Sir Ivor Jennings's dream comes true
Sir Ivor Jennings
Recently, consequent to the visit to the Peradeniya campus of
Catherine Watson granddaughter of Sir Ivor Jennings, quite a number of
articles and nostalgic commentaries appeared in the newspapers on Sir
Ivor (1903 -1965) particularly on a controversial topic as to whether
Sir Ivor was a chain smoker and a tobacco addict or not. Various
theories, comments (some adverse) and reminiscences were touted on this
aspect of his habits, some even stating that on this, he set a very bad
example to generations of undergraduates. This made the writer, a
pioneer of the 1952 original batch of undergraduates to the Peradeniya
campus and familiar with Sir Ivor the first Vice Chancellor, to search
his memory as to the veracity of these contentions.
It is not easy to go down memory lane of over 60 years but my first
encounter with Sir Ivor was in mid-1951 when he chaired the Board
conducting the Viva Voce for those seeking entrance to the University.
Unlike now, in those days apart from qualifying in the University
Entrance Examination, one had to go through a medical examination and
also a Viva Voce to be admitted.
The medical examination, I remember was a relatively cursory one
conducted by the then University Medical Officer Dr. H.M.P. (Humpy)
Perera an all- island athlete of repute, who to my surprise, apparently
merely glanced at me (although I presume it was a thoroughly
investigative glance) and passed me without any further check.
A view of the University of Peradeniya
The Viva Voce was an entirely different experience. It was held at an
upstair room at College House, Thurstan Road the administration block of
the University then at Colombo. One approached it with some nervousness
and I remember Lakdasa Hulugalle nervously walking up and down muttering
to himself apparently by-hearting various facts to face the interview.
My first face to face meeting with Sir Ivor was at this interview at
which he asked some searching questions.
This first encounter itself was memorable as there happened to be a
disagreement between us on a question on constitutional law on which of
course, Sir Ivor was a well-known international expert. It was not so
much on a point of theory as such but on the pronunciation of an
author's name Mac Iver which I pronounced as "Mac Iver" but which
Jennings pronounced as "Mac Eever". He was probably right and corrected
me several times but I stuck to my version. There was an amazed silence
pervading among the rest of the Board members and finally to my surprise
Sir Ivor said "All right, let's stick to your version."
After some further questioning the interview was over and I left the
room thinking I had blundered and ruined my chances.I heard an
uproarious laughter behind me and I left in trepidation. But Jennings'
gentlemanliness, intellectual honesty and value of intellectual
independence in others whether right or not, was illustrated at this
interview and I had sailed through.
That was my first meeting and personal experience of Sir Ivor and the
precursor to many subsequently. As far as the tobacco smoking aspect was
concerned, I am certain that Sir Ivor never smoked during the interview
nor did I notice any packet of cigarettes on the table by his side.
Although the University of Ceylon was established on July 1 1942, the
first move to Peradeniya was made only in 1950. Jennings' dream was to
establish a residential University on the lines of Oxford and Cambridge
on the location in Peradeniya which is undoubtedly one of the most
picturesque in the world.
To this end he devoted most of his time and effort apart from his
other contributions in the sphere of political and constitutional
affairs and other activities both during war time and subsequently in
the events leading to independence in 1948.
The majestic surroundings, the picturesque setting amidst mist laced
mountains and cool breezes, the Mahaveli river and Hantane slopes
provided an ideal setting for the majestic buildings in ancient Kandyan
architectural style, the brainchild of the chief architect Shirley de
Alwis in liaison with Sir Ivor who selected the flowering trees and
shrubs with care with an emphasis on the blending of colour.
To quote his words, "There is not the slightest doubt that if the
University is worthy of its location it will be one of the finest small
universities in the world" (Road to Peradeniya, Sir Ivor's
autobiography, p. 183).
The Faculties of Law and Agriculture had moved in earlier, around
1951 with just a handful of students including Felix Dias, Lakshman
Kadirgamar, John de Saram, K. Shinya, Ana Seneviratne, R. K. W.
Gunasekera, Vijaya Vidyasagara among others. However, the first major
transfer was on October 6, 1952 when 820 students of the Faculties of
Arts and Oriental Studies went into residence.
The first academic year 1952-53 was still in Colombo and it was the
second term of that academic year that commenced in Peradeniya. The
University was however officially opened on April 20, 1954 by the Duke
of Edinburgh in the presence of Queen Elizabeth 11 when he declared it
"more open than usual" and its official sixtieth anniversary was
celebrated recently on October 9, 2014 in Peradeniya.
