Colombo Fort (Colombo-1), Sri Lanka
The Fort of Colombo begins where the Galle Face Green ends, at the old parliament building, now used as the Presidential Secretariat, and where the Beira Lake spills into the Indian Ocean. The town extends along Galle Buck and Queen Street on the west and Lotus Road towards the East, encompassing the Colombo Harbor and a whole arena of business and merchant enterprises. York Street, Prince Street, Bristol Street are some of the other streets within the town which eventually moves towards the bazaar town of the Pettah.
Old Colonial buildings criss-cross the town displaying their magnificence of structure and architecture along almost every street. Almost all large scale corporations abd businesses used to have their head offices located in the Fort in the fifties but many have now moved to various other prime new business locations within the city.
For those of us who have worked in Fort and enjoyed and lived its magnificence the nostalgia will always remain sacred and relished in our hearts and minds. The clippety clop of the smartly dressed mounted policeman at the Chatham Street-York Street intersection will never fade away in our minds. The stream of vehicular traffic that enveloped the town during the rush hour mornings and evenings were like rivers of metal flowing one way all of the time. The smartly dressed office workers in their mini skirts and shirt-ties was a proud relict of old Colombo. Double Decker buses, Morris Minor Taxi’s and rickshaws pulling people were an integral part of the town.
Life bustled in the Fort during the 9 to 5 working week day. On weekends things came to a grinding halt with only the tourists and touts walking the streets looking for trinkets and customers.
Chaitya Road (Marine Drive)
The old lighthouse was sited on a battery overlooking the Galle Buck lying to the south west of the Fort. It was known in Sinhala as ‘Gal Bokka’, meaning ‘Bay of Rocks’. In characteristic and jarring fashion, the Brits anglicized this phrase to ‘Galle Buck’. The old lighthouse was constructed between 1830 and 1836.
The Passport Office has, since, moved to Station Road at Bambalapitiya and recently again to Borella. The lighthouse used to be a great attraction for families and a place where children ran around and played on weekend evenings watching the ships entering and leaving the harbor. Today, it is a restricted area on account of security depriving the new generations of a whale of a time that many of us enjoyed in our childhood.
A replica of a Dagoba and Chaitya now stands tall atop a high pedestal at this location visible to all ships entering the Colombo Harbor.
The Ceylon Anglers Club is located along this street and many keen anglers used to gather here on Sunday mornings for their weekly fishing rituals.
The street continued in a semi circle bordering the offices of the Customs at Church Street and then alongside the Harbor crossing York Street towards the Pettah along Leyden Bastian Road.
The Mission for Seamen, a chapel where sailors could rest, stay over and even observe religious needs is located on the right opposite the Queen Elizabeth Quay gate.
Galle Buck Road and Flagstaff Street are also two streets parallel to each other between Chaithya Road and Queen’s Street.
Lotus Road meets up another smaller roundabout where it meets Hospital Street and then extends itself on the right towards the Pettah along Lake House building.
Queen’s Street (Janadipathi Mawatha)
Right at this point, beyond the roundabout due north, is located the newly built Intercontinental Hotel bordering Queen Street and Galle Buck Road. The Fort extends all the way along the western coast towards the north bordering the Colombo Harbor at Queen Elizabeth Gate and extends towards Pettah, covering an area of active business and office complexes, with many head offices of local and foreign commercial banks located within its perimeter.
The Central Bank of Ceylon is located on Queen Street which extends all the way up to Queens House and the General Post Office where it takes a right angle right turn into Prince Street heading North towards the heart of Fort intersecting at York Street and then onwards to Pettah.
Ceylinco Building, the tallest building in the island at one time in the seventies, is located on the opposite side of the Intercontinental Hotel and Central Bank, on the corner at the entrance of Queen’s Street on the right.
The last King of Kandy, Śrī Vikrama Rajasinghe, after being captured by the British, was brought to Colombo on Mar 6, 1815, and temporarily detained in an old Dutch dwelling house, which was subsequently occupied by the firms of M/S darley Butler & Company Ltd., where he stayed for almost a year until he was sent to India. This abode can still be seen today at the entrance to the mighty Ceylinco building. A quaint concrete cubicle in which a man can hardly sit is displayed in the courtyard of the foyer of Ceylinco House. This was the cell in which the King was imprisoned. The plaque reads,
‘Śrī Vikrama Rajasinghe, last King of Kandy (1798-1815), was surrendered to Sir Robert Brownrigg, the British Governor for the coastal area of the Island, on 18 February 1815. After a successful invasion of the hill country, he was brought to Colombo and temporarily imprisoned in this specific chamber within the palace near the South gateway to Galle in Colombo Fort.
