“Fare thee well…
Freedom lives hence, and banishment is here…
I’ll shape my old course in a country new.”
(William Shakespeare, King Lear).
The late Justice Percy Colin-Thomé wrote of his people: “The history of the Burghers since the Dutch capitulation to the British in 1796 has been like the swing of the pendulum, one of growth and decline.” William Digby, the 19th Century biographer of one of the outstanding figures of the Ceylonese Burgher community, Sir Richard Morgan, remarked of his subject that he had both “the blood of the ‘stranger within the gates’ and the ‘son of the soil’ in his veins”, thereby being “a binder together of diverse races”. It would be hard to find a Burgher family to which both observations could be made to apply with greater force than the descendants of the Amsterdammer Coenraad Christiaan Ephraums, one of the many Hollandsche Natie (hence their Sinhala epithet lansi) who in the 1700s forsook forever the land of their birth to shape a new course for themselves in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) during the twilight years of her century-and-a-half-long domination by the Dutch East India Company, and who finally breathed his last in the humid surroundings of the ancient, fortified southern coastal town of Pointe-de-Galle (known to the Portuguese as Punto Gallo) on September 21st, 1813. Indeed, if it can be said of the 19th Century Armenian-exile Sarkies that in their time they were the hoteliers par excellence to the Malaysian Peninsula, much the same epithet could apply to the hotelier-cum-shopkeeper Ephraumses of Ceylon from the later 1800s well into the 1900s.
Coenraad Christiaan Ephraums (evidently a Christian, although the surname suggests Jewish origin) came out to Ceylon early in 1784 working as an “official” servant on one of the ships belonging to the VOC (short for Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, founded in 1602 and known in English as the Dutch East India Company). The typical immigrant from Europe came out to Ceylon in those days either as “official” VOC employee or as “unofficial” vrijburgher (Free Burgher) immigrant travelling under his own steam who, once established on the Island, could claim exemption from military service and a panoply of other civic perks, just like the prosperous, urbanised middle-class Burgher merchants who had flourished mightily in Holland since the Stadtholder system replaced Spanish rule in the late 1640s. At any rate Coenraad, of whom little is known, later became a Free Burgher of Pointe-de-Galle, where on June 2nd, 1793 he married Cotoewe Arachige Anona Sanche de Silva in Galle Fort at the relatively-new Groete Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church), completed in 1754. From her first three names we can surmise that the bride’s origins were Sinhalese, not Burgher, and from the rest of her names that her family had been Christianized under the Portuguese, before the Dutch take-over in the 1640s. The couple had four children, three of them born out of wedlock, the eldest of whom, Cornelius Adrianus, was born on April 25th, 1785 (*). According to family tradition, Coenraad started off in Galle as a shipping clerk, each morning walking barefoot (a thrifty device to save on the cost of footwear) all the way between his modest home on the Wackwella Road and his employer’s office within the Dutch Fort, stopping to tie on his boots at the old Fort Harbour Gate entrance with its still-surviving “VOC” crest, facing the wharves where the barges serving the Dutch East India Co. sailing ships anchored out in the harbour embarked their bales of cinnamon (y).
Evidently the Ephraums family, like other old Galle-based Burgher clans such as the de Vos, Anthonisz and Ludovici families, somehow managed to survive the severe economic and social disruption in the years immediately following the VOC capitulation to the forces of the British East India Company in 1796, endured by the hundreds of Dutch-era settlers who either elected or were forced by circumstances to remain in Ceylon. About 900 such families were concentrated mainly in the southern coastal towns of Colombo, Galle and Matara and in the northern town of Jaffna, at the time of the British takeover. Some of these families opted to uproot and, impoverished, move to start afresh in Dutch-controlled Batavia (Java) or even back in cold and damp Holland, dismayed by the harsh fiscal oppression by a legion of locust-like opportunists and carpet-baggers under the avaricious Madras Presidency during the five-year inter-regnum before Ceylon was finally declared a Crown Colony under King George III, in January 1802. Many others, like the Ephraumses, stayed on, perhaps hoping in vain for a return to Dutch rule once a European peace treaty was signed – and after taking the Oath of Allegiance many of these would begin to prosper greatly under the new regime, in some cases becoming (as the saying goes) “more English than the English” – but always remaining a “People In Between” whose numerical strength never exceeded barely one half of one percent of the island’s population.
Cornelius Adrianus Ephraums, the eldest of the four children of Coenraad Christiaan of Amsterdam, seems to have lived his entire life in Galle, marrying a Burgher lady by the name of Angenita Clara Van Ingen on May 23rd, 1808 at the same gabled Kerk in Galle Fort as had seen the marriage of his parents, and subsequently siring seven children over a period of almost two decades before he finally passed away, a few months shy of his 55th birthday, just after New Year’s Day in 1839. The only male heir of the Amsterdammer, all his three much-younger siblings being girls, Cornelius himself left behind no less than seven children, of whom three were boys who all lived to carry on the Ephraums family name. One of these sons especially concerns us for the purposes of this narrative – Daniel Ephraums, the second-born of the seven, who came into the world at Galle on October 22nd, 1811 and just two days after Christmas Day in 1833 married (again, in the Galle Fort Kerk) a 23-year-old Burgher named Catherina Charlotte Zybrandsz, daughter of Jacobus Zybrandsz and his wife, Johanna Wilhelmina Brechman.
By now the Ephraums extended family from the four children and seven grandchildren of Coenraad the Amsterdammer must have already grown to quite considerable proportions, and with a little imagination the reader can easily conjure up the happy scene on Church Street, Galle Fort that festive season almost one hundred and seventy years ago. Likely Broedercake was served at the reception, but equally likely the language of the celebrants was not Dutch at all by this time, however, but rather a mixture of English for official usage and hybrid (creole) Portuguese at home. While later in the 19th century Portuguese would be confined largely to the “Portuguese Burgher” lower social echelons known to the Dutch as ambachtslieden, later translated literally as “mechanics” in English, and eventually would die out altogether apart from isolated pockets such as the north-east coast of the Island, in the early-to-mid 1800s it was also still very much the domestic lingua franca even of the better-off classes in the coastal-urban Dutch Burgher community. We have already seen that Coenraad Christiaan Ephraums married into a family of at least adoptively acquired Portuguese affiliations, and many Burgher families throughout the Dutch period (1640-1796) retained nursemaids, domestic servants or slaves (recognized by Dutch law) whose only language was an easy-going indigenously developed creole version of Portuguese with influences from South India and West Africa as well as Portugal itself. By 1801 the use of Dutch was abolished in the law courts, in favour of English, and only a few years later the Reverend Mr. Palm, Minister of the Dutch Church at Wolvendaal in Colombo, was reduced to trying to prevent the disappearance of the ancestral language by arbitrarily excluding from communion all those of Dutch extraction who could not converse in the Dutch tongue. A surviving early British colonial period Stam Boek, a form of family record traditionally kept from generation to generation in Dutch Burgher households, contains a pathetic interview by a retired Dutch VOC officer with a beloved young daughter lying on her deathbed. The part of the record kept by the grieving father about the circumstances of the interview is in Dutch, but the whole of the interview itself is in creole Portuguese!
But I digress somewhat. By the time that Daniel Ephraums died in Galle on April 23rd, 1856 at the comparatively young age of 44, even by prevailing Dutch Burgher standards he and Catherina Charlotta had produced an impressive number of children, twelve in all, of whom five were girls (one daughter died in infancy). His poor wife spent literally her entire married life either pregnant or nursing a child! For the purposes of this narrative, three of the sons of Daniel and his long-suffering vrouw are of especial interest, either in themselves or because of their immediate offspring: Angelo Frederick Ephraums (1836-1868), Charles Peter Ephraums (1850-1924) and Albert Richard Ephraums (1846-1904). It was through this trio of sons and their progeny that the hotelier-cum-shopkeeper genius of the Ephraumses fully emerged into the tropical light of day.
Let us begin with the second-born son of Daniel and Catherina, and of the three above-named siblings the one who was to die the youngest: Angelo Frederick Ephraums. All that remains of him today is a sombre marble inscription in the Dutch Reformed Church in Galle Fort, where his immediate forbearers were christened, married and ultimately buried, that commemorates his untimely demise at age 32 on November 6th, 1868, leaving behind a grieving widow and seven young children ranging in age from 1 to 12. The 19-year-old Angelo married (in the same Kerk of course) the slightly older Harriet Mathilda Andree, daughter of Adolphus Wilhelmus Andree and Thomasia Dorothea Arnoldina Poulier, both from old-established Ceylonese Burgher families, on May 7th, 1855. Two of their sons, Clement and Tyrell, eventually emigrated to Singapore. In his time, it seems, Angelo was something of a dynamo, a shooting star flashing briefly but brilliantly across the Galle sky (*). He owned and managed the well-appointed Sea View Hotel at the corner end of Church Street, Galle Fort, at a time when at least a dozen other first-class hostelries catered to the throngs of visitors in transit alighting weekly from passenger ships calling at what was still the premier port of the island colony. This was the era that first began to see the “living hotel” concept come into being, led by grand hostelries like the Ritz and the Savoy in Europe. Upon his death, just a year before the opening of the Suez Canal that would bring a surge of new shipping to Ceylon, the Sea View Hotel was taken over and carried on by his younger brother, Clement Reginald Ephraums (born 1841), who had married Anna Sophia Andree, herself the half-sister of Angelo’s widow, Harriet Mathilda. (Such was the almost-claustrophobic interwoven-ness of those Burgher families then dominating the old Fort of Galle)! According to Norah Roberts, the chronicler of Old Galle who passed away in her 94th year on August 24th, 2001, as the town gradually fell from grace due to the new port in Colombo, the Sea View premises were bought up by a prominent and wealthy Galle Muslim, Sir Macan Markar, as a private residence for his sister, who lived there for many years until her death. It is tempting to speculate where Angelo’s mercantile business sense, surely a direct throwback to his Amsterdam ancestors, might have taken him had he been allowed to live out his natural span.
Charles Peter Ephraums (1850-1924), the second-youngest of Daniel and Catherina’s sizeable brood, is important to our narrative not so much for himself as for the remarkable son he produced in the person of Arthur Edward Ephraums (1879-1931). Arthur Edward was the second oldest of six children born to Charles Peter and his wife, Georgiana Mathilda Bogaars, herself a member of a prominent family of Galle Fort Burgher hoteliers. (By way of a curious aside, Georgiana’s own father, George Nathaniel Bogaars, coincidentally possessed the same combined first names as the eminent Victorian personage George Nathaniel Curzon, that “most superior person” whose written account of a brief visit to Ceylon as a well-connected young aristocrat in the later 1800s refers acerbically to endless chicken meals and intolerably bumpy bullock cart rides. The English George Nathaniel later became Viceroy of India and Foreign Secretary of Great Britain). Arthur Edward Ephraums, who married his first cousin Agnes Sylvia Ephraums (the daughter of his father’s slightly-older brother Albert Richard, of whom more anon) was to become not only one of the most successful members of the Ephraums clan, but arguably the most colourful. Before going into all that, we should make a mental note that almost as remarkable as their combined careers in the hospitality business is the fact that these two Ephraums cousins broke with then-standard Burgher custom in one important respect – of children they produced a mere threesome!
