The Roberts Oral History Project in the 1960s. Origins …. Outcomes

Michael Roberts

In re-establishing communication with two old Mertonians of the early 1960s generation at my College in Oxford, viz, Tony Roberton and Keith Shuttleworth, I have been induced to reflect upon my unusual circumstances as a postgraduate at Merton and Oxford. Apart from being one of the few Sri Lankans in that University,[1] I happened to be (A) engaged in postgraduate work which demanded research at the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane in London, and (B) a colonial visitor with the asset of two sisters domiciled in London.[2] This meant that, every now and then, I spent part of my term-time in London on research-work by hitchhiking directly to White City and its tube station on the Monday and returning on the Friday.

Merton Rugger Squad circa 1964 with Tony kneeling on the right and Keith on my right in the last row standing

TW as young man & aged around 90 with his grandson in London

My father TW Roberts was also in London – aged in his eighties and staying with his favourite daughter Pamela after the changing political circumstances and the abandonment of horse-racing under Mrs Bandaranaike’s administration had induced him to leave Ceylon in 1961.[3] As it happened, TW was also an Oxonian, having earned his Classics Degree at Hertford College in the late 1890s before sitting for the Colonial Civil Service examinations and securing a posting to the colony of Ceylon in 1901.[4]

Alas, it is my regret that I never made any inquiries from my father about his life in Barbados and thereafter in Oxford. I therefore failed to acquire any data on his cricketing history for Hertford College and the Authentics.[5] Looking back, the crucial issue I failed to address was this: how is it that a young man who played for Harrison College in Barbados[6] and even represented Barbados in a match vs a visiting English team[7] could not secure a spot in the Oxford University cricket team? The implicit issues attached to this question are: did racism bar his progress to the cricketing heights at Oxford? Or was he otherwise occupied and unable to press forward into the squad for the prestigious Varsity match? I have no material with which to address these two questions.

TW Roberts in the Hertford cricket squad with Charles Bean of Tasmania and Australia (an avid cricketer) -maybe standing 3rd from left 

 Hertford College … and Bean as War Correspondent

TWR’s subsequent exploits during the limited opportunities he received in British Ceylon demonstrate his belligerent batting skills. These have been revealed by SP Foenander in his invaluable book Sixty Years of Ceylon Cricket (Colombo, Ceylon Advertising General Publicity Co, 1924). One example should suffice: on 26th March 1908 TW scored an aggressive 70 runs for Ceylon against an MCC team lead by AO Jones’ visiting MCC team on its way to Australia – making up almost half his team’s total of 157 runs. [8]

I did not fail on another front. I was, then in the 1960s, a young historian in the empiricist mould and had an intense interest in Ceylon’s history – my topic for the doctoral dissertation being Britain’s agrarian policies in the mid-nineteenth century.[9] Thus motivated, at one point I had the good sense to request my pater to write down his memoirs on his administrative experiences in the island. This was around 1963 or 1964.

However, in a momentous step I went further. I considered it fruitful to gather information from retired British public servants who had seen service in Ceylon either in the CCS or in specialist departments. An official government department in UK provided a list of these men and there was no problem in securing their addresses.

So, there developed the Roberts Oral History Project – an innovative idea for its time[10] and one that I am, now, quite proud of. Its fruition, however, is due to two individuals and I cannot lay adequate praise here for their support. These two are Professor Karl Goonewardena who was head of the Department of History at Peradeniya University in the 1960s, and the head of the Asia Foundation in Colombo.[11] I sought money and equipment from the latter and an endorsement of my idea from Professor Karl. I believe that Professor Goonewardena supported the project unreservedly. The Asia Foundation responded favourably.

Professor Karl Goonewardena in 1984

These proceedings would have been in early 1965 when I was in the process of finalizing my dissertation while living in a cottage in Bath Place belonging to Merton College with my supportive Scottish wife Shona.[12] The details have been erased from my memory, but in the English summer of 1965 (while indulging in an Authentics cricket tour of Scotland), I knew that the project was a goer. I then took time off to extend our financial resources via employment as a bus conductor in the Isle of Wight over the summer break (with Shona and baby Kim in tow); and then returned to Oxford which served as the base during the last quarter of 1965 and the first two months of 1966 from where I ventured to many parts of England to interview the retired British public servants and tap into their experiences in the colony of Ceylon.

myself at matriculation in late 1962 and then in late 1965 with Baby Kim at the Merton cottages in Bath Place

Virtually all the British public servants were happy to provide taped interviews and some even had me as overnight guests. As far as I recall. only Sir Peter Alexander Clutterbuck rejected the use of a recorder though he was ready to chat freely.[13] Unlike the retired Sri Lankan public servants whom I was to interview in the late 1960s,[14] most of these retirees were in semi-rural locations on the edge of towns in different parts of UK. This meant travel far and wide in England. My records reveal that these interviews were mostly undertaken between late November 1965 and January 1966.

