A century and quarter of St. John's College... : Its great contribution for the development of education in Sri Lanka

Daily News Sat June 22 2002

We the Old Johnians consider it most opportune to trace the history of St. John's College, Panadura on the occasion of the visit of Minister of Human Resources Development, Education and Cultural Affairs Dr. Karunasena Kodituwakku to the College today (22) for a felicitation ceremony for distinguished Old Johnians.

St. John's and schools were the offspring of the 'State School for English' established by the British Government in Panadura in the year 1832.

During the British rule in 1834, the Colbrook Commission made a remarkable recommendation that English should be taught as a compulsory language in state schools. Further, the other recommendation was to appoint a 'Schools Commission' for the purpose of administration. Later in 1841 that Commission was abolished and in its place the 'Central Schools Commission' was appointed. That Commission paved the way for the creation of an 'Assisted School System' by granting financial assistance to non-governmental schools administered by Christian Missionaries and others who owned privately run schools. During this period 'Primary English Schools' were established in various parts of the country. The students of those small schools with a medium of 75 students had to pay a school fee, and the medium of education was English. The subjects taught were English, Maths, History, Geography and Christianity.

It was one of those primary schools established by the British government which was the origin of the present 'St. John's College' in Panadura.

In 1867 Morgam Committee, having done an indepth study on the education system of Sri Lanka, recommended that the Government must encourage the vernacular education. Hence the state gradually withdrew from its commitment in English education and that paved the way for the missionary organisations to take up that responsibility. The various Christian Missionaries conducted education in keeping up with the traditional British system. Accordingly, the establishment of St. Thomas' College (1876) at Mount Lavinia, St. Benedict's College (1868), Wesley College (1870) in Colombo, St. John's College (1877) in Panadura and St. Michael's College (1872) in Jaffna.

St. John's College was initially known as 'Primary State English School'. The British having heavily committed to the second world war, handed over the schools run by them to Christian religious organisations and accordingly St. John's was handed over to an Evangelist Society called the 'Society for the Propagation of the Gospel'. Thereafter the school was named 'SPG English Boys School' and it existed in the premises of the Anglican Church which was located by the side of the Panadura river.

In 1876 Mudliyar Susew de Soysa who hailed from a well established 'Walauwa' in Panadura, constructed a new church and a building to house the school. Both the church and the school were consecrated and dedicated to the church by Bishop R. S. Copelston and ceremonially opened by the Governor Sir William Henry Gregory on 14th June 1876 and the same day was the opening of the 'Prince of Wales' College in Moratuwa. The building was donated by Mr. W. Charles Henry de Zoysa, the son of Susew de Soysa's brother, Jeronis Soysa.

After the consecration, the school was named 'St. John's College'. On 9th June 1882 a new era dawned upon St. John's, as Mr. Cyril A. Jansz assumed duties as the principal.

Battered by the problems created by the Second World War the SPG, mother body in London was compelled to reduce the grant to its branch organisation in Sri Lanka and the school administration was unable to meet the salary bill of the staff. The parents who were vigilant to this crisis led by a representative deputation comprising members of the Bar Council and leading Buddhists to meet the Bishop of Colombo and requested him to hand over the school to the principal, Mr. Jansz to run it as a private school. Finally the Bishop agreed and with the support of affluent parents and leading Buddhists, Mr. Jansz took the challenge with confidence. His first move was to pay a courtesy visit to the Venerable Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera and pledged that he would conduct the school without any bias towards any caste, creed, nationality or religion. He was such an upright personality and was able to win the goodwill of the Buddhist clergy and the laity. The Buddhist leaders who decided things for Panadura, the renowned Buddhist town gave all encouragement and support to Mr. Jansz.

St. John's which was established with 82 students and 6 teachers in 1882 increased to 150 students and by 1886 had classes from form 5 to Senior Local.

In 1886 Mr. Jansz married Miss Emelia Jansz who hailed from a well known family in Galle. Soon after the marriage, Mrs. Jansz started a private class with two girls but within a very short period the class was so popular that she had to rent out a house for further expansion. In 1914 she was able to start a Girls' School in a newly constructed building. The persevering lady later purchased two houses one to house a girls hostel and the other for a boys' hostel.

