A series by Gaveshaka in association with Studio Times
The early buildings down Galle Face Centre road
In the early days of British rule, there wasn’t much open space in Colombo Fort. With the need to protect the area from the enemy, there was a need to have fortifications all round. However, one area that remained an open space was named Galle Face. It was the starting point towards Galle to the south of Colombo. The name may have derived from the Dutch word ‘faaas’ meaning the face or the front of the fortification facing towards Galle.

In the early 1820s the open space was turned into a racecourse where horse-racing was held. Later the racecourse was shifted to Cinnamon Gardens, where it earned the name ‘Havelock Racecourse’. The first ‘race meet’ is recorded to have been held in 1821. The racecourse was then known as ‘The Colpetty Racecourse’. These meets soon turned out to be big social events. For the elite to view the races, a pavilion was erected at the highest point of the green. Circular in shape, it had a thatched cadjan roof to begin with. Just in front of the building at the site where Hotel Taj Samudra stands today, was the turf where the horses raced. The Galle Face Centre road runs in that area today.

As the years went by, the grand stand was improved and made larger. A more spacious building was built on the same spot and it came to be known as the ‘Race Bungalow’. It was in September 1870 that the viewing gallery, which came to be called the ‘Grand Stand’ was used. Meanwhile, the Havelock Racecourse was being constructed. It was opened in 1883. After horse racing was abolished in August 1964, the buildings at Havelock Racecourse were converted to house numerous organizations. Headquarters of several sports associations are housed there today. It is also used as a training ground for athletes managed by the Sports Ministry.

Getting back to the Galle Face green, racing continued there too for a while until the green came to be used for other sports like golf and polo as well. Even softball cricket and football were played there. It came to be used as a site for kite-flying, which was a popular form of recreation in the early British times. Even today the Galle Face Green is used by many to send kites and is a colourful sight in the evening. Meanwhile, a promenade was constructed by Governor Sir Henry Ward.

A writer in the early 1900s described the scene at Galle Face thus: “Along the Galle Face, of an afternoon the principal residents of the day are to be seen or being driven, up and down in well-appointed carriages of all description or in their smart cars, or even being drawn in the all-pervading rickshaw; while the equestrians enjoy a gallop on the grass alongside and the pedestrians lounge leisurely along the promenade which flanks the roadway on the seaside, conveniently provided with seats at intervals.” The picture of the promenade is yet the same.

An exclusive club named ‘The Colombo Club’ was formed in 1871 and it was housed in what was once the Race Bungalow where a British Company called The Assembly Company Rooms Ltd had erected a smart oval shaped building. The building in the centre of the picture taken before the Hotel Taj Samudra was built, has been preserved to the present day and forms the front portion of Hotel housing the Crystal Ballroom.

“It very quickly became a most exclusive, men only club, where business deals were discussed at ‘cold tiffins’ or at the bar. It boasted two billiard tables and card-rooms and its upper storey formed the finest ballroom in Colombo, the flooring being of satinwood. Gleaming white with beautifully carved shutters, it was the very essence of the British ‘heyday’ in the Island,” author of Colombo Heritage wrote.

The white building behind the Colombo Club building seen in the picture is St. Andrew’s Church completed in November 1907. It was founded in 1842 as a Church of Scotland by Scots living here.

On the extreme right can be seen the Galle Face Court. A key feature of the building is the shallow dome in front. A well-known family of jewelers, Macan Markar built this first multi-storeyed block of flats in Sri Lanka. Europeans occupied these flats at time they were built in the early 1920s. Locals began occupying them after the Europeans started leaving following the country gaining Independence in 1948. You will notice the landscape has changed a lot from the time the picture was taken.

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