My father, affectionately known as “Bobby Cox” and referred to in Sinhala as “Ginthera Mahathaya” was born in Teldeniya on March 17, 1901. His father Edwin Arthur Russell Cox was a pioneer English tea planter and his mother, my father recalled, was a gentle beautiful Tamil lady known lovingly in the locality as “Kali Amma”. [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Fire, fire! Those exciting memories

Dennis Cox recalls the days of the nascent Kandy Fire Brigade and its longtime chief (1929-1961), the ‘Ginthera Mahathaya’- his father Thomas (Bobby) Harold Cox

My father, affectionately known as “Bobby Cox” and referred to in Sinhala as “Ginthera Mahathaya” was born in Teldeniya on March 17, 1901. His father Edwin Arthur Russell Cox was a pioneer English tea planter and his mother, my father recalled, was a gentle beautiful Tamil lady known lovingly in the locality as “Kali Amma”. My father grew up on a lush tea estate in the Rangala district. The views from the bungalow, his early home, which still exists, are breathtaking, with misty mountain ranges in the distance and the crystal clear waters of a river down in the valley below.

Fire brigade training at Kandy Lake

As travel was tedious and slow in those days, he was boarded as a young lad in the home of the late L.E. Blaze, the founder of Kingswood College Kandy, a Methodist Mission School. The school at this time located in Brownrigg Street Kandy was in its infancy, with only a few students most of them the sons from the planting community. At school he played many sports and was a Sergeant of the Senior Cadet Battalion. He always showed a keen interest and a flair for technical pursuits, so, on completing his Elementary School Leaving Examination in 1921, he joined Hutson &Company, as an engineering apprentice in Colombo. On completion of his apprenticeship he joined Walker & Sons, Kandy, as a Workshop Foreman in March 1925.

During the latter days of his apprenticeship in Colombo he met and later married my mother Louise Willenberg in 1928 and they set up their first home in Kelaniya.

At this time Kandy did not have a Fire Brigade. However, in June 1929 my father responded to a newspaper advertisement for the post of Officer in Charge, Kandy Fire Brigade & Superintendent of Vehicle Maintenance, Kandy Municipal Council. As the successful candidate, he was required to attend training for a period of three months at the already established Colombo Fire Brigade. On completion of his training he returned to Kandy and set about recruiting and training a new crew of fire fighters and setting up the new Fire Station located in the centre of the town.

It was interesting that as part of their training my father introduced the new recruits to physical fitness routines and sport. They also followed drill procedures similar to the military, and frequently marched in the local area, as part of their off duty programme. Also in their spare time, when on duty the recruits were encouraged to develop and cultivate vegetable and flower gardens, on the premises of the Fire Station resulting in a very attractive display.

Thomas Bobby Cox

Early recollections

I was born in 1936 in Kandy and like many of my vintage, can recall growing up during World War II. I remember my father coming home at all odd hours having been on fire duty in case of possible attack from the air, as Colombo had already experienced some air attacks. At times, as a treat, dad would take me down to the Bogambara Green near the centre of town to watch the search lights scan the skies for enemy air craft. Fortunately we never saw any. As toys were scarce during the war years I would watch my father use his engineering and woodworking skills to turn out toys for us and our extended family. He also made many toys to be distributed to local children at Christmas time by the St Paul’s Church Mothers Union, of which my mother was a very active member.

The fire station was a wonderful place for an inquisitive young boy to explore. When not busy, a fireman would show me the fire engines, lift me up into the driver’s seat and I would pretend that I was racing away to a fire.

My favourite fire engine was a “Dennis” Engine imported from England and I believed that I was named after it.

The Fire Station also had a very powerful siren which could be heard around the small town of Kandy. When a fire call was received, the siren was sounded and the firemen would come scurrying from their quarters and from nearby locations close to the station.

Fires, floods, films and free food

As I grew older I would listen intently to Dad recounting the various experiences he would have from day to day. On one occasion the brigade was called out to the Peradeniya Gardens to a fire near a large military ammunition dump. When they arrived the fire had already reached the ammunition. All they could do was to take cover in a nearby ditch until it was considered safe to extinguish the remains of the fire. On another occasion while actively involved in a fire, a hose under high pressure got out of control, and struck him in the chest knocking him over into a ditch. As a result he fractured a couple of his ribs.

Being Kandy, an important annual event was the Perahera and carnival. As I grew older and into my teen years my sisters, cousins and I looked forward to this event held in August. It was a fun time wfor all of us especially the carnival on Bogambara Green. The complex was constructed in a circle with one large main entrance and exit. Also inside was a small auxiliary fire station, especially dedicated to protect the visiting crowds and the carnival stalls which were of bamboo and cadjan construction.

One year a fire started in one of the stalls and rapidly spread to some of the others. The small fire division within the complex soon found the fire getting out of control, especially because of the highly inflammable nature of the bamboo and cadjan. A hurried message was sent to the main brigade which arrived on the scene and helped fight the fire from the outside as well.

Like my father I too was a student at Kingswood College, Kandy. By then it was a much larger school built on a hillside called Randle’s Hill. The school was walking distance from my home on Peradeniya Road so I could walk home for lunch every day. While having lunch one day the phone rang and my father who was also home for lunch, took the call. I gathered, overhearing his conversation, that there had been a light plane crash and that the Fire Brigade had been called to attend. Inquiring from dad where it was, he said Katugastota near a girls’ school”. Naturally I knew exactly where it was! After Dad drove off, I hastily “borrowed” my sister’s bike and rode as fast as I could to the scene of the crash! I arrived to see the wreckage amongst some trees but the fire by then had been extinguished.

The scene that I witnessed had me so engrossed that I did not realise that dad had spotted me! All I heard was “What are you doing here? Get back to school!” The ride home was slow (after all I was now “tired”) and it was too late to return to school. The next morning I was questioned by my teacher about my absence the previous afternoon. However, having been warned by a classmate that someone had “snitched” on me I decided to come clean and take my punishment like a man. I was pleasantly surprised when my teacher listened to my account of the event with great interest!

As we know, fire fighters not only attend fires but are also involved in all types of rescue, even if it happens to be cat trapped up in a tree! The year was 1947 and Kandy experienced one of the worst floods on record. The area known as Gatembe located near the Mahaveli River was completely inundated. My father described seeing roof tops, dead animals and even some human remains floating down the river. Some of the luckier people were rescued by the fire crews.

On this occasion, in our first home situated in Malabar Street we were awoken by an unfamiliar sound, when the front doors of the house burst open and a torrent of water rushed in. The street was a fast flowing river of water and as the house was below street level the water took the easy path through our front door. My father and his fire crew had to quickly drill holes in the brick wall at the rear of the house to allow the water to escape. I have vivid memories of the firemen forming a human chain across the street, to get my family and my visiting nine Willenberg cousins to the Kandy Nursing Home which was on higher ground. The younger kids were carried across. To us it proved to be quite an exciting adventure!

Contributing to the beauty of Kandy are the many hills that surround it. One hill in particular is Hantana which for most of the year was extensively covered with Mana grass. The grass was a beautiful lush green growth most of the year but come the dry season it would be parched, creating a perfect fuel for a fire. One could see the fires from almost any vantage point around Kandy. The phone at home would ring incessantly, almost off its shelf, at all hours during the dry season, giving warnings of fire. When alerted tow a fire at Hantana at night Dad would hurriedly get dressed in his uniform, jump into his car ready to Take off behind the fire engine, its bell clanging loudly as it passed our home on Peradeniya road, heading for Hantana.Interestingly, Hantana was also the