Posted on January 18th, 2014

Dr.Tilak Fernando Courtesy The Daily News

Tilakfernando  On January 19, 1996, cocktails overflowed, short-eats vanished, the sounds of laughter and rejoicing of guests in a social intercourse vibrated through five floors of an impressive post-war building in the City of London. The occasion was stage one of three different ‘tamashas‘ to celebrate the relocation of the Bank of Ceylon’s London branch to a new premises at No. 1 Devonshire Square, London EC2, from its old haunts at 22-24 City Road, London EC4. To punctuate the occasion and add more allure and grandeur to the event, the General Manageress and Deputy General Manageress (Overseas Trade) at the time, had flown specially to London.

That was the third relocation for Bank of Ceylon’s London Branch. As one of the oldest banks in the heart of London, since 1949, this institution had been initially placed at a prestigious location in the City of London; No.1 Aldermanbury Square, London EC2, nestled among the world’s reputed banking establishments. The Aldermanbury Square building was on a long lease at a cost of £80,000. It had requisite office and storage facilities, a spacious basement, a huge vault; the cost of the lease was calculated at £4,450 a year (i.e. £1.43 per sq.ft) in the heart of the City of London!

Human error

Whether it is a banker, an accountant or even an economist, at times human error is inevitable. Perhaps, it may be why the Chief Manager in London at the time decided to sell this building when the Bank enjoyed a ‘negligible rent’ with un-expired lease of 14 more years!

Bank of Ceylon, by virtue of being the only sitting tenant on a long lease, especially when all the occupants in other floors had moved out, was in a unique position to seize the opportunity and buy- back the lease, under Section 30 of the Landlord-Tenant Act 1954 (revised many times). Instead, the Chief Manager decided to dispose of the building for £750,000.

On the surface it appeared to the Colombo Board of Management that Bank was making a substantial profit – having bought the lease for £80,000 and selling it at £750,000. Valuation experts in London, however, assessed the commercial value of the building, taking into account the remaining period of the lease above £1.5 million!

Therefore, what the Bank of Ceylon lost a few years ago, due to a short-sighted policy adopted allegedly by the Chief Manager in London, became the Headquarters of the Standard Chartered Bank in London later.

Having made a profit by disposing of No1. Aldermanbury Square building, Bank of Ceylon’s next move out was to 22-24 City Road in London EC4, under the instructions of the same Chief Manager at a cost of £2.1 million, on a 236 year lease with a rack rental of 30 per cent, with a minimum payment of £90,000 per annum to the freehold owner!

Rescue operation

As the controversy grew and serious discussions took place within the cylindrical walls of the Bank of Ceylon Board Room in Colombo over the 30 per cent rack rental on the new City Road building, it had already become a growing cancer on Bank’s finances! An alternative had to be found soon. By this time the architect of this catastrophe (The Chief Manager – Bless his soul) had thrown the towel in and retired from Bank’s service quite contentedly. Subsequently, his successor to London had to pick up the pieces and rebuild the Bank of Ceylon’s jig-saw once again. He achieved this goal by actively performing the Forex Unit effectively; simultaneously he negotiated the purchase of the new five storey building for under £1 million situated at 1 Devonshire Square, London EC2M 4WD.


It certainly was a marked absence on the occasion not to see the adventurous chief manager who managed to save the face of Bank of Ceylon when the new building was ceremoniously declared open with the lighting of the traditional oil lamp in the presence of the outgoing GM and the DGM who had especially flown to London to grace the occasion. It was a sad affair that the new manager had been completely uncared for.

Another significant occurrence was the opening of a sub-branch at 22 Regent Street (The Ceylon Tea Centre Building, then known as the Sri Lanka Trade Centre) by The Sri Lankan High Commissioner.

The outgoing General Manager, in her ceremonial speech announced that “The Bank of Ceylon was playing a major role in Sri Lankan businesses in the UK, and with two wings of its London Branch, it was fully equipped to provide assistance to the Lankan business community in the UK“.

