Southlands College - 125 golden years

Shantha Manawadu Abeysekera

It is a pleasure to honour one’s Alma Mater on a memorable occasion when she is proudly commemorating her 125th anniversary in 2010. Southlands College began as an English Medium Education Institute in the latter part of the 19th Century in accordance with the education policies that prevailed during the British Period.

The school was started in 1885 by the Methodist Mission with the intention of promoting English education in Southern Sri Lanka and in the beginning, it was known as Girls High School, Galle. Since its inception, the school was under the management of the Methodist Mission up to 1962.

The period of 1960-1962 is considered important in the history of Southlands as it was on the verge of being vested in the Government according to the policy of the Government in power at that time. In 1962 the college was registered as a Government school and the last Principal under the missionary management retired from service in 1962.

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The new building of the school

The overall vision and objectives of the school at the very beginning under a missionary management was not only to impart book learning to girl students but to make them useful citizens to the country by being good and caring mothers to a generation. Educationalist P.De.S. Kularatna, in a tribute to Christian missionaries in a Richmond College magazine, stated what they did was to befriend their pupils and give them living models of what life is all about. All missionary principals have done wonders to put a solid foundation to the school to nurture Southlands as a popular school in Southern Sri Lanka during the 20th Century.

Excellence in studies and many extra curricular activities elevated the institution to a prestigious position in the field of education. She had produced distinguished and renowned personalities to the nation and some of them have been honoured as pioneers of various professional fields of expertise.

All races

At the inception, a large number of Burgher students, both male and female, were attending school and a small percentage of boys were in the primary section. When the number of Sinhala and Muslim female students started increasing gradually, it was unable to accommodate all and therefore, it was compelled to stop admitting boys making Southlands a girls-only school.

Education was provided with minimum facilities at first during the missionary period and there had been a rapid development within a few years mainly from 1902 owing to courage and determination of a string of dedicated Principals, namely, Edith de Vos (Ludovici), M. Westlake and M. Freethy and E. Ridge. E.de Vos, serving in tutorial staff, became the Principal being the first past pupil to hold the post when there was a scarcity of missionary Principals. Hers was a remarkable period of development with the introduction of library reading, Western music and Physical Training which were encouraged and developed by all principals. A new era dawned with Westlake as Principal in 1907.

She inaugurated the Past Pupils Association, First Galle Girl Guide Company and more development was shown in the academic field with the introduction of science as a subject and building a science laboratory and also a special unit for the kindergarten children. Providing boarding facilities to students and, teachers for their well-being by Westlake in 1917 is a major event in the school’s history.

The rapid development enabled the school to be upgraded by the Government in 1922, and M Freethy re-named the school as “Southlands” to honour Westlake as she had studied at Southlands institution in the United Kingdom before came to Sri Lanka. The school had the right to be named as such for its geographical location too.

Dedicated Principals

During the first quarter of the 19th Century, two dedicated Principals, M. Freethy and M. Ridge happily devoted their lives to upgrade the school in many avenues. They had very liberal ideas on women’s education and helped many a student to continue higher studies. In the 1930s university graduates were rare and the girls were not encouraged to follow higher studies.

Freethy and Ridge had the perceptive insight to guide the gifted students to enter the Medical College or the Training College or any other field during that era. The entire Roberts family in Fort, Prof. Stella de Silva, Dr. Buddimathi Kulatunga, Dr. Yvette Brohier, Noeline Jayawardena, Prof. Daphny Attygala entered University even though Southlands did not have facilities for such education; but they found accommodation in nearby schools or in Colombo under the guidance by Southlands Principals.

A few of them Lolita Ranasinghe, Fidelia Samarasinghe, Estelle Jurianze, Clara Nanayakkara, entered the Training College. They are certainly only a few among many fortunate students who were able to follow higher studies with such guidance.

Another old girl of Southlands, Joyce Goonesekera, found an alternative path to success and brought fame to Sri Lanka by being the pioneer montessori teacher who introduced the Maria Montessori method of teaching. Prof. E.F.C. Ludowyk, a pioneer in the field of drama and internationally famous carrier diplomat Dr. Neville Kanakaratna are among the few males who had the primary education at Southlands. Prof. Stella de Silva became the first woman in Sri Lanka to obtain her MD.

Successful at both MRCP (Edinburgh) Paediatrics and MRCP (London) Medicine in 1954, she had the privilege of becoming the first woman in South Asia to obtain both degrees at the first sitting. She was awarded the Vidyajothi title from the State in 1994 in appreciation of her distinguished work in the field of science and medicine. Dr. Buddhimathi Kulatunga, a friend who followed in Stella’s footsteps, became the first lady Doctor to be the resident house officer at the Castle Street Hospital at its opening.

