Vignettes of Colombo: Some Place Names & the Tramcar

Vinod Moonesinghe




A historical vignette: The Colombo Electric Lighting and Tramways Co Ltd was a British company represented in Ceylon by Boustead Brothers. The Tramways were ready for operations by 1899/1900. This company owned and operated the Pettah Power Station at Saunders Place which supplied the 110 volts DC power to propel the trams.


The tramcar Depot was next to the Gas Works adjoining the Pettah Power Station. From the depot the tramcars entered and exited through Gasworks Street on one side joining with Main Street, and on the other with Norris Road (today Olcott Mawatha). Turning right the route went past the Pettah Railway Station, New Fort Railway Station and Old Fort Railway Station. Lower Chatham Street alongside the Central Telegraph Office and the Chamber Of Commerce, took a right turn on to York Street near the Registrar General’s Office, passed Bristol Hotel, Millers/Cargills, Colombo Apothecaries, National Bank, the Victoria Arcade, the P&O Building and terminated near the Grand Oriental Hotel which served as the halt for the Colombo Harbour.

From Prince Street Fort, the Tramway went past the Times Building, Walker Sons, Gaffoor’s Buiding, Chalmers’ Granaries, near the Khan Clocktower and on the side of the Consistory (Kerkopf) Main Street. Near the Old Town Hall there was a choice of turning right to enter Gaswork Street along Edinburgh Market or turn left to enter Dam Street, continue on New Moor Street, continue to Messenger Street, cross Armour Street, join Grandpass Road, join St. Josephs Street and on to Nagalagam Street to the terminus near the old Grandpass Market at the corner with Ferguson Road.

Coming out of the Depot, at Norris Road taking a left turn the line was laid past the Mounted Police Division, past the old Colombo Railway Station, took a left turn near the Colombo Technical College took a right turn on to Central Road, continued past the old Railway Workshops, passing the Elphinstone to Maradana Junction, This road was known as Parana Veediya in days gone by, passed Punchi Borella to the terminus at Borella.

Due to A. E Goonesinha’s tramcar strike (1929) the company lost interest in expanding the network or maintaining the system. The decrepit system was sold to the Colombo Municipal Council in 1943 and their Tramways Dept operated the system until 1960. About 1953 it was decided to phase out the trams and replace them with Electric Trolley Buses. After the tramcar strike in 1929, the Colombo Municipal Council took over operations of the electric tram system on August 31, 1944.The tram network were eventually scrapped in 1960.

The Colombo Municipal Council closed the service on June 30, 1960.  Tramcars were involved in many accidents. Accidents took place due to the wires which had fallen on tramcars. A Commission was appointed by the Governor to inquire into these accidents. The report of the Commission was submitted to the Municipality after the close of the year. This report has been referred to a special committee of the Council. Many accidents were reported during this time. Some cases were due to passengers jumping on and off the cars whilst in motion. There were occasional complaints of public inconvenience owing to overcrowding of the tramcars. Tram pathways are still visible in certain places.

Many Websites show incorrect captions of pictures with other trams of the region. A popular photo is of a colonial looking building with a tramcar No 70 (really a Bombay tram) in front of it which is touted as a Colombo tram; this cannot be; Colombo never had more than 56 tramcars. The earliest tram cars were of a ‘toast rack’ style, skeletal looking and of a more open design, later some were given a cladding to match the styling of the time.

The tramcars were sold by the CMC auction at 100 Rupees per car. Most were purchased by A. Y. S. Gnanam who had already made a fortune with War Surplus steel and other metals..

There were two Burgher gentlemen who were Inspectors, they were known for their ability to swing in and out of moving trams. One was tall and nicknamed ’Anamalu’, the other was plump and nicknamed ‘Kolikuttu’ (de Bruin). His house exists in Punchi Borella, though the current ‘occupants’ have no connection with the de Bruins. The administration office of Tramways Ltd had been at Union Place.

Cedric Boustead’s residence is now the Colombo Swimming Club.

The track gauge was three feet six inches. There are still tram lines visible near the Old Town Hall and on Grandpass Road. The only Tram Car halt sign board was found at the end of St. Josephs Street.