Arthur Edward Ephraums was widely known in his day for two consuming passions – his retail and hotel businesses and (perhaps more so) his love of top quality horseflesh. At the height of his powers in the years immediately following the First World War, he either owned outright or had dominant shares in a string of prestigious hotels of which the flagship was the world-class Mount Lavinia Hotel near Colombo, of which he and his wife were the co-owners from 1924 until 1928 when they sold out to C. H. Z. Fernando (later Chevalier), himself a bright star in the Ceylon business firmament and owner of Ceylon Hotels Ltd. in syndication with his fellow investors Abraham Gardiner and Abraham Casie Chetty. Ceylon Hotels Ltd. retained ownership for another twenty years, until 1948. During the Ephraums era, the old-established Colombo firm of Cargills Ltd managed the Mount Lavinia, by all accounts splendidly as it was a favourite watering hole for the international and domestic élites alike(*). Arthur Edward also owned the White Horse Hotel on Chatham Street, Colombo and the Globe Hotel, also on Chatham Street in those days and for which a seductively dream-like advertisement typical of its time depicts a three-storied building with green shutters and red-tiled roof suspended within a glassy globe in a blue sky surrounded by creamy-white clouds! In Great Days, the veteran government medical officer Dr. P.R.C. Peterson recalled from the 1920s how a then-legendary Sinhalese character known as Maduwanwela Disawe (1844-1930) would travel to Colombo on occasion and stay at the Globe Hotel, insisting with feudal largesse on buying everyone present drinks until not a one was left standing. Dr. Peterson himself recalled how, in the heady years just before the 1914-18 War, freshers at the Ceylon Medical College traditionally treated their thirty-odd older fellow students to a slap-up meal at the White Horse Hotel. (Those were the days, judging by the tariff printed on the back of a 1920s postcard featuring a photograph of the Globe Hotel, when dinner could be bought at a first-class Colombo hotel for Rs. 2.50, the same price as a single room for the night).
Another Arthur Edward Ephraums acquisition was the Bristol Hotel, a 75-bedroom establishment opened in 1890 that became a focus of social activity in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Colombo. He sold this establishment to the wealthy Adamaly family in 1928, the same apparent “watershed” year in which he and his wife sold Mount Lavinia; the Bristol was eventually demolished in the mid-1980s. Outside Colombo, he owned the St. Andrews Hotel in Nuwara Eliya and the Anuradhapura Hotel in the ancient royal city of that name – it was at the latter hostelry that the author-schoolmaster W.T. Keble stayed during one of his solitary peregrinations by motor-car around the Island in the later 1930s, which he later recorded in the delightful Ceylon Beaten Track. Chapter Two of the book begins with this arresting sentence: “I sat upon the upper verandah of the Anuradhapura Hotel and read the fourteenth chapter of the Mahavamsa over my breakfast sausage…” By then, Arthur Edward had long since (1931) departed to join the spirits of his Burgher ancestors and, according to the kindly old Appu who chatted with Headmaster Keble, the post-Depression era had left a scarcity of visitors compared to the “old days”.
Arthur Edward Ephraums’ business interests did not confine themselves to hotels, for - apart from being a lessee from the CGR of railway refreshment cars and rooms - he also flourished for a period as a retailer, owning (through his company A.E. Ephraums & Co.) the City dispensary stores in Norris Road and Union Place, Colombo as well as the I.C. Drug Stores in Bambalapitiya. In 1928 he and his wife were listed in the Times of Ceylon “Green Book” as residing at a large mansion named “Yalta” at the intersection of Flower Road (now Sir Ernest de Silva Mawatha) and Cambridge Place. “Yalta” later became the site of the Pembroke Academy, run by Hope Abeywardene in the 1940s and 1950s, and eventually gave way either wholly or in part to a residential apartment block named “Yalta Flats”. After his death in 1931 his various business interests seem to have evaporated. In the 1941 “Green Book” another “A.E. Ephraums” – presumably his older son, Albert Edward (born in 1908) – is listed as living at “Clovelly” in Rajagiriya; the 1943 Ferguson’s Directory has someone of the same name living at 16/6 De Fonseka Road, Bambalapitiya. Some time in the early 1930s soon after her husband’s death, Agnes Sylvia Ephraums retired to Nuwara Eliya in the central highlands, and eventually let out a residential property there as a boarding house. In 1934 Sylvia went to England on holiday, and after the 1958 political changes like many another Burgher she emigrated from Ceylon to Australia, in her case staying initially in Canberra with her relations, Dorothy and Dr. Georgie Bartholomeusz before moving permanently to Perth, WA where she lived into ripe old age, certainly into her nineties (1970s). One of the three children of the marriage, named Sylvia Yvonne partly after her mother, died in 1907, when less than a year old. The two boys, Arthur Conrad (born on St. Valentine’s Day, 1911) and his above-mentioned older brother Albert Edward (born the day after St. Valentine’s Day, 1908), seem to be the two “Ephraums boys” whom Lyn Ludowyk mentions in his childhood memoirs as “Jack” and “Conrad”, favoured and “eagerly-awaited” playmates when they came to Galle with their parents for such regular events on the calendar as the Race Meeting of the Galle Gymkhana Club. Neither of these boys seems to have followed in their father’s entrepreneurial footsteps or created much of an impression on a wider canvass. And so, quietly and ineluctably, this particular branch of the Ephraums family, once so prominent, gently fades completely from our view.
I have already referred to another passion for which Arthur Edward Ephraums was perhaps far better known to the general public of his day than his business interests – the turf. Ultimately, along with the Great Depression, it may even have contributed to the rapid diminution of his commercial empire. Not for nothing was the bookies’ familiar Arthur Edward popularly known by his nickname “Confident”! He named his most famous racehorse Orange William, presumably a nod to his Hollander ancestors. Orange William, known to many an aficionado of the turf as “Wonder Horse”, cost Arthur the sizeable sum of Rs. 25,000 – having earlier been offered to (and turned down by) Col. T. W. Wright, author of Ceylon In Our Time, for Rs. 20,000. The previous owner was R. E. S. de Soysa. A fine photograph of Orange William at the racecourse survives in one of the Colombo society periodicals of the day: it shows a magnificent-looking chestnut stallion of at least sixteen hands gazing boldly at the camera, with two white stockings and a broad white blaze running all the way down his handsome face. Gripping the reins firmly in both hands and standing proudly between the horse and a dark-featured young man in a blazer who may well be the trainer, and next to a two-handled silver trophy on a plinth, is a slightly built, solemn-looking, sloping-shouldered, middle-aged man in white suit, broad-brimmed sun helmet and dark tie – presumably none other than “Confident” himself! According to the accompanying caption (which fails to name either of the two men) the photograph was taken in August 1922, when Orange William won the coveted Governor’s Cup. Reportedly “Confident” used a portion of his proceeds from this win to buy his wife Agnes Sylvia a brush, comb and mirror set of tortoiseshell with the name of the horse inscribed in gold letters. Orange William won many other races and trophies galore during his career, including the Viceroy’s Cup in India, and probably earned his proud owner a sizeable sum in stud fees. Certainly this “wonder horse” reached heights never achieved by any other racehorse in Ceylon. Presumably the resulting prize-money and other winnings (his proceeds from the stakes alone were rumoured to exceed a half million rupees, an enormous sum for the times) went towards buying control of the earlier-mentioned string of hotels up to the later 1920s, as well as the “Yalta” mansion on Flower Road. As I have already mentioned, it is hard to tell from this distance in time whether “Confident” Ephraums’ business rapidly declined in the last few years before his death in 1931 because of the great worldwide economic depression, or recklessness and bad luck at the racetrack, or a combination thereof. Whatever may be the case, there can be no doubt that Arthur Edward Ephraums broke out of the conventional Burgher mould in at least two ways – not only did he excel as an entrepreneur, like politics a field in which the vast majority of his fellow-Burghers were conspicuous by their absence, but he defied the social odds and competed with the more snobbish among the British colonial masters by becoming a leading member of that crusty bastion of the Colombo élite, the Turf Club. Coenraad Christiaan Ephraums, the ambitious young Amsterdam exile who walked barefoot to and from Galle Fort every working day to save his boots, no doubt would have been proud of his enterprising, even if somewhat flamboyant and ultimately perhaps overly-confident, great-great-grandson.
Of all the issue of Daniel Ephraums who immersed themselves in the highly lucrative but all-consuming and uncertain world of commerce, his ninth child, Albert Richard Ephraums (1846-1904), was the one destined to bequeath the most lasting legacy, one that more or less survives in tangible form to this day. Albert Richard married Laura Emmeline Anthonisz at the Anglican All Saints’ Church in Fort on January 5, 1876. Laura Emmeline also came from a long-established and highly respected Galle Burgher family, her parents being William Francis Charles Anthonisz and his wife, Jane Eliza. Eventually the couple would have ten progeny, of whom the second, third and fourth (all girls) all died successively between 1880 and 1884 at very tender ages; the emotional devastation this series of tragedies must have caused for the parents, even in an era when many families were still all-too-familiar with infant mortality, can only be imagined, and indeed may have contributed to Albert Richard’s evidently workaholic habits. Equally sadly, the tenth and final child in the family, a boy named Alan Roy, died only one day after he was born in 1895. Of the six surviving children, we have already met one daughter, Agnes Sylvia (born in 1882), who married her enterprising first cousin “Confident” Ephraums. Another child with whom we shall soon concern ourselves, the eldest in the family who arrived on the scene barely nine-and-a-half months after his parents’ New Year wedding in 1876, was christened Richard Lionel, of whom more anon.
Albert Richard Ephraums began his working life as a lowly shipping clerk and by the time he died aged only 58 in 1904, he had amassed a respectable fortune from banking, hotels, printing and retail. At a time when Galle was in a slump after the shipping lines switched to the new harbour at Colombo in the early 1880s, and the island economy as a whole was absorbing the dire effects of the coffee blight, Albert Richard defied the odds and, as competitors closed their doors in despair, took hold of failing businesses and turned them into commercial success stories. In other words, the man was a 19th century precursor of that quintessential late 20th century managerial phenomenon – the “turnaround specialist”. Initially he worked for the Colombo firm of Cargills Ltd., which had opened a branch in Pedlar Street, Galle Fort in the boom era of the late 1840s. Upon his marriage to Laura Anthonisz in 1876, Albert Richard left Cargills and entered the hotel business by taking the job of Manager of the Eglington Hotel in Fort, owned by C. B. Bogaars, a member of the same Galle Burgher family into which his younger brother Charles Peter Ephraums had married only the year before. (Another member of the extended family, Henri Bogaars, operated the Old Mansion Hotel on Church Street, Fort. Altogether there were about a dozen first-class hotels in Galle at this time, mostly scattered about the Fort, primarily serving the still-thriving “steamer” trade).
