of a rolling stone
W.B. Atkinson planter in Ceylon 1934-1958
He was tall, bronzed
and wore a monocle, standing on the doorstep in Melbourne of a friend
of my uncle, Bishop of Reverina N.S.W., when we called to ask help
to find me permanent employment. He had come to say goodbye as he
was sailing back the next day to his tea plantation in Ceylon.
author, now 90, lives in Devon, UK (inset); as a tea planter
in Sri Lanka in 1936
name was C.B. 'Bosun' Loudoun-Shand who was to change the next 25
years of my life dramatically. The mention of tea and Ceylon leapt
to mind that my best friend at school at Amplforth, John Mee-Power,
had connection with Neuchatel Estate, Kalatura, the Tamil name of
which is Meedurai Totum.
in the bush in Australia had been vastly varied but had no future.
Could this be the crest of a wave? Without telling my uncle I found
the ship next morning and knocked on the cabin door.
in pyjamas and monocle - "What do you want?".
to come to Ceylon tea planting".
Born in a log
cabin on the shore of Last Mountain Lake, Sask, Canada in l912 of
expatriate pioneer farming parents, my father and his two brothers
had all been killed in action in WW1. The 'Bosun' said he was Colonel
of volunteer force 'The Ceylon Planters Rifle Corps'. "Would
you join?'. "Why not? Life in those days was 'by guess and
by God'. He said Ceylon was looking for new men. He would cable
me in three weeks when he got back.
I waited..and the cable came "I have fixed you up. sail soonest".
I was met in
Colombo by the planter, whom my original sponsor of the monocle
had arranged to take me on. Everything was so new and strange that
it did not happen to strike me as immediately curious that my new
master, Stuart Riordan, also sported a monocle; however, imagine
my astonishment when introduced to his wife to find that she too
wore a monocle.
these three I can't remember seeing another in Ceylon. Ceylon, anciently
named Serendip, hanging like a pendant at the extremity of India,
and happily described by earlier voyagers "Pearl of the East',
now called Sri Lanka.
How can I possibly
describe to you how beautiful it is. Perhaps to say that if ever
there was a Garden of Eden, then this is it. You will know that
hymn which talks of "Greenlands Icy Mountains" refers
to Ceylon with that abrupt epithet "where only man is vile",
leaving one to imagine the abundance of nature.
was to be my home for the next 25 years. With the help of my new
master I kitted myself out in Colombo with all I needed sartorially
to be a planter at a cost of about £15, the rupee was 13 to
£1, khaki shorts, bush coats, canvas boots, shoes and a topee.
I don't think I ever wore the topee.~- and so we set off the 100
miles or so to the tea estate Yarrow, Pussellawa - where I was to
learn tea planting. Apart from having to learn the language of the
labour force in tea, which was Tamil throughout the island, one
had to be jack of all trades; one had to have a knowledge of growing
the tea bush, draining the land, felling and removing trees, building
roads, erecting bungalows, solving labour disputes, social problems
- a veritable know all.
On one occasion
some years later I happened to be in charge on the estate I was
on of the practical side of site preparing for what was then to
be the largest tea factory in Ceylon - about 75 yards long and four
stories high - for which we had to chop off the top of a hill by
hand, and build a new road up to the site. When the engineers had
got the building up I had to arrange for the delivery of a 5 ton
twin cylinder Ruston Hornsby Engine to drive all the machinery.
Efforts to drag this monolithic lump of metal up to the site by
a succession of transport lorries had failed. I had a bright idea
and went to visit a Singhalese owner of a couple of large elephants.
These two magnificent pachyderms just wrapped their trunks round
the engine and no inert force could withstand them.
And so those
happy days of open air, sun and one must not forget - employment
at a salary of £250 per annum - turned slowly into years.
Plenty of amusing stories went the rounds about planters. In my
first billet my 'periadurai' asked me one day how I was getting
on with the Chicano barking'. Not having a clue what he was talking
about I replied brightly that I had not heard them barking recently.
He apparently was referring to removing bark from the chincona tree
for quinine acid. Another was about my father-in-law A.D. Atkins,
known as ADA, planting on Maha Uva estate pre WWI.
Agent sent a chit to him to meet at the top of the estate the next
Tuesday and not to be late.
display of authority ADA on that morning watched the V.A. ride to
the top, dismount and send his horse off with syce. Waiting 20 minutes
he saw the V.A. getting very angry so he started running up the
hill. Arriving breathless he gasped "So sorry sir being late".
