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History of Ceylon Tea is an industry-service project by Dilmah. Click HERE to read more.
31st January 2023


  • The Story of Alfred House by Hugh Karunanayake
  • Poonagalla Group in 1895 by Royston Ellis
  • In Memoriam -  Ajit Chitty (1937-2017) by Graeme Tissera
  • Photo Album of the Month - Kataboola Estate, Kotmale
  • Contributor Photo Album of the Month - Chelsea Philpott
  • Down Memory Lane - 3 Ceylonese Planters in London in 1950
  • Historical Events in 1867
  • Tea Radio by Dilmah

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By Hugh Karunanayake

Nineteenth Century Ceylon boasted of many stately homes such as Queens House, Horagolla Walauwa, and Alfred House. Alfred House achieved considerable fame as the venue for a much remembered dinner in 1870 for the visiting Prince of Wales, Prince Alfred then titled the Duke of Edinburgh. Alfred House was then a large mansion standing on 125 acres of land planted in coconut and cinnamon. The grounds of Alfred House covered almost the whole of Kollupitiya southwards from the present Walukarama Road to land adjacent to Station Road Bambalapitiya. Eastwards it covered almost the entirety of both sides of Thurstan Road and included the University premises as well as the grounds of Royal College up to Racecourse Avenue. It was easily the largest property in Colombo and the most valuable piece of real estate in Ceylon of the 19th Century.

The name Bagatelle seems to have originated when it was under the ownership of Arbuthnot & Co., which appears to have owned it from the time it was offered for sale by the Government. The property was first advertised for sale in the Ceylon Government Gazette of 9 March 1822 as "a thatched cottage with a tent roof, about two miles and half from the Fort of Colombo, to be disposed of by private contract." The owner at the time was believed to be a prominent businessman in the Fort with the quaint name Daddy Parsee. He was a well-known businessman operating from No 4 King Street in the Fort being a key importer of luxury goods and wines into the island. It appears that he had defaulted in payment of dues to the govt and hence the decision to sequester the property to recover dues.

The Ceylon Almanacs of the 1840s lists Bagatelle Estate as a property owned by Arbuthnot & Co., who were agents for the Government of Ceylon in India, and who were the sole exporters of cinnamon from Ceylon which was a government monopoly at the time. It would seem that Arbuthnot & Co. acquired the property from the government in 1822. A few years later the property was in the possession of C.E. Layard who lived there for many years. There is no information available as to whether the Layards owned the property (most likely) or were tenants, but during his period of residence C.E. Layard replaced the old thatched roof building with a substantial two storied house which was named Big Bagatelle. The Layards were an illustrious family from Bristol which was closely associated with the administration of public service and judicial institutions in Ceylon for many generations and have played a significant role in the colonial history of early British Ceylon.

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In 1995, British author Royston Ellis, a resident of Sri Lanka, visited the Poonagala group of estates, then managed by Vije Bede Johnpillai. While there, he was shown a visiting agent’s report, written a century before. Here are extracts from his article about it, published in Tea International in 1995.

In 1895, a Visiting Agent (VA) inspected the Poonagala group. It took him three days on horseback to cover all the estates. On Tuesday, 18 June 1895, he compiled his report in careful copperplate script.

His visit came one year after the railway reached Bandarawela. From the station it was 14 miles by steep winding road to the estate. The plantation’s elevation ranged from 2,500 feet to 5,000 feet above sea level.

He records that in 1895 the total area was 2,243 acres in four estates: Poonagala, Lunugala (Upper and Lower), Udahena and Cabragalla. Lunugala had a factory as did Poonagala. The owner of the four estates was Sir George Pilkington.

A reading of the yellowing manuscript of more than 5,000 words suggests that Poonagala had then only recently been purchased by Pilkington. The VA wrote: “Poonagala and Cabragalla together make a very compact valuable property and I consider the purchase of Poonagala in many ways largely improves the value of Lunugala, Udahena and Cabragalla…it also largely settles the question of outlet for all these properties.”

The transporting of tea to Colombo was a major problem. “It is a very difficult matter to keep up the labour supply on an estate when transport difficulties are so great. The tea at present has to be carried by coolies for some five miles to the cart road. Now that Poonagala has been purchased this transport difficulty (which is really a labour difficulty) may be largely reduced by sending down the made tea by wire (shute) to Poonagala factory and having it sifted, re-fired and packed there.”

Click HERE to read the full article


AJIT CHITTY (1937-2017)


By Graeme Tissera
Reproduced from the Daily FT

The bestowing of legendary acclaim upon a personage is usually in acknowledgement of their accomplishment in a specific discipline, profession or skill. In some instances, individuals that have achieved transformational success through their association with an institution, a just-cause, or even a pressure group, have been included in the narrative of legends. Whilst it is common for Sri Lanka and the world at-large, to have borne witness to personalities that have been afforded such recognition for exploits in a given field, it is rare for one to be revered as a legend for achievement in multiple fields.

Ajit Chitty was an individual worthy of that unique distinction. He was a personality of diverse professions, interests, passions and expertise; a prime example of ‘mens sana in corpore sano’, an image he earned for himself by being acknowledged for his keen, legal-centric, laser-focused mind, which was complemented by his involvement in numerous physical outdoor pursuits and sporting activities.
Chitty was a keen sportsman of the less athletic kind, excelling in golf, rifle shooting, horse riding and motor rally driving. He had a command and mastery over these pursuits and practiced them with the consummate ease of a natural. His affinity towards the intricacies of these pastimes, inevitably resulted in his peers looking to him to lead the administrative aspects of some of those disciplines, the roles of which he successfully fulfilled, whilst displaying a towering influence of practically accomplished management acumen.

The adventurer and explorer in him accompanied an avid curiosity, which drove him to partake in a variety of pursuits. In time, he was identified as a legendary individual that depicted the very definition of ‘been there done that’ the knowledge and experiences of which he most willingly shared with those that needed it most. He was a seasoned man, with the experience and competence to navigate the stormy seas and white water rapids of life, a fact that will be readily affirmed by the plethora of those that he counselled and guided through difficult circumstances and overwhelming hard times.

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Kataboola Estate, Kotmale - Manager's Bungalow

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Chelsea Philpott

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Photo of three Ceylonese Planters in London in 1950. Source Jean Lemphers
In Ceylon
  • Manufacture of the first Sirocco tea drier by Samuel C. Davidson.
  • Formal opening of the Colombo Museum.
  • English cricket team in Australia and New Zealand in 1876–77: The first Test cricket match is held between England and Australia.
  • Alexander Graham Bell installs the world's first commercial telephone service in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
  • The serial publication of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is concluded, in The Russian Messenger.
  • The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club begins its first lawn tennis tournament at Wimbledon.
  • Thomas Edison announces his invention of the phonograph, a machine that can record sound, considered Edison's first great invention.


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