Sir Alexander Clutterbuck & Sir Hillary Blood in later years Leonard Woolf at “Monk’s House”  [where I interviewed him on 22 December 1965

These expenses and the extension of my sojourn in UK were financed by my savings and the grant provided by the Asia Foundation in Ceylon. By far the most vital part of this grant was that used to purchase a tape recorder – a large ‘instrument’ packed within a solid black leather case. That leather case is etched deeply in my memory because it also lay between my legs when I scootered down to Colombo in the years 1967 to 1968 to conduct my oral history interviews.

The details arising from the continuation of my oral history work in Ceylon-becoming-Sri Lanka demand a separate essay because of their many ramifications: among these being (A) the chance donations of valuable manuscripts and the discovery of documents[15] pertaining to the Ceylon National Congress in the years 1930-51 in the hands of JR Jayewardene (then Minister of State); and (B) work on Karāva families on the path of socio-economic advancement which also involved oral history methodology. These lines of documentary accession and expansion were also encouraged and intertwined with the lively academic seminars promoted at Peradeniya University in the precincts of the Department of Sociology – referring here to the activities of the Ceylon Studies Seminar [16] promoted by Gananath Obeyeskere, CR de Silva, Tissa Fernando, Gerald Peiris, Kithsiri Malalgoda, AJ Wilson, myself and other academics and serviced by Mrs Hettiaratchi and My Kumaraswamy as typists and Sathiah as essential producer of the cyclostyled seminar papers prior to each session.


Foenander, S. P. 1924 Sixty Years of Ceylon Cricket, Colombo: Ceylon advertising & General Publicity Co.

McCarthy, Dudley 1983 From Gallipoli to the Somme. The Story of CEW Bean, Sydney: John Ferguson.

Nicholls, Kitty 1997 Memorandum on Thomas Clarke and Isabelle Roberts.

Perera, S. S. 1999 The Janashakthi Book of Sri Lanka Cricket, Colombo.

Roberts, T. W.  1935 A Medley of Races …being an article in the Times of Ceylon Christmas Number 1935 …. now available at

Roberts, T. W.  1963 A Memoir. Typescript [written at the behest of his son Michael] … available in Barr Smith Library Special Collections, University of Adelaide.

Roberts, Michael 2003 “The Bajan Connection in Sri Lanka,” in BCCSL Cricket Souvenir for West Indies Tour.,

Roberts, Michael 2006 Essaying Cricket. Sri Lanka and Beyond, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications.

Roberts, Michael 2015 “TW Roberts and His Cricketing Moments,” 12 April 2015,

Roberts, Michael 2018 How It Became. Documenting the Ceylon National Congress,” 22 May 2018,

Roberts, Michael 2018 Nationalist Studies and the Ceylon Studies Seminar at Peradeniya, 1968-1970s,”  2 /October 2018 , ……………….. ………………… ………….

Roberts, Michael 2020 “Four Bajans in British Ceylon during the Early Twentieth Century,” 26 October 2020,

Roberts, Michael 2020 “The Ceylon Civil Service at Cricket 1910,” 27 October 2020,

[Woolf, Leonard] 2013 “Leonard Woolf speaks and recollects … in 1965,” 15 October 2013,

SPECIAL NOTE re ACCESS to the Roberts Mss at the BARR SMITH library, Adelaide University

The full list of the cassettes tapes is at

The full list of transcripts is at ………………..

If people are looking at the Roberts manuscripts collection, including items in the separate listings of interviews, transcripts, oral history recordings, maps and Government documents, they just need to email and request a digitised copy.  The Barr Smith Library recommends the deployment of a NOTE such as this: “For access to this collection or to request a digitised version of an item, please contact Rare Books & Manuscripts at


1  Nihal and Subadra Kappagoda were still residing in Oxford in 1962-63 and provided me with welcome Sri Lankan fare every now and then. At various moments, Chula de Silva and Michael Sporule were at St. Edmund Hall; Tyronne Fernando and subsequently Kiefer Piachaud were at Keble and Carmini Wickremasinghe and Sunethra Bandaranaike at Somerville. We mostly adhered to our own paths; but Kithsiri Malalgoda, Rhodes Scholar for 1965 was at Wadham round the corner from our cottage at Bath Place from late 1965 and we interacted every now and then.

