharis ‘Frederick Dornhorst’ Journal of the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon, Vol. LXV January – December 1991 Nos. 1-4, page 12)

The above paragraph provides an insight into the thinking of people of eminence of that era in the last quarter of the 19th Century, and though much of it would seem out of date today, the insistence on living a respectable life and keeping one’s reputation unsullied is valid for all time in a civilized society.

To Be or Not To Be 

The Colombo Academy and thereafter Royal College had faced many vicissitudes threatening its very existence from various detractors ranging from Commissions of Inquiry to denominational schools that wanted to see the end of this school. These attempts can be specifically linked to a time period i.e. 1843, 1851, 1907, 1911 and 1916.

In the early part of the 20th century, Commission after Commission was appointed by the Government to inquire whether Royal College should exist. One Commission said in its Report “the present site at San Sebastian was undesirable and that the site of the Diary Farm at Cinnamon Gardens was more suitable”.

In another communication dated January 9, 1909, the Governor, Sir Henry McCallum (1907 -1913) had noted “one thing is appeared certain namely that the College as it stands today has practically fulfilled its purpose. In the matter of public examination and other particulars, it is competing with denominational schools in a uniform curriculum rather maintaining an independent lead in the path of progress. For this reason, a strong European element considers that the institution is no longer required as a model of education. On the other hand, an equally strong native element favours its retention and improvement and would regard its being closed with much disfavour”.

Furthermore, there was a move under serious discussion on the part of the colonial Govt. to abolish Royal College by de – linking the lower forms and re-aligning them to the Training College, and use the latter as a feeder school for the proposed University College, or alternatively maintain only the Upper School as a finishing school.

It was at this stage of uncertainty, in poetic terms ‘to be or not to be’  i.e. when the very existence and future of Royal College was under a dark cloud, that Frederick Dornhorst K.C. arrived on the scene to make his memorable speech.

An Eloquent Speech

The Prize Giving of Royal College was held on August 10, 1916.   The approaches to the venue from both sides i.e. Thurstan Road and Serpentine Road (later named as Reid Avenue), were gaily decorated with College flags and festive bunting including British Imperial flags. On the stage in the hall sat Sir John Anderson (Chief Guest and Governor), E.B. Denham (Director of Education), Charles Hartley (Principal) and Frederick Dornhorst, K.C.  (Royal College Magazine – Christmas Term 1916)

Dornhorst, who spoke last, began his Vote of Thanks by identifying himself as belonging to that herd of humanity known as ‘Old Boys’ in spite of their advancing years. That was why he was there at the Prize Giving. He wanted to make good use of a well – established tradition in this country to take advantage of the presence of the Governor and place their grievances before him and to press upon him what they thought were their immediate wants.

He was sad to see a note of lament in the Report of the Principal, Mr. C. Hartley, who had appeared to have a faraway look behind. Though he (Mr. Hartley) was trying to be cheerful about the current state of things he was looking with his eye backwards to the glorious past of Royal College. Dornhorst then said that he had come there hoping to be enlightened as to what was happening to Royal College at the present moment. He said:

“ The man in the street, he was one of them, did not know what function the present Royal College was performing. It seemed to occupy a mid-air position like Mohamed’s coffin. It had been strung up between a public school and University College and he did not know which of the two it was. The time had arrived when the Royal College should be taken down from its present and put upon sound ground. By making it a University College it was crippled. The Principal was deprived of the great advantage which the head of a school had of having boys from the age of 11 to 12 to train up. The College was entirely shorn of its lower Forms. What had been the result? It had been the subject of adverse criticism of those who were constantly applying the commercial test.”(Royal College Magazine – Christmas Term 1916)

There is a cost borne by the Government for every boy in the school. It was therefore proper for the Government to adopt a course in regard to Royal College. If the University College were not to be created then let the Royal College be restored to its old position with its own Forms. Let her have the training of boys from 10 to 11 years upwards and she would then be placed in a fair position to compete with other leading schools in the island. Otherwise, let what was intended to be done, when she was crippled and the Training College was made a feeder and convert her into a higher institution by making the Royal University College.

