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In this series of interviews on Colombo’s heritage, we cover the Great Department Stores of Old Colombo. Historian Asiff Hussein, the Author of The Great Days of Colombo.

by Ifham Nizam

Q: In your book ‘The Great Days of Colombo’ you had mentioned that by the 1950s Colombo Fort had four well known department stores in the best European tradition. These were Cargills, Millers, Whiteaways and Colombo Apothecaries. Could you tell us what were the reasons that led to their emergence and why they were so popular at the time?


Yes, I would call them Colombo’s Big Four. All of them emerged in the early 1900s and had their heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. These were all based on the British model of a Department Store, in the fashion of Harrods of London.

In fact, they may have even been inspired by Harrods whose wedge-shape is reminiscent of Cargills, the biggest of our department stores. Harrods apparently had humble beginnings, having been founded as a grocery store by Henry Charles Harrod in the mid-1800s before expanding in the late 1800s when many new departments were added. The Harrods building we are familiar with was constructed in 1905 and housed about 300 departments. So my guess is that it served as a model for others in the English-speaking world and in the British colonies.

A shopping complex with various departments, under one roof, was of course, a great convenience to shoppers. Department stores of this nature also had a reputation to maintain and stocked only products of the highest quality and some even extended credit to more loyal customers. In one-time colonies like Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, patronising these high-end stores were a status symbol as well.

For instance, we have a Ceylonese writer, J.Vijayatunga stating in his book Isle of Lanka (1955): “It is the hour of shopping. To those not familiar with the ritual of the Cinnamon Gardens housewives, the scene would strike one as a scene after a Hundred Days’ Siege. There are two big department stores on York Street- they were known as European shops but the controlling interest is now in the hands of Jaffna Tamils and Burghers, though the floor managers and managers are still white men, and the saleswomen are as a rule Eurasian while the lesser salesmen and their assistants are Ceylonese and Malayalees. There are two more such shops on Prince Street”

Vijayatunga refers to a lady from Cinnamon Gardens breathlessly ordering fresh Australian butter to be delivered. ‘Account, Madam?’ the counter assistant asks, and no satisfaction he says is greater to Madam than that of being able to say “Account” and sign.

He adds “At these counters an ordinary mortal must be very careful – for he may unwittingly jostle a Ladyship or Knighthood or an O.B.E.-ship or a Chevaliership. These honours are nowadays lavishly strewn in Ceylon and are to be encountered in the most unlikely places”.

What is also interesting about Vijayatunga’s account is the glimpse he gives us what these stores offered back then-Australian beef, Australian cheese, Oxford sausages, tinned meats and fish, meat pastes and fish pastes, peas and asparagus and peaches and jams- anything that has a label stuck on a bottle or tin indicating that it was manufactured in Australia, New Zealand, or in Great Britain, all of which had “a hypnotic effect upon Colombo’s society ladies”.

Q: Cargills was obviously the biggest of these. Could you tell us something about how it looked like in the good old days?

Cargills was built on the site of Captain Pieter Sluysken’s bungalow at the junction of Prince Street and York Street. This Dutchman’s residence was in the corner of a block occupied by high ranking Dutch officials. History tells us that he was a gentle soul and had a Kaffir band comprising of black musicians who played sweet music on the lawn in front of his house.

Cargills that emerged in its place in 1906 was a much more grander edifice with its beautiful burnt sienna façade. The company was founded by D.S.Cargill and enjoyed the distinction of being the oldest departmental store in Asia at the time it was founded in Kandy in 1844 before moving into its purpose-built premises in Colombo Fort where it thrived. Even back then it was fitted with electric fans and hydraulic lifts. Arnold Wright in his monumental book Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon (1907) observed of it a year after it had moved to the big city “These premises are deservedly considered the finest of their kind east of Suez”.

Cargills eventually added to itself as many as 40 departments that sold everything from basic household needs to very many luxurious items got down from the industrial powerhouses of the West. Its main departments, in the early 1900s, included groceries, furniture, dressmaking, gentlemen’s tailoring, horse feed, wines and spirits and drugs and dispensary.