One can still recall the suppressed excitement, hustle and bustle,
the nervousness and expectations of the students and also the
authorities in preparing for the historic shift. Sir Ivor had prepared a
special set of notes and instructions distributed to all students on the
shift, giving details of the Peradeniya climate, the conditions to be
expected, the modalities of the shift, transportation and I remember,
even the type of clothing recommended to be taken.
Some of the students found their way to Peradeniya on their own but
for most of the students, the authorities had arranged a special train
from Colombo Fort to New Peradeniya station. It was on this famous train
that most of the students embarked to Peradeniya and at the New
Peradeniya station, it was, amidst rain, all chaos with loads and loads
of luggage and male and female students (quite a few of whom had by this
time found their future life mates), all agog as the vans for
transportation were found insufficient and out of schedule.
They were transported to the four Halls of Residence for men - Marrs,
Arunachalam, Jayathilaka and Peiris and the one Hall at the time for
women, the Hilda Obeysekera Hall (the Walled-off-Astoria) under the
Wardenship of "Mathi" (Miss Mathiaparanam). Later added were Sangamitta
and Ramanathan Halls.
Finally, after settling down, when it was thought that things were
going smoothly, all hell broke loose again. It was found that the
kitchens which were fitted with the most up-to date electric equipment
were not working, or it was that the new kitchen staff were ignorant or
unable to operate the gadgets. The Vice Chancellor had had a hectic day
rushing from one Hall to the other to see how things were going and
giving hectic orders, but poor man, this was too much even for him. This
may have been probably the time that he was seen chain smoking as some
claim that he was a tobacco addict.
I remember that the Steward at Marrs Hall who was in charge of and
responsible for preparing meals and serving them at the tables was in a
real quandary. Mr. Karunaratne, the Hall Steward happened to be an
ex-Buddhist monk who attempted to compensate for his completely bald
head by trying to cultivate, rather unsuccessfully, a ferocious looking
(in his opinion) moustache.
This did not deter the hungry students from their usual hoots and all
of us had to go the Peradeniya town to have our meals till the kitchen
was made operational which was I believe, a day or two later.
Those were the halcyon days of the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya.
Studded with eminent academic staff under the Vice Chancellorship of Sir
Ivor Jennings, himself an intellectually reputed scholar from Cambridge,
were brilliant academicians.
Among others in the staff one also recalls Dr. Ananda Kulasuriya, V.K.
Wickramasinghe, Sumana Saparamadu, H.N.S. Karunatilake, Mc Fadden,
Wilfred, J. Eiteman, Dr. "Dento" Dissanayake, Abeyratne etc. With the
affable H. J. Balmond as Registrar and the erudite Ian Goonetileke as
Librarian together with the academic staff, the University of Ceylon,
Peradeniya could at that time undoubtedly hold its own among the best
Universities in the world.
In 1952-53 as pioneers we had the privilege of being entitled to
single room accommodation with all modern amenities - a far cry from
what it turned out to be decades later. The Halls of Residence were run
efficiently, the kitchens well equipped with trained staff, the food
good, the selective purchasing of food items done by the University
Supplies Organization under Harry Goonetilleke.
Health was looked after by the University Medical Officer Dr. C.E.S.
Weeratunga who I remember, when I contacted chicken pox during an exam
time, made arrangements for me to answer my papers isolated in the "sick
bay". Discipline in the campus was the responsibility of the University
Marshalls with Fred de Saram as Chief Marshall assisted by Bobby
Jayaweera, Derek Raymond, R. Boulton and R.P. de Alwis.
Sports flourished under the supervision of G. Brant Little
(Con-o-little) a former Canadian Olympic athletic as Director of
Physical Education. Students were organised under the main Union Society
and separate General Committees for each Hall.
The President of the first Peradeniya Union Society was Herbert
Cooray with (if I remember right) the writer as the Treasurer as well as
being the first Treasurer of the Marrs Hall General Committee whose
first President was Peter Gunawardene and Secretary, Mahinda Karunaratne.
Ragging of freshers was unlike today, relatively mild and tolerable and
fun for both seniors and freshers alike.
Apart from academic activities such as attending lectures and
tutorials, reading and library work etc. were a host of other social,
religious and even politically related activities as well. Various
societies catering to the different interests of students existed such
as the famous Dramsoc, the Music Society led by P. M. D. Fernando &
Inthiran Chelvathurai, the Singers Choir under Robin Mayhead, the
Historical Society under S. D. Saparamadu, the Social Service League,
the Socialist Society, the Muslim Majlis and societies catering to the
different religious groups like the S. C. M. under Kenneth Fernando.