The ex King, his Queen, and the others were taken to the ship HMS Cornwallis under the supervision of Capt O’Brien and deported to Vellore in Madras on 24th January 1816 where he lived as a prisoner of War and died on 30th January 1832’
Air Lanka & the offices of M/S E B Creasy & Company were located next to Ceylinco. Several other shipping, airline and travel organizations also operated herebeing in close proximity to the Colombo Harbor and the business community. The Central Bank of Ceylon occupies a long stretch of York Street adjacent to the Intercontinental Hotel, stretching almost up to Upper Chatham Street on the northern side.
Queen’s Street meets Chatham Street at the Lighthouse Clock Tower and extends further with the Mercantile Bank on its left, now occupied by Hatton National Bank, and Chartered Bank on the right. The jewelry shop of Deen Ismail & Sons, a famous gem & jewelry family from the Fort Galle, is located just before the Chartered Bank. Several other small utility, curio, and corner stores are located before it. The National Restaurant and Bar is also located here.
History of Hatton National Bank:
1948: Sri Lanka attained its independence and Brown & Co., an engineering concern, bought the interests of the original investors.
1961: The Government of Sri Lanka forbade foreign banks to accept deposits from Ceylonese nationals.
1970: Hatton National Bank (HNB) was formed to take over Hatton Bank and the Kandy and Nuwara Eliya branches of Grindlays Bank. (Grindlays had inherited these branches from its merger with National Bank of India (NBI). NBI had established the branches in 1892. By giving up the two branches Grindlays earned the right to continue to operate its branch in Colombo, which NBI had established in 1881, serving corporate business.) A share issue shortly thereafter brought the ownership structure of Hatton Nation Bank to 37% Brown & Co., 28% National & Grindlays, and 35% public ownership.
1974: HNB acquired Mercantile Bank of India’s branches in Pettah and Colombo as well as a part interest in Mercantile (a subsidiary of HSBC since 1959, which retained its branch in Colombo).
1989: HNB acquired Dubai’s Emirates Bank’s branch in Columbo and with it a Foreign Currency Banking Unit.
1996: HNB acquired Banque Indosuez’s Colombo branch, which dated from 1979 or '80.
1997 Mr. Don. Harold (Harry) Stassen Jayawardena, arguably the country’s most powerful businessman, who had been charged for defrauding customs to the tune of billions in rupees, was again charged for violating Central Bank directives by obtaining 35.97% of the issued share capital of the Hatton National Bank, all most double the allowable limit of 18%.
2000: HNB opened a representative office in Karachi, Pakistan, and another in Chennai, India. Harry Jayawardena, in a hostile and highly resisted bid, acquired 44% or more of Sampath Bank via HNB (9%), Stassen Holdings and other related and nominally unrelated entities. (Sampath Bank commenced operations in 1987 as the Investment and Credit Bank, and was originally promoted as a Buddhist Bank but later presented as a financial institution of and for the “sons of the soil.”) HNB made controversial purchases of Sampath Bank shares and also invested in shares of the DFCC Bank.
2002: HNB acquired the Sri Lankan branches of Habib Bank A.G. Zurich. It planned to use them as the base for Islamic banking.
The Chartered Bank
Built on the site of the religious houses of St Augostino from Portuguese times, the building stands in a very prominent and prime location in the Fort, adjacent to the GPO and facing the Presidents House. The structure of the construction is very solid in its frame and viewed beautifully from the corners, with its arched entrances, majestic columns, and the eight carved elephant heads complete with tusks that stick out at its extremities.
The bank was originally established in 1852 by a group of East Indian Merchants in order to provide suitable banking services for the rapidly expanding trade between Britain and the East. It was incorporated by a Royal Charter, in London, in 1853. The first overseas branch was opened in Calcutta, in India, and neumerous other btanches rapidly spread throughoutg the orient even extending to Beijing.
The Colombo branch was opened in 1880 at the Queen Street premises where it has stood for many decades until recently when the management had no option but to move to the ANZ Gridnlays bank premises at the York Street/Prince Street intersection, on account of the Fort area closer to Presidents House being declared a high security zone. Chartered Bank had already acquired the businesses of ANZ Grindlays and hence the move was convenienet and timely too.
The massive growth of the tea industry in Ceylon contributed to the development and success f the bank as many British based tea companies and estates chose to manage their finances via the Chartered Bank in Colombo, on account of its British connections and also very large network of branches across the globe. The rubber, coconut and spice industries too provided much impetus to the banks success.
In 1927 the bank purchased the land on which it stands at Queen Street in the Fort and work on the building was started in 1930 and completed in 3 years.