By 1948 when the country gained independence, it had added many more departments, including Photo and Optical, Sports, Toys, Stationery and even a Book Department upstairs where a good many books could be purchased. The children of the post-war years who may well be called our very own baby boomers had their favourite books, many of which must have been got from Cargills. These included June Girls Annuals, Enid Blyton’s storybooks and Little Lulu and Dell comic books.

Cargills were agents for many a foreign brand. The long list included Arnott’s Australian Biscuits, Beehive Brand Australian Butter, Blue Band and Golden Mountain Margarine, Fray Bentos Corned Beef, Riverstone Tinned Meats and Sausages, Regal Chocolates, Del Monte Fruits, John West’s Salmon and Huntley’s and Palmer’s 4 O Clock Afternoon Tea Biscuits. They also sold HMV Radiogram, Singer Sewing Machines, Dinky brand miniature die-cast vehicles and Hornby Dablo trains produced by the Mechano Toy Company.

I was told that during Christmas time, that is until about the 1970s or so, Cargills kept a Santa to entertain children and had seasonal events like ‘Lucky Dip’ which involved shoppers having to pay a small sum of money to try their luck with brown paper bags filled with little toys and such things. The dozen or so bags would be kept in a wooden box and participants had to use a hooked pole to fish out the bags, each of which had a loop at its top.

Q: Millers was another major player at the time. What was it they offered that was different from what Cargills had to offer?

Millers Ltd was based in York Street and dealt in foreign goods as well though much of it differed from what Cargills dealt in. It sold among other things Cow & Gate Milk Food, J.Terry & Sons Chocolates, Kodak photographic products, Marconiphone Radios, Tunstalite Electric Bulbs, Tarzan’s Grip Paste, Magic Hoodoo anti-ant tape, Partridge & Sons Cigars and a variety of liquers such as Smith & Sons Yalumba Wines among other things. Around the time we gained independence, they were dealing in Elaine Chocolates, Walters’ Palm Toffees, Elizabeth Arden’s toilet preparations, Jean Valjean Manilla cigars, Austin Reeds Shirts, Mangold shoes, Columbia gramophones, Tungstalite electric bulbs and Brolac and Murac paints and enamels. In the 1950s we hear of Millers offering large Bedroom, Drawing Room and Dining Room Suites, Slumberland Matresses and Lampshades in Crenothine with Trimmings.

Q: Whiteaways was yet another well known department store of the time. What had it to offer its customers?

Whiteways or to give its full name Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co had its department store in a three-storeyed building in Prince Street (Present Sir Baron Jayatilleke Mawatha). It was topped by a dome, painted white or silver and is said to have had cargo hatches on its sides where the goods arriving from the harbour could be unloaded and conveyed to the basement or stores.

Whiteaway admittedly had fewer departments than Cargills or Millers and were mainly agents for British brands. Among these were grocery, tailoring, men’s wear, footwear, glass and china, confectionary, pharmacy, haberdashery and millinery. From what we gather they also had a toys department on its third floor where there was a model railway layout with running toy trains demonstrating Tri-Ang trains of British origin for which they were apparently the agents. They were also agents for Barb garments, Ciro Pearls, Snow White Sheets and Helena Rubinstein beauty products.

Q: Apothecaries is also said to have been a department store. So what did they offer their customers?

Colombo Apothecaries was at the corner of York and Prince Street and was housed in a four-storeyed building. It had got its name of Apothecaries from its humble beginnings as a little chemists shop that opened its doors in 1883 in the De Soysa buildings in Slave Island.

The later building, built in 1915 housed all its departments which were added as the years went by and included confectionary, grocery, pharmacy, photography, books, tailoring, furniture, watches, fancy goods, toys and games, clocks and jewellery, boots and shoes and even ladies outfitting which attracted many fashionable young women since it had the latest styles from the fashion centres of Paris and London. Apothecaries offered only a few exclusive brands like Rayner’s Essences, Leica Cameras and Frister & Rossmann’s Sewing Machines. ( Pictures courtesy Asiff Hussein)


Glimmers of hope?



The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self-interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away.

Some of Cassandra’s readers may ask whether she is out of her right mind to see glimmers of hope for the country. She assures them she is as sane as can be; she does cling onto these straws like the dying man does. How else exist? How else get through these dire times?