There was also the Travel Club which was responsible for organising many
of our trips around the country.
One can also recall the cross-country race an innovation of the Vice
Chancellor Sir Ivor, from Peradeniya to Geli Oya and back a distance of
over seven miles. Open to the staff as well, one has memories of the
rather cranky George Wickramaratne (Classics lecturer) being chased in
the opposite direction by irate water buffaloes as he ran across the
bunds of the paddy fields in Geli Oya.
The race was won by D. M. de Alwis and A. Imbuldeniya of Arunachalam
Hall came second. Memories crowed but space does not permit me to pen
all these memorable events. One recalls the High Table dinners in the
oak panelled dining hall, the socials, dramas, films, walks down Lover's
Lane, "pillaring", the Kissing Bend, Hantane climbs and so on.
As Lakshman Kadiragamar when Foreign Minister once stated "the days
at Peradeniya were probably the best years of my life as it laid the
foundation for subsequent achievements."
Before concluding, to come back again to Sir Ivor Jennings one always
recalls his finesse, principles and gentlemanliness in all the dealings
we had with him. In his office he always listened to you whether he
agreed with you or not and while being firm with his decisions, it was
articulated with politeness.
Outside, one remembers him going on his evening walks clad in open
shirt and trousers but with a coat on and his walking stick and when he
met a student he never failed to say "Good Evening" to them. However
even on these walks I have not seen him smoking. Of course being an
Englishman hailing from a cold climate, he used to have his occasional
evening tots in keeping with the cool Peradeniya climate.
One also recalls other events such as his daughter's wedding with the
Lodge clothed in mantle of festivity. Many lined the Galaha Road running
through the campus to wish the newly weds good luck, contributing in no
mean measure to the old buckets and tins that trailed the Vice
Chancellor's Vauxhall Wywern on its departure to an undisclosed
destination, the bride and bridegroom enjoying every moment of the
unscheduled yet spontaneous cheers that assailed them.
Yet there were also unpleasant encounters as well. Once, about 20
undergrads of James Peiris Hall (then a men's hall of residence) had
congregated on the Vice Chancellor's lawn to complain that the food in
the Hall (it composed of liberal slices of grilled seer with sauce,
potatoes, bread rolls, butter etc.) was insufficient.
Sir Ivor who had just returned from Colombo appeared on his balcony
and informed the "starving" protestors that he had just re-read the
University Act which indicated lucidly that the Lodge was private
property and consequently the group was trespassing! The protestors
melted away into the twilight of a beautiful sunset and to a good
There was also the incident when Mervyn de Silva (Andea) led a
demonstration against Sir Ivor and the latter had demanded to know under
what section of the constitution it was being carried out. Mervyn had
replied "Sir, we are without a constitution but within the law" and it
had ended the argument.
However, one also recalls how earlier, Sir Ivor had caught Mervyn (Andea)
along with Constantine (Connie) and Mervyn Perera redhanded, gambling at
the "cut table" in the Common Room (this was in 1951 at Thurstan Road)
and promptly suspended all of them for two weeks.
In January 1955 Sir Ivor Jennings bade farewell to the University to
take up an appointment as Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. It was a
sad occasion and one remembers all the students lined up on the campus
road from the Lodge onwards as Sir Ivor drove along it for the last time
in his old Vauxhall Wyvern EL 3489 preceded by a motor cycle escort of
students led by Willie (Bada) Perera, A.P. Ranatunga and Bandula (Balu)
Silva on their motor bikes.
However even after he left, Sir Ivor never forget Peradeniya or its
students. Seven years later he made a visit to Peradeniya on August 2,
1962 and one can imagine his feelings when he saw his old familiar
campus, the new buildings, the trees he had planted grown up, had lunch
at the Lodge and had a nap in his old bed before addressing a packed
Arts Theatre overflowing with students and staff.
He did not forget his old students either. I still have a letter from
him as Master of Trinity Hall wherein he pledged his assistance in
securing a scholarship to Cambridge for my postgraduate studies for a
doctorate. However, unfortunately, the premature death of my father and
resultant family problems and responsibilities forced me to shelve all
It is also an unfortunate fact that relatively little recognition has
been accorded to him for decades for all his efforts and it was only
recently that at least a Hall of Residence, Jennings Hall has been named
The writer is a former Commissioner of Inland Revenue, Secretary of
the 1990 Presidential Taxation Commission, Past President of the Sri
Lanka Institute of Taxation and presently Editor/ Consultant at the
Institute of Policy Studies.