Tintagel Castle, off the coast of Cornwall in southeast England, was the home of King Arthur, so legend says. Tintagel is also the name of the grand house the eminent doctor and gynaecologist Lucian de Zilwa built for himself in Colombo. The family moved into the house in 1930 and lived there till 1942, when [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Tintagel – made for a future king

The eminent doctor and scholar Lucian de Zilwa built himself two castles – Tintagel, in Colombo, and Tree Tops, in Kandy. His grandchildren tell Stephen Prins how they felt like royalty at both homes

Tintagel Castle, off the coast of Cornwall in southeast England, was the home of King Arthur, so legend says. Tintagel is also the name of the grand house the eminent doctor and gynaecologist Lucian de Zilwa built for himself in Colombo. The family moved into the house in 1930 and lived there till 1942, when the house was requisitioned for military purposes. When the war was over, Dr. de Zilwa was left with a home so ill-used by the British Army that in disgust he moved out and sold the property. The buyer was Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike. The price was 160,000 rupees.

In his remarkable autobiography, “Scenes of a Lifetime”, which Dr. de Zilwa wrote when he was 90 years old, the doctor describes in detail the making of his two dream homes, Tintagel in Colombo and Tree Tops in Kandy. From accounts given by his children and grandchildren, the de Zilwas lived like royalty. 

As a medical officer in England in 1905, Dr. de Zilwa married into a German-English family. His wife, Charlotte Eleanor Sachs, was the great-granddaughter of the court jeweller to King George IV. They had four daughters, Madeleine, Heloise, Pearl and Laurette, all talented in one way or another. Laurette was an accomplished musician. She sang and played piano and violin. She married a senior Police officer with whom she had five children.

Simone Potger-Melder who was born at Tintagel (in the background) with her husband Desmond Melder on a recent visit. Pic by Indika Handuwala

In their growing up years, in the late ‘20s’, early ’30s, Laurette and Mother were fellow music students, studying with the same music teachers, playing in the same Colombo youth orchestra, and later qualifying at the Royal Academy of Music, in London. 

Mother visited Laurette de Zilwa at Tintagel in the ‘30s. They would make music together in the spacious drawing room, Mother playing the violin, Laurette accompanying at the grand piano. Mother described the house as being “like a palace.” Laurette would appear in a long gown at the top of the grand staircase, and after a theatrical pause, descend slowly, like royalty, one considered step at a time, while Mother waited at the foot of the stairs, violin-case in hand.

That image of the young Laurette descending the Tintagel staircase spoke for the aristocratic lifestyle of her family. Laurette de Zilwa and her sisters were, as the phrase goes, to the manor – and manner – born. 

Memories shared by Dr. Lucian de Zilwa’s grandchildren, Dawn, Simone, Everard and Imogen – four of Laurette de Zylwa-Potger’s six children – evoke a life of privilege. It is hard to imagine many other families in Ceylon, barring the resident British, living the idyllic, fairytale existence the de Zilwas once enjoyed.

Laurette’s second daughter, Simone Potger-Melder, an Australian citizen, was in the country recently. She was born at Tintagel, delivered in the wing that served as Dr. Lucian de Zilwa’s consultation room, clinic and operating theatre. We had arranged to meet at Tintagel. Simone had just completed a tour of the house, looked at her Grandfather’s portrait in the library, and was relaxing in the drawing room.

“It’s very much the Tintagel I remember, but in those days the hall and drawing room were full of natural light,” she said. In his autobiography, Dr. de Zilwa describes the centre of the house as an atrium, with sunlight coming through a roof of glass tiles high above. That had changed. “And the floors were all marble,” Simone observed, looking at the parquetry of the house that is now a boutique hotel.

After the war, Dr. Lucian de Zilwa abandoned the ‘war ruin’ of Tintagel and moved his medical practice to Kandy, where he built Tree Tops, his second castle. The house was built on a hill in Halloluwa, above the Mahaweli River. Life here was just as grand as it had been at Tintagel. 

