Posted on January 30th, 2014

Dr.Tilak Fernando

Cdn-2010-tag---In-Focus---i.jpgLondon was quite a different place, 3-4 decades ago, contrary to what one can witness today. Immigrant community consisted of a few Africans and West Indians at first, ‘imported’ for cheap labour where the average English blue collar worker hesitated and preferred to be on the doll!

Along with the Africans and West Indians was the first generation of Irish immigrants who were mainly involved in the building industry. Subsequently some of them haven upgraded as business tycoons in the field of road construction and motorway maintenance experts. Therefore, much of the Africans, West Indians and some Asians became the nucleus of the working force of British Rail, London Transport, local councils and many females worked in hospitals as nurses as auxiliaries.

Holland Park

Immigrant background

Only a handful of professionals were among the immigrants who migrated to the UK at first. Few students in London were made up of bourgeois families from various countries. First generation of Africans and West Indians were peace loving pious people who could be seen walking to the church on every Sunday mornings well dressed. The few Asians concentrated on their jobs and looked after the welfare of their families in an unruffled manner.

It was in fact a pleasure to walk down on London streets, even late at night, without having to bother about being mugged or racially harassed on the streets. Once I lived in Notting hill Gate in West London, which was a very popular area for Sri Lankan lodgers. During weekends socialising became part of the routine with another Sri Lankan professional couple (now settled down in Canberra, Australia) who used to live in Holland Park. It still brings me some nostalgic memories of how we used to enjoy Friday evenings by playing card games till very early hours in the morning and taking a cool stroll along the Holland Park Road back to our bedsitters at early hours of Saturday morning.

Changing patterns

Over the years, seemingly with the second and third generation of immigrants to London from many parts of the world, the behavioural patterns of the young have changed dramatically being boisterous, undisciplined and most of all noisy. In contrast, today the streets of any city, particularly in London, are full of people from many categories from drug addicts, psychopaths and mentally disturbed patients released to the community as a direct result of Margaret Thatcher’s government policy in closing down many psychiatric hospitals.

At early stages, Sri Lankan community in London mainly consisted of a few professional couples who migrated to the UK on work permits along with a student population. One of the popular professionals known to almost every Sri Lankan who lived in London was the late Dr. Dora Fonseka, who used to live at Stafford Place in Colombo, prior to her settling down in Chiswick, South West of London.

Mother figure

Everyone affectionately referred to Dr. Dora Fonseka as ‘Dora’ who moved closely with the Sri Lankan elite such as Sir John Kotelawala, Dudley Senanayake, Dr. N.M. Perera, and very intimately with Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, to name a few, but to her credit she never lost the common touch.

Dr. Dora Fonseka had arrived in Britain in 1951 and commenced her medical practice as a General Practitioner attached to the National Health Service in England. Having decided to live in Earls Court, an area in London particularly popular with foreign tourists, she continued her service to the community as a GP for nearly forty years until her demise at the age of 82.

Many Sri Lankans made an extra effort to register with ‘Dora’, as her patient, no matter in which part of London they lived. Undeniably she was a mother figure, had an extremely soft spot for Sri Lankan students in particular. When I changed my GP from an English doctor to Dr. Dora Fonseka in late seventies, I can still recollect vividly the standard questions that emerged from her mouth: “Are you a student? Do you skip meals? Do you want any Vitamin B complex tablets…..? Every time as I was leaving her surgery she most affectionately said, “Please do keep you warm in winter”.

She greeted all her patients with a broad smile as one entered her room for a consultation. Without further questioning, first thing she did was to automatically include Vitamin B Complex tablets on the prescription, whether the patient wanted or not. She acted as a second mother to students and went an extra mile to help them in whatever form she could. She was fully aware of the fact that students skipped meals and seldom had a square meal! As a ritual she made it a practice to prescribe students a small dose of Valium (5mg) to calm the nerves, considering the stress factor among Sri Lankan students in London.

Whenever there was a complex issue related to a patient’s health, she would unhesitatingly refer the patient to a specialist or to a hospital for treatment as opposed to many GPs who did not always issue referrals even when the GP found out the patient’s condition was too complex and beyond his/her capability to treat. In the UK all General Practitioners are bound by law to refer their patients to a specialist or a hospital should a patient visit the GP more than on three occasions with the same complaint after being treated by the GP.


Over the years, especially as a direct consequence of her generous referrals to ‘teaching hospitals’, Dr. Dora Fonseka’s name had become somewhat of an icon among various hospital staff. Once I was referred to a leading hospital in Central London for a X-ray, when I suffered a pain in my left arm, and I could not help overhearing a nurse at the reception muttering to her colleague, after reading Dr. Fonseka’s note about me, “Ah! that one again!” which meant that she was well known for referring patients to that particular hospital for patients’ better health care.

During her days, of course, GPs did not have to work on an allocated budget like at present where they have to manage with the financial allowance allocated from the Department Health budget. Charges related to X rays, scans and other tests done at hospitals are debited to the referring GP now. Consequently many GPs are extremely cautious about issuing referrals to hospitals these days, which means only selected, urgent and emergency cases, get referred to a hospital as a last resort. This system is much criticised by the general public as they feel that the expected health care has been overtaken by general practitioners’ financial role by becoming money conscious rather than committing them to the oaths they have taken when they qualify as medical men to serve the humanity!

Staunch devotee

Dr. Dora Fonseka was a staunch devotee and a dedicated Daikawa of the London Buddhist Vihara from its inception. Yet being a Sai Baba adherent she always kept her Guru’s photograph on her table at the surgery. She never worked for rewards or expected praise, and as a token of her dedicated service everyone admired her for her commitment to serve the sick as well as her social activities.

Dr. Dora Fonseka uniquely maintained her Sri Lankan identity from her dress (always wearing a sari) to tradition and ideas which she kept tightly closed to her heart from her childhood in Sri Lanka.

She was like a second mother in London to all Sri Lankan students and many found lodging facilities at her residence at 18 Harcourt Terrace, London SW when desperate. One of Dr. Dora’s major social works can be regarded as introducing a Tamil accountancy student (once a lodger in her house) to Sir John Kotelawala during a week-end visit to his Brogueswood Farm in Kent.

Having introduced the young man to Sir John, she managed to convince Sir John to help the student to get some ‘on the job experience’ in accountancy by auditing Sir John’s accounts at Brogueswood farm. The student continued to work for Sir John while studying, and on completion of his studies and becoming a fully fledged accountant helped Sir John with all his accountancy matters. Through grapevine it became known much later that he ultimately managed to buy the Brogueswood Farm at final stages of Sir John’s life.

After Dr. Dora Fonseka finally answered her call from above at the age of 82 on a September 20th, Sri Lankans in London later gathered at the London Buddhist Vihara to participate in a traditional alms giving and to remember her as a sincere friend and to pay their respects and transfer merit to her departed soul according to Buddhist rites.

Being an out-and-out devotee, and as a mark of respect for her contributions to the London Buddhist Vihara in Chiswick, her body was taken to the Vihahara on its way to the crematorium, to perform a special ‘Pansa Kula’ and Mataka Vastra rights ceremony, which went into the history books in London as the first time ever a corpse was taken to a Buddhist temple in such a manner.

“God couldn’t be everywhere, so he created mothers” 

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