On June 16, 1899 at 10pm, a tramcar traveling along Maradana Road (now Gnanaratha Pradeepa Mawatha

Place Names in Colombo

As Sri Lankan towns go, Colombo is relatively young—a mere five centuries from when the Portuguese established a fort and expelled the Muslim inhabitants. With the exception of Galle and Negombo, it is surely the city with the most colonial influence. The names of its streets and districts reflected its colonial heritage; at least until the authorities changed the names to more indigenous ones. Several of the surviving names have obscure origins. Here are some of them:

Maligakanda And Maligawatta

In May 1587, King Rajasinghe of Sitawaka, having conquered the Kandyan Kingdom, laid siege to the Portuguese fort of Colombo, with 60,000 men, 150 guns, 11,600 muskets and firelocks and 120 war elephants. The siege lasted nine months, but the 350 Portuguese soldiers in Colombo held out.

Under the Portuguese, the city walls encompassed the Pettah, and the Beira was much bigger than it is now. The fort could only be approached from the south and east, and a moat defended the eastern approaches. Rajasinghe ordered a deep ditch to be dug, thereby draining the eastern approaches. He located his headquarters on a hill further back, which came to be known as Maligakanda (palace hill), since he held court there. The fields adjacent became Maligawatte (palace gardens).


In October 1655, a 10,000-strong army belonging to the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-indische Compagnie  or V.O.C.), aided by 16,000 troops of King Rajasinghe II, laid siege to the Portuguese-held fort of Colombo.The Dutch commander, Gerard Pieterszoon Hulft, located his command post on a hill close to, and overlooking, the western rampart of the fort. During the course of the siege, Hulft went down to the front lines and received a bullet in his chest, expiring on the spot. A month later, in May 1656, the last 73 Portuguese troops, the only survivors of a bustling city of many thousands, surrendered. The Dutch hill on which Hulft had his headquarters became “Hulfts Dorp”, or “Hulft’s village”. Today, the name is often mis-spelt, as for example, Hultsdorf.

Gerard Pieterszoon Hulft meets Rajasinghe II on 8 April, 1656. Print attributed to Gonsales Appelmans, courtesy: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


During the Dutch siege of Colombo, John van der Laan, Hulft’s second-in-command, quartered himself in a Portuguese church named for Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Dutch misconstrued (and mis-spelled) the name as “Agoa de Loepo” or “Quia de Lobo”, which they mistranslated as “Vale of Wolves”, Wolven Daal. It gained in importance after the Dutch built a church there, 375 years ago.

Our Lady of Guadelupe is a statue of the Virgin Mary, originally from Guadalupe in Spain, around which a cult formed. Interestingly, the place name actually derived from the Arabic “wadd al lubb”, meaning either “hidden river” or “river of wolves” (Arabic-speaking Muslims occupied much of Spain for seven centuries). “Guadalupe”, pronounced “waa da loope”, provided the Sinhala and Tamil term still used for the area, Aadilippu.


The Anglican Church of St Thomas lies about 500 metres from Wolvendaal Church. The Portuguese reportedly found a Nestorian cross on the site(meaning that Persian Christians may have worshipped there) and therefore built a shrine there to St Thomas (São Tomé). During the siege of Colombo, the Dutch stationed several batteries here. After the Dutch took over, they demolished the shrine. In front of the shrine lay a large open space, which the Sinhalese called San Thome Pitiya, the field of St Thomas.The Dutch turned the field into a cemetery, part of which they turned over to graves of non-believers or “gentiles”, gentio in Portuguese (which was the lingua franca of Colombo until the mid-19th century). Hence, “the Field of St Thomas” became the “Field of Gentiles”, Gentio Pitiya, pronounced Jinthu Pitiya.


Dutch Governor Petrus Vuyst, on landing in Colombo to take office in 1726, said he would rule “with the wisdom of Solomon and the boldness of Vuyst”. He suffered from a paranoid personality disorder, which manifested itself when he arrested several people on false charges, exiling some and executing 19 others by beheading, disemboweling and quartering them. After three years of his reign of terror, the V.O.C. recalled him to Batavia and had him beheaded whilst sitting in a chair (due to his status), disemboweled and quartered.

While still Governor, he fixated upon getting a good view of the Colombo harbour from a hill in Mutwal, called “Buona Vista” on account of the view. In order to get there faster and more comfortably, he had a new road built from the Pettah. Because carts could not get there, paving stones were passed from hand to hand. The new road came to be called Aluth Mawatha, “New Avenue”. Today it bears the repetitive moniker “Aluth Mawatha Road”.