This was a period of prosperity to the Jansz family and in 1915 they purchased a 12 acre block of land at Udahamulla and constructed a bungalow for the Principal and a two storied building for students in higher forms, Cambridge Junior and Senior, London Matriculation and London Intermediate. St. John's which had a Boys' school only initially; with the passage of 33 years grew up with a complex of schools viz: Boys and Girls schools, a Primary and the College at Udahamulla. By 1924 the student population had increased to 1400 with a teaching staff of 82 teachers.

Mr. Jansz retired in 1928 but for few more years he was involved in administrative work. He was not only a Principal but a parent to the students. He was much concerned of the bright students who were not fortunate to spend for higher education. He introduced a free Scholarship Scheme to assist such students and encourage them to continue their higher studies. He went a step further and did not hesitate to assist the families of such students when they were in distress.

He was a strict disciplinarian and it would not be out of place to mention that once, he sacked his own son from the school on a minor disciplinary charges. He was also a pioneer in co-education Vocational Training and even kept a Botanical Garden where students could attend to their practicals in Botany.

He was a person of principles and the past records say that he had mention in his last will that the school, if it is to be handed over, it should be to the Government Only and not any religious organisation. Having devoted his whole life to education and having successfully accomplished that mission he passed away in June 1940.

It is desirable to mention some of the outstanding Johnians who had earned reputation and recognition here and abroad. They are Gate Mudliar Edmund Peiris, Dr. Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Dr. G. P. Malalasekera, Dr. B. C. P. Benaragama, Dr. Punchibandara Sannasgala, Mr. Peter P. Abeysekera, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, Dr. M. V. P. Peiris, Mr. V. S. Jayawickrema, Mr. Leslie Goonawardena, Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali (all past Ministers of State) Mr. Bennet Soysa (formerly a Mayor) Mr. Stanley Senanayake (formerly IGP), Prof. Nandasena Ratnapala and Mr. Premasiri Khemadasa.

Brigadier Douglas Ramanayake, Mr. Neil de Perera (formerly Secretary to the Board of Control for Cricket of Sri Lanka) are two senior Old Johnians whose services to the School are unforgettable. Another Johnian who had lavishly spent for the School is Mr. D. K. Subasinghe.

Mr. Cyril A. Jansz (Junior), Mr. Jansz's son succeeded him as the Principal and continued the hard work done by his father, but without much luck and success.

Even before the implementation of the Bill for Schools take over, Mr. Jansz handed over the School to the Government on 1st January 1957 and St. John's thus became a State School.

Therefore a longstanding master Mr. C. P. P. Samarasekera was appointed the Principal. It was during this period that a White Paper based on the Educational Reforms of Mr. Iriyagolla became effective by categorising all schools in the Island as 'Junior' and 'Senior Schools'. The senior schools to have classes above form 5 and the Junior schools to retain forms upto 5 and to serve as feeder schools.

This scheme did not work well as far as St. John's was concerned; as the feeder schools did not transfer classes above Form 5 to the school but our school handed over its classes up to Form 5 to the junior schools in the vicinity. This created an imbalance where the school lost its numerical strength. The past pupils and the parents carried out a protest campaign and took up the issue to the Ministry of Education. A strong deputation met the Director General of Education and having given a patient hearing he approved the establishment of a primary in the school premises and named it as 'Udahamulla Kanishta Vidyalaya'. Later it became the primary school of St. John's College.

Having done an unforgettable service for the development of English education in Sri Lanka, the members of the Jansz family left the country for Australia in 1969 and the past pupils, parents and well wishers bade them farewell at a garden party organised by the Cyril Jansz PPA. That was a memorable day for all Johnians and the people of Panadura.

After becoming a Government school she had undergone many a change during the past four decades under ten principals. Just like any other school she too had her share of ups and downs.

The two organisations namely the association of Old Johnians and the Cyril Jansz PPA had nurtured the school during the long period of a century and quarter. They have been responsible for the development of the school in many a field. The infrastructure of the school had undergone many improvements with the assistance of the Ministry of Education. Today it has a complex of buildings, a principal quarters and three science labs.

A playground has been constructed by the Old Boys with the assistance of the Sri Lanka Army Engineers and it is in its final stage of completion. Today with the amalgamation of the two past pupils organisations, there emerge a powerful 'Association of Old Johnians' who perform the function of the 'Guardian of the School'.

As Johnians we have no doubt that St. John's will emerge as a great educational institution in keeping with her motto 'Nihil Amanti Difficile'.

- L. Panditharathna