Posted by: cherryoak | 14.August 2009


When we planned our cruising route, Sri Lanka was one place we had to go as from 1926 to 1939 my father worked in Ceylon, as it was then, as a tea estate manager. This was when Ceylon was a British Colony and many Brits spent a period of their lives working in the colonies for the benefit of the Mother Country. This covered the time of the Great Depression, so he would have largely escaped the economic effects.

My Father never spoke much about his life there, living as single man, except that it was a fairly lonely life living up in the highlands around Kandy. The Britsh Club was the centre of the expat social scene and we do know that he became a very good single figure handicap golfer and a good tennis player. He also played the flute.

The Harris family must have lived nearby, Frank and Helen, also tea planters and the Harris and Yarrow families were very close, to the extent that Granny Yarrow became their son Ian’s (always known as Tad) godmother when she visited Ceylon in 1929. Father left Ceylon in early 1939, tired of the lonely life and also with the threat of war approaching, it would have been the time to get out or have to stay for many years. He went to work on a farm near Chislehurst in Kent as farm manager and there he met Mary Menzies from New Zealand and in 1940 they married, at the time of Dunkirk, when the threat of invasion was hanging over the country.

Much later, Tad Harris went to New Zealand and married Jill Menzies, who just happened to be mother’s first cousin. Quite a coincidence! They had a sheep farm at Decanter Bay, next to Menzies Bay, on Banks Peninsular. On every visit to New Zealand, I made a point of visiting them, also later when they retired to Little Akoroa. On the first occasion, on my way back from Menzies Bay, I dropped in to say hello and ended up staying the night, a wonderful night of drinking and chatting. It was amazing to be shown a sugar bowl, Tad’s christening present from my Granny Yarrow, with her name Annabella inscribed on it.

Three years ago my brother James and his wife Mea visited Sri Lanka and after they returned home, found out how our father came to be working in Ceylon and other family connections, which now makes it all clear. He went only armed with the estate name Keenekelle, written on a small snapshot taken by father’s (we always called him ‘father’) sister when she visited with their mother in 1929. James went to the Tea Board in Colombo, who found that the estate name still existed and gave him a phone number for the estate. Over the coming days, he endlessly rang the number with no response, only to eventually find it was the local blood bank number! With help of Prasanna, an enthusiastic tuk-tuk driver, crazily driving down rough tracks, they eventually find the estate:

‘the track becomes even steeper with impossible ruts and holes with a precipitous drop down one side.  He has to slip the clutch in first gear constantly – it must be wrecking the clutch, gearbox and suspension!  We must be mad anyway coming miles out here with a suitcase hoping for a place to stay!  It is becoming increasingly obvious that there’s no chance of that.  Is this a wild goose chase?  But young Prasanna is determined to find this place.  The views are stunning with great panoramic vistas over the country and many steep rocky hillsides.  But we are looking for a particular view to match one in a photo taken 75 years ago.

Suddenly, we find it!  We came out on a flat bit of track with some old buildings and there is the rocky outcrop we are looking for, right in front of us exactly the same as in the 1929 photograph – incontrovertible proof that this is where the old tea factory stood then.  This rather pathetic little snapshot was labelled “view from the factory” and there it was now in March 2006, identical, except with different trees, and the same mountains in the background.

The local people came out to see us and Prasanna asks them about the history of the place.  Apparently there was big trouble here in 1983 and the tea factory and the bungalow were burnt down by communist guerrillas.  The remains of the foundation walls of the factory can still be seen and there were some black marks on a wall.  Several people were killed here and we later heard that the English owner or manager probably fled back to England.  These Marxists are not the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), they are a mixed Singalese and Tamil group allied to the JNP party who are still campaigning now.  We saw their recent graffiti sprayed on the rocks not far away.  No doubt they were attacking a capitalist enterprise and in an out of the way place like this, there would be no opposition.

The locals crowd around us and there is much interest in the old pictures.  Apparently there is no one here now who is old enough to remember back to the 1930s so there are no personal memories.  If someone in the photo is a grandfather of someone here, even then they would be most unlikely to know and recognise him.  One man said he recognised the face of a man who had returned to India and has now died.  The people still work the tea estate which is now run by a neighbouring concern, and they live in a tin-roofed settlement just below on the hillside.  One very bright lady could read well and, looking at a photo of a young girl, said immediately “She’s Singalese”.  But how can they tell?  We found out later that the girl was wearing a Singalese ornament.  These people are all Tamils and must be descendents of the original Tamil workers.  Many lively children around.

We drove a little further on to see the site of the old bungalow which has now been replaced by a 2-storey house.  An old chap was there (gardener or caretaker?) who said he remembered the old bungalow.  This was the remote place where Father lived for about 10 years miles from anywhere, way off the beaten track in the back of beyond.  Trying to imagine what it must have been like…  Search is over, no one here remembers Ronald Yarrow, but we are not really disappointed and glad we came.  And what a fantastically spectacular place!’

Tad had died the year before James’s visit to Sri Lanka, so he asked Jill what she knew about the family connections and she put him in touch with Michael Charnaud and suddenly all became clear! Tad must have had no idea that we knew of Michael, so his name never came up. He had come to work on our farm in Hinton Martell, Wimborne, Dorset in 1949, doing his year’s practical as part of his agricultural degree and both James and I remember him vaguely aged 4 and 6! He has filled in all the gaps, having been brought up in Ceylon and he later returned to work there until 1964, so knows the country very well, also many of our family. He and Tad were first cousins, their mothers being sisters, who were at school in Chislehurst with father’s elder sister Gwen. The families became friends and Madeline, Michael’s mother, was engaged to Goodwin, father’s elder brother, who was killed at the Battle of the Somme. In 1920 Madeline married Fred Charnaud and went out to Ceylon as a tea planter. Frank Harris visited on his way back to NZ, met Helen who was there, changed his mind and stayed.

It was through this family connection, father was offered a job in Ceylon and went out in 1926, we think, aged 22. Keenekelle was his first estate but later he took over Albion tea estate, now known as Hakkgala, which Frank Harris inherited when father returned to England.

Mike Charnaud writes:

‘At Albion, where Ron was until 1939, the old bungalow was immediately pulled down by Frank Harris and a new one built on the same site. As kids Tad and I would spend ages in their orchard, eating Chinese small red guavas and mulberries. Whilst the bungalow was being built, they lived in the Tea Makers Cottage by the factory. I loved it there, as there was a small stream out of which we would catch crabs etc. The rocks there are dolomite limestone, hopelessly alkaline for tea but wonderful for growing vegetables. The rocks would have huge chunks of mica which we kids would extract and make transparent windows for our model houses.’

So our main task on this visit is to locate this estate. Unlike James, we have instructions to follow from Mike Charnaud, who has also given us a detailed itinerary for our trip around the country from Galle.


  1. Rob’s dad, Basil, was born in Chiselhurst! Small world, indeed.

  2. If only more than 46 people could read about this..

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