The General Post Office in the Fort is located on Queen’s Street facing the Presidents House. The building was designed by a British Engineer cum Architect, Herbert Frederick Tomalin. and constructed by a Moorman, Wapchi Marikar Baas, grandfather of Sir Razik Fareed, in 1891, Wapchi Marikar Baas constructed many English styled buildings in Colombo. NMLA building in the Fort, Victoria Memorial Eye Hospital at Maradana, The Colombo Museum at Maitland Place, The old Public Library, Colombo Customs Office & Victoria Arcade in the Fort, Finlay-Moir Building, Clock Tower, Battenburg Battery, Masjid E Careem on 4th Cross Street in the Pettah, and a row of shops along Darley Road adjoining the New Olympia Theatre, are some of his work of great grandeur and splendor. The GPO was handed over to the Postal Department in 1895.
The basement of the building is designed on Doric lines, the ground floor is Ionic, and its upper portion, Corinthian. A handsome flight of steps leads through lofty arches to the public hall whose floor is laid with Intaglio tiles of different colors. The ceiling is of plaster with papier mache enrichments.
Here, as indeed throughout the rest of the Island, one can find red pillar boxes similar to those in Great Britain. Later on Blue and Green boxes were also installed to cater to inland remote and Colombo mail respectively. This is one oif the most grand public buildings in all of Colombo.
This Company, set up in 1835 as a partnership, acted as a managing and financing house for coffee plantations and in this capacity played an important role in the opening of forest lands for the cultivation of coffee.
As a result of the coffee blight in 1870, coffee was abandoned and tea was planted in its place.
The Company continued to take an active part in development by financing the transition from coffee cultivation to tea. From that time until 1975, when all large plantations were nationalised, the Company continued to finance and manage some 25,000 hectares of tea, rubber and coconut lands owned by both British and Sri Lankan Companies and was one of the largest and leading managing agency Companies in Sri Lanka.
The Company was incorporated in Sri Lanka and became a Limited Liability Company in 1954.
The Head Office building, owned by the group, was developed to make way for a new high-rise-building-Steuart House-in the heart of the Colombo's business and financial district.
The nationalisation of plantations in mid seventies prompted the Company, well known for its caution and dependability in business, to diversify into various other fields of activity.
George Steuarts ventured into a number of new lines; and the group's current portfolio of activities are represented by the Export of Tea, Import & Distribution of Pharmaceuticals, Airline Ticketing, Inbound & Outbound Tours, sale of Travellers Cheques, Assembly & Installation of Telephones and allied services and products, Manpower Recruitment for prestigious overseas principals, General Sales Agency for Airlines, Insurance and Freight Forwarding.
The Parent Company presently has seven Directors. The Directorates of all the subsidiaries are comprised of main Board Directors and Executive Directors selected from the senior staff of the respective Companies.
The President’s House (Queen’s House)
Government House, which faced the sea on the Galle Buck side, was a massive and magnificent building that had two floors. It had a flat roof, an especially large arched cubicle portico and several windows that provided a healthy supply of natural light and ventilation. The ground floor had, besides the two reception rooms, a spacious hall 300 feet in length. Council meetings were usually held in here.
At the rear of the building was a sunken garden, elegantly landscaped and most pleasing to the eye. Rows of buildings extended on its two sides and housed the various government offices and also afforded accommodation for a small cavalry unit. It is also said that there was a ‘tower’ on which a bell was hung.
The Dutch Governor, Van Angelbeck, died on the 3 Sep 1799 and it is said that his funeral procession paraded through the streets of Colombo by torchlight and his body was laid to rest in the family vault besides the remains of his wife, whose skeleton could be seen through a glass on the cover of the coffin.
In 1804, at the end of the Dutch Colonial era, the building was occupied by Major General Hay Macdowall, who commanded the British Troops. In the early part of the last century, Sir Thomas Maitland was the first British Governor to occupy the building, and, thereafter, it became the property of the Government and the city residence of the Governor. It was also the meeting place of the Executive Council of the Government.
The house and garden occupy about 4 acres in extent and the site is exquisitely laid out with palms, ferns, shrubs, flowering plants and trees, and even massive trees amongst spacious and salubrious green grassy lawns. The portico at the rear entrance faces the garden with an open recreation ground for entertainment. The house has seen many distinguished guests, including royalty. It is now used for official governmental functions and ceremonies of the state at the highest levels.
The mansion itself, which is over 200 years old, has a very valuable collection of paintings and antique furniture.
This palatial, yet gracious and elegant abode, stands like a sentinel in the Fort, watching over Colombo, calmly and quietly, over the many and splendorous pages of time.
