The Northways in British Ceylon …. and Beyond

Fred David Graham, responding to a Query in Thuppahi from Debbie Northway**

There are quite a few mentions of people named Northway living in Ceylon in the 19th century and early 20th century in pamphlets and books like Lewis J. Penry’s List of Inscriptions on Tombstones and Monuments in Ceylon, of Historical or Local Interest, With an Obituary of Persons Uncommemorated. Also Harry Storey’s A Ceylon Sportsman’s Diary, William Sabonadière’s The Coffee Planter of Ceylon (1866), The Ceylon Almanac and Annual Register for the Year of Our Lord 1855 (p.345), Herbert Wright’s Hevea Brasiliensis or Para Rubber: Its Botany, Cultivation, Chemistry and Diseases (1908) and Charles Edmond Akers’s The Rubber Industry in Brazil and the Orient.

British planters at a tasting of Ceylon tea at the tea estate






Apparently, someone named Northway designed a rubber tapping knife and developed a more efficient method of tapping rubber (the Northway system). There’s mention of a child born to Mrs. Northway in 1837 (Parbury’s Oriental Herald and Colonial Intelligencer, Volume 1, 1838), and The London and China Telegraph (1864) has a passenger list showing a Mr. and Mrs. Northway heading to Ceylon from Marseilles.

In Speech on the Affairs of Ceylon, in the House of Lords, April 1, 1851, George Byng (7th Viscount Torrington and former Governor of British Ceylon) mentions someone named Northway among a list of signatories to a letter addressed to him and dated Kandy, August 17, 1850. More recently, Aeroplane and Commercial Aviation News (Vol. 76) mentions James Arthur Charles Northway who was born in Ceylon, moved to England, settled at Bath and began flying with the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. Northway became a flight instructor at the Cotswold Aero Club in 1935.

So are any of these Northways related to Debbie Northway? I hate to clutter up your inbox with snippets of text about the wrong Northways. But it’s a rare enough name–I’d never heard of it until I read your email–that I’m betting at least some of them have to be relatives.

There are 1,139 people in the United States with the last name Northway, making it statistically the 25,448th most common last name in the US. I’d say chances are good that that name is as rare in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom. My moniker is a tad rarer: There are 730 people in the United States with the last name Callander, making it statistically the 36,189th most common last name in the US. And yet I managed to find and date a woman named Ginny Callander, who always referred to herself as my blond cousin. If we were related, we must have been a hundred times removed (her family left Scotland for the New World in the 1670s). Ginny was older than me and died shortly after her 64th birthday in 2013.

Best, David



** My Note, 18 July 2022:

Dear Friends, Debbie Northway in Australia is seeking information on the Northway lineage in British Ceylon. If any one of you can aid her, please do so. I have told her that there wasa Northway family who knew my pater TW and that they were probabl planters in the Baddegama area…… Michael

Group photograph of the Darrawella Club from the 1880s

   a planter’s bungalow presented in Lankapura







MEMO from HARRY SOLOMONS in Sydney in response to The Editor’s Appeal, 18 July 2022:

Hi All,  …………. When I was very young, and my father was a young plantation manager in Elpitiya SL, he was a good drinking pal of a senior plantation manager called Freddy Northway on a close by plantation in the area called Devithtura Estate very close by to Elpitiya.  Estate Bungalow as per Google is in Ethkandura ( not quite sure)
Freddy Northway actually lost his English wife ( can’t remember her name) on  the Estate.
I remember Freddy Northway as quite a dynamic planter/ personality, extremely friendly and a big party man & drinker and a good friend and adviser  to my dad and the other planters in the area. He drove a magnificent MG   TD or TF which was the only sports car in the area and was highly admired by everyone.
Devithura Estate was possibly the largest estate in the area, and I remember Freddy Northway had two dynamic Assistant Superintendents of great personality too in two gentlemen called DG Sahabandu, and Jim Amerasinghe.
Englishman Freddy Northway, had two children. The boy was crazy Michael Northway and l think the girl was Gillian. I think Gillian left for overseas either to England or Australia and married. Michael was a stunning personality and fighter. He was tough as teak and totally uncontrollable. He was a unbelievable “Hunter” and always ran around with dogs, guns and his pockets full of cartridges & ammo. He was a bushie from his finger tips to his toes! HE WAS SO INCORRIGIBLE , HE WAS EVEN SENT TO OUR SCHOOL ST. ALOYSIUS’ COLLEGE GALLE FOR A SHORT TIME IN THE HOPE THAT THE JESUIT EDUCATION MIGHT IMPROVE HIS BEHAVIOUR. It never did!
Michael finally settled down marrying a much older lady (possibly Australian) and living a bushman’s life with her, by the reservoirs in Tissamaharama bird sanctuary. I may be wrong, but I understand Michael Northway died sometime ago.
Ce rtainly, a very extraordinary family.I don’t know if this was the Northway family you are referring to, but sounds likely. The plantation district of Baddegama is only around the corner off Devithuray Estate. My number can be given to your contact looking for this information. Hope, these are the people being referred to.
Cheers, Harry Solomons  …………… 0411646325
179 Kingsgrove Rd, Kingsgrove NSW 2208

A RESPONSE from Michael Roberts, a Fellow Aloysian, 18 July 2022

You are spot on Harry Solomons. Here is a photo of Michael Northway in his hunting mode …. and details of the Northway family and estates –already presented in Thuppahi:
  Fred Northway … & Charles Northway and his wife

Leave a comment

Filed under British colonialism, economic processes, ethnicity, heritage, historical interpretation, island economy, landscape wondrous, life stories, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, travelogue, unusual people

Leave a Reply