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'Postal transmission in Sri Lanka two centuries ago'

By Frederick Medis - Sunday Observer Oct 10 2004

One hundred and seventy two years ago, on the first of February 1832, the Kandy Mail Coach, the first Mail Coach in Asia, was started. There had previously been runners, like in the other important towns, even from the days of the Dutch administration of the maritime areas when official and military despatches were carried by young men who wore the minimum of clothing so as not to form an encumbrance when running.

These young runners were sometimes referred to as "Ilandariyas" (or Ilandari). The service was available once a week - sometimes oftener, and almost always, on official business.

Within nine years of the Kandyan Convention of 1815, the construction of the Great Kandy Road had been commenced under Sir Edward Barnes. He was known as the Road Maker, and when he resigned from the Government in 1831, there were carriage roads connecting every town of importance at the time.

It was Sir Edward Barnes who inspired the great Major Skinner to build the Colombo-Kandy Road - known as the Simplon of the East. The work entailed the construction of numerous bridges and tunnels which joined the two towns. It was during the governorship of Sir Robert Horton, however, that the first Mail Coach in Asia began to ply between Colombo and the hill-capital of Kandy.

In December 1831, a prospectus was issued of the proposal to establish a Mail Coach Service between Colombo and Kandy. This provided for two light four-wheeled horse-carriages to run daily between the two termini, commencing simultaneously in both directions at four a.m.

The capital investment required was Sterling Pounds 2000 comprising forty shares of Sterling Pounds 50 each. Of these the Governor held six shares and the Colonial Secretary held two. The fare per passenger each way was Sterling Pounds 2.10 shillings. For nineteen years, this was the sole means of carrying mails between Colombo and Kandy.

Then, in 1851, arrangements were made to commence and additional Mail Runner Service. This became known as the Kandy Evening Mail, George Lee who was the Postmaster General at the time, issued a notice on the 11th November of that year (1851):

"Notice is hereby given that letters posted before half past four daily, will be forwarded to Kandy by a Messenger who will leave this office at five p.m. precisely and arrive in Kandy the following forenoon.

Letters posted after half past four will be sent as at present, by the Morning Coach, Packets, parcels and newspapers will not be sent by the foot-messenger."

On the 2nd, October 1865, the Ceylon Railway began to function. The first train, consisting of ten carriages and carrying eighty four passengers was despatched from Colombo Station to Ambepussa - a distance of 34 1/2 miles. It made the journey in two hours. From Ambepussa, passengers were conveyed by Mail Coach to Kandy which was reached at three p.m. on week-days only. The Coach left Kandy at 8 a.m. reaching Ambepussa at 2.15 p.m. The train reached Colombo at 4.15 p.m. on week-days and 6 p.m. on Sundays.

From January 1866, however, the Colombo - Kandy Mails were conveyed by train between Colombo and Ambepussa.

The Royal Mail Coach, plying between Colombo and Kandy, met the trains and took over mails and passengers between Ambepussa and Kandy. There were other Mail Coach Services which were begun in due course. The Ratnapura Coach left at 6 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and returned on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

Closing time for mails was five a.m. at the GPO. The Negombo Coach left at 6 a.m. and 2.30 p.m. daily. Closing time for mails was 5 a.m. and 2 p.m. respectively. The Galle Coach left Colombo daily at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. and mails closed half to one hour earlier.

Other coaches ran between Kalutara and Galle, Gampola and Ramboda, Nawalapitiya and Dickoya and between Nawalapitiya and Dimbula. During the Nuwara Eliya season, there was a coach running between Ramboda and Nuwara Eliya. There were also coaches between Kandy and Matale; and Dambulla, Jaffna and Point Pedro, Jaffna and Kankesanthurai and between Galle and Matara. Mails and passengers were also carried by coach between Polgahawela and Kurunegala, and there was a Bullock Coach plying from Polgahawela to Kegalle and Aranayake.

It must be mentioned that there was discrimination in the passenger fares charged - Europeans and Burghers, Mudaliyars and "Natives" paid different fares and rates going down the scale in that order.

Drinking troughs for the horses were built along the way both by the coaching companies and by public spirited citizens - mostly foreigners.