Presently, service personnel, wearing their ceremonial regimental colors and uniform, stand at attention on sentry duty, at the massive wrought iron gates facing Queen’s Road and Galle Buck. At the northern gate stands a fine bronze statue of Governor Sir Edward Barnes (1824-1831), who was responsible for constructing the famous Colombo-Kandy (A1) Road.
All British Governors and Presidents of Ceylon and, later, Sri Lanka have lived in this mansion and still continue to do so. Lately, the access roads to the building have been curtailed by heavy security barriers and sentries on account of the Sinhala-Tamil ethnic conflict and the separatist cry for Tamil Eelam by some section of Tamil Militants. that created chaos and confusion in the island after 1983.
Gordon Gardens was gifted to the people of Colombo in 1889 by Governor Sir Arthur Gordon to commemorate the Jubilee of Queen Victoria. In 1890 the Garden was handed over to the Colombo Municipal Council.
The gardens have a variety of stately standing trees and an imposing white marble statue of Queen Victoria erected in 1897. The ten ton boulder of rock on which was chiseled the Cross of Christ and the Court of Arms of Portugal, found in 1875 in the Colombo Harbor, now lies close to the statue. The notable church of the Augustine Friars, dedicated to St Francis and built by the Portuguese, stood behind the gardens. It was in this Church that the remains of King Don Juan Dharmapala (1551-1597) were buried in 1597.
Later, this Church was destroyed by the Dutch who built a church of their own on the same site. A Dutch Governor who died in Ceylon was laid to rest here, and, in 1813, the British transferred his remains to the Wolfendhal Church on Wolfendhal Street at Kotahena, built in 1749.
On the site subsequently occupied by the Police Hospital in the Fort was the City Jail. The story is much discussed and told in the fortress at that time about how the gallant Sinhala General Vidiya Bandara, imprisoned here by the Portuguese, was clandestinely rescued by his beautiful wife Samudra Devi. It is said that the prisoner escaped one night with the help of some plumbago miners who dug a tunnel up to the prison, underground. How this ever happened has vexed the Portuguese for a long time.
Opposite the Gordon Gardens was a two floored building which housed the Legislative Council Chamber, the Secretariat, and other principal administrative departments of government.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Also known as the Ministry of Defence in the last century, the Foreign Ministry located opposite the Presidents House on Queen Street, was originally the office of the Colonial Secretary. The Colonial Secretary also held the position of Lieutenant Governor to Administer the Government of the Colonies in the absence of the Governor.
This building, or Secretariat, consisted of many Government offices of which were The Auditor Generals Office, The Treasury, Record and Patent Offices and the Government Archives, which comprised of the Colonial Dutch Manuscripts and official records of the Dutch Government from 1640 to 1796. To these were added he records of the British Raj. The Government Printing Press Office made up the rest of the building. More than 300 people were employed within the press which produced all types of printing, including postage stamps and railway tickets.
In 1929, the Secretariat offices and the Legislative Council moved to the newly constructed classical style premises by thed Galle Face Green where the old parliament also stood The building was renovated in 1948 with all of the interior being re-planned and the exterior given a well deserved face lift. The Prime Ministers Office, Cabinet and Senate were also house there until the new parliament was ready at Śrī Jayawardhenapura.
The area is now called Republic Square, and although t is no more open to the public for obvious security reasons, it can be visible from the edges of both sides of the Fort to which some access is still available.
The Garrison Church of St Peter (The Mission for Seaman)
The Garrison Church of St. Peter, now wedged between the Police Headquarters and the GOH, is housed in the banquet hall of this Dutch residential building. It was first used for Divine services in 1804 and was consecrated by the Bishop of Calcutta, Dr Thomas Middleton, in 1821.
Today, this church is referred to as The Mission for Seaman.
Chatham Street & the Lighthouse Clock Tower
Built in 1857, this Victorian monument, still stands tall and proud of its heritage even though now dwarfed by the many skyscrapers that have sprouted all around it. It is still one of the very proud legacies of the architecture of the British Raj in Colombo. The idea of constructing it in the Fort was initially put forward as far back as the year 1815.
Built in 1857, this Victorian monument, still stands tall and proud of its heritage even though now dwarfed by the many skyscrapers that have sprouted all around it. It is still one of the very proud legacies of the architecture of the British Raj in Colombo.
The idea of constructing it in the Fort was initially put forward as far back as the year 1815. The design was created by Lady Ward, wife of Governor Sir Henry Ward. The closk was commissioned in 1872 but kept in a warehouse, due to economic reasons, until 1914 when it was finally nstalled and running.