"ADA where have you been?". "Well, sir, I had to
shoot a rogue elephant". "That should not keep me waiting
half an hour' . "No sir, but I had to bury the carcass".
And then a cataclysmic event occurred in February 1938; gay
and fancy-free I set off one afternoon to our local club way up
in the mountains on Gonapitiya Estate for tennis, than which there
was no other form of game, and was energetically thrashing round
on the far end of a court, my white hair blowing wide. I had been
elected a member of the upcountry Wanderers Tennis club.
A girl, newly
out from home, turned to her resident neighbour and asked who that
very active old man was. After the game, at her request let me emphasize,
I was introduced to the girl in question. In describing her later,
rather romantically I thought, as the loveliest thing that ever
came East of Suez, I was not in my own mind exaggerating.
That she later
became my wife has ever been a source of wonder. But that was later
and not without its troubled path. In the meantime we must have
impressed each other because we both decided to make a pact to give
up smoking for that Lent. I suppose it was in the form of a challenge
- but we both did it. On Easter Saturday night I remember asking
her to be my partner at the big ball in Nuwara Eliya.
I called for
her in my beautiful Wholesale Hornet, fabric bodied two seater sports
car, which had cost £40 3rd hand, and in full evening regalia
I drove her the 10 miles through the hills to the ball. I had purchased
a tin of 50 Balkan Sorbing cigarettes at a vast cost and when I
proudly opened them and lit one for her at the end of our penitential
season she said "Darling, these really are filthy - can I have
a Gold Flake"? The time had come to make the plunge and it
came to me one morning a week later in a blinding flash that I had
to ask her to marry me. So - to make quite sure I would not get
chicken-hearted - I devised a fool-proof scheme. I sat down and
wrote on a piece of paper "The next time I meet Kay I will
ask her to marry me", and stuffed it in my pocket. Well, I
got the next weekend off and asked Kay to come to the pictures in
Nuwara Eliya and afterwards to tea at the Grand Hotel.
The place was
clinical, brightly lit and forbidding, with soft footed servants
lurking in the background. The tea ground to an awful end and my
mind was preoccupied on how I could broach my purpose.
desperation I grabbed the piece of paper in my pocket with those
fateful words on it and handed it to her! Can you imagine a more
disappointing and unromantic offer of marriage especially in that
most beautiful of all islands? I could have taken her to moonlit
beaches, palms swaying in the breeze - but no, just a piece of paper,
over a cup of tea, in public.
To cut a long
story short, in her acceptance of this curious rolling stone, she
had sealed any hope of an ordered, normal future. Cables to her
parents of this impending future state brought forth blank refusal
- the apple of their eye to marry an impecunious tea planter - no
If I had been
in a position to do so it would have been hardly tactful to point
out to my future mother-in-law that her daughter was infact doing
exactly the same as she herself had done in 1910. However, in fairness
to both sides, I asked Tray to go home to England in October and
persuade her parents that she wanted to marry me and, if she was
of the same mind in 18 months time, when I was to get my first leave
back to England since1931, we would get married.
went by during which time I had been invited to come down from tea
planting to go into the Colombo agency side of the tea estate business.
At this point an amusing article about me nick-named 'Egbert' appeared
by my first master Stuart O'Riordan, nom-de-plume 'Paddy Pekoe in
the Times of Ceylon 1938 warning me of the dangers of city life.
An earlier article had appeared in 1935 about me. My great regret
in so advancing my career was that I had to part with my beautiful
Alsatian dog, Tosco.
And so down I went into the city life of the East. I remember
so well at this time the outbreak of war.
I was playing
in a tennis meet up country and one night a telephone call came
through that all members of the Ceylon Planters Rifle Corps had
to report to barracks. At 2 a.m. I set off from Maha Uva Estate
the 120 miles of jungle road via Kandy in that little sports car,
which Kay had dubbed the Velocipede, wondering in that brilliant
moonlight journey through jungle and paddy field, listening to the
quiet bellow of a water buffalo, the trumpeting of an elephant,
the startled shriek of a night jar, what the future might hold.
We went into barracks as the only defence Ceylon had - about 2000
Then my leave
came through November 1939 and I sailed for England, in a blacked
We were married
in Surrey on January 2nd 1940 and my future in-laws although not
really forg iving me, came up trumps; we spent our honeymoon in
a thatched cottage at Sidbury in Devon.