Vystwyke Road

Vuyst’s residence at the Mutwal end of Aluth Mawatha came to be known as Vuyst Wyk (Vuyst’s village), commemorated today in Vystwyke Road. In this area, Vuyst’s bloodthirsty reputation received a further boost. A legend arose that Vuyst and his Malay cook developed a cannibal appetite, and that villagers travelling alone in the night near Vuyst Wyk would disappear. After Vuyst’s removal, a buried pile of bones came to light, or so rumour had it. A century later, residents claimed that Vuyst’s cries could be heard emanating from an abandoned well, as he did penance for his misdeeds in a burning iron chair.

Captain’s Garden

During the Dutch occupation, the Beira Lake extended as far as Hulftsdorp, much of what is now the railway yard between the Maradana and Fort stations being under water, with a peninsula sticking out into the eastern branch of the lake from Suduwella. Subsequent reclamation between this promontory and Lake House created D.R. Wijewardena Mawatha. In the 18th century, in order to regulate the activities of South Indian Chetties involved in the spice trade, the V.O.C. installed a Captain on this promontory. Accordingly, the peninsula came to be known as “Captain’s Garden”.

The Chetties worshipped a Shiva Lingam (sacred stone phallus) on the site, and the Captain, being a devout Christian, cast it into the Beira. The next day, it reappeared miraculously in the garden. Thereafter, the Captain allowed a Hindu temple, the modern Sri Kailasanatha Swami Devasthanam, to be built; the neighbourhood’s main claim to fame.

Bagatale And Alfred House

Charles Edward Layard, a member of the Ceylon Civil Service, purchased a bungalow in Kollupitiya,together with a large cinnamon plantation, stretching from the Galle Road to what is now Thurstan Road. He demolished the bungalow and built a mansion, and called the estate “Bagatelle”, most probably after the French game. The estate later passed into the hands of Arbuthnot and Co, agents for the Government of Ceylon in India. Jeronis de Soyza, a wealthy arrack rentier and planter, bought the house and estate. His son, Charles Henry de Soyza, an ardent monarchist, once entertained Queen Victoria’s son, Alfred Duke of Edinburgh (later Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha) at the house, and thereafter renamed the mansion “Alfred House”. He also named after Alfred the model farm on the site of the present Royal Colombo Golf Club links. C. H. de Soyza’s heirs split up the estate, with the result that it sprouted a number of roads named after Alfred: Alfred House Gardens, Alfred House Road, Alfred House Avenue, and Alfred Place; also after the Queen: Queen’s Road and Queen’s Avenue; and after C. H. de Soyza himself: Charles Circus, Charles Avenue, Charles Way, Charles Place and Charles Drive. The original name of the estate remains in Bagatelle Road. Unfortunately, the Colombo Municipal Council in its wisdom decided that the correct spelling should be “Bagatale”, presumably meaning “plain of the gods”.

  Bagatalle House, courtesy Lankapura







Layard’s Road/Broadway

Charles Edward Layard married Barbara Bridgetina Mooyaart, the daughter of Gualterus Mooyaart, an administrator in the V.O.C., and they had 20 children and over 200 grandchildren (I. G. P. Herbert Dowbiggin was a great-grandchild). One of their sons, Charles Peter Layard, joined the Ceylon Civil Service and went on to be acting Colonial Secretary and also the first Mayor of Colombo. He became a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (K.C.M.G.) in 1876. In 1900, he represented the Governor at the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia.Layard’s Road in Bambalapitiya and Layard’s Broadway in Grandpass are named for him. Another, although unofficial, claim to fame is the Wellawatte Canal, built while Layard was Government Agent for the Western Province. Intended to drain flood waters, the level of the canal turned out to be too high, so the required flow did not take place. For this reason, it became known as “Layard’s Folly”.

Pennyquick Road

Pennyquick Road in Wellawatte is probably named for Charles Edward Ducat Pennycuick. Born in India in 1844, he lost his father Brigadier John Pennycuick at the Battle of Chillianwalla in the Punjab in 1849. He joined the Ceylon Civil Service and became Mayor of Colombo in 1893. Subsequently appointed Postmaster General, he finished his career as Treasurer of Ceylon, receiving a K.C.M.G. in retirement.

His elder brother, Colonel John Pennycuick, became quite famous in India. As an engineer in the Public Works Department, he built the Mullaiperiyar dam across the Periyar River in Kerala, and is worshipped as a god by farmers in the districts of the Madurai zone of Tamil Nadu, who irrigate their fields with waters from the reservoir. On the other hand, C. E. D. Pennecuick’s main claim to fame appears to be that, as Mayor, he considered objectionable the killing of stray dogs by drowning them in the Beira, so in 1894 he ordered the construction of a gas chamber for the purpose.