The four dials are created according to a standard British design showing the tme to all four points of the compass. In its heydey the lighthouse, standing at 132 feet above sea level, had a white revolving double light which showed a triple flash lasting a second with an eighteen second wait. Powered by keresone oil the light could be seen from a distance of 18 Km away in clear weather.
The lighthouse was discontinued after the construction of large buildings in the Fort which obscured its purpose in 1954. A new lighthouse was commissioned at Galle Buck where it still strands and operates as a beacon to all ships entering Colombo Harbor.
Further west of the clock tower is Upper Chatham street which extends towards Galle Buck. Many old businesses plied down this small stretch and later on newer ones were constructed and thrive until this day. Baurs travel department is one of the many large business enterprises that stands here. The Bank of Credit & Commerce International also had its offices on this small stretch of street until it was liquidated after suffering a major financial crisis in the nineties.
The Childrens’ Bookshop, a stationery cum gift shop cum record bar and cafeteria, stood at the corner of Upper Chatham Street and Queens Road on the Central Bank side. It was managed and run by the Wickremasooriya family who later on went on to become a famous music recording company under the Sooriya label. Netaji Wickremasooriya, son, toom over the business after the demise of his father who was a devout music lover and contributor to the development of music in Sri Lanka.
Sonna Meedin had his small tailoring establishment on Upper Chatham Street from where he also did a very lucrative buying and selling business involving electronics and other knick knacks.
From the Clock Tower, Chatham Street extended to meet York Street at a very busy intersection. This stretch of the street was littered with Jewelry, Curio and other tourist attraction shops. Nanking Chinese Hotel was situated on the corner of Chatham Street and Queen Street on the Chartered Bank end. The premises and several adjoining shops are owned by Inneth Caffoor, wife of Iqbal Caffoor of Pendennis Avenue fame. Inneth used to run a small juice & sandwich bar next to Nanking. She is the daughter of M H M Mohammed of Barnes Place. Nanking was always a favorite haunt of bankers, government employees and private sector white collar workers as it provided a very cosy and comfortable atmosphere complemented with delicious Chinese cuisine at reasonable prices.
Next door to Nanking is the famous jewelry store of Ishak & Company managed by Nilam and his family members of Dickmans Road, Bambalapitiya. On the opposite end of the street is the magnificent, tall and glamorous, NMLA building in which the Ministry of Imports & Exports was once situated in the sixties. Velona had its showroom on the ground floor.
Hirdaramani and Lakshmi’s, famous textile merchants, had their much patronized showrooms and offices down Chatham Street.
The Fort Mosque was also located on Chatham Street adjoining Noor Hameems jewelers. In modern times the Mosque has been expanded with the purchase of Noor Hameems and several other adjoining businesses and stands as a three storeyed building providing religious facilities of Muslims in the Fort area.
Pagoda Restaurant, a member of the Rodrigo Restaurant chain of ehich Green cabin at Bamba was another famous haunt, is located a few doors before the Mosque. Famous for their Chinese Rolls and Milk Coffee this restaurant, catering to a high end clientele was also a very famous place for families to gather while shopping in the Fort. Air Lanka stewardesses and other counter staff were also found meeting here for a quick snack or lunch. Lump Rice was another savored specialty that was served here in dried banana leaves.
On the opposite side corner of Queen’s Street stood the massive NMLA building. Alongside it further inwards are the establishments of Diana & Company and Chands, sports goods agents, Marikar Bawa’s, reputed men’s tailors & fashioners, Zainudeen & Company, a tourist shop from way back when, and Vogue Jewelers, to name a few.
A short cross road from this end, leading to the rear of Ceylicno House, was the entrance to Hospital Street, which ran parallel to Chatham Street, down to the Fort Police Station.
Many well patronized restaurant bars, from very old times, like the Globe Restaurant, Dominion, Lord Nelson etc also catered to the thirsty public who sought some cheer, be it night or day. The smoke filled atmosphere within these ‘western’ type saloon bars always reminded one of the American Wild West sans the red Indians and the horses.
The section of the street beyond York Street was called Lower Chatham Street where the head office of the national airline, Air Lanka, was located. The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce also had its offices here. Although the street didn’t continue for vehicular traffic on this stretch it provided access to foot passengers who had to walk down a flight of concrete steps leading down towards Bristol Street and thereon towards Lotus Road behind the Lake House building.
Transworks House building in the Fort, constructed in typical British Imperial architectural style, with its striking red brick color has always been a very pretty and colorful sight. This was then the Public Works Department. Later it became the office of the Post Master General. It also housed the head offices of Air Lanka at one period of time.
The tallest building in Sri Lanka, the World Trade Center Twin Towers are located here today.