What are the straws she clings to? News items in The Island of Tuesday 24 May.

‘Sirisena leaves Paget Road mansion in accordance with SC interim injunction.’ And who was instrumental in righting this wrong? The CPA and its Executive Director Dr Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu. It is hoped that revisions to the system will come in such as giving luxury housing and other extravagant perks to ex-presidents and their widows. Sri Lanka has always lived far beyond its means in the golden handshakes to its ex- prezs and also perks given its MPs. At least luxury vehicles should not be given them. Pensions after five years in Parliament should be scrapped forthwith.

‘Letter of demand sent to IGP seeking legal action against DIG Nilantha Jayawardena.’ Here the mover is The Centre for Society and Religion and it is with regard to the Easter Sunday massacre which could have been prevented if DIG Jayawardena as Head of State Intelligence had taken necessary action once intelligence messages warned of attack on churches.

‘CIABOC to indict Johnston, Keheliya and Rohitha’. It is fervently hoped that this will not be another charge that blows away with the wind. They do not have their strongest supporter – Mahinda R to save them. We so fervently hope the two in power now will let things happened justly, according to the law of the land.

‘Foreign Secy Admiral Colombage replaced’. And by whom? A career diplomat who has every right and qualification for the post; namely Aruni Wijewardane. If this indicates a fading of the prominence given to retired armed forces personnel in public life and administration, it is an excellent sign. Admiral Colombage had tendered his resignation, noted Wednesday’s newspaper.

‘Crisis caused by decades of misuse public resources, corruption, kleptocracy – TISL’.

Everyone knew this, even the despicable thieves and kleptocrats. The glaring question is why no concerted effort was made to stop the thieving from a country drawn to bankruptcy by politicians and admin officers. There are many answers to that question. It was groups, mostly of the middle class who came out first in candle lit vigils and then at the Gotagogama Village. The aragalaya has to go down in history as the savior of our nation from a curse worse than war. The civil war was won against many odds. But trying to defeat deceit power-hunger and thieving was near impossible. These protestors stuck their necks out and managed to rid from power most of the Rajapaksa family. That was achievement enough.

Heartfelt hope of the many

The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away. As Shamindra Ferdinando writes in the newspaper mentioned, “Well informed sources said that Premier Wickremesinghe was still making efforts to win over some more Opposition members. Sources speculated that vital finance portfolio remained vacant as the government still believed (hoped Cass says) Dr Harsha de Silva could somehow be convinced to accept that portfolio.”

Still utterly hopeless

Gas is still unavailable for people like Cass who cannot stand in queues, first to get a token and then a cylinder. Will life never return to no queues for bare essentials? A woman friend was in a petrol queue for a solid twelve hours – from 4 am to 4 pm. This is just one of million people all over the country in queues. Even a common pressure pill was not available in 20 mg per.

Cassandra considers a hope. We saw hundreds of Sri Lankans all across the globe peacefully protesting for departure of thieves from the government. The ex-PM, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s answer to this was to unleash absolute terror on all of the island. It seems to be that with Johnson a younger MP stood commandingly.

Returning from that horror thought to the protesters overseas, Cass wondered if each of them contributed one hundred dollars to their mother country, it would go a long way to soften the blows we are battered with. Of course, the absolute imperative is that of the money, not a cent goes into personal pockets. The donors must be assured it goes to safety. Is that still not possible: assuring that donations are used for the purpose they are sent for: to alleviate the situation of Sri Lankans? I suppose the memory of tsunami funds going into the Helping Hambantota Fund is still fresh in memory. So much for our beloved country.

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Ban on agrochemicals and fertilisers: Post-scenario analysis



By Prof. Rohan Rajapakse

(Emeritus Professor of Agriculture Biology UNIVERSITY OF RUHUNA and Former Executive Director Sri Lanka Council of Agriculture Research Policy)

There are two aspects of the ban on agrochemicals. The first is the ban on chemical fertilisers, and the second is the ban on the use of pesticides. Several eminent scientists, Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha (formerly the Soil Scientist of RRI), Prof OA Ileperuma (Former Professor of Chemistry University of Peradeniya), Prof C. S. Weeraratne (former Professor of Agronomy University of Ruhuna), Prof D. M. de Costa University of Peradeniya, Prof. Buddhi Marambe (Professor in Weed Science University of Peradeniya) have effectively dealt with the repercussion of the ban on chemical fertilisers which appeared in The Island newspaper on recently.