When Mr. Bisset, the manager of Cargills, Galle who had hired young Albert Richard, decided to retire to his Scottish homeland, his erstwhile clerk seized his opportunity, immediately bought up his former employer’s business interests in Galle, and gave up the job at the Eglington. Albert Richard Ephraums then set up shop in his own name on Middle Street, Fort, in the premises that had formerly been the New Mansion Hotel(*). Soon a dispensary (pharmacy) was added to the Ephraums general store, and in due course Albert Richard dispatched his eldest child, Richard Lionel (born 1876), to Colombo to learn the dispensing trade at Cargills’ main store. In the meantime, Albert Richard took over the Albion Press, a floundering printing business set up by C. Armstrong in 1867. (The seller perhaps came from the same family that produced his brother Charles Peter’s mother-in-law, formerly Margaret Caroline Armstrong before she married George Nathaniel Bogaars in the 1850s. Under Ephraums control the Albion Press became a busy printing office, eventually being sold off to Colombo Apothecaries Ltd., who much later ceased trading in Galle and sold the press to A.R.M. Thassim, the Galle Mayor. Afterwards the business faded away (*)). According to at least one historian of the period, the Ephraums retail premises on Middle Street displayed the initials “ADL”, for an 18th century Dutch VOC Commandeur of Galle Fort, one Arnoldus Ly of Bergen-op-Zoom.
Lyn Ludowyk, the retired English Literature professor who grew up in pre-First World War Galle Fort, where he was born in 1905, in his delightfully nostalgic memoirs Those Long Afternoons recalled the Ephraums shop on Middle Street during the years 1905-1920 as being the largest and most eminent retail store in town. (There is a rather puzzling historical discrepancy here – Norah Roberts in Galle: As Quiet As Asleep, tells us that in about 1900 the Ephraums general store moved from Middle Street to the present Bank of Ceylon building near the Galle Fort Gate entrance, where the old Dutch house was remodelled to house the shop and dispensary). By 1914 the business was being run by two of Albert Richard’s younger sons, Alfred Francis and Edgar Lancelot. After Albert Richard died in 1904, Edgar Jacotine, a trained dispenser whose wife was a sister-in-law of Albert Richard’s eldest son, Richard Lionel, took over the management of the pharmacy from Richard Lionel, who had been running that end of the family business since completing his apprenticeship in Colombo. Ludowyk’s crystal-clear childhood memory was of the Ephraums pharmacy in the early 1900s with its enormous jars of brightly coloured liquid, the main store with its polished counters, and the desk at the end of the large hall where one brother sat – the one who was “quick in his movements and volatile in his moods…entirely different from his quiet and sedater brother”. To leap ahead somewhat, the older of these two brothers, Alfred Francis Ephraums (born in 1884 and a former pupil at the Royal College, Colombo), sold his shares in the business at a considerable loss in 1916 and left for Europe to join up as an infantryman on the Western Front, where he was wounded in the trenches, later returning to Ceylon only after the War ended in order to wind up his affairs there before marrying an English girl in London in 1922 and settling permanently on Jersey, in the Channel Islands. He died there in 1976 at the great age of 92, fortunately not before providing Norah Roberts, the historian of Galle, with much valuable information about the history of the Ephraums family(1). (Ludowyk incidentally does not specify in his memoirs which of these two brothers he characterized as being by far the moodier and more volatile of the two, but since it was Alfred Francis who sold out at a loss and left the island, and who managed to live into ripe old age, it does not take a Hercule Poirot to deduce that he might have been the more “quiet and sedate” sibling, probably seeking an escape from his brother’s temperamental outbursts – on the Western Front, of all places)!
The Ephraums’ retail and printing businesses have long since vanished completely, but one highly visible remnant of the dynamic Albert Richard’s conglomerate remains to this day, its three-storied, white-painted stone walls silently gazing out over Galle Harbour and towards the distant mountains of Southern Province as they have done in one guise or another for over three centuries – the New Oriental Hotel (better known as the NOH). I have described some of its colourful history in a separate article, and do not intend to repeat myself unduly here. As mentioned in that article, Albert Richard bought the failing Oriental Hotel (as it then was) for a song [*] from its English owners in 1898, when he was 52, and before his untimely death in 1904 had installed his like-minded eldest son, Richard Lionel, as Manager. It seems that in due course Richard Lionel inherited the NOH from his father. The canny Albert Richard seems to have kept his hand in the hotel business over the years even before this purchase, however – Ferguson’s Directory for the year 1893 names him as Proprietor of the Ephraums Hotel on Middle Street, Galle Fort (formerly Loret’s Hotel – and not to be confused with the totally separate NOH, part of which also sits on Middle Street). At any rate, as we shall see, the NOH has remained in the ultimate control of direct descendants of Albert Richard Ephraums right up to the present day (early 2002).
Richard Lionel Ephraums was born in 1876, and on July 15, 1903 he married Elsie Norma Beata Daniel, known as Beata or “Birdie”, the 19-year-old daughter of Ernest Arthur Daniel and Anestasia Serphina Vander Straaten. Like his parents’ wedding, the ceremony took place in Galle Fort at the All Saints’ Anglican Church. The Daniel family was (and is) one of the Island’s leading Burgher families – Beata’s brother owned Temple Trees in Colombo, later the official residence of the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. Initially the young couple lived at “Inland Hills”, Hirimbure, near Galle (the house where Norah Roberts, the chronicler of Galle, later lived for a time with her father, District Judge T.W. Roberts, and the rest of her large family). They moved into the NOH annex soon after Albert Richard’s death in 1904, the year following the marriage. In due course Beata bore five children, starting with a daughter, Verena Laura Chorine, born in February 1904, and followed soon after by another daughter, born in what is now Room 25 of the Hotel in May 1905 and named after her Vander Straaten grandmother – Anestasia Emmeline, who much later in life would become better known to countless Galle visitors and others as Nesta Brohier, the indomitable Grande Dame of the New Oriental Hotel. A son, Arthur Richard, was born in 1907, after which Beata appears to have entered into a long period of hiatus from childbearing until 1917, when her daughter Lescinska Sylvia was born, followed almost exactly two years later in January 1919 by the fifth and last child, Roderick Lionel. I will be referring again to all of these children later in the narrative.
In my “NOH” article I have provided an account, taken from Lyn Ludowyk’s memoirs, of an amusing incident involving a marauding polecat, that illustrates the somewhat tetchy temperament of Richard Lionel Ephraums, known within the immediate family by his nickname Zambuk, a soothing ointment with the logo Rub it in! (Zambuk – the product, that is – is also mentioned by J. H. Williams in his classic account of a forester’s life in colonial Burma before and during the Second World War, Elephant Bill). Richard Lionel of course had other aspects to his character, and he and Ludowyk’s scholarly father (the Headmaster at Richmond College, Galle after 1916) were firm friends. Ludowyk recalled him as the “big hotelier of the town”, a man who could switch bewilderingly at a moment’s notice from thundering at hotel servants to carrying on chatting mildly and considerately to the person standing next to him. Ludowyk compared him to his much-respected but far less worldly father, boyishly admiring his deftness with the rifle and dexterity with the billiard cue, and recalling wryly his superior abilities as an extremely good man of affairs, quite unlike the bookish Ludowyk Senior. In 1912 the Ephraums family went on holiday to Europe aboard a German steamer, and Ludowyk Junior remembered Beata Ephraums speaking warmly afterwards of the crew’s politeness and efficiency. He refers to Beata in his Galle childhood memoirs as Bertha, perhaps confusing her in his memory with one of her husband’s sisters with that name, understandably after almost 70 years. (Bertha Ephraums was 24 in 1912, and would not marry for another 15 years, so I hope that I am on solid ground when I assume that Ludowyk meant to refer to the “NOH” Ephraums family when he wrote about the 1912 voyage). Their two daughters, Verena (known as Ina) and Nesta were very close to him in age, and in his early eighties he wistfully recalled how as a youngster he had felt that he failed to impress them and that, despite being friendly enough, both girls thought him too solemn or too childish for his years.
Tragically, and mystifyingly, both the sons born to Albert Richard Ephraums and his wife were born blind - Arthur Richard (known as Dick or Dickie), born in 1907, and Roderick Lionel (known as Rod), born twelve years later in 1919. Lyn Ludowyk comments touchingly on how this meant that in his time there was really no-one to “possess” the wonderfully arcane “boy’s kingdom” of the NOH. The parents eventually sent the younger boy to the so-called “Blind School” at Ratmalana, just outside Colombo, to learn the life-skills of coping successfully with this challenge. Eventually both boys jointly inherited the NOH when their father died, but Dick (living in Nuwara Eliya at the time) sold out to his brother Rod in 1943. Dick first married Gladys Evelyn Muriel Leembruggen, born in 1903 to missionary parents, Henry Ulrich Leembruggen and his wife Evelyn Muriel Leembruggen. The marriage produced four children of whom I have no trace. The lifelong bond between Dick and his much younger sibling that their shared blindness surely helped to create, comes through in a tale told to me by a Colombo informant who wishes to remain anonymous. In the early 1950s, when already in his later 40s, or possibly even sooner, Dick - who by then was well-known in Ceylon as an organist and organ/piano tuner - emigrated with Gladys to the United States, where he continued in Kansas City, Missouri with his career as an organ tuner and player of distinction. Gladys died in 1979, whereupon Dick re-married and with his second wife, Nancy, paid a final - and only - return visit to Sri Lanka sometime in the early-to-mid 1980s; my informant remembers him tenderly lifting his wife, who was wheelchair-bound, out of and back into their car. Dick knew the home well from his days as a piano tuner and family friend, and years before had gifted a baby grand piano that stood in the house to my friend’s mother, herself a gifted musician. Dick went around the house caressing all the large pieces of furniture, so that (he said) he could remember them. When he came to the baby grand piano, he became particularly emotional, as this reminded him of his brother Rod, who had died in Colombo a short time before. According to the U.S. Social Security Death Index, Dick himself passed away in his chosen country of exile not long afterwards at the age of 79, in February 1986. According to the same Index, his second wife, Nancy, died on November 1996 in her eighty-eighth year. Norah Roberts wrote a touching epitaph for Dick in her book, Galle: As Quiet As Asleep. As Norah remembered it, Dick’s second (American) wife was a victim of childhood polio, a charming lady undeterred by being wheelchair-bound, so much so that she drove a specially-adapted car with an adjusted seat. “Cheerful and loving,” wrote Norah with evident fondness for them both, “the couple were a pleasure to watch…There are few men like Dickie as his sister Ina expressed it.”
