Life Abroad – Part 103 OUT OF A VEILED ARCHIVE
Posted on November 6th, 2014

Dr. Tilak Fernando

In response to Life Abroad Pt. 101 episode on ‘Faithful Employees and diplomatic bungling’, Peter Wijesinghe responded swiftly in an email to me as follows:

I thought of writing a few lines to you about what is being said about the Ceylon/Sri Lanka High Commission in London, and now something called ‘Geneva Gate’ in certain TV channels”.

As you know, I have been a member of the staff at the Ceylon/Sri Lanka High Commission from day one when the High Commission office was opened by the late Majesty King George, VI and Queen Elisabeth on October 22, 1948”.

Although my substantive post was a minor one, I had to perform very many important tasks because of my special relationships with the then High Commissioner, Sir Oliver Goonatillake and his father who was a Post Master, who operated from the post office at Trincomalee Street Kandy, what is presently called Nagara Sabha Handiya” and regarded as a world heritage sight”.

The first two employees at the Ceylon High Commission in London

A lot of things are being said about Professor G. L. Peiris, the honourable minister and the foreign secretary Mrs. K Senivarathne, which I find extremely hurtful having known and worked under Professor Peiris’s father, Mr. G. S. Peris in the 50s.

Many things could have happened but, in my mind, it would never have been purposefully or deliberately of being supportive of the LTTE in anyway whatsoever. From the 1950s onwards, and even earlier, there were separatists and 500 mongers who ran their bucket shops under various exterior manifestations from an address called 85, Albion Gate, London W2. Sri Lanka High Commission in London was my religion and my temple, so to speak, and there is so much that can be said about the separatists’ activities, and later about the LTTE, that would fill volumes”!

One day in the future, if I’m still alive and if there is to be a commission of inquiry in to the workings of Ceylon/Sri Lanka High Commission in London, I would love to be able to tell the story of the Ceylon/Sri Lanka High Commission in London from its birth”.

Yours Sincerely,

Peter Wijesinghe.

Brooke House, Amunugama, Gunnapana”

Inception

‘The Ceylon House’ as it was called at first when functioned from 25 Grosvenor Square, London W1 shifted to 13 Hyde Park Gardens in the 1950s. Two Sri Lankans workers in London at the time were Buluwela, who had gone to England with the then Auditor General L. A. Weerasinghe, and Peter Wijesinghe, with Sir Oliver Goonatillake. The Goonatillake family had adopted Peter Wijesinghe from his young days in Sri Lanka; he touches on this in his email (mentioned above) as my special relationships with the then High Commissioner Sir Oliver Goonatillake and his father who was a Post Master”.


High Commission of Sri Lanka in London

Buluwela who was given the task of turning the key of the main door for the first time at 13 Hyde Park Gardens was officially made the caretaker of the new building, while Peter Wijesinghe was officially appointed to the High Commission staff on February 12, 1951.

Pre war era

Long before the World War II, whole of the ‘Hyde Park Estate’ had been a posh area where the well-heeled society lived. The owner of No. 13 Hyde Park Gardens, prior to the war had been Lord North Cliff. The present entrance to the High Commission building had been the backyard those days, and the front entrance was from the garden at the back facing the famous Hyde Park. The Mews opposite the High Commission building that were used to shelter horses, carriages and footmen those days have today become expensive upmarket residences.

During the World War II, the whole area had been evacuated. After the war it became a derelict zone with a row of terraced houses with no electricity, water and other amenities.

After the World War II, this dilapidated and abandoned zone had been acquired by the Church Commissioners in the UK (Church of England). They in turn, had appointed Chestertons Estate Agents as their Managing Agents. In the 1950s, an architect named Donald Hamilton signed an agreement with Chestertons and started renovating, refurbishing and purchasing some of the terraced buildings along the Hyde Park Gardens.

The building at 13 Hyde Park Gardens is a massive Victorian structure that withstood the Second World War! Subsequently, after the war, the Govt. of Ceylon negotiated with Chestertons and signed a long-term lease in 1950s to become the first leaseholders in the area. German Embassy followed suit and occupied No. 14 Hyde Park Gardens to become immediate neighbours of Sri Lanka.

