Ghostly beginnings of a famous newspaper
Digging roots is a fascinating pastime, be it deliberate or
accidental. I almost stumbled on the original place that experienced the
birth pangs of the Daily News through the book “The life and times of D
R Jayawardena” by H A J Hulugalle. Of course I had read the book before
with no specific motive. This time it was handed to me by an
acquaintance for a specific motive. That is to focus on a chapter that
questions the credibility of those revere as our national leaders.
According to him these whom he had located, had opposed the grant of
self – government to our Island.
Lake House Building
Really I was not very much interested in that issue. When cohesion
among the varied races and creeds of the island is the dire need of the
day why scratch old wounds and disease the body again foully? Let
sleeping dogs lie. Of course. Never were they dogs but lions of a sort
in their times. But other than racial prejudices they to had their
moods, temperaments and likes and dislikes. Never are humans
predictable. They would say one thing today and another thing tomorrow.
Sometimes what was originally said could be misinterpreted by latter
day writers and reporters. Sorry. Writers and reporters just merge into
each other. Everything is so fluctuating.
In my own mood of fluctuating I began to change my course of
observation in the book and found myself on familiar ground. Familiar?
Yes. Years back when I was a dedicated officer of the Ministry of
Education, I went on circuit to a certain school in Punchi Borella.
Going through the log book and chatting to the school head I found that
the school was of premier historical significance.
It was the first English medium Buddhist Girls’ school in the island
born out of the Naarishiksha Wing of the Buddhist Theosophical Movement
that began to flourish in the 1880s under the aegis of Colonel Olcott.
Originally this school had been at a large bungalow along. Tichborne
To make a long story short I bumped into this avenue again in that
book discovering that the Daily News had been born in this same
bungalow. For the sake of clarity and sequential order I would here
recount the genesis of this newspaper that has ballooned into the
foremost English daily in the island.
It had been in England that the newspaper was prematurely charistened
by D R Wijewardene when he browsed through the London Liberal Newspaper
called the Daily News “brilliantly edited by A G Gardiner. Already the
public spirited man was harbouring dreams of starting a newspaper to
rake up a movement for national liberation and he thought (according to
Hulugalle) “that if he ever owned a newspaper he would call it the
Ceylon Daily News”..... After he returned to the island he achieved his
objective and the Daily News soon found a place among the many English
dailies of the times as the Times of Ceylon, the Morning Leader and the
Ceylonese. (In the early decades of the 20th century, there had been
more English dailies than now!) In fact it was the death of the
Ceylonese that signalled the birth of the Daily News, writes Hulugalle.
D R Wijewardena
”Wijewardena began his new career by buying the goodwill and plant of
a bankrupt newspaper with a disappearing circulation.”
Actually the Ceylonese was founded in 1913 by Ponnambalam Ramanathan
and a host of academic luminaries of the period. The paper however
teetered on bankruptcy when a writ was issued by F R Senanayake for the
recovery of Rs 21,000, a loan he had taken. D R Wijewardena then back
from England and languishing in the uniform of a Lieutenant of the
Ceylon Light Infantry, his dream of beginning a national movement aimed
at independence through a newspaper dormant, cleverly foresaw his
opportunity and dashed to the sale of the bankrupt newspaper and its
plant at Tichborne Avenue, made his offer and bought it.
As Hulugalle wrote, “The Ceylonese was housesd in a properly known as
Tichborne Hall in Maradana almost opposite Ananda College. The building
had been occupied some years before by a girls’ school known as
Sanghamitta College which was said to be haunted by a ghost of a former
principal who had committed suicide there.”
At this time the present site of Lake House newspapers was just a
water – logged eye sore in the heart of Colombo providing a headache to
the authorities. D R Wijewardena bought the site years later after his
Daily News and Dinamina (bought over from H S Perera) began to show
signs of leading the race in Lanka’s newspaper world. Back to the
Buddhist Girls’ school at Tichborne Avenue. It had rather unfortunate
beginnings despite all the rhetoric sung at its initial meeting.
There were no ladies educated enough to head a Girls English School
and the BTS had to advertise in foreign newspapers for a suitable head
to which an Australian lady answered. She got the post but managed to
fall into the school well and drown a few months later. Some opined that
she was sleep walking, others that she was depressed, lonely in a
strange country and had committed suicide.
Anyway the place was said to be haunted after this and abandoned, the
school itself having shifted to its present site at Punchi Borella the
famous Marie Museaus Higgins taking over for a short time only to cross
over to Rosemead Place to put up a mud edifice, disgusted by the surfeit
of advice she got on how to run a school by Punchi Borella pundits.
It can be surmised that when Maradana was the residential area of
Colombo the Tichborne Avenue Bungalow was built to house some foreign or
local family of the upper rungs, Surving its use as a girls school later
it soon became the venue of the publication of the Ceylonese and then
the Daily News. The editorial and managerial offices and paper store
were in one section and the printing works were “in a badly ventilated
barracks with a corrugated iron roof”.
Such were the humble, if not ghostly beginnings of the first English
Daily of the Lake House group.