Norah Roberts recalled Rod as having a “merry chuckle” in the face of his lifelong disability. He too grew up to become a superb piano tuner, well known like Dick for his talents throughout the length and breadth of the Island. (I sometimes wonder if either Rod or - more likely, given their age difference – Dick was the model for the Burgher piano tuner who attended periodically at the Carey plantation bungalow in Robert Standish’s well-known 1940 novel, Elephant Walk). She recalled him cheerfully riding tandem bicycle to various customers’ homes around Colombo with his assistant, Hubert Silva. According to Norah, both Dick and Rod had inherited from their parents equal shares in the NOH, but each of the boys later gave up his interest in favour of the two sisters, Ina and Nesta, who at different times in their lives became infinitely more involved in the management of the hotel. I have since had an opportunity to check the land registry records for the NOH, and it appears rather that Rod (who as mentioned earlier bought out his brother and co-owner Dick in 1943) actually gifted his entire interest in the Hotel (then worth Rs. 300,000) to both his sister Anestasia (Nesta) and her husband, Hal Brohier, in 1960. Several correspondents in Sri Lanka and (nowadays) Australia have told me of their recollections of Rod regularly coming to their homes or colleges around the Island to tune the family or school piano. I remember his sister Nesta telling me in 1974 that Rod still came to tune her piano at the NOH from time to time. Rod set up his own Colombo-based company, Ephraums & Co., Piano Tuners (*). Unlike the twice-married Dick, he remained a bachelor. Apparently in his later years he became somewhat “bohemian” in his lifestyle, and possibly also the victim of unscrupulous hangers-on. I have heard a strange tale that when he suddenly died, still in his sixties, a motley gathering kept an all-night vigil at his Colombo home. The noise during the night was terrific, so much so that his octogenarian sister, Nesta, who had come up from Galle to take care of the funeral arrangements, barricaded herself in her upstairs bedroom. When morning came, and the last of the vigil keepers had departed, Nesta came downstairs to find the coffin intact but that most if not all of the dozen or so pianos that her brother had been working on before his death, some of which were quite expensive models, had vanished. So ended on a rather sad note the career of Roderick Lionel Ephraums, the blind Burgher piano tuner fondly remembered by at least one person for his merry chuckle.
After Richard Lionel’s death (I do not have the exact date, but I am guessing sometime in the 1930s as the NOH was managed by the magnificently-named Victor Rex Ludovici Anthonisz during the Second World War) his eldest child, Verena Laura Chorine (Ina) - born in 1904 - gradually took over responsibility for running the family hotel. This was partly a question of geographical proximity – a few days before her 25th birthday, in late January 1929, Ina was married at the Anglican All Saints’ Church to a young Burgher medical doctor, George Herbert Arndt. In due course Dr. Arndt became the Municipal Medical Officer for Galle, so the family lived locally and Ina took over running the Hotel while her sister Nesta lived in the hill country as a tea planter’s wife. I have mentioned in my separate “NOH” article that a correspondent living in the USA who served with the RAF in Ceylon at the end of the Second World War, told me of how he stayed briefly at the NOH just after the war ended and met the daughters of the managers, presumably young members of the Arndt family, whom he fondly remembered as being tall, lovely and lissom with long, flowing dark hair.
Following in the recent footsteps of so many other Ceylonese Burghers, the Arndt family eventually left Ceylon and emigrated around 1960, taking up residence in Perth, Western Australia, where so far as I can tell both parents passed away during the 1980s. I vividly remember meeting their son, also named George, during a return visit he made to his Aunt Nesta at the NOH, Galle in 1974. George at the time must have been in his early forties, a rugged, outdoorsy type of chap with a friendly manner. I cannot forget the story he told me of a youthful adventure he and some others once had in one of the Sri Lankan game parks. A wild elephant started to explore their stationary vehicle, with them inside, and things went peaceably until the beast’s sensitive trunk touched the heated exhaust pipe. The alarmed elephant started to attack the vehicle, and the equally terrified occupants jumped out and took off across the clearing towards the nearby jungle, with Jumbo in hot pursuit. George, realizing that their pursuer was fast gaining ground and might easily overtake them before they could reach the comparative safety of the treeline, tore off his jacket and dropped it on the grass as he ran. To everyone’s immense relief, the elephant stopped dead at the spot and proceeded to demolish the jacket, before wandering off, satisfied that it had dealt with its tormentor. George told me that when in the Sri Lankan jungle he always made sure he wore an unwashed jacket or shirt, the more sweat-stained and odiferous the better, to provide a distraction for any short-sighted but sensitive-smelling elephants that came too close. I have since read that this device is at best an uncertain one to rely upon in wild elephant country, but at least for George and his companions it worked on one occasion and they all lived to tell the tale! (If George or any member of his family Down Under ever reads this, I would love to hear from him or her).
In a previous version of this family narrative I speculated rather vaguely that Lescinska Sylvia Ephraums, the fourth child of Richard Lionel and Beata Ephraums, who was born on January 26th, 1917, had “died at a relatively young age”. I am delighted to report that I was utterly mistaken. Professor Yasmine Gooneratne, the noted Sri Lanka-born author and academic now living in Australia, read my article and, along with her physician-cum-historian husband Dr. Brendon Gooneratne, contacted me with a most intriguing and surprising tale. It turns out that Lescinska Ephraums was still living in Perth, Western Australia, around 1990 and conceivably may even still be alive (aged 84) today. The Gooneratnes actually knew both Lescinska and Eric Tucker, her Welsh-born “companion-of-the-heart” (in the delightful expression used by Prof. Gooneratne). Mr. Tucker was Chief Pilot of the Port of Colombo in the 1950s, where he lived in a house by the sea at Colpetty, opposite the St. Andrew’s Church, and before that he was Pilot of the Port of Galle. Dr. Gooneratne (who knew him well through his father, beginning as a medical student in the 1950s) remembers him as being exceptionally convivial and always having a good supply of different cheeses and beers, both of which he was very fond of, and which he managed to acquire through his numerous contacts among the Captains and Pursers of visiting ships! Before Eric left Ceylon, Lescinska Ephraums actually managed his household. Eric Tucker ended up in Perth, Australia: a photograph, in the possession of the Gooneratnes, of him in smart naval whites at his daughter’s wedding in Perth, suggests an even earlier sea-going career. After the Gooneratnes left Sri Lanka and moved to Sydney quite a few years later, Dr. Gooneratne made certain he kept in contact with his and his father’s old friend, Eric Tucker. Soon after their arrival there, they were rewarded with a visit from Mr. Tucker a few months later – bringing with him a lady companion whom he introduced to Prof. Yasmine Gooneratne as “Miss Lescinska Ephraums”. Dr. Brendon of course remembered Lescinska very well from his bachelor student days often spent with them both. The Sydney reunion visit was such a roaring success that the couple came to visit with the Gooneratnes annually until Eric’s death around the later 1980s. By Prof. Gooneratne’s account they made a most colourful pair. Each year they would come to Sydney to take in the numerous country and western folk festivals, staying at the Watson’s Bay Hotel on the harbour, so that Eric the one-time Port Pilot could stay close to his beloved ocean. His erstwhile hostess remembers him as “delightful man”, who in his leisure time liked to exercise his considerable skills as a talented folksinger. He accompanied himself on a guitar and had a remarkably wide-ranging repertoire that included songs from France, South Africa and the USA; Prof. Gooneratne remembers especially vividly his rendering of “The E-ri-e was rising”, and she and her husband treasure an amateur tape recording, made by the then-medical student Dr. Gooneratne at the Colombo Polo Club at the request of his father, of Eric singing to his guitar for three hours non-stop, apart from occasional sips of his beer. On a visit to Perth to give a reading, Prof. Gooneratne had a surprise visit from the egregious couple, and remembers Eric very stylish in a checked shirt and a Texan-style ten-gallon hat. Apparently from time to time they used to busk quite successfully on the streets of downtown Perth! (2)
With obvious deep fondness, Prof. Gooneratne recalls Lescinska Ephraums as possessing a “most attractive, lively personality”, and for being a good storyteller – life-enhancing qualities that I might add were abundantly shared by her older sister, Anestasia (Nesta). Lescinska claimed that until she paired up with her Chief Pilot, she had no singing voice at all. Eric must have brought the music into her life that awoke the talents latent within her, the Ephraums family muse that surely compensated each of her two brothers, in part at least, for a long lifetime of blindness. She told many stories of her life in Sri Lanka before migrating to Australia at a date and in circumstances unknown. In fact, much of Lescinska’s life remains a mystery to me, as Nesta never mentioned her, at least so far as I can recall over more than a quarter of a century. This makes these recollections of her so much more precious and indeed poignant. Perhaps someone in Perth will come forward after reading this, and fill in some of the gaps in what seems to have been a fascinating lifetime of yet another child of the diaspora, filled no doubt like so many others with secret, forgotten sorrows as well as joys. Prof. Gooneratne remembers two of Lescinska’s anecdotes that were so interesting and amusing that she incorporated them into her first novel, A Change of Skies. I cannot do better than quote these verbatim from her delightful letter:
“The first story that she [Lescinska] told us was of an escapade in which she had been involved as a little girl of six. Lyn Ludowyk (later to become the University of Ceylon’s eminent Professor of English), who was about eleven at the time [actually since he was born in 1906, he would have been closer to seventeen – JS] had the bright idea of building a raft, and setting sail with the outgoing tide from the Galle beach to find out what lay beyond the horizon. He took with him a small group of young friends (the youngest being Lescinska): their mast was a pole, and their sail a shirt belonging to one of the boys. All went well until the sun sank, and it grew dark. They had not thought to take any food or water with them, the younger children were terrified and began to cry, and the adventure might have ended in tragedy, had not the lights of a fishing catamaran found them. The fisherman brought the children back to shore.
