The story of an inn; the sociology of a school – The Island

By Uditha Devapriya
With contributions from Uthpala Wijesooriya, Pasinadu Nimsara and Keshan Themira
Archive images courtesy of the JR Jayewardene Center

On July 7, the Royal College Hostel in Colombo will unveil its annual day. Organized after seven long years, Hostel Day will incorporate a number of aesthetic, cultural and sporting events. Many of these have taken place in the past two months and a few have yet to be finalized. In the face of an unprecedented economic crisis, it has been a challenge and a triumph to have held them. For the residents of the inn, it was also a baptism of fire, neither more nor less than the continuation of a long and unbroken tradition.

The Royal College Hostel has not had an unbroken and continuous history. Unlike most public boarding schools, it was closed and reopened. In recent decades, it has also undergone many changes. From a historical and sociological point of view, its history offers a unique insight into certain social transformations.

Established on the recommendation of the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission, the Royal College’s first avatar, Colombo Academy, did not open a boarding school for its first 30 years. Official records tell us that its first boarding school was founded somewhere in the mid-1860s by then headmaster Barcroft Boake. Considered the chief tutor of his day, Dr. Boake felt the need to provide a separate residence “for the sons of planters and Ratemahattayas”. Since this latter crowd made up a large portion of the school’s population, it made sense to open up separate accommodation for them.

Boake took an active interest in the boarders. He joined them for breakfast and dinner, seated at the end of the table. However, despite his efforts, the number of residents “never exceeded 36”. Under two subsequent heads of the establishment, George Hawkins and Ashley Walker, it was reduced to 10. And this despite a prestigious award at the Academy, the Lorenz Prize, stipulating residency at the boarding school as one of its terms.

In 1881, the Colombo Academy became the Royal College. Much earlier, he had dropped anchor on the hill of San Sebastián, near Lake Beira. We are told that around 1905, due to illness caused by the proximity of the lake, the boarding school was closed for an indefinite period. Six years later, the school moved to Thurstan Road, Colombo 7. Official records inform us that former students lobbied for the construction of a hostel there. Yet the government of the day, led by several very conservative officials, rejected their demands. Having spent Rs 250,000 on the move to the new location, they were in no mood to spend more on a hostel.

In 1931, the country held its first State Council election. Signaling the move to universal suffrage, the First and Second Councils of State appointed a Council of Ministers which chaired a number of executive committees, in various areas of specialization. Appointed Minister of Education, CWW Kannangara became the voice of reform in his field. In 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, the Royal College Union advanced Rs 1,000 for a new boarding school. For this, Kannangara gave his approval and blessings. The official board for the new inn that year lists 26 boarders. When she moved to Bandarawela in 1941, the number rose to 48. It would rise to 50 five years later when the school returned to Colombo.

These were deeply transformative years. The Royal College and the Home have felt their impact. In 1939 Kannangara convened a special committee on education. Four years later, he filed a report. Among its recommendations was a free education program for all children, from school to university. Although opposed by some groups, Kannangara’s curriculum has become the cornerstone of the country’s education system. More importantly, it led to the entry of non-elite groups into prominent and elite institutions, including public schools.

After the war, the Royal College and the hostel were forced to adapt to these developments. In 1951, the Minister of Education, EA Nugawela, noted that since the Kannangara proposals, “the Royal College is no longer a school for the wealthy and privileged classes”. Observing that 317 of the 519 parents worked as “peons, laborers, drivers, etc. he concluded that the school had opened its doors to “the lower middle class”. Such a trend could not be avoided, let alone reversed. It accompanied another, more significant transition: the “indigenization” of colonial institutions.

In 1946 the Royal College appointed its first Ceylonese Principal, JCA Corea, who succeeded EL Bradby. That year he also appointed Bernard Anghie as manager of the inn. Records tell us that Anghie breathed new life into the inn. His successor, Cecil Belleth, saw his changes. By the time Belleth retired, in March 1966, the hostel had inaugurated various clubs, including debating societies and literary associations, and recorded several advancements and improvements. Appropriate enough, today it is so associated with these individuals that the inn’s four houses – Bradby, Corea, Anghie, Belleth – are named after them.

The result of these developments has been an increase in the number of Innkeepers. In 1961, there were 93 boarders. In 1967, the hostel was closed, by order of the Ministry of Education, to be reopened in 1971. Two years later, the number of boarders had increased to 140. By 1979, it had increased to 250, reaching 252 in 1986. and 300 in 1992.

The hostel as it stands today consists of approximately 27 buildings. These include 10 dormitories, with separate quarters for 10th and 11th grade boarders; a room of high prefects; library; and a smart classroom. Over the past year, several of these units, including the music room and bathrooms, have been renovated. The prefects are selected from three batches, 20 in total, five of which are currently in their 13th year. Each student is governed by certain rules and regulations, extending to lunch and sleep times. Run by a dedicated staff, including its manager, Janaka Jayasinghe, they try to keep the place running, adhering to schedules and routines that delegate responsibility to everyone.

Like almost all educational institutions, the hostel has been forced to meet growing demand. As mentioned earlier, it experienced its greatest surge between 1977 and 1995. These were years of expansion of the education system, epitomized by the Grade V scholarship examination: from 3,629 in 1977, the number of scholarships from studies soared to 22,000 in 1992. Since most, if not all, Hostellers are Grade V scholarship holders, the hostel has effectively become a symbol of mobility, especially for those whose children achieve the highest scores at the ‘exam. This is perhaps the most significant development to date.

How can such trends be explained? The transition from colonial status to dominion status and then to republican statehood in Sri Lanka was accompanied by a transition in the country’s elite institutions. Yet there remains a paradox – a paradox identified by social scientists – that while power has moved away from the colonial bourgeoisie, the latter’s place has been taken over, not by the poor, but by an intermediate class, Sinhalese and Tamil. This has arguably been most evident at elite schools, such as the Royal College.

Surveying the European education system, the French sociologist Agnès van Zanten noted the contradiction between the elitist environment of these schools and the changes they have undergone under the effect of various external pressures. The contradiction here stems from what she calls the “charters” or “mandates” of these institutions, which have evolved with the expectations of the dominant groups. As van Zanten rightly notes, these groups have radically evolved and transformed in recent decades.

This applies as much to Sri Lanka as it does to Europe. Since independence, the country’s elite schools have witnessed a shift from bourgeois and aristocratic ideals to a middle-class ethic, emphasizing not family background but academic merit. Unsurprisingly, exams like the Grade V scholarship have had a say in these developments.

The history of the Royal College Hostel, in this sense, testifies to the sociology of the Royal College and other secondary schools. From an enclave for “the sons of planters and Ratemahattayas”, it has become a second home for the sons of a budding rural middle class. This represents a shift in social, cultural, even political power, not only in the country’s high schools, but also in the country itself. Yet, for some reason, this is an area that has yet to be explored by social scientists. It should be, especially since it offers a unique and fascinating insight into the evolution of Sri Lankan society.

(Uditha Devapriya is an international relations analyst, researcher and columnist who can be reached at [email protected] Uthpala Wijesooriya [[email protected]]Pasindu Nimsara [[email protected]]and Keshan Themira [[email protected]] are members of the Council of Prefects of the Royal College Hostel from 2022)

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