LIFE ABROAD – Part 23:SRI LANKAN LOSS – ARABIAN GAIN
Posted on April 11th, 2013

Dr.Tilak Fernando

After the evacuation of residents during the Second World War there had not been any habitation at Hyde Park Gardens, West London, except for a row of stables. Subsequently, Sri Lanka (Ceylon) High Commission moved to No.13 Hyde Park Gardens, followed by the German Ambassador (to No.14) as Sri Lanka’s neighbour.

The whole of the Hyde Park Estate was later acquired by an Architect named Donald Hamilton who refurbished buildings and disposed of them through (his) David Hamilton & Co. It was presumed that he ran into some personal or financial difficulties later and committed suicide by hanging himself at No. 1, Hyde Park Gardens!

Progressively the whole area was owned by the Church Commission in the UK and Charltons, The Estate Agents, took over the management for Church Commissioners.

Students’ centre

The Ceylon Students Centre had been initially established at 21 Addison Road, Kensington for the welfare of Sri Lankan students in the UK. Some years later the base moved to No. 7 Clarendon Place, London W2, only a stone’s throw away from the Sri Lanka High Commission building. Sir Oliver Goonetilleke lived in an Apartment at the Albion Court, facing Hyde Park and the Basewater Road, within a walking distance from the High Commission and the Students’ Centre.

“ƒ”¹…”The Ceylon Students Centre’ which became a household name for the bourgeoisie families in Colombo was a cynosure for all Sri Lankans in the UK. The Victorian building once owned by a Lord of Austrian origin had changed hands from Donald Hamilton Company to Church Commissioners, who in turn leased it to the Sri Lanka government on a long term agreement.

The building consisted of seven bedrooms with a basement which the Student Centre used as the kitchen. The dining area was located on the ground floor along with the sub-warden’s office, a Library room and a toilet. A grand piano which was part of the furniture helped lonely students to chill out.

The Sri Lankan government’s subsidy to maintain the Centre was believed to be 75,000 British Pounds per annum with a full time staff of a sub-warden and two cooks. A diplomatic officer (usually the First Secretary) assigned by the High Commission carried out the responsibilities of overseeing administrative and financial functions of the operation as the official Warden.

Room charges initially started with 7 Shillings and 6 (old) pence per night with Bed and Breakfast. A three-course meal cost students 2 shillings and 6 (old) pence which seemingly got increased with the rising cost of living. The meals served on to plates from the kitchen were lifted up to a hatch in the dining area with the aid of a special hoist. Students were allowed to have a second serving without any additional cost and a large pot of milk tea stood without supervision for self service.

An East London Indian wholesaler (Ghandi Stores) provided provisions for catering needs of the Centre in bulk quantities such as 100 kg bags of rice at five Pounds a bag! The kitchen staff consisted of Podi Appuhamy and Shelton Silva who turned out delicious rice and curry meals.

Cooks didn’t spoil the soup

Podi Appuhamy (popularly known as “ƒ”¹…”Podi’) worked at the Student’s Centre for nearly 20 years. He had an added advantage of doing an extra job in the mornings at the Supreme Headquarters of American Allied Forces in Europe at 7, Grosvenor Square, London (Consultation Room). Podi had been introduced to the Americans by one Bala Subramanium who worked for the Americans as a Chef.

Podi and Shelton had an amicable agreement, that he (Podi) cooked the breakfast in the mornings at the Students Centre before going to Grosvenor Square to prepare lunch for the staff at the American office. Shelton took over the responsibility of managing the lunch on his own at the Students Centre, and in the night a combined effort prepared dinner for students.

Wardens

Rev. James Karter, once a former Principal in a reputable College in Ceylon, assumed duties as the first warden at the Ceylon Students Centre in London. He was succeeded by a German called Frderick Richter. Subsequently in a series of Sri Lankan sub-wardens, a former Government Agent, Gunawardena, dropped dead on the Victoria British Rail Station platform while he waited for the Gatwick bound train to arrive, enroute to Gatwick Airport to catch a flight to Sri Lanka on a holiday.

Beginning of the end

Batches of Sri Lankan students who were studying in Moscow Universities arrived in London at times during their summer vacation in search of work in the UK and stayed at the Student Centre for short intervals. The main allegation about some of them was that they managed not only to stay at the students centre scot-free without paying a single penny for their board and lodging but in addition, vandalised the place, broke into the telephone kiosk and plundered coins from the telephones boxes as well.

Apparently dark clouds started to gather around the Student Centre during the High Commissioner Gunasena Soysa’s time when agitations and protest marches became a frequent occurrence followed by a temporary close down of the Centre.

After a short spell, when the Centre was re-opened, it had become evident that its life span was diminishing as a direct consequence of inefficient management and the lack of overall supervision.

Apparently no proper accounts had been maintained, an auditor had never sighted the place and the place was in shambles and running at a loss which ultimately went into bankruptcy.

In the midst of such a hullaballoo, rubbing salt in the wound, Public Health Inspectors visited the Centre and declared that the building was not habitable for human occupation due to unhygienic conditions that prevailed from the kitchen up to bedrooms!

Consequently an official order from the Health Authorities made it compulsory for the Students Centre to close down until such time the Sri Lankan authorities conformed to British regulations under the Health and Safety Act.

A well maintained Victorian building occupied by The Ceylon Students Centre at 7, Clarendon Place once had over the years transformed into a dilapidated, unhygienic house condemned by the UK Health Authorities as ‘uninhabitable’! The estimated figures to refurbish the place to bring up to legally acceptable level was considered as ‘beyond the limits of allocated funds’ by the government.

During such turbulent times it was alleged that many valuable items including the Grand Piano and an expensive painting done by Ivan Peiris also had disappeared from the Students’ Centre!

In the meanwhile, the Church Commissioners offered the free hold status of the building to Sri Lanka government at a nominal price of British Pounds 70,000, being sitting tenants for a long time.

Sri Lanka High Commission always maintained their official current account with the National Westminster (Natwest) Bank, at the Paddington Branch, despite having a branch of The Bank of Ceylon at Moorgate, East London. However, high profile negotiations that took place at rocket speed between the Diplomats and Bankers had managed to arrange the requisite loan from the Natwest bank to take over the Freehold status of the property but to the disappointment of many and mainly due to some political and diplomatic melodrama, Sri Lanka lost a golden opportunity.

Ultimately Sri Lanka’s loss became an Arab’s gain when the prospective buyer ‘grabbed’ the free hold property for British Pounds 70,000. It was rumoured that a Saudi Arabian Princess bought it over from the Arab subsequently, refurbished the whole place, built a swimming pool on the top floor and was valued at British Pounds 5 – 6 million. After the purchase of the building by the Saudi Arabian Princess not only has the ownership changed, but the house number also been changed from No. 7 to No. 8 Clarendon Place, London W2.

“A whip does not make a horse smart, nor does a bridle help an ass; neither will a rod give wisdom to a fool” – A proverb

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