The principals who were dedicated missionaries professed no discrimination. They were worried when Muslim students were confined to their homes attaining puberty and made arrangements to teach them and to enjoy girl guiding too at their homes and the classes became popular among the students.

Education in vernacular mediums

Most colleges at that time did not emphasise on teaching Sinhala, and the urban middle class who had their education in English medium used to imitate western culture and the mother-tongue was given step-motherly treatment.

The school motto Knit together in Love and Service was depicted on the School logo in simple English and Sinhalese which is unusual for an English Medium school during the colonial period. Special emphasis was given to teach Sinhala and Sinhala Literature. A Sinhala stage drama was a special feature in the program of ‘Southlands Week’ held annually where all main school events celebrated within one whole week. Being missionaries, they never had any religious discrimination.

The annual stage drama was always based on Buddhist Jathaka stories or historical legends from Sri Lanka and India. Realizing the value of Sri Lankan culture Ridge introduced a specially trained dancing and music teacher, Herman Perera from Payagala, in 1955 and the children had the opportunity to learn the Eastern Music and Oriental Dancing. Perera directed students in the field of drama too and stage drama was produced by the college very successfully. In 1970, the school produced Kusa Jatakaya, which was the final play in a series of stage dramas that began with the first Sinhala drama Asokamala in 1924, encouraged by Freethy.

While trying to educate the student in the English medium, the Principals encouraged them to learn Sinhalese too to improve their knowledge, talents and skills in various fields. Even though there were a few Tamil students in the school they provided facilities to them to learn Tamil Language. Principal’s report of 1939 states.

“Although there are a very few Tamil children in the school, Tamil has been taught regularly for a number of years. This is in accordance with our policy of emphasising the vernacular. Practically all our classes are working on a time table which gives an average of a Sinhalese lesson a day...”.

We should pay gratitude to them for paving a path to introduce ‘Swabasha’ to Southlanders in different avenues even before 1956.

When Southlands entered the free scheme of education in 1951, English was bound to lose some of the importance and interest with the change of medium in studies. Ridge was not happy about the change.

In her School Report 1955, she says “one of the problems that is making itself vaguely felt is that few girls who have always had difficulty with English now feel that pass in Sinhala is all that matters ...we ask the co-operation of parents in our endeavour to maintain a high standard in both English and Sinhala.” She was far sighted and Sri Lanka has experienced the gravity of it today when we find many students who find it difficult without language skills to fulfil their ambitions in the careers of their choice.

Well armed

Even though Physical Training was taught in school from 1902, more development was visible in the field of sports when Ridge introduced Nalini de Silva, a Physical Instructress trained at College of Physical Training Saidapet, Madras, to develop the students’ athletic skills. Two major sports in the era were athletics and Net Ball and Southlanders participated in many tournaments and were able to bring credit and honour to the college in the mid 19th Century.

Even though Ridge knew that the school will be handed over to the Government in a few years time, with much courage she embarked on an ambitious building scheme to find comfortable shelter for more children as she was aware of the future needs far ahead of time.

Pupils, past pupils, parents, teachers and all well wishers who loved Ridge gave the fullest co-operation and the majestic three storeyed ‘Ridge Building’ housing the upper school, the office, the principal’s flat, the science block, art room and library was completed before her retirement in 1956.

It became a great asset to the school which stands as a great monument of her love and labour for our alma mater. We witnessed a golden era of Southlands due to her influence as vice Principal and Principal for more than 20 years which was remarkably wide and deep towards the development of the school at all times.

When the missionary period ended in 1962, school had less than 800 students and Principal identified almost all the students by their first name and all were dedicated to follow the motto making the school a small family. Today Southlands College being a National School caters to a large number of students with over 4,000 students and consists of a tutorial staff of 175 teachers.

Southlands being a pioneer girls’ school in the island will be a legend in the history of education in Southern Sri Lanka. We should not forget that it is situated within the surroundings of a World Heritage Zone.

It will be a great pleasure to all past and present Southlanders if the authorities are making an attempt to develop a Museum since there is a fair amount of items and important documents available which could be displayed with much pride to flourish the glory of the school far and wide. Southlanders who are spending the evening of their lives will bring back memories of their childhood when reminiscing the past glorious days of our alma mater with much love and gratitude.

 DN Sep 2009