The Ceylon Civil Service at Cricket 1910

Michael Roberts

The photograph above of the twenty-two men who participated in the cricket match in 1910 between George Vanderspar’s XI and eleven British civil servants in Ceylon has been taken from SP Foenander’s wonderful book Sixty Years of Ceylon Cricket published in Colombo in 1924. Its import ranges beyond the cricket field.


The British Empire was at its zenith in the 1890s and the first decades of the 20th century. Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebrations in 1997 and 1902 had seen massive displays of pomp and pageantry. This degree of power promoted the persistence of racism where some White administrators, businessmen and settlers treated their colonial subjects as inferior beings. In British Ceylon this racist principle was displayed in institutional rules which debarred coloured people (other than menial servants) from entry into clubs and hotels that were set up as White preserves for e.g. the Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya, the Colombo Club,[1] and the Colombo Cricket Cub.[2] Some British men of substance even treated the first-class cabins in railway carriages as their exclusive domain; while some planters and other White settlers riding horses did not permit rail gates to bar their ‘majestic’ progress.[3]

On occasions, Ceylonese middle class men with brawn responded to individual slights at face-to-face level by “thrashing’ the offending Whites: both John Kotelawela Snr and Danister Perera Abeywardena received fame for such reactions.[4] When the Orient Club was initiated in 1894 by well-to-do Ceylonese its founding fathers made sure that “Whites” were excluded.[5] As an institution heavy with lawyers and personnel active in politics,[6] this move underlined the emerging battlelines. At the same time, there were more substantial movements of political opposition from the late 19th century in the various strands of Buddhist revival and in the vilification of Westernized lifeways by Sinhala writers such as Piyadasa Sirisena and dramatists as John De Silva.[7]

Muted political questioning in the English-media was witnessed when the Ceylon National Association (CNA) was formed in 1888; while the Chilaw Association formed in 1897 mounted a campaign against the British waste lands legislation. Then, in the 1900s the English-speaking middle classes began to press for reform via the Ceylon Social Reform Society and a re-activated CNA.[8] Empire-loyalism and Queen Victoria’s longevity notwithstanding, the loins of political challenge were being greased within English-speaking circles.

No less a person than the Colonial Secretary, Sir Alexander Ashmore, added grist to this grease. At the annual prizegiving at Trinity College in late 1906, he told an august gathering that the Government did not employ Ceylonese in the higher posts in the public service because “they were deficient in those qualities of duty and honour that the British government had a right to expect.” The uproar was immediate and vociferous. A public meeting assembled at the Town Hall in Colombo to castigate this imperial satrap (who imperialistically dismissed the action as a move by those exploiting “an opportunity for self-advertisement”).[9] Ashmore. alas, did not play cricket …. or, rather, he is not among of the 22 men who are assembled in our lead photograph because he had left the island for higher offices.[10]

Cricket: Its Politics and Its Greats, 1880-1924

With the British imperial enterprise at its peak and ever-expanding, the latter half of the nineteenth century was not conducive to political agitation against British rule in most parts of the empire. Such action would have been deemed “sedition.” The Ceylonese middle classes and bourgeoisie of political disposition were therefore cautious and slow in mounting vociferous challenges. 

However, the sports realm enabled elliptical challenges. Cricket matches and athletic races at gymkhanas enabled Ceylonese to take on the Whites in sporting excellence. Thus, in 1882 the “Ceylonese” gave battle to the “Europeans” of the Colombo Cricket Club on the latter’s home grounds on Galle Face Green in what was termed a “Test Match”. Yes, a “Test Match.” They lost. White supremacy remained intact. But then in 1887 another Ceylonese team faced the CCC over two Saturdays and won. Halleluyyiah! Hoyiyaah!

But mark the composition of this team: in batting order it was E. Weinman, J. Weinman, J. Kelaart, W. Henricus, C. Orr, R. Thomasz, D. Wendt, E. Henricus, E. Christoffelsz. C. Thomasz, G. Welsh.[11] It was a Burgher team …. on solid grounds insofar as the Colts Cricket Club, then located in the Burgher stronghold known as the Pettah,[12] was the leading indigenous club.