“Tree Tops was heaven,” said Simone. “That was where we spent all our holidays, Easter and Christmas. There was a huge garden, full of fruit trees, where we ran around with the dogs and disturbed the peacocks and turkeys and guinea fowl. I loved going into the poultry run every morning to collect the freshly laid eggs, which were still warm. Grandma would be in her rose garden.

“Grandfather was very strict. We had to be cleaned up and freshly dressed and on time for meals. There was a menu on the dining table for lunch and dinner. Grandma would decide on the meals the day before and type them up. Breakfast was bacon and eggs and toast, porridge, orange juice and milk. After breakfast we sat on the long veranda and watched the birds in the fruit trees. 

“Lunch was curry and rice. All the vegetables came from the garden. “Dinner was very English, starting with a tureen of soup. There would be roast beef and boiled potatoes and carrots and beans, or a leg of lamb that Grandfather would carve. He told us how important it was to eat our vegetables. When he was not looking, we slid the vegetables we didn’t like off the plate and into the mouth of the dog waiting for tidbits under the table.

“At teatime, we had cakes, cucumber sandwiches and pates de foie gras. Every meal was an event and went on for hours, with Grandfather doing most of the talking. In between meals, we would gather in the music room and wind up the gramophone and sing and dance. There was also a grand piano. 

“We were surrounded by servants. There must have been 20 at least – houseboys, maids, cooks, seamstresses, gardeners. The servants occupied a separate building. When we needed something, we made calls to the servants’ quarters on an old-fashioned wind-up telephone.

“Grandpa’s library was in a separate building. It was circular in shape, or rather hexagonal. He is said to have had about 6,000 books. We spent hours poring over those wonderfully illustrated tomes. The library was also full of art. There was a J. D. A. Perera portrait of my mother Laurette, posing as a dancer.” 

Dawn, who was named Laurette after her mother, remembers her grandmother’s love of flowers, and the Holy Ghost orchid that bloomed at Easter.

Imogen, the youngest of the Potger children, recalls lying in bed at Tree Tops and listening to her mother Laurette playing Bach and Chopin and Debussy on the grand piano. The out-of-bounds “medicine room” next to the music room was filled with “ancient bottles of potions” and looked like a picture of a medieval apothecary. 

“Grandpa was a very learned man,” Imogen writes.”He spoke and read in French and German. He also spoke fluent Tamil and Sinhala. He read the entire Bible when he was only nine years old. In the evenings, after dinner, we would gather on the veranda and sit in silence as he read to us, holding a magnifying glass to the page even though he wore glasses. He never raised his voice, but he commanded respect.”

Dr. Lucian de Zilwa took pride in living like royalty, and enjoyed being in the presence of royalty. According to his autobiography, he was among the crowds in the streets of London celebrating Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1897, and on February 2, 1901 he went to Hyde Park to see the funeral cortege of Queen Victoria and the carriages of kings and queens present on the solemn occasion. In 1906, he was in a London theatre, with Edward VII sitting in the royal box, to see the great French actress Louise Lara in Octave Mirabeau’s comedy, “Les affaires sont les affaires.” 

Selling Tintagel to the Bandaranaike family ensured that the house would maintain its “royal” cachet. The house would be home to a dynasty of future rulers. Sir Solomon gave the house to his son Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, who became Ceylon’s fourth prime minister, in 1956, and after S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s assassination, in 1959, his widow Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike became the world’s first woman prime minister. In turn, their daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga became prime minister, in 1996, and the country’s first female Executive President. You would not be wrong to say that for well over half a century, the future and fortunes of this country were influenced by decisions made within the walls of Tintagel, Rosmead Place.

A house contains in spirit its occupants and their history, even long after the occupants have moved on. When Prince Charles, who represents the Queen at this week’s CHOGM summit, checks into Tintagel, he would recognise an authentic ambience of royalty.

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