The second story, very different in kind, was about a Tamil cook who had worked for the Ephraums family. His previous employer had been a British army officer, from whom, according to Lescinska, the cook had picked up some choice bar-room (or is it mess-room?) expressions. This cook had a recipe book in which he had written his best recipes, in Tamil, of course: and when asked by an appreciative guest what a particularly delicious dessert was called, he checked his book and read out: ‘F------ Fruit Salad’…”
And so our winding trail down through the generations finally leads us to Anestasia Emmeline Brohier (neé Ephraums), better known as Nesta, the very last survivor of the once-prominent family of Ephraums to live in Galle Fort, that “Gibraltar of the Burghers” as Norah Roberts described it. When, as a young teacher stationed in Galle, I knew Nesta at the NOH in 1973-4, she was in her late sixties and still very much at the height of her abilities as an old-style hotelier and international hostess. Amazingly, she remained at the helm for another twenty-plus years, albeit with outside contract management eventually handling the day-to-day running of the hotel. Nesta married Richard Henry Louis (Hal) Brohier at All Saints’ Church, Galle Fort, on August 14th, 1929 – barely six months after the same church saw her sister Ina married to Dr. George Arndt. (It must have been an expensive year for their father, Richard Lionel)! At the time of the marriage, Nesta was 24 and Hal was 23. Hal was a son of Louis Cyrus Brohier and Frederica Harriet Amelia Daniel, and therefore the offshoot of two distinguished Burgher families, with the Brohier side (originally 18th Century French Huguenots who also settled in Jersey) including his celebrated first cousin R.L. Brohier, the surveyor, prolific author and historian of Sri Lanka. A formal photograph of the new couple appeared in Plate’s Annual of 1929, presumably taken at the wedding reception held at the Mount Lavinia Hotel, until the previous year the domain of Nesta’s Uncle Arthur (“Confident”) Ephraums and his cousin-wife, Sylvia. I remember Nesta once telling me over tea at “the Mount”, that for some years afterwards every time she and Hal went for dinner at the Mount Lavinia Hotel, the band would start playing the tune to which they had danced together that day in August, 1929, and they would have to dance it all over again to the applause of the assembled diners.
Nesta and Hal Brohier had two children who grew into adulthood: Kenneth Gordon, born in May 1930, and Veronica Kay, born very much later in about 1950. (Another child, born after Kenneth Gordon and christened Pauline Fleur, died in early infancy after - apparently - being given the wrong injection and contracting fatal meningitis at age three). For many years until around 1960, the family moved from hill country tea plantation to tea plantation as Hal’s job dictated, ending up on the Padukka Estate in the 1950s before Hal retired from planting in 1960 and took up a directorship with the Colombo-based Agency Company of Whittal’s. It was around this time that Ina and George Arndt left for Australia, so Nesta began to take over the reins at the NOH, finally moving there permanently as hotelier-in-residence not later than after Hal’s death in 1968. She lived in a spacious, old-world suite of rooms, filled with antique carved furniture and pictures, at the back of the hotel overlooking what is now the modern swimming-pool but was then still a back garden, fringed by coconut trees, where long ago her father had lived up to his nickname of “Zambuk” while excitedly giving chase to the marauding polecat. Nesta deserves an entire book to herself, and maybe one day someone will write it, for she was known by thousands of travellers, both famous and obscure, who over the decades (as Deloraine Brohier, daughter of “R.L.B.” has written) ceaselessly flowed like flotsam in and out of the hotel. Perhaps I will write another article about my memories of Nesta Brohier and the NOH during 1973-4, but here one vignette from her own account given to me in 1973 will suffice to bring home how well she saw both the ups and downs of life during her long tenure at the NOH:
The year is 1971, and it is the time of the Marxist JVP Sinhalese “youth” insurrection that briefly threatens to topple the newly-elected government of the independent (then) Dominion of Ceylon. Dead bodies of summarily executed insurrectionists are seen floating in the sea off the Fort ramparts. The road between Galle and Colombo has temporarily been cut off, and rumours abound. Every night at dusk the curfew begins, those staff who made it to work have gone home early, there are no tourists and Nesta is left in the ghostly emptiness of the NOH, alone in the darkness without electricity, the doors and shutters bolted and barred against possible intruders. Suddenly, without warning, there is the sound of heavy boots on the front steps, shouting male voices demanding entry, and loud, repeated pounding on the doors with what sounds like rifle butts. A frightened Nesta remains hidden in her apartment, expecting at any moment to become yet another victim. Suddenly the noise stops and the boots reverberate back down the steps, and a blanket of silence once again falls over the hotel. For Nesta a sleepless night follows until dawn, and then life carries on, as it must. (The government forces prevailed, but only just, and the JVP vanished as quickly as it emerged, until its resurgence in the later 1980s brought on the “hidden war” disappearances and atrocities recently fictionalized in Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost).
I last saw Nesta when I stayed for a couple of nights at the NOH early in 1988 during a brief sentimental return visit to Galle. By then she was much changed from the plump, vivacious near-septuagenarian of 1973-4. In her 83rd year, she had lost a great deal of weight and was altogether more solemn than I remembered. Perhaps her natural style was cramped by her house-guest, an elderly and rather infirm British retired medical doctor who had heard her give an interview on BBC radio and decided to come out to Sri Lanka to renew an old acquaintanceship from the War years, and who spoke monotonously over afternoon tea on the hotel verandah about various obscure tropical diseases. Regrettably, this prevented my having a proper chat with Nesta, and we never met up again. The hotel was almost empty, tourism being at a low ebb due to “the troubles”, and I was delighted to be allocated Room 12 on the top floor, northeast corner overlooking the harbour - the so-called “Honeymoon Suite” (with three beds and a sign on the door that displays the sombre warnings, Visitors’ servants are NOT permitted to sleep in the hotel premises without the sanction of the Office, and Will you also refrain from standing outside your bath while bathing. The bedroom boy will direct you to a shower, should you prefer one). I like to think that Nesta quietly arranged this, remembering how, years before, I had once admired that huge set of rooms with its fine scenic views.
Poignantly, Nesta was to outlive her adult children, both of whom died tragically in separate road accidents. Her beloved daughter Veronica had come full circle with her Hollandsche roots and married a young Dutch airline pilot, Jan Mekenkamp. At the time of Veronica’s death at the early age of twenty-five on October 9th, 1975, in a head-on highway collision with a school bus while driving alone to pick up her husband at the airport, she was living in Brussels, Belgium with Jan and their two very young children, Neils and Louisa. I still have an October 1977 letter from Nesta telling me this terrible news. Nesta attended her daughter’s cremation and remained in Europe until April 1976. The following December, Jan sent the children along with his sister, Eb, who had been looking after them in Holland after their mother’s death, to stay with Nesta at the NOH for about three months. During that time, Eb fell in love with and later married Lakshman (Lal) Dias, a planter friend of Nesta whom she had previously met when he accompanied Nesta to Holland for Veronica’s funeral. The pair drove back overland from Holland to Sri Lanka by car! This couple still lives at Wicklow Hills, an estate near Galle, where I remember visiting Lakshman in 1974 before we went to Yala National Park, and where in her book on Galle Norah Roberts describes calling on Eb in the 1980s. This surprise development brought much pleasure to Nesta at such a low point in her life. There is an Ephraums family memorial plaque in the Dutch Reformed Church in Galle Fort that includes the name of Veronica Kay Mekenkamp (neé Brohier), and when I last looked at it in 1988 it also showed the name of Anestasia Emmeline Brohier, born May 7th, 1905, but with the date of death still blank. Recently I heard from a Sri Lankan emigrée living in England, who had read the previous draft of this article and wrote to tell me how touched she was by the belated discovery of Veronica’s death a quarter-century earlier. She recalled that while a boarder at Ladies’ College in the 1950s, she had slept in the bed next to a child’s cot which had been brought in especially for a fair little girl who was so extremely young that she had to have her nanny accompany her to the school. During the night until she finally fell asleep, this child had rocked her cot and banged her fists rhythmically against the sides, apparently in some distress. Upon reading this narrative my correspondent suddenly and with a pang of sorrow, was reminded of the long-forgotten name of that lonely little girl: Veronica Brohier.
Kenneth Gordon Brohier, known as Gordon, who was Nesta and Hal’s older child, was sent off to military school in India and then on to public (private) school in England, after which he returned to Ceylon to train as a tea-taster. He married an English nurse named Molly Ritchie in the early 1950s while he was a patient at the Fraser Memorial Nursing Home in Colombo, and moved to England, where he became a schoolmaster in Manchester. They had two children, Trevor (born in 1956) and Susan Pamela (born in 1960). When Gordon retired in about 1990, he moved back to Sri Lanka to take over the running of the NOH, while residing on a small estate near town. Molly remained in England, coming out to visit from time to time. By some accounts he was a fairly volatile character, getting into occasional fisticuffs with recalcitrant hotel guests and on one occasion throwing one of them down the stairs – rather a contrast to his supremely diplomatic mother, although perhaps a throwback to his similarly-tempered Uncle Edgar Lancelot! In about 1993, sadly, Gordon was involved in a fatal car crash while driving along (I think) the Galle-Colombo road. An early 2002 search of the U.K. White Pages on the Internet reveals a Trevor I. Brohier and his wife Julia S., presumably Gordon’s son and daughter-in-law, listed as residents of York, Northern England, and one M. Brohier, probably his widow, Molly, residing in Wirral in the west of England. Of Veronica’s two children, Niels and Louisa, I have so far found no trace, although I believe that one of them now works in the hotel business somewhere in Europe.
In my “NOH” article I have cited a report of the lavishly exotic 90th birthday celebration at the NOH thrown for Nesta and a host of specially invited guests that took place in May 1995, courtesy of the management company which since then has been operating the hotel. Judging by the newspaper accounts, it was truly a grand, even historic occasion (3). A very few months later the chief guest quietly slipped away to sail the eternal ocean among the ghost ships of her Dutch Burgher ancestors, reportedly leaving in her will the NOH to her adult grandchildren all living in Europe, one of whom is said to be working in the hotel business, but none of whom has ever resided in Sri Lanka. Today (early 2002) the hotel is still run by contract management, an international resort company, and reportedly extensive renovations are planned. One can only hope that its unique character is retained, if not its rather eccentric plumbing system!
And so we come to the end of our trail, one that has encountered both joy and sorrow in the everyday lives of those we have glimpsed imperfectly through the dense fog of the past. Many lives of the members of the hugely-extended Ephraums family we have not even touched upon, both through absence of knowledge and lack of space. While compiling this record I was fortunate to receive valuable input from a number of sources, much of it relating to the main story-line but occasionally leading part way down various fascinating offshoot or side trails. One correspondent now living in Australia recalled from his youth the entire back row of the Havelock’s rugger team in Colombo consisting of three brawny Ephraums boys, including a Leslie and a Conrad, but added that he believed all of them had migrated to Australia later in the 1950s. Another correspondent, still residing in Sri Lanka, wondered about her grandfather’s first wife, whom she believed to have been an Ephraums, but who had died early on in the marriage after producing two children, never to be forgotten by her surviving husband who apparently mourned her deeply for the rest of his life, even though he remarried. A little investigation brought to light Isabel Violet Ephraums, born on June 15th, 1892, the third of six children of Lancelot Henry Ephraums and his wife, Louisa Isabel (neé Warkus). Lancelot’s father, Peter Henry Ephraums, was another of the sons of Cornelius Adrianus Ephraums, whom we have already met on this peregrination. Isabel Violet married Norman Gratiaen de la Motte at St. Michael’s and All Angels’ Church, Colombo, just a few days before Christmas 1915. She died aged twenty-four while giving birth prematurely to her second child on April 16th, 1917. The child survived and was named Violet (Viola) after her mother. The older child, a boy named Neville, grew into a renowned athlete in his youth and later, if I am not mistaken, a prominent Colombo journalist and newspaper editor. Their father however became something of a recluse after his first wife’s death, and for the rest of his life kept his two children at an emotional distance. Sometimes, alas, the digressions that one stumbles innocently upon on an historical quest of this nature, all too literally start to lead down some private, densely overgrown and long-forgotten trail of tears.