The major points summarised by these authors are listed below.


1. These scientists, including the author, are of the view that the President’s decision to totally shift to organic agriculture from conventional could lead to widespread hunger and starvation in future, which has become a reality. Organic farming is a small phenomenon in global agriculture, comprising a mere 1.5% of total farmlands, of which 66% are pasture.

2. Conventional farming (CF) is blamed for environmental pollution; however, in organic farming, heavy metal pollution and the release of carbon dioxide and methane, two greenhouse gases from farmyard manure, are serious pollution issues with organic farming that have been identified.

3. On the other hand, the greatest benefit of organic fertilisers as against chemical fertilisers is the improvement of soil’s physical, chemical and biological properties by the former, which is important for sustained crop productivity. The best option is to use appropriate combinations of organic and chemical fertilisers, which can also provide exacting nutrient demands of crops and still is the best option!

4. Sri Lanka has achieved self-sufficiency in rice due to the efforts of the Research Officers of the Department of Agriculture, and all these efforts will be in vain if we abruptly ban the import of fertiliser. These varieties are bred primarily on their fertiliser response. While compost has some positive effects such as improving soil texture and providing some micronutrients, it cannot be used as a substitute for fertiliser needed by high yielding varieties of rice. Applying organic fertilisers alone will not help replenish the nutrients absorbed by a crop. Organic fertilisers have relatively small amounts of the nutrients that plants need. For example, compost has only 2% nitrogen (N), whereas urea has 46% N. Banning the import of inorganic fertilisers will be disastrous, as not applying adequate amounts of nutrients will cause yields to drop, making it essential to increase food imports. Sri Lankan farmers at present are at the mercy of five organizations, namely the Central Department of Agriculture, the Provincial Ministry of Agriculture, the Private sector Pesticide Companies, the Non-Government organizations and the leading farmers who are advising them. Instead, improved agricultural extension services to promote alternative non-chemical methods of pest control and especially the use of Integrated Pest Management.

Locally, pest control depends mostly on the use of synthetic pesticides; ready to use products that can be easily procured from local vendors are applied when and where required Abuse and misapplication of pesticides is a common phenomenon in Sri Lanka. Even though many farmers are aware of the detrimental aspects of pesticides they often use them due to economic gains

We will look at the post scenario of
what has happened

1. The importation of Chemical fertilisers and Pesticides was banned at the beginning of Maha season 1 on the advice of several organic manure (OM) promoters by the Ministry of agriculture.

2. The Ministry of Agriculture encouraged the farmers to use organic manure, and an island-wide programme of producing Organic manure were initiated. IT took some time for the government to realize that Sri Lanka does not have the capacity to produce such a massive amount of OM, running into 10 tons per hectare for 500000 hectares ear marked in ma ha season.

3. Hence the government approved the importation of OM from abroad, and a Company in China was given an initial contract to produce OM produced from Seaweed. However, the scientists from University of Peradeniya detected harmful microorganisms in this initial consignment, and the ship was forced to leave Sri Lankan waters at a cost of US dollar 6.7 million without unloading its poisonous cargo. No substitute fertiliser consignment was available.

4. A committee in the Ministry hastily recommended to import NANO RAJA an artificial compound from India to increase the yield by spraying on to leaves. Sri Lanka lost Rs 863 million as farmers threw all these Nano Raja bottles and can as it attracts dogs and wild boar.

Since there is no other option the Ministry promised to pay Rs 50000 per hectare for all the farmers who lost their livelihood. It is not known how much the country lost due to this illogical decision of banning fertilisers and pesticides.


1. Judicious use of pesticides is recommended.

2. The promotion and the use of integrated pest management techniques whenever possible

3. To minimize the usage of pesticides:

Pesticide traders would be permitted to sell pesticides only through specially trained Technical Assistants.