But Dornhorst said that he had confidence in the Governor (newly appointed Governor Sir John Anderson who had replaced Sir Robert Chalmers) given the reputation that the Governor Sir John Anderson had acquired during the short term he had been in Ceylon, that a fair, just and generous treatment would be served to the old school. He called for some sound rational policy about the only Government school, the one and only one in the island, the Royal College.

In 1915, the student population of Royal College had dwindled to a mere 71 students. This was quite alarming to an old boy like Dornhorst who had seen greater numbers in the past.  Hoping that the Governor would take necessary corrective measures to preserve Royal College, Dornhorst said:

“Instead of the wretched 71, I hope that the College would be the public school and not the University College and that they would have as of old three and four hundred boys in the College”.

The Governor, Sir John Anderson, replying thanked the gathering for the manner in which the proposal of Mr. Dornhorst was accepted. He said that neither Mr. Dornhorst nor Mr. Hartley must run away with the idea that he the Governor did not sincerely sympathise with the difficulties that Royal College was passing through at present, its position described as identical with Mohamed’s coffin was an uncomfortable position, but he felt sure that Royal College would be there as the central trunk of the banyan tree with its various off shoots of roots. He further said that it would not be fair for the school to be only a finishing school for a few boys who passed one or two years before leaving school. These boys could hardly claim, when they went out to the world, that they were really old boys of an institution, where they had only their finishing touches. (Royal College Magazine – Christmas Term 1916)

Though the Colonial Govt. had accepted a report of a ten member committee appointed in 1911 by Governor Henry McCallum, recommending the establishment of a tertiary institution to be called Ceylon University College and to be based in the buildings of Royal College, Colombo, several other factors including World War 1 and resulting increases in prices intervened to put a halt to the project.

The project was resurrected in 1917 and provision was made in the 1917/18 Government budget for construction of new facilities and purchase of equipment. However, work was slow and in May 1920 the Government purchased Regina Walauwa, a private house on Thurstan Road, for use by the College. Regina Walauwa was later renamed ‘College House’. E. B. Denham, the then Director of Education in Ceylon, insisted that the University College should open immediately, using College House as lecture rooms whilst the new Royal College buildings at Reid Avenue ( where the foundation stones were laid in 1919) were completed. The latter (now current) buildings were declared open by the Governor Sir William Manning at a ‘House Warming ’ ceremony held on October 10, 1923.

With this landmark event, a permanent abode was finally found for Royal College after decades of uncertainty and shifting of sites.  It marked the commencement of a new life for the school.


Dornhorst was a popular figure in the Colombo Law Library and was called ‘Lokka’ (chief). He was a voracious reader throughout his life and had an insatiable appetite for good literature. He was fond of walking and his one recreation was a visit to the Colombo Orient Club in the evening almost daily. He had a commanding and magnetic personality and was the life and soul of the Orient Club. He used to play bridge with his select friends regularly every evening. A keen follower of Cricket, Dornhorst served as the President of the Colts Cricket Club from 1896 to 1920.

His residence in Ceylon was ‘Calverley House’ (built in 1868), within walking distance of the Orient Club. It was situated in what was then called Turner Road, later re-named Turret Road, and now called Anagarika Dharmapala Mawatha. It was a richly furnished substantial colonial style mansion typical of such late 19th century/early 20th century houses, and well-suited for an eminent person such as Dornhorst. For many decades it has housed the Buddhist Ladies College and continues to do so to date.

Dornhorst never carried notes with him when he addressed a Jury or delivered a public speech. Sir Gerard Wijeyekoon says: “He (Dornhorst) was certainly endowed with courage, eloquence, and remarkable clarity of vision”

Dornhorst retired from the Bar at the age of 53 years and settled down in England with his family.  In England, he had addressed the Ceylon Students Dinner held in London in December 1900 and had been a close associate and good friend of the reputed British Barrister Corbet, who had retained Dornhorst in any case before the Privy Council, in which Corbet appeared, if he (Dornhorst) happened to be in England.