They have virtually all gone from Galle Fort now, those solid old Burgher families, scattered to the winds by time and circumstance, only their surviving memorials and unvisited tombstones in the churchyards bearing mute testimony to industrious lives lived, generally, in decent and respectable obscurity. Their descendants now thrive, for the most part, in Britain, Canada and Australia. Most of the educated Burghers in the old days of the British Empire became journalists, doctors, schoolteachers, lawyers or middle-grade government servants: middle-class professionals, the solid backbone of the colonial system. Very few of them indeed went into business, and even fewer into politics. The Ephraumses are worth studying not least because they broke free from the mould in this respect, or at least a prominent few of them did, by becoming entrepreneurs, contrarians willing to take risks and reap the benefits - or the whirlwind – even in the face of widespread economic adversity. We have seen how one family member, Angelo Frederick Ephraums (1836-68), started brilliantly but his star burned out far too soon. Another, “Confident” Arthur Edward Ephraums (1879-1931), took enormous risks but finally may have overreached himself and paid the penalty. Yet another, Albert Richard Ephraums (1846-1904), took more measured risks, avoided the totalizator at the racecourse and built up a substantial legacy for his heirs that lingers to this day. Many others in the extended family led unexceptional lives, like many of us, and should not be thought any the worse for that. Most are, and will remain, long forgotten, while some will be remembered by historians, but for all of them I say - let this imperfect account be at least a partial epitaph.
© Joe Simpson, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, January 2002
(*) This awkward detail seems to have been conveniently glossed over in D.V. Altendorf’s genealogy of the Ephraums family published in the Journal of the Dutch Burgher Union in the early 1930s. Today, Coenraad’s Sinhalese wife’s name would be rendered as Kotuwe Arachchige Sanchi de Silva. An "Arachchi" (in this case possibly her father) was a 'Native Officer' who was either holding an appointment as such or holding it as an honorary title, so very likely her family would have been of quite high standing in the Sinhalese community. No date of marriage is provided by the JDBU, and moreover Coenraad’s wife is named simply as “Sanche de Sielwe”, creating the superficial impression that she was “Portuguese” Burgher. Apparently such “glossing” was not unusual in Ceylon Burgher circles in the British period, when increased interest in “proving” European origins grew after the founding in 1908 of the Dutch Burgher Union (DBU) at a time when other ethnic groups were asserting their identity within the colonial structure.
A Colombo Burgher correspondent who read this article in a previous draft, has felt prompted to tell me of her abortive search for her biological great-grandmother, who was Sinhalese, being the second wife of her (Burgher, Dutch-descended) paternal great-grandfather. The husband’s family were important figures and large landowners near Colombo, but the DBU Journal genealogy records omit all mention of his second (Sinhalese) wife, referring only to his first (Burgher) marriage, which produced a large family. My correspondent actually found her great-grandfather’s grave near the local Church, shared with his first wife, and eventually tracked down her great-grandmother’s solitary grave hidden away in a private family cemetery down a lane much further inland. Poignantly, due to what appears to have been a concerted covering of tracks, my correspondent in effect has been denied a part of her rich cultural heritage. The truth is that relatively few “Ceylon Burghers” had “Dutch” origins, the majority coming from a rich mixture of other European nationals who (like the Dutch themselves, e.g. Coenraad Ephraums) frequently intermarried (or simply interbred) with the indigenous Sinhalese and various other “races”. Altendorf’s genealogical researches were used to good effect in the 1950s by Ceylonese Burghers applying to immigrate to Australia, which at the time had a “whites only” policy that required proof of European origins to qualify for admission.
(y ) There is another entrance to the Fort known as the Water Gate, which is not the Harbour Gate with the coat of arms. This is a tunnel leading from the beach to the Zwaart Bastian, or Black Fort. No one knew about it until, in 1971, a stray foreign backpacker was found within the Police sanctum in Black Fort. He had accidentally discovered the tunnel and followed it up! It is now blocked off. In Dutch times, this was the "waterpas" or 'water-gate' for boats bringing water by boat from Watering Point to enter the Fort. I am indebted to Somasiri Devendra for this intriguing historical tidbit.
(*) The poignant inscription at the Dutch Kerk in Galle Fort reads: “Sacred to the Memory of ANGELO FREDERICK EPHRAUMS who departed this life on the 6th day of November 1868, aged 32 years 7 months and 21 days. THY WILL, O LORD! BE DONE! Matt. XXVI 42.” The biblical reference is to Christ’s poignant second prayer in the Garden at Gethsemane, just before his betrayal by Judas Iscariot. A drawing of the church inscription appears in Leopold Ludovici’s Lapidarium Zeylanicum (1877). Curiously, there is a five-pointed star above the inscription. According to Norah Roberts in an aside about the plaque, this star has Masonic connotations. At one point I had thought that this star might be a symbolic acknowledgment of the Ephraums family’s distant Semitic origins back in Europe, however as Jennifer van der Greft in Israel has kindly reminded me, the Jewish Star of David always has six points. Jennifer also points out that the surname Ephraums originates with Ephraim, in the Old Testament one of Joseph’s brothers, but also the name of one of the tribes (and tribal areas) of Ancient Israel. So the question mark remains over the possible European Jewish origins of the Ephraums family.
(*) Today the Mount Lavinia belongs to the Ukwatte family and is run by
Sanath Ukwatte. His wife’s uncle, Somasiri Devendra, tells me he can remember a
racy little baila song that goes back to the hotel of the Ephraums era:
Bulath vitak kaala vareng - kata rath venda
Piyaru tikak gaala vareng - muhuna simbinta
Race tirkkalay geneng - dennata yanna
Galkisse bungalawe - sannipa ganna.
(Mind you, adds Somasiri, it DOES go with a swing!)
"Chew some betel, dear, to redden your lips
Powder you face, dear, for me to kiss it
Bring around the racing hackery, for both of us to go
And take our ease, in the Bungalow at Mount Lavinia."
In common parlance the Hotel was always "Galkisse Bungalawa".
(*) Windsor Morris, a Loret descendant now living in London, England, has kindly provided to me a copy of a clipping of a Colombo newspaper feature article, entitled Those Mansions in the Galle Fort were once tourist hotels. The writer, Cecil V. Wikramanayake, recounts childhood memories of family life in various multi-roomed “mansions” in Galle Fort during the 1930s, when most of the leading Fort tourist hotels, with the notable exception of the NOH, had gone out of business. One such place they lived in was the former New Mansion Hotel, later the Ephraums General Store. (Lyn Ludowyk clearly recalled the scroll over the main entrance, stating that the business used to be Bissett & Co. It was while studying Virgil’s Aeneid along with a classmate in the Thomé apartment directly above Ephraums’ store late in 1918, that the 14-year-old Ludowyk heard a sudden whistle blow downstairs that announced the end of the First World War. Soon afterwards, he remembered, the Church bell at nearby All Saints’ was rung to proclaim the glad tidings). Mr. Wikramanayake recalled a dramatic incident - amusing only in distant retrospect, no doubt - when a close family friend, Dr. G. Dalpathado, accidentally drove his father’s car out of the garage right onto the house verandah, demolishing a supporting pillar and literally bringing the roof down on his head! Interestingly, in a later article he contributed to the 2001 Richmond College 125th anniversary feature in the Colombo “Island” newspaper, Mr. Wikramanayake recalled his childhood days in the early 1930s at the junior school (which had both boys and girls) when one of his classmates was “a delicious little angel called Sylvia Ephraums, whose elder sister Joyce was a classmate of my elder brother Teddy”. Sylvia Bertha Ephraums (born 1925) and her sister Joyce (born 1927, so C. V. W. seems to be slightly mistaken in remembering that she was in an older class then Sylvia) were two of the four daughters of Edgar Lancelot Ephraums and his wife Catherine (neé Ludovici). Edgar Lancelot (who was 15 years older than his wife) was probably the more “volatile” of the two Ephraums brothers referred to by E.F.C. Ludowyk, who for a time jointly ran the Ephraums general store in Middle Street, and the one who had remained in Galle when his brother (Alfred Francis) left for Europe in 1917. Edgar Lancelot’s widow, Catherine, died in England in 1956. Both brothers – and particularly Alfred Francis – make their appearance later in this narrative. Incidentally, the feature writer Cecil V. Wikramanayake’s father was a doctor in Galle at the time he recalls, and one of my recent correspondents in Australia remembers as a young girl attending his Surgery, then on Middle Street across from the NOH, for vaccinations. Fortunately for her safety as a pedestrian, the hapless Dr. Dalpathado was not driving out of the garage at the time! Lyn Ludowyk recalled from First World War-era childhood memory “the strange Dr. H.” who once ran this same Middle Street Dispensary and Surgery across from the NOH. Another recollection of Ludowyk was the clicking of billiard balls in the afternoons, coming from the NOH billiard room, contrasting with the “reserved and quiet” Dutch Reformed Church at the top of the street. Prof. Lyn Ludowyk in fact was himself a bona fide descendant of the Amsterdammer, Coenraad Christiaan Ephraums: his mother, Ida May (neé Andree) was a daughter of Gertrude Georgiana Andree (neé Daviot), whose own mother was born Georgiana Margaret Ephraums, a daughter of Daniel Ephraums (1811-1856) and thus a sister of both Angelo Ephraums and Albert Richard Ephraums. Georgiana Margaret’s first husband, Chery Louis Philippe Daviot, was drowned at age 22. Thus Lyn Ludowyk was a great-great-grandson of Daniel Ephraums, and a 7th generation descendant of the Amsterdammer himself.
(*) Lyn Ludowyk, remembering his Galle Fort youth in the early 1900s, recalled the incongruously named Mr. Eager, a “round-faced, mild and inoffensive” printer with a “diffident and apologetic” manner who worked in those days for the Albion Press, and was an avid collector of British colonial and Ceylon penny stamps. Lyn and his brother Vyvil were always dreaming up schemes, never carried into effect, to outwit Mr. Eager in their various stamp barter dealings! Seventy years later in his old age, Lyn still remembered Mr. Eager clearly, poring over his exotic stamp collection with his tweezers and mounts, continually consulting the large Stanley Gibbons catalogue behind him: a character who would otherwise be long forgotten, emerges fully dimensional from the pages of Ludowyk’s vivid memoirs.
