Posted on May 28th, 2015

Dr. Tilak S. Fernando

During Haydays

Continuation of a fascinating true to life story of Wijesim Peelige Bandiya, son of a Kandyan ‘hack & burn’peasant farmer, who sailed away from the Colombo harbour to the UK at a very tender age, with only three Australian pounds in his pocket, accompanied by Sir Oliver Goonatillake in 1948, married a German girl and transformed his life into something unimaginable over the years and returned to his roots as a ‘ laxapathiya'(millionaire) and is now settled in a spacious house at the age of 86 with his brother Wijesim Peelige Ran Kira, 98 years old, in Pahatha Dumbara, Kandy. Following are excerpts from an interview the writer had recently in Kandy with Wijesim Pelige Bandiya. Part 5

In 1962 immediately after the unsuccessful coup attempt to depose Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government and to arrest all the top government leaders, Sir Oliver Goonatillake was expelled from Ceylon while all the others found guilty of the conspiracy were jailed.

According to Peter Wijesinghe,(Bandiya) his master Sir Oliver had ‘nothing’with him except the clothes he was wearing at the time when he was escorted to the airport under strict orders from Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike, Minister of Finance at the time. Fortunately, though his International contacts, Sir Oliver had a bosom friend in Paris, Baroness de Waldner, among many others in Europe. Sir Oliver had been quite shocked and distraught at the time, however he managed to recuperate from the jolt gradually with the help of his friend Baroness de Waldner while in Paris.

After a few days of the incident, Peter Wijesinghe received an unexpected telephone call in an evening from Sir Oliver in Paris while he and his wife watching television at their flat in Carlisle Place, London SW1, which belonged to Sir Oliver’s another friend in the UK, Mrs. Saunders.

During the telephone conversation Sir Oliver made a request to Peter Wijesinghe: Peter, I want to come to London, can I stay with you in the flat……?Also, can you inform Mrs. Saunders about my plan…..? There will be letters addressed to me delivered to your home address, please keep them for me”.Excited Peter Wijesinghe responded swiftly by saying: You comeanytime Sir, you are most welcome”.

New Surroundings

A few days later Sir Oliver arrived in London and stayed in cognitoat 3A, Carlisle Place, London SW1. Hannah and Peter made Sir Oliver comfortable to the best of their ability and looked after the old master for one whole year whilst protecting and concealing Sir Oliver’s presence in London to anyone.

Due to stringent exchange control regulations imposed by Felix Dias Bandaranaike at the time, Sir Oliver could not get any of his money out to London. Although he had sincere and intimate friends such as Baroness de Waldner in Paris, Mrs. Saunders in the UK, Maharaja and Maharani in Baroda, Agha Khan, the German Industrialist Herr Krupp, Sithambaram Adayer,a wealthy Indian entrepreneur in Bombayand many other distinguished ladies and gentlemen, he was reluctant to be seen as becoming a liability to any of them.

Under the circumstances Peter and Hannah came to Sir Oliver’s rescue and extended a helping hand in whatever form they could. Simultaneously, Sir Oliver’s daughter Sheila managed to arrange British Pounds in London for herfather by disposing of Ceylon rupees in Sri Lanka through influential contacts in Colombo intermittently.

The term ‘moneylaundering’ had not evolved at the time,although in technical terms it amounted to violation of Exchange Control Regulationsand it was illegal under the monitory laws that prevailed then. This caused a sudden starvation of funds for Sir Oliver in London and left him in a quandary. Only in the evenings he went out to meet with his friends disguised.


An individual’s destiny can shape in many forms during one’s sojourn in this corporeal world. This theory was proven beyond any doubt when a person of Sir Oliver’s calibre and position is taken into consideration. He Here was the most powerful official in Ceylon oncewho held the supreme position as Governor General & Queen’s representative, yet overnight he had become so powerless, helpless and vulnerable.

Sir Oliver was married to Esther (née Jayawardena) and had three children, Joyce, Sheila and Ernie. As a brave man he did not succumb to grief under the circumstances; instead he embraced all such humanoid chastisements as God’s providence. He wanted to build up a new life by putting his past away since ‘ all his wealth had been frozen’.

Against such a backdrop, he took up a job in Central London initially, at the upper market famous Indian eatery, Weerasamy’s Restaurant, in Regents Street, Piccadilly Circus, as cashier. Seemingly he managed to upgrade his position by working at several companies based in London, related to Ceylon’s tea and rubber businesses.

Finally he rose to the position of becoming the first Asian to be elected as an Underwriter at the renowned reinsurance house in London,Lloyd’s of London.

The financial qualification to become an underwriting member of Lloyds Register demanded one to show £250,000 in credit in one’s bank account.In this regard, Mrs. Saunders loanedhim some money, as anadditional sum he required, to obtain his Lloyds Registration.

As a Lloyds Underwriter, Sir Oliver managed once more to earn quite a lot of money. He travelled aroundthe world, from place to place. In such an instance, whilehe was in India,he managed to meet up with his children and grandchildren, who had travelled from Ceylon to see and greet him as he was barred fromentering his homeland.

Duringanother visitto India, Sir Oliver Goonatillake wrote a personal note toPeter, from a town in Bombay called Juhu, on 23rd March 1963 which read thus:

Peter W and Mrs. Bandaranaike


Juhu, Bombay



My dearest Hannah & Peter

I am leaving India on 27th March on my way to you, but I am not likely to get there till after the 10th April -Mrs. Saunders may be in Paris at that time.

I let you know the exact date of arrival later on. In the meantime letters will keep on arriving, addressed to me, at your address -Please Peter keep them for me. I have seen all my children and their families. Sheila is here now (second time) for my last week in India. She returns on March 26.

If you are likely to be away for your holidays after the 10th April, please ask the gentleman in charge of the building to expect me. I left my flat keys behind.

Love Your Oliver.”


3 Responses to “PENNILESS, but MIGHTY!”

  1. Nimal Says:

    He was a great man, just like Sir John K and I doubt that we will ever have this type of honourable people in the island.

  2. Fran Diaz Says:

    Dr Tilak Fernando, thank you for this story. According to this account, Sir Oliver certainly was a colorful character and even a likeable person.

    I must tend my apologies to Sir Oliver even though he has passed away, as I was under the impression that he had oodles of money stashed away abroad at that time. This was the story that was circulated in Colombo at that time.

    Lesson to be Learnt : do not listen to kata katha. Verify everything !

  3. Marco Says:

    Dr Tilak
    I wonder who you refer to as Mrs Saunders. I can hazard a guess but don’t wish to presume the person you refer to as Mrs Saunders is the same as I think it is.
    Permit me to share my memories as a young boy in mid 1960’s in London. “uncle” Oliver used to visit my parents apartment in Bayswater. overlooking Hyde Park. My father at that time was on secondment with Unilever courtesy of Lever Brothers, Sri Lanka. On a regular basis he would come to my parents apartment in Bayswater for rice and curry and bring along his laundry and each time he came he brought along various pieces of a Mechano set for me to put together. I’m pretty certain he bought a whole set but brought a piece at a time for us to sit by the fireside to put together with his customary glass of his favorite tipple. Years later my parents informed me that he was adamant in bringing his dirty laundry because the facilities (washing machines) provided in the basement at the Bayswater apartments was frequented by the likes of Lulu, Oliver Reed (Sir) and Dirk Bogarde who lived in the same apartment block.
    Regrettably, my parents are not alive to add anything further. He wrote the most kindest and comforting letter to the family when my father died.

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