Whenever Dornhorst visited London he used to stay in his favourite place, a guest house in Bedford Place.  Sir Gerard Wijeyekoon, former President of the Senate, has devoted a Chapter to Dornhorst in his memoirs entitled ‘Recollections’. He recalls his meetings with Dornhorst in England as well as at ‘Calverley House’ in Colombo when Dornhorst visited Ceylon (twice).


Dornhorst died in England on April 24, 1926, at the age of 77 years.

Sir Gerard Wijeyekoon says:“When I went to London on a holiday I was very anxious to meet Dornhorst, and find out how he was getting on. The day after I arrived I got a phone message informing me that Dornhorst had died and that his funeral would take place, on the following Friday, at Golder’s Green. I was shocked to hear the news. I attended his funeral, and besides his relations, the only outsiders were the late Philip Ondaatjie, Advocate, and myself. His remains were cremated, and Philip Ondaatjie and I were asked by the authorities to look at the coffin after the outside cover was removed, and before it went into the crematorium.

A few months later, the application was made to the District Court of Colombo by his Executors for sole Testamentary Jurisdiction. His estate was declared, I believe, at 15 ¾ lakhs, and in spite of his being possessed of so much wealth, he always impressed upon his family and friends the fact that he was a poor man”.


Royal College and its continuation at the pinnacle of school education weathered another storm directed at its abolition in 1916 following several previous failures.

In hindsight, we are indebted and morally obliged to salute Friedrich Dornhorst, K.C. for his outspokenness in the defense of the school and preventing it from passing into oblivion.

Senaka Weeraratna ……….Royal College 1960 Group, …. June 30, 2020

  • Senaka Weeraratna, is the Editor of the 2nd Edition of the ‘History of Royal College’ (written by the students of the school), Vijitha Yapa Publications, Colombo: 2019



I wish to acknowledge with thanks A) the research assistance kindly given by Mr. Hugh Karunanayake (RC 1946 Group) in relation to the preparation of this paper, and (B) the assistance given by the Librarian  of the University of Sri Jayewardenapura Library

Reading material

  1. Jepharis ‘Frederick Dornhorst’ Journal of the Dutch Burgher Union of Ceylon, A}Vol. LXV January – December 1991 Nos. 1-4, page 12


Filed under economic processes, education, heritage, landscape wondrous, life stories, literary achievements, performance, sri lankan society, unusual people, welfare & philanthophy, world events & processes

6 responses to “Frederick Dornhorst and Royal College

  1. And so Ceylon had to wait another 26 years to get the university recommended by the MacLeod Committee and mandated by the Legislative Council in 1912. The government couldn’t afford to keep Royal College up and also build a university with the available education budget.

  2. M.J.C.Amarasuriya

    I must thank you profusely for your fantastic article on Frederick Dornhorst and Royal College. I had heard of his name repeatedly and seen his photograph at the school hall. However, I did not realize the fact that if not for this great Royalist, there would not have been a school named Royal , which I attended with much pride and which certainly contributed to molding my character and future. RIP Frederick Dornhorst All Royalists will ever continue to appreciate your brilliant oratory, which changed the course of history for this beloved school and our country.

    Thank you once again to the Author Senaka Weeraratna for your wonderful effort in researching and creating this article.

    • Thusitha De Silva

      I must thank you for your fantastic article on Frederick Dornhorst and Royal College and sharing historical events and values of our great Royalists
      and special thank for Mr. Senaka Weeraratna for this wonderful article
      Thusitha De Silva ( batch of 83/84)

  3. Pingback: eLanka UK | Frederick Dornhorst and Royal College - By Senaka Weeraratna - eLanka UK

  4. EMAIL from LIONEL GUNASEKARA, 25 OCTOBER 2020: “Dear Micheal, ….Thank You for sharing your “Super Article” on Sir Fredrick Dornhorst. Sir Fredrick ‘s name is mentioned in the History of the Nondescript Cricket Club as one of its Founder Members……………….
    ………… Kind Regards, Lionel Gunasekara
    A NOTE = Author is SENAKA WEERARATNA not me

Leave a Reply