[*] Actually, for Rs. 40,000, payable in four annual instalments of Rs. 10,000 each, with conditions attached as to insurance etc. I now have copies of the NOH Land Registry documents, courtesy of Windsor Morris in London, who has been researching the connections between the NOH and his maternal ancestors’ long-defunct hotel in Galle, Loret’s. The “agreement of sale” was registered on January 20, 1900 but the actual title transfer date is August 16, 1902, presumably when the price was paid in full.
(*) An Australian correspondent informs me that his wife, a musician and piano teacher who like her spouse originally comes from Sri Lanka, remembers Rod (popularly known as “Blind”) Ephraums as the only one to consider if you wanted a piano tuner in those days, so brilliant was he at this kind of work. She recalls a story of how Rod Ephraums went to a friend’s home to tune a piano, and just by listening to it before starting work, he noticed something unusual. He then instructed somebody to look at a certain precise location deep inside the piano, as he thought there was a metal object in there. Sure enough, in that exact spot they found - a spoon!
(1) Charles Ameresekere, a Toronto-based military historian specializing in Ceylonese serving in various colonial forces, informs me that his database shows Alfred Francis Ephraums as having been a Private in the 1st Battalion, Artists’ Rifle Training Corps. According to the Times of Ceylon “Roll of Honour 1914 – 1918” (pub. 1919) Alfred Francis Ephraums enlisted in the British Army on April 3, 1917 and was immediately stationed at Rugely Camp, Staffs., U.K. for training, before being posted to 451st Siege Battery in Winchester as a Signaller. He arrived with his Regiment in France on February 15, 1918, and from there joined the 6th Battery in Flanders, northern France. This was a crucial time in the Great War, when the Russian military effort was collapsing in the wake of the October 1917 Revolution. In March 1918 the new Russian Government capitulated to the Second Reich with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, clearing the way for German Commander-in-Chief Ludendorff to move his “Sturmbock” (“Battering Ram”) divisions back to the Northern Europe “Ypres Salient” in early April 1918, as a prelude to what became known as the Second Battle of the Marne. The “Roll of Honour” states that Alfred Francis Ephraums was “engaged in battle” during the Allied retreat from Armentières from April 9th onwards. What happened was that on Sunday, April 7th the Germans fired 2,500 artillery muzzles raining 30,000 shells (including mustard gas) down on the British front line around the town, followed by crack storm troops attacking just before dawn in thick fog, along a thirty-mile front along the River Lys. The little town of Armentières fell before this ferocious German Army onslaught on Wednesday, April 10th. The newly arrived, not-yet-battle-hardened, 34-year-old Alfred Francis would have been in the thick of this battle, thrown in at the deep end as it were. On April 23rd, with the British (under Haig) still in retreat, Ludendorff took the 300’ high “Mount” Kemmel on the vast Flanders plain, his men clambering up the slopes singing the gunners’ fighting song: Wenn einer wusste, Wie einem ist! The Germans’ immediate aim was to seize Hazelbrouck, a vital railway junction, thus forcing the British to pull back to the south-east in order to avoid being cut off from their French allies, and leaving the English Channel undefended. At this critical moment, however, the redoubtable British forces dug in their heels and finally stopped the German advance just five miles short of Hazelbrouck, thereby preventing a potentially calamitous break in the Allied front line.
The “Roll of Honour” then states that Alfred Francis Ephraums was transferred to the “Champagne Sector” between Soissons and Reims, north of the River Aisne and guarding the immediate approaches to nearby Paris. This was one relatively “quiet” front line sector that the Allies sent their battle-weary troops south to after the end of the Armentières retreat. Unfortunately, it was about to become the next “hot spot”. Ludendorff, frustrated at Hazelbrouck, decided next to make a diversionary feint for Paris with the aim of forcing the French Army to concentrate on defending their capital, whereupon he would wheel north and sweep Haig’s Army into the sea. Outside Soissons, where Alfred Francis was stationed by now, were three very tired British and seven French divisions, defending a formidably-protected ridge along the River Aisne called Chemin de Dames. The Germans stealthily moved up no less than forty-one crack infantry divisions under cover of darkness, even concealing the creaking of their gun carriages by carrying along cages of croaking frogs, all hidden in a wild forest opposite the ridge. At 1:00 A.M. on Thursday, April 25th all Hell broke loose – an unremitting three-hour artillery bombardment, the heaviest of the entire War, rained down on the ridge, literally sending some defenders raving mad. Then came the frontal attack, commanded by Crown Prince Rupprecht, as hordes of German shock troops swarmed up the slopes behind a tornado of mustard gas and shrapnel. By the time they reached the top, the Allied front line had simply vanished and the approaches to Paris seemed wide open. The Allied reserves, consisting of seven French and two weary British divisions, were no match for the fresh German troops, who finally overran Soissons on May 30. By June 3, 1918 the Germans were back on the River Marne - only 45 miles away from Paris – for the first time since their initial reverses very early in the War. At this crucial stage the long-awaited “doughboys” finally arrived from the United States. In the “Pas Finie” sector, they assisted in pushing the Germans back through Bellaux Wood and beyond Reims by July 18th. Ludendorff retired to lick his wounds and prepare for the third, and last, great assault of the year.
Alfred Francis Ephraums - according to the “Roll of Honour” - was next posted to the Allied front lines along the River Somme, scene of the devastating trench warfare of 1916 that long preceded his arrival in France. The Roll states that he was at the Somme on August 8, 1918 and remained there during the German retreat until October 23, 1918, when he was wounded and sent to a base hospital at Le Havre, before being invalided to England. Actually, Alfred Francis once again seems to have had an uncanny knack of being right in the thick of it, for it was on August 8, 1918 that Winston Churchill’s new-fangled tanks got their first test in battle: 456 of them, newly-arrived at the Front, were launched against the astonished Germans just east of Amiens, on the Somme River. The tanks were so successful that the Allied infantry and cavalry could not keep up with them, breaching the (to the Germans) sacrosanct “Hindenburg Line” and advancing rapidly over 6 miles – an Allied feat unheard of in the trench campaigns, up until then. The main effect was psychological rather than military, as the Germans quickly regrouped, and after another six weeks of rain, fog and heavy fighting (the Allies being bolstered enormously by over one million newly-arrived U.S. troops) the war essentially was over, with the German Front collapsing by early November (by which time Alfred Francis was safely hospitalized) and the armistice taking place on November 11, 1918. While Alfred Francis was recovering from his wounds, far off in German Pomerania a young Austrian despatch rider was also lying in hospital, recovering from temporary blindness caused by mustard gas, when he heard from a sobbing Pastor about the Kaiser’s surrender. His name: Adolf Hitler.
All the above may seem far removed from the peaceful, even somnolent atmosphere of Galle Fort, described in the 1930s by W.T. Keble in Ceylon Beaten Track and others as an old-world town effectively becalmed by history. But, as Keble himself points out, it was not always so. In 1640, a 3,500-strong Dutch VOC besieging army perhaps even containing some of Alfred Francis Ephraums’ Hollander forbears overwhelmed the Fort after an 18-day bombardment by cannon. On March 13, 1640, two hundred and seventy eight years almost to the month before Alfred Francis faced his first big battle on the Western Front, the VOC forces swarmed over the ramparts, and in vicious hand-to-hand street fighting killed almost all the Portuguese defenders. After that, Galle had a fairly peaceful history, with a quiet hand-over to the British in 1796 and a few false alarms in 1914-15 when (erroneously, as it turned out) the British feared a sneak attack by a “lone wolf” German battleship, the Emden – which after the War turned out never to have come within several days’ steaming distance of Ceylon’s coastline.
(2) Dr. Brendon Gooneratne has since written to me to share some more of his extremely detailed and colourful memories of Eric Tucker, reaching back a half century to his own youth in 1950s Ceylon (now of course Sri Lanka). With Dr. Gooneratne’s kind permission I will quote directly from his letter, which conveys vividly and ultimately poignantly the delightfully human qualities of the late Mr. Tucker and his boon companion, Lescinska Ephraums. Dr. Gooneratne has this to say:
“I remember Eric Tucker as if I saw him yesterday. What a great character and a lovely man. Eric was a Welshman who lived in South Africa, and as a little boy from Britain, had sailed around Cape Horn at just about the time of the First World War as a cabin boy on a sailing ship. This would account in part for those wonderful sea shanties, and sea-going songs and cowboy westerns that he sang so well. He came to Ceylon as the Pilot of the Port of Galle and was friendly with the locals. He was known to my brother-in-law Roland Dias Abeysinghe, a leading Barrister in Galle at the time, and a good raconteur himself. This was some years before he came to Colombo, and met us independently in the 1950s.
My father [Mr. William Gooneratne] and he, along with about 12 others, belonged to the Colombo Polo Club, and my father was the Secretary for some years with Eric Tucker also an office-bearer. You could not help but like Eric. By the way, I must add that Eric had left his wife and children behind in South Africa. His daughter still commutes between Transvaal and London, I believe. It was fortuitous that my father asked me one day to record Eric singing with his own accompaniment on his guitar. As a medical student in the 1950s I had purchased an American REVERE tape recorder and I set this up at the Polo Club, on a table with a microphone. The Club was then housed in a building in the Racecourse itself. Eric set up his guitar, placed a hunk of cheese and 3 bottles of iced beer on a round table, and sang practically non-stop from memory for about 3 hours. It was both an enduring and a superb performance. The entire Polo Club was glued to their seats while I went for my usual walk around the grounds of the racecourse, then went home and came back later. I was sitting for one of those innumerable medical exams at the time. My father had been given instructions on how to operate the recorder…Except for some hum in the background caused by the microphone recording (one must remember these were early days for recording equipment and electronics, being the 1950s) it brings out his wonderful voice for country style and popular music, and of course his memory for the words, this being a non-stop, unrehearsed recording – and also his inimitable style. I am so glad I did this, because it additionally has my father’s voice making encouraging and rapturous statements about Eric’s singing.
Eric was a casual Bohemian who had a relationship with his housekeeper, a lady with whom he had a daughter. When Eric decided to emigrate to Australia, whose casual laid-back lifestyle suited him so well, he left his lady companion and his 6 year old daughter to my father to look after! My father had to go on explaining to a lot of people what this was all about, in case the locals jumped to the wrong conclusion! I distinctly remember a long explanation from him, given in the presence of his close friend, Justice E. A. V. de Silva, who found it most amusing and punctuated the explanation by laughing with great hilarity. The lady in question subsequently formed another relationship with a Scandinavian man and migrated to Scandinavia before my father could arrange for the daughter’s immigration to Australia. My father took on the job of helping her to migrate to Australia, where Eric had settled down in Perth. I did not hear anything of the mother since she left Ceylon in the late 1960s and I do not think Eric’s daughter did either.