2. I assume here that colonials like Tony Roberton did not usually have this kind of asset.

3. My pater had a deep interest in horse-racing and even owned racehorses (useless ones) in Sri Lanka at one point; while serving on the horseracing Committee of the Gymkhana Club in Galle which ran the races at Boosa. A good part of his retired time was spent in studying the form book. Once I passed out of University and secured a job in 1961, he was free to migrate to UK where Pamela, one of my sisters, provided a home from home …and where he could study the racing form books –  a pursuit denied once the SLFP government banned horseracing circa 1960/61.

4  He told me once that he felt that he would face colour prejudice within the British public service and he did not consider sitting for the Indian Civil service because it was a disease-ridden land. Hence his decision to enter the Colonial Civil Service examinations.

5 Note that the Authentics are the second string of Oxford cricketers — a largish group playing simultaneous week-end matches arrranged and marshalled by senior hands. As for the Hertford Eleven, it was marvellous happenchance that my work on the Anzacs and Australian nationalism led me to pursue the career of the journalist/academic Charles EW Bean; and that Bean was at Hertford College in the same period and an ardent cricketer. Lo and behold, his biography served up a photo of the Hertford Team with my pater among the lot.

6 Note that Harrison College was rather like the Colombo Academy in British Ceylon in the mid-19th century: it was the leading school in a colony marked by racism where the local White Bajans ruled the roost. Within this setting it is significant that TW Roberts is the only coloured player in the Harrison XI. For the photograph and other details, see Michael Roberts, “Four Bajans,” 2020 and “Cricketing Moments”, 2015.

7 On one occasion my pater did refer to this match: he was so juvenile the English fielders were amused and condescending. So, he smacked several boundaries, but then was dismissed.

SP Foenander 1924, p. 84.

9 My D. Phil. dissertation is entitled “Some Aspects of Economic and Social Policy in Ceylon, 1840-1871.”

10  I gathered that there was one organisation in USA that had embarked on such work from the 1950s in what was considered pa pioneering methodology …but cannot remember the pertinent details.

11 Dinesha De Silva has indicated that Richard Heggie was head of the Asia Foundation in Colombo from 1962-65; while James Noyes took over from 1965-68.

12 Shona was a sturdy aide – not only sustaining our home, but also seeing to my typing requirements, a task that grew in magnitude in Sri Lanka in the post 1966 period (see below)..

13 Clutterbuck was a British public servant from an elite background via Malvern College and Pembroke in Cambridge University and the officer corps of the Coldstream Guards during World Wa . He served as the Secretary to the Donoughmore Commission and was NOT a member of the CCS. He had been knighted when I met him and was amiable and open. One remark he essayed remains firmly in my mind: the Ceylonese people (meaning here the middle-class circles and political families he met) had a sense of humour. To interpret the implications: the Anglicized bonhomie of Sri Lankan (Ceylonese) politicians and their circles reaped political fruit.

14 Most of the retired Sri Lankan public servants were living in Colombo, though a few were in the Kandy locality.

15 For the semi-magical manner in which this project took off, see Roberts, “How It Became,” 2018.

16. See Roberts, “Nationalist Studies and the Ceylon Studies Seminar at Peradeniya, 1968-1970s.” 2018.


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5 responses to “The Roberts Oral History Project in the 1960s. Origins …. Outcomes

  1. edward upali

    I was thrilled to read that Leonard Wolf was one of your interview subjects.

    May I suggest that you publish all of the interviews, if possible, so that others may also read them.

    • eDWARD
      oVER 120 public servants were interviewed [counting hose in LANKA] so presenting them will be an impossible task. Anyway ADELAID E UNIVERISTY library digitlaized them about 15 years back. VISIT…. and then scroll down to the relevant reference point. But I kno NW ATHUKORALE’s son listened to hsi late father’s interview [a capable civils ervant who was Secy to DS Senanayayke]. Mote THUPPAHI items on those who enabled the ROHP will be placed soon in Thuppahi

  2. Pingback: The ROHP in Ceylon, 1966-70: Interviews and Select Transcriptions | Thuppahi's Blog

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