However, the London branch had failed to persuade the Sri Lanka High Commission to operate their account through Bank of Ceylon for decades; instead the HC office sought the services of National Westminster Bank (NatWest later) while the Sri Lankan government paid heavy bank charges to NatWest, Paddington Branch!

The second soir©e of the Bank of Ceylon took place in the morning of January 22, 1996 at the Sri Lanka Trade Centre where a good cross section of Sri Lankan expatriates and business community participated.

In the same evening, Bank of Ceylon’s celebrations reached a climax at the Churchill Inter-Continental Hotel, Portman Square, Marble Arch in West London, with an extravagant dinner to an exclusive crowd including British parliamentarians and Bank of England officials etc., to mark the opening of the Regent Street Sub-Branch and the re-location of Bank of Ceylon’s main branch to No.1 Devonshire Square, London EC2.

Action and reaction

Similar to Isaac Newton’s Law of Gravity, the outgoing General Manager’s action had an equal and opposite reaction. In that context, one section of the Sri Lankan community appreciated the good works of the Bank, while sceptics were quick to question whether the Bank of Ceylon could justify the enormous amount of money wasted on three celebrations by throwing an impressive dinner at a five star hotel for around 75 people, costing at least £50 (Rs.4,100) per head (considered rather expensive at the time).

Further suggestions indicated a more productive approach if such money spent on three ‘tamashas’ was contributed to the Defence Fund! Alternatively, the business community in London were invited, offered them a piece of kiri bath and a cup of tea and made them open a current or savings account at both branches by giving the first few hundred customers an incentive of £5 to open such accounts at a time not many Sri Lankans were account holders of the London branch!

Tidal waves

Few months later tremendous undercurrents and tidal waves started forming at the Bank of Ceylon’s Tower in Colombo after the retirement of the General Manager. One sensitive issue which nearly forced the seams of the cylindrical walls of the tower was about the upgrading of the designation of London Chief Manager’s position to Deputy General Manager status, under the very nose of the new General Manager.

Rumours suddenly erupted about the abrupt withdrawal of the already London based Chief Manager to Colombo prematurely to make way for a vibrant and very senior Deputy General Manager, who was about to retire, to assume responsibilities of the newly upgraded post of Deputy General Manager and made him run two branches of the Bank of Ceylon in London while managing a third building to generate income with a magic wand to meet the financial commitments of the bank’s London branchj.

Pros and cons

The appointment of the senior Deputy General Manager to the newly upgraded post in London managed to upset the hornets’ nest in Colombo Head Office. Consequently, the Independent Arm of the Bank of Ceylon communicated with the Department of Employment in London complaining about the unfairness and injustice meted out to the transferred Chief Manager who was given marching orders from London prior to the expiry of his contract.

IABC made a written request to the British authorities requesting them not to entertain any requests either from the Bank’s General Manager or her subordinates with regard to the application for a work permit to the newly appointed DGM in London.

However, Bank authorities thought it fit to maintain the upgraded Deputy General Manager’s status and spend a few more Sterling Pound out of the Sri Lankan tax payers’ money!

Whatever criticisms may have been levelled against the Bank of Ceylon, this Sri Lankan Institution in London was in a unique position to woo many new Sri Lankan customers by being a powerful magnet among the expatriate community, particularly the entrepreneurial stock.

As much as the Bank of Ceylon’s impressive buildings and posh offices, at most prestigious locations in London and with the cream of its Management staff, it was thought that the time was ripe for the national bank to move with the times in London in public relations, performances and by cutting down on bureaucratic red tape to a minimum if the Bank’s intention was to compete with numerous other high street banks which were in every street corner of London.

This argument was justified by comparing with other foreign national banks such as Bank of Baroda, Habib Bank, Muslim Commercial Bank, State Bank of India etc., where they attempt to maximise their operations within their communities by upgrading themselves to almost the same standards of other commercial banks in the UK, in both equipment wise as well as the services they offered to their customers.


  1. Nimal Says:

    Very sad to read this..

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