Eric’s adventurous nature showed itself in his appearance in Perth at a talk my wife was giving in the early 1990s, by coming there dressed as a cowboy with spurs and what the Texans call a Ten Gallon Hat with a bandana to boot! Attaboy, what a man!
I remember Eric with great affection and he used to come to Sydney every year from Perth, around Christmas, and re-enact his visit to the Watson’s Bay Hotel as a cabin-boy in the early 1900s. He stayed there but we always met and had a wonderful yearly reunion. One visit to our home in Cheltenham when he had to be restrained from jumping into our swimming pool without any swimming trunks but with pipe and all, in the presence of many ladies having their Sunday lunch, was another memory we have of him.
Lescinska was very distressed over Eric’s death in the late 1980s and even told me on the ‘phone some months after, that she would have looked after him in his invalid state after his stroke. I made the point that it was merciful he passed away following his first and massive stroke, because he would have been miserable to be bed-ridden with other complications after his stroke. Lescinska was, however, unconvinced and insisted that she would somehow have done it. Indomitable spirit, the result of devotional companionship. Lescinska had very bad diabetes and some serious blood circulation problems, but we have not heard of her demise or any other information relating to illness. So far as we know she may be around still . Eric was the correspondent with us, so there is no way of knowing what happened to her after his death.”
Reading Dr. Gooneratne’s words, it is easy to be transported back over the years to imagine oneself actually witnessing some of these events. Being contacted by him and his wife, Prof. Yasmine Gooneratne, about those two extraordinary “companions-of-the-heart” - Lescinska Ephraums, the unconventional descendant of a long line of solidly-respectable Dutch Burghers, and Eric Tucker, the bohemian global wanderer with the musical soul of his Welsh ancestors – has truly been a highlight of this literary journey into one Galle-based Burgher family’s half-forgotten past. Dr. Gooneratne tells me that the original reel tape on which Eric’s singing was recorded, through being left inadvertently on a metal surface, eventually deteriorated to the extent that the words became inaudible. Fortunately for posterity, however, Dr. Gooneratne had transferred most of the best songs to a 90-minute audiocassette tape a few years before this mishap occurred, and over the years a number of close friends and family members have acquired from him their own cassette copies to treasure. For any readers interested in sampling more of the Gooneratnes’ fluid writing style and vivid historical imagination, incidentally, I cannot recommend too highly their recently (1999) published book This Inscrutable Englishman, a classic biographical study of Sir John D’Oyly (1774-1824), the early Ceylon colonial administrator with the complex and often-contradictory personality whose shrewd diplomacy and deep knowledge of the indigenous peoples of the island, almost single-handedly engineered the annexation of the Kingdom of Kandy by the British Crown in 1815.
(3) Since writing the above, through the kind offices of Andrew Buultjens in Colombo I have been fortunate to acquire a copy of another, rather more detailed newspaper (Sunday Times) report of the same May 1995 birthday event. Raushen Akbar, the writer, obviously had interviewed Nesta at some length, and I was pleased to read that at age 90 she still displayed “a calm yet bubbly disposition”, despite having endured coronary bypass surgery thrice over. The description refers also to the “coloured nail polish carefully applied to match her dress, the twinkling eyes behind the rather thick glasses, the endearing white hair all fluffed up, and the most kissable face imaginable”. Nicky, her pet Dachshund, was dancing at her heels that evening; I remember the beautiful young Dalmatian dog, I think she called him Sasha, who shared Nesta’s NOH quarters in the early-to-mid 1970s, acquired (I believe) after her traumatic night-time experience during the 1971 insurrection, which I have referred to in the main text. Nesta reminisced about how her adored Sinhalese ayah (nursemaid or nanny) used to sit on her bedroom mat every single night saying her prayers, then her ten “wonderful” years as a boarder at the prestigious Ladies’ College in Colombo, presumably before, during and after the First World War, seemingly a happier time for her than (initially, at least) for her young daughter Veronica almost a half century later at the same school. Nesta recalled Billy Bunter-style “secret midnight feasts” in her dormitory, and how she excelled at running, singing and high jumping in those far-off days. Apparently her playground running skills were put to good use when she appointed herself delivery-girl for the billets doux that a young (later Sir) John Kotelawela - later Prime Minister of Ceylon - used to toss over the school wall for his girlfriend, Effie Dias Bandaranaike. Once she was caught during such a mission, and had to stand on the “famous school platform” – scarcely an imposition since it gave her the chance to watch the Royal College school boys cycle past, winking at her and tinkling their bicycle bells! (Even into early old age, I remember that Nesta retained an amusingly flirtatious streak). She recalled her first encounter in the later 1920s with her “interesting-looking” husband-to-be Hal Brohier, to whom she was distantly related through their respective [Daniel] grandfathers who had been brothers, during a dance at the Dutch Burgher Union (DBU) in Colombo, at which she was being suitably chaperoned by her Aunt (quite possibly Sylvia, wife, first cousin and business-partner of Nesta’s Uncle “Confident” Arthur Ephraums, hotelier, racehorse owner and much else besides). Speaking of the 1929 wedding attire, Nesta fondly recalled how her outfit was shipped from Paris but did not arrive until the morning of the wedding! – “ ‘I was all in pink. My accordion pleated bridal dress, the veil, the cake, my underwear, my sleepwear, the bedroom décor. Everything was in pink. For Harold [Hal] I had bought pink and white striped pyjamas,’ Nesta added, blushing.” The newly-married couple’s first of several tea estate homes was at Karapitiya.
The Sunday Times report goes on to describe how Nesta came to manage the NOH in about 1960, although it mistakenly states that both her blind brothers emigrated (only Dick or Dickie, the older one, eventually did so – to Missouri, USA). The reporter offers an intriguing story that Nesta obviously must have related that evening, of how she had managed to avoid utter pandemonium at the NOH one evening when a group of men from America, Denmark and Greece stopped over at the hotel and simply would not leave. It was well past midnight, and about forty terribly-drunk European men lounged around even though the bar had closed. All the staff ran away and soon the men started fighting amongst themselves. Nesta hid behind the curtains and slowly started closing the doors and secluding them in the main hall, away from the rooms. She then managed gently to manoeuvre the mob onto the front verandah and later down the steps onto the road: “ ‘It took some time but I managed without the assistance of the police’, she disclosed, her hands clasped around her knee, a smile wavering on her lips.” I shudder to think of what could have happened had Nesta’s far less diplomatic son, Gordon - who did not return from Britain to manage the NOH for his mother until about 1990 - been the one dealing with this unruly gathering of drunken male tourists. Other memories Nesta shared that evening included the time that pop star Simon le Bon and his group Duran Duran played at the NOH, the time that Prince Charles dropped in for lunch, and the annual Christmas peak season when the centuries-old hotel came alive with red and white decorations strewn everywhere and the twinkling lights from the Christmas tree beckoned passers-by inside. (Reading this part made me wish desperately for a brief moment that I had spent Christmas 1973 in Galle Fort rather than in Colombo).
On a more sombre note, reminiscent of her account to me of her night alone in the hotel during the 1971 JVP uprising, Nesta told the reporter of her memories of shocking sights in Galle during the [early 1980s?] anti-Tamil Riots; her voice catching, she recalled watching the boats coming into Galle harbour and how they were attacked while men were shot while climbing the rampart walls, and how dead bodies floated down the canal, the rows of black legs that she could make out from a distance…and then she recalled the 1971 insurgency, when she received many life-threatening letters, and business was so bad that the only people left to run the hotel were herself, two receptionists and the accountant [the testudinal Mr. Udugampola, whom I remember vividly from 1973-4 for his hilarious lessons given me in the front office, of the less printable aspects of Sinhala vernacular, and who had removed to a nursing home by the time I revisited the NOH in early 1988, another time of even more deadly JVP insurrection]. By her own account, Nesta – the ultimate survivor of a redoubtable generation - remained calm and optimistic even at this most depressing time. Above all she saw herself as a “Burgher Sri Lankan”, never as a reflection of the colonial British, and in this 1995 article she is quoted as describing her fellow-Lankans as having more caring and warmth than any other nationality known to her. She addressed her staff in rapid, mellifluent, colloquial Sinhala spoken like a Sinhalese, doubtless due in no small part to her earlier-mentioned beloved ayah, although like many Burghers of her era who were educated in an English-speaking environment she could not read or write the language. Supremely cosmopolitan, yet forever rooted in the old Dutch Fort of Galle of her childhood, Nesta Brohier travelled widely during her lifetime, a fact reflected in the numbers who attended her 90th birthday party from abroad as well as Sri Lanka. In my letter from her dated October 18, 1977, inter alia she mentions visiting the following countries and cities during a three-month trip earlier that year: three weeks in England (London and Manchester, the latter where her son Gordon and his wife Molly lived with their two children), briefly in the Soviet Union (Moscow), two weeks in Belgium (Brussels), two weeks in the Netherlands (Rotterdam), two weeks in France (Le Puy), briefly back to London, two weeks in Greece, then briefly back to Manchester and London before finally flying home to Sri Lanka. Her 1977 letter concludes by mentioning that she has new office staff and an old friend of 36 years staying with her at the NOH.
Touchingly, and with the added wisdom of advanced years, Nesta also told the reporter in May 1995: “When my children and my husband died [in 1968, 1975 and 1993] it was almost the end of my world, but there was this voice inside me that kept saying that whatever God does, he does for a reason. I know that I am not alone…Life is a series of events that are all experiences and death is very much a part of life.” Knowing that Aman Resorts International would shortly be taking over the management of the NOH on a long-term lease appears to have given her some added peace of mind in her final months. The report quotes her as saying that plans were afoot for Aman Resorts to refurbish the hotel and convert it to a “super luxury resort”; little subsequently seems to have happened, although a visitor from Australia to the NOH in late 2001, who knows the place of old from her youth, tells me that while there she heard talk of a foreign company coming in shortly to start substantial refurbishment. The report concludes with a description of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” being played on the hotel piano - probably one of the instruments that Nesta’s blind younger brother, Rod, used to come down from Colombo to tune every so often – and Nesta remarking that while she felt sad about her beloved grandchildren (all of them well into their later teens or twenties by then) leaving for Europe the very next day, whenever she felt lonely she would go and sit in the NOH garden she had designed and created below her living quarters, and everything soon became all right again. And so the birthday luncheon ended, with Nesta bidding farewell to her guests, many as it would turn out for the last time, and the Colombo guests heading off to board the Special Viceroy train laid on for the occasion. Truly, we must sincerely thank the Sunday Times reporter, Rushen Akbar, for such a fine piece of reporting of this touching and indeed historic occasion.
© Joe Simpson, British Columbia, Canada – last updated February 10, 2002.