|Thursday, 22 January 2004|
Adieu to Shelagh Cotton
In a category that covers not only a single sport but encompasses a whole range of women's sport in Sri Lanka, Shelagh Cotton, nee Gaddum must surely stand on her own.
Shelagh has during the four decades of her sports career in Sri Lanka represented our island in five sports and reigned supreme champion in two of them.
Sports in Shelagh's family did not begin with her. Four generations of Gaddums have lived in Sri Lanka and on the distaff side the Warings, a generation more.
These forebears and relationship with the Alston family provided Shelagh with a rich heritage of famous figures in the sports world of Sri Lanka.
Percy Gaddum, the founder of the Ceylon branch came from a family keen on steeple chasing and polo. He came to Ceylon in 1891 to take charge of the family tea estates. He was an immensely strong man "who once won a bet when he carried 3 cwt of lead up 1000 ft from the Railway Station to his Estate, a distance of 3 miles!"
His son Reginald (R.P.) Gaddum, Shelagh's father not only figured prominently in Ceylon sports, representing Ceylon in Cricket and winning several Ceylon titles in tennis, but distinguished himself in Public Service. He was a member of the State Council and a Nominated Member of the first Parliament. Professionally he ended his career as Managing Director of Aitken Spence.
Shelagh's son Christopher before his tragic death, was a promising golfer and as a teenager created headlines when he beat the late Pin Fernando, then in his prime, in a golf championship in Nuwara Eliya.
In fact the contribution to Ceylon sport by all branches of Shelagh's family merits an article in itself, but this is a tribute to Shelagh, the most famous among them in sports and the last of the line in Sri Lanka.
Shelagh first came into the limelight in 1940 when as a 12-year-old she was made reserve for the All Ceylon Women's Hockey team that played against the Indian Bluebirds.
International competitions were curtailed during the war but Shelagh continued to play hockey for the Club and later represented Ceylon against a visiting Australian team.
When the family moved to Colombo Shelagh took up swimming and it was not long before she created records in that sport. Admittedly swimming in Ceylon at that time was not the competitive sport it is today.
Nevertheless it is to her credit that when she tasted victory for the first time in the 100 yds freestyle she became the outstanding swimmer of that era and was soon to hold all the Women's Swimming titles.
In 1950 she was an automatic choice for the Empire Games in New Zealand and swam in the 100 metres and 400 metres freestyle events.
She was the only woman and the only European in the Ceylon team of about 23 participants who included fellow swimmer Douglas Arndt, diver Alan Smith and athletes the incomparable Duncan White, Summa Navaratne and Vivian Blaze and boxers Albert Perera, Alex Obeysekera and Eddie Gray.
Cricket in Sri Lanka has never been considered a woman's game but from time to time women's teams from other cricketing nations passed through our shores and our women faced the test.
When in the late 40s the formidable English women's cricket team captained by Molly Hyde stopped in Colombo en route to Australia and played against a Ceylon team, Shelagh Cotton was one of the eleven.
She recollects that Shirley Straarup (nee Thomas), Gilly Fernando and Estelle Cader (nee Thiedeman) played in this match.
Shelagh's achievements in these sports would surely have satisfied most sports loving parents, but it did not satisfy her father. R. P. Gaddum's great love was tennis and he had five children, and all daughters,; that one of them should be tennis champion of Ceylon was his dream.
When it came to her turn Shelagh dutifully bowed to her father's wishes. Playing on the Garden Club and Queen's Club courts she won the women's singles of these Clubs and held the women's doubles and mixed doubles on more than one occasion.
Though her father's dream was not realised, Shelagh was ranked high enough to be selected for Ceylon teams that played against great international stars that played in Ceylon. She was chosen for the Dunlop trophy team's match against Frank Sedgman and Bob Howe, who were on their way to Wimbledon.
Tony Mottram, Doris Hart, Gussie Moran and Althea Gibson are some of the famous tennis stars whom she played against.
Pretty and popular, Shelagh and her sisters, the "Gaddum Girls" while breaking sports records also broke the hearts of the young British bachelors who in those days formed the backbone of the Plantations and the Agency Houses.
When in 1952 she married one of them, Dick Cotton, (who incidentally was Diving Champion for Ceylon and turned out, for rugger for the CR and FC); domestic and parental duties restricted her sports activities.
However, she did find time to join him on hunting, shooting and fishing trips and for a while tennis racket and hockey stick gave way to rod and gun.
But she could not accept that her sports days were over and in 1962 when her husband started golf, she too became a member of the Royal Colombo Golf Club. She started on the sport that was to give her the greatest joy and for which she will perhaps be best remembered.
Within a year she was down to handicap of 16 and reached the final of the Club Championship. However, the Ceylon title was to elude her for a few years, though her handicap came tumbling down to 4, the lowest handicap of any woman at that time.
Though on her Medal performances he was recognised the best woman golfer of Ceylon, she established this position conclusively when she won the Ceylon title in 1966 and created a record when she won it 4 years in succession.
During the 70s her husband took up planting duties and though Shelagh had the opportunity to practise on the Nuwara Eliya Golf Club course the lack of competitive golf up-country took the edge off her game.
This and the emergence of Ceylon's new golfing star, Tiru Fernando, kept Shelagh in second place for the next few years. Representation in a fifth sport came when she played golf for Ceylon in the Team match against the Indian women's team, prior to the Championship in Nuwara Eliya.
Later with Tiru at University in America and when her husband was stationed briefly in Colombo it did not come as a surprise that she won her fifth title in 1975.
However, this was to be her last title as another change in her life came with Land Reform. Her husband retired from planting but their love of Sri Lanka was too great to contemplate a life in another country.
She and Dick were granted Resident guest status, sold their house in England, bought a boat and retired to Trincomalee, where Dick was able to pursue his favourite sport, deep sea fishing. Shelagh joined him enthusiastically and expertly but also kept her hand on the game she loved.
She practised golf shots on the sea shore, practised with plastic balls and played a few hurried games at the Royal Colombo Golf Club whenever she was in Colombo.
This devotion was rewarded when once again last year she captured another title, the Royal Colombo Championship beating another generation of top women golfers in Sri Lanka.
Born in colonial Ceylon, another aspect of Shelagh's character is that while the Colonial British housewife could barely lisp a word or two in the vernacular, Shelagh was trilingual and spoke Sinhalese and Tamil as well.
An illustration of her love and identification with our Island is exemplified in this little incident. Selected to play for "The Rest" versus "Ceylon" in a friendly team match among the members of the Royal Colombo, Shelagh protested, "How can I - I am Ceylonese!"
Shelagh's remarkable participation in Sri Lanka sports championships will shortly come to an end. When her elder son was killed on patrol while serving in the Rhodesian Police force a few years ago, her world collapsed. The carefree and joyous retirement in Trincomalee seemed meaningless.
She and Dick have now decided to make England their home and later this year she will leave behind the Island of her birth for the land of her birthright. A much loved member of the Golf Club she leaves behind a host of Sri Lankan friends and takes with her their best wishes and a record 40 years of competition in the highest ranks of Sri Lanka sport.
Produced by Lake House