Features

After signing of the lease, a lot of refurbishing work remained to be done before using the building as the new High Commission office. Electricity, water and drainage facilities had to be reconnected afresh. Buluwela, being the caretaker, was assigned to oversee the place during such modifications, but he was petrified to stay alone in the building at nights, having to depend on candlelight! Peter Wijesinghe therefore had to come to his rescue when it was dark and left the building in the morning back to office.

One major feature of the building was the access to a long tunnel from the basement extending up to Baker Street, which Lord North Cliff supposed to have used daily for his walks. Apart from three large floor areas above ground level, evidence of a substantial basement, once used by 24 servants, with cold room, bakery etc. was in good shape. During that bygone era, masters in such mansions used to live upstairs and the ‘servants’ including the butler occupied the basement area, which was commonly known as‘upstairs’ and ‘down stairs’.

Change over

Buluwela served as the caretaker of the building for many years until his retirement. He lived with his family in a flat allocated to the caretaker on the top floor. The late Gunawardena succeeded Buluwela for a short period as the caretaker until in 1986 a drastic change took place in the caretaker’s role when a short, dark and robust looking guy named Ranasinghe, who happened to be a close associate of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, as well as a loyal party organiser of the UNP, assumed duties as the new caretaker. Ranasinghe, backed up by his political clout at home didn’t give a tinker’s cuss about others opinion, and had a direct communication channel with President Premadasa on any matter surrounding the activities of the High Commission in London!

Once the Trade Commissioner’s direct line phone bill had skyrocketed to thousands of Pounds Sterling. The Admin Secretary to General Sepala Attygalle (High Commissioner) K.L.L. Wijeratne, became inquisitive about it probed into the matter with the British Telecom to find that most of the calls had been taken to a political party (UNP) office in Colombo! Evidently, it had become conclusive what had been going on!

Once Ranasinghe’s eyes caught the vast basement area, which had not been utilized for decades! He reported this to the President suggesting to what extent the government money could be saved on officers’ rent allowances by converting the basement into some flats, rather than making the British landlords richer!

This idea went down very well with President Premadasa who arranged to send a special squad of workers all the way from Sri Lanka to convert the basement area into few flats; Simultaneously the visa section, which was on the ground floor, was shifted to a new roomy area at the basement where visitors could have direct access from the main road. The conversions saved a fair tidy some of foreign exchange to the government, as the government at that time was paying approximately £12,000 a month as rent allowances alone!

A similar project, prior to this conversion, managed to convert an abandoned three bedroomed house at the High Commissioner’s residence at Avenue Road, St. John’s Wood, West London. It was said to be house used by the coachman of the previous owner. A brilliant brain wave of a junior diplomatic secretary, who was desperate for accommodation, having landed in London on his first appointment contemplated on this task. Finally the Sri Lanka government refurbished the ‘old coachman’s quarters’ into a semi-luxury three bedroom residence where many a diplomat was able to make use of it at a significant saving of foreign exchange to the government.

Unanticipated problems

Caretaker Ranasinghe seemingly had to face some trivial problems once the basement was converted into staff quarters. The first few glitches were when the basement became over flooded with human excreta due to a total block of the drainage system that was abut 30ft. deep. Every floor landing of the building had a toilet in the building and the root cause for the blockage was later identified as the female staff working at the High Commission disposing of used sanitary towel over a period of years!

At this point, in some quarters a finger was pointed at the Foreign Ministry in Colombo for not organising a proper orientation or training program for new diplomatic recruits who were sent abroad without any guidance or training on social protocols, customs, traditions and common conditions that prevailed in the world outside.

This was immediately brought to the notice of the Attaché Admin who went through the yellow pages immediately and got down a firm of specialists called Dynarod to clear the mess, on an urgent basis, as no one could enter the building with the stench arising out of the flooded basement area.

At the end, however, the clearing operation of the drainage system cost an arm and a leg to the Sri Lanka government due to staff members’ naivety. It was purely a case of ‘commonsense becoming an uncommon commodity’ in the minds of some female staff, said the critics!

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