The preponderance of Burgher middle class men in the Ceylonese sides of the time (leavened somewhat by Malay cricketers from the regiments) was an indication of the urban concentration of cricket as a pastime then. Colombo was the epicentre. Cricket in the metropolis received a further stimulus when the ‘millionaire’ businessman, George Vanderspar, moved his enterprise from Galle to Colombo when the artificial harbour was completed in the 1880s.[13] A zealous promoter of cricket, Vanderspar[14] took over the CCC grounds at Galle Face when the latter moved to Cinnamon Gardens in 1894 and initiated the Colombo Sports Club. He had the clout to draw a wide range of personnel, from mercantile men to civil servants and officers in the military regiments which resided nearby, into his teams. In 1908 he was even able to persuade the Amateurs in the England side that had just toured Australia to take on an eleven assembled by him at the Galle Face grounds.[15]

This, then, was the temporal background that preceded the match ‘outlined’ in our lead photograph. Vanderspar is, of course, present: seated second from right in a striped blazer. There are no Ceylonese – as the term would have been understood then — in the two teams.[16] Because civil servants (e.g. Denham) were also members of the Colombo Sports Club, it is not wholly clear which of these personnel played in the CCS Eleven in this particular encounter.

Be that as it may, several names stand out as important for historical reasons and they can be listed here in arbitrary order.

TW Roberts looms prominently – in part because he is the only coloured man in the lot and largely because he is my father …. a British civil servant of Barbadian extraction who became a Ceylonese after his retirement in 1935 and when he planted his roots in Galle.[17] 

EB Denham …. Edward Brandis Denham (1876-1938) also stands out because he supervised the Ceylon Census of 1911, an outstanding and even remarkable compilation that has been of immense value to researchers. His administrative capacities were recognised and he rose to high office in the British colonial dispensation, receiving a knighthood and even dying, so to speak, in the saddle in Jamaica.[18]

RN Thaine and HA Burden are names that ring my bell as CCS men whose reports on the 1915 riots I have read at some point of time.

EB Alexander was yet another public-school product who went on to win a soccer blue at Oxford and played cricket there as well. He has been described by Foenander as “one of the finest European batsmen Ceylon has ever had.[19] Alexander resigned from the CCS to fight in the First World War – surviving that experience as a Major and then returning to his job in Ceylon – where he rose to be Controller of Revenue in 1922 and then acted as Colonial Secretary from 1925-27.

Significantly, Alexander retained his interest in cricket and was even elected to the post of President of the Ceylon Cricket Association in 1923. Despite his outstanding career this was rather a surprise because his name was proposed to counter to that of Dr John Rockwood, a Sri Lankan Tamil who had rendered yeoman service for the island’s cricket for many years. Rockwood’s name for the Presidency had been proposed by MC Raju of the Tamil Union and seconded by AAC Ahamath of the Malay CC, when “to everyone’s surprise Dr VR Schokman (BRC) proposed and AE Keuneman (NCC) seconded E. B. Alexander (Colombo CC) for President.”[20] Whereupon Rockwood surprised everyone by withdrawing his name.

Clearly, there is more to this event than these words convey. The Ceylon National Congress had taken shape by 1919 and the Lanka Mahajana Sabha and Labour Party (under AE Goonesinha) were active in Colombo and/or the south western regions. However proficient as `a cricketer and however high his rank, Alexander was a pukka sahib. For two Burgher gentlemen to move against the emergent process of Ceylonese pitted against the British dispensation raises the possibility of ethnic reservations – though it is possible that local club rivalries served as the chief motivation for this incident. No living person can provide ethnographic rumours to settle the issue. We require assiduous historians of the SS Perera variety to pursue ways and means of answering this puzzle.

So, there is no better way to end this excursion around and beyond an intriguing photograph than by doffing our cricketing caps to three gentlemen who have serviced the history of Sri Lankan Cricket in imposing and everlasting manner. Hip Hip Hurray to SP Foenander, Chandra Perera and Chandra Schaffter (the man behind Janashakthi and a Ceylon hockey and cricket international in his younger days who has also served Sri Lanka as an astute Manager of our cricketing teams[21] in the 1990s and 2000s). SS Perera and his magnum opus Schaffter SP Foenander meeting Bradman on board ship


[Ashmore]1906 Sir Alexander Ashmore’s Disparagement of Ceylonese. Monster Public Meeting at the Public Hall, Ceylon on Friday November 23, 1906, Colombo Independent Press.

Amunugama, Sarath 1979 “ideology and class Interest in One of Piyadasa ssirsena’s novels. The New Image of the ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ novelist,” in M. Roberts (ed.) Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo, Marga 1979, pp. 314-60

Dharmasena, K. 1980 The Port of Colombo, 1860-1939, Colombo, Lake House Printers for the Ministry of Higher education.

Roberts, Michael 1979 “Stimulants and Ingredients in the Awakening of Latter-day Nationalisms,” in Roberts (ed.) Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo, Marga 1979, pp. 214-42.

Roberts, Michael 1989 “The Two faces of the Port City: Colombo in Modern Times,” in Frank Broeze (ed.) Brides of the Sea. Port Cities of Asia from the 16th to the 20th Centuries, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, pp. 173-87.