) collided with a pony cart travelling from Regent Street to Jail Road (now E W Perera Mawatha, and Ananda Rajakaruna Mawatha) causing injury to the two cart riders and pony, and damage to the cart and harness.

Credits to History of Ceylon Web Page  and Wikipedia, …………. photo credits to The Archives

*****   *****

A NOTE sent by CHARLES SCHOKMAN in Melbourne now, 6 September 2022

I read this article with much interest and would like to include my experience commuting in a Tramcar in the early 1950’s

I used to board a bus from Dematagoda Junction (owned by magnate B.J.Fernando) to Borella and then commute by tram on my way to work. This was in the 1950’s and it took me about an hour.

As I reflect, I remember passing St Lukes Church (Anglican) on my right and on my left a Catholic institution. A main stop was at Punchi Borella which gave access to St Paul’s Church Kynsey Road, The General Hospital, The Nurses Quarters, the Eye Hospital, the Baptist Church and Lipton Square. This area was known as Cinnamon Gardens.

Continuing my journey it took me through the crowded area of Maradana thats built up on either side with furniture and clothing shops and M.D. Gunasena, the popular and only second-hand Book Shop. The other landmarks were the Police Station & Barracks, the Railway Station, the Muslim Zahira College  and the Elphinstone Theatre. (Incidentally, it was at this cinema that my dad took me to watch my first movie” Bright Eyes” featuring Shirley Temple and her song “ On the Good Ship Lollipop” still keeps ringing in my ears. That was in the late 1930’s when I was about 10 years old.) Just can’t imagine that almost 90 years  have gone by.

Coming back to my journey there was a stop that lead to the Olympia Theatre, St Joseph’s College and McCullum Rd. Then as the tram proceeded it took a left turn near the Colombo Technical College and headed towards the crowded area of Pettah. The frequent sound of the driver’s bell could be heard as the tram crawled its way in the thick traffic. Situated in this area to mention a few places of interest was the Pettah Market, retail shops, the Fort Railway Station, the Gas Company and as the tram regained its speed it passed the Ceylon Telegraph Office, Cable & Wireless, Chamber of Commerce and Post Office. At last, I was happy to reach Prince Street, a stop away was my destination Walker Sons & Co Ltd, the place of my employment. On the opposite side stood the “Times of Ceylon” building and a side road that took you to the Y.W.C.A.

I well remember the two Burgher gentlemen mentioned- Mr. De Bruin (Kolikuttu) and Mr. Hills (Anamalu). They took their jobs seriously looking out for those without tickets and for the Pickpocketers, whilst Mr Owen Brace of the Salvation Army was liked by the regular commuters for his mannerism and wit. He later took up duties as the Caretaker of the Colombo Town Hall.

In 1948 Dr. N.M.Perera, the leader of the LSSP became the first Leftist Mayor of the Colombo Municipal Council to represent the Borella Ward. It was during his tenure of service that the Tramcars were done away with and replaced by Single & Double Decker Trolly Buses electrically driven. These vehicles were equiped with pneumatic tyres and caused less damaged to the roads. They were green in colour and travelling in these buses was very comfortable. The added advantage was that passengers could not get free rides as the automatic doors were controlled by the driver when starting off from a halt.

Sadly, this service was short lived and was discontinued in 1964 due to a Trolleybus strike, the  maintenance cost and the government policy decisions.

The nationalisation of private bus companies in 1958 led to the origin of the Ceylon Transport Board. This was during the time of Prime Minister S.W.R.D Bandaranaike. The Board was designed on the lines of London Transport and it acquired a fleet of reconditioned Single & Double Decker Buses from England to supplement its network of transport in the metropolitan areas.

I understand that now there are private own buses and vehicles that run in competition with the Ceylon Transport Board.


Filed under architects & architecture, British colonialism, cultural transmission, economic processes, governance, heritage, historical interpretation, island economy, landscape wondrous, modernity & modernization, politIcal discourse, sri lankan society, transport and communications, travelogue, world events & processes

2 responses to “Vignettes of Colombo: Some Place Names & the Tramcar

  1. EMAIL COMMENT from Mo Marikar of Kandy, Trinity & USA, 5 September 2022: ……… “How well I remember around 1955 the cranes in the harbor, the tram cars running in the Pettah when my dad took us in his Austin A90 to Colombo.”

  2. chasbaz

    My great great grandmother was Ethel Boustead, sister of John Melvill (Jack) Boustead. A family story says that during the 1929 strike, Cedric was driving a tram and somebody threw a snake at him!

Leave a Reply