Issuing pesticides to the farmers for which they have to produce some kind of a written recommendation by a local authority.

Introduction of new mechanism to dispose or recycle empty pesticide and weedicide bottles in collaboration with the Environment Ministry.

Laboratory-testing of imported pesticides by the Registrar of Pesticides at the entry-point to ensure that banned chemicals were not brought into the country.

Implementation of trained core of people who can apply pesticides.

Education campaigns to train farmers, retailers, distributors, and public with the adverse effects of pesticides.

Maximum Residue Level (MRL) to reduce the consumer’s risk of exposure to unsafe levels.

Integrated pest Management and organic agriculture to be promoted.

1. To ensure the proper usage of agrochemicals by farmers

All those who advised the Minister of Agriculture and the President to shift to OM still wield authority in national food production effort. The genuine scientists who predicted the outcome are still harassed sacked from positions they held in MA and were labelled as private sector goons. The danger lies if the farmers decide not to cultivate in this Maha season due to non-availability of fertilisers and pesticides the result will be an imminent famine.

The country also should have a professional body like the Planning Commission of

India, with high calibre professionals in the Universities and the Departments and

There should be institutions and experts to advise the government on national policy matters.

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Thomians triumph in Sydney 



Nothing is happening for us, at this end, other than queues, queues, and more queues! There’s very little to shout about were the sports and entertainment scenes are concerned. However, Down Under, the going seems good.

Sri Lankans, especially in Melbourne, Australia, have quite a lot of happenings to check out, and they all seem to be having a jolly good time!

Trevine Rodrigo,

who puts pen to paper to keep Sri Lankans informed of the events in Melbourne, was in Sydney, to taken in the scene at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition. And, this is Trevine’s report:

The weather Gods and S.Thomas aligned, in Sydney, to provide the unexpected at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition, graced by an appreciative crowd.

Inclement weather was forecast for the day, and a well drilled Dharmaraja College was expected to go back-to-back at this now emerging competition in Sydney’s Sri Lanka expatriate sporting calendar.

But the unforeseen was delivered, with sunny conditions throughout, and the Thomians provided the upset of the competition when they stunned the favourites, Dharmaraja, in the final, to grab the Peninsula Motor Group Trophy.

Still in its infancy, the Sevens Touch Competition, drawn on the lines of Rugby League rules, found new flair and more enthusiasm among its growing number of fans, through the injection of players from around Australia, opposed to the initial tournament which was restricted to mainly Sydneysiders.

A carnival like atmosphere prevailed throughout the day’s competition.

Ten teams pitted themselves in a round robin system, in two groups, and the top four sides then progressed to the semi-finals, on a knock out basis, to find the winner.

A food stall gave fans the opportunity to keep themselves fed and hydrated while the teams provided the thrills of a highly competitive and skilled tournament.

The rugby dished out was fiercely contested, with teams such as Trinity, Royal and St. Peter’s very much in the fray but failing to qualify after narrow losses on a day of unpredictability.

Issipathana and Wesley were the other semi-finalists with the Pathanians grabbing third place in the play-off before the final.

The final was a tense encounter between last year’s finalists Dharmaraja College and S.Thomas. Form suggested that the Rajans were on track for successive wins in as many attempts.  But the Thomians had other ideas.

The fluent Rajans, with deft handling skills and evasive running, looked the goods, but found the Thomian defence impregnable.  Things were tied until the final minutes when the Thomians sealed the result with an intercept try and hung on to claim the unthinkable.

It was perhaps the price for complacency on the Rajans part that cost them the game and a lesson that it is never over until the final whistle.

Peninsula Motor Group, headed by successful businessman Dilip Kumar, was the main sponsor of the event, providing playing gear to all the teams, and prize money to the winners and runners-up.

The plan for the future is to make this event more attractive and better structured, according to the organisers, headed by Deeptha Perera, whose vision was behind the success of this episode.

In a bid to increase interest, an over 40’s tournament, preceded the main event, and it was as interesting as the younger version.

Ceylon Touch Rugby, a mixed team from Melbourne, won the over 40 competition, beating Royal College in the final.

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