Roberts, Michael 2020 “Four Bajans in Ceylon,” 25 October 2020,

Roberts, Michael 2020 “Four Bajans in British Ceylon,” 24 October 2020, ……………………….

Roberts, M. Percy Colin-Thome & Ismeth Raheem 1979 People Inbetween, Colombo, Sarvodaya Book Publications.

Roberts, Norah 2005 Galle As Quiet as Asleep, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications.

Thuppahi 2017 “Cricketing Amity, September 2002: Janashakthi XI vs Jaffna District Cricket,”


[1] The Colombo Club was an exclusive centre set up within Colombo for relaxation (drinking, cards, billiards and conversation) by the leading British personnel in the mercantile and governing circles of Ceylon. At this stage and for quite some time it was a White preserve.

[2] The CCC was initially located at Galle Face Green, but moved to Maitland Crescent  –whereupon George Vanderspar took over the grounds and initiated the Colombo Sports Club as a gathering that embraced the second class Europeans in the colonial order viz. the military personnel, railway officers of British stock and the “shoppies” (namely the British shop assistants at the high-class firms of Millers, Cargills and  Caves.

[3] See Roberts 1979: 221ff.

[4] Roberts 1979:  222-23.

[5] This was probably not a written rule but implemented by Committee decisions when applications were considered. Both TW Roberts (a black CCS man) and F. L. Woodward (a White Briton who was principal of Mahinda College) were admitted as members in the early 20th century.

[6] As the photograph of the gentlemen at their early location in flower road indicates, the leading lights included EJ Samerawickrame, FR Senanayake, James Peiris, Frederick Dornhorst, HJC Pereira et  cetera.

[7] See Amunugama 1979; Roberts 1979; Roberts et al 1989: 104, 116.

[8] While the actions of the Ceylon National Association and the Ceylon Social Reform Society have been referred to by historians (including myself, I suggest here that more weight should be attributed to their programmes.  Ananda Coomaraswamy was one inspiration behind the CSRS and it seems to have encouraged indigenist lines of emphasis within the English-educated bourgeoisie.

[9] See Roberts 1979: 222. The anger was so deep that the Ceylonese elite produced a pamphlet (see Ashmore)

[10] Edward Bruce Alexander (1872-1905) was British upper class from a family that saw service in British India. Educated at Forrest and Trinity College Oxford, (where he played for the Authentics and Corinthians). He served in the British Army during the war and thereafter returned to Ceylon. He was Colonial Secretary [thus second in command] from 1923-25 and acted as Governor from 18 October 1925 to 30 November 1925 before Sir Hugh Clifford arrived to take up that post (SEE

[11] For fuller details on the context, see Roberts et el 1989, p. 122.

[12] In fact, one of the main playing fields was the Racket Court lying between the Fort quarter of Colombo and the Pettah. This was the initial venue for the Colts CC matches (see Roberts et al, 1989: 93).

[13] See Dharmasena 1980 and Roberts 1989 for details on the history of Colombo as a port.

[14] Though of Dutch lineage George Augustus Vanderspar (1858-1940) was educated in England. He seems to have inherited a prospering family business located at Galle, the main port in Sri Lanka servicing the shipping lines to the East and the Antipodes. He would have been quite at home among the Burgher elite within the Fort of Galle then. Once the artificial harbour in Colombo was completed (see Dharmasena 1980), he moved to Colombo, while perhaps retaining a branch in Galle. He is an intriguing figure and one wishes for more biographical data than that available in Wikipedia.

[15] For details on this match, see Roberts, “for Bajans in Ceylon,”

[16] TW Roberts planted his roots firmly only in the 1930s and became a formal citizen in 1948. FJ Siedle is not Burgher, but of British planter lineage: born in Ceylon, but educated in England and returning to what would seem to be family property in the Veyangoda area.

[17] See my recent article “Four Bajans in Ceylon”

[18] Edward Brandis Denham was educated at Malvern and Merton College, Oxford. He advanced rapidly in the British Colonial Service and went on to become Governor of Gambia, British Guiana  and Jamaica – dying at the latter station and earning a burial at sea and a striking statue in his memory. He also was knighted at one point. …….  ……. (

[19] Foenander 1924:190.

[20] See Perera 1999: 143.

[21] I was keeping a close watch on cricket in the late 1990s and early 2000s. when visiting English friends at Taunton I was able to meet Chandra privately at a hotel in that town as the Sri Lanka team played an international match here. On another occasion we had a long and confidential chat at The Citadel in Galle. Chandra Schaffter also deployed Janashakthi’s resources to deploy cricket as an instrument of political reconciliation between the Tamil world and the rest of the island during highly stormy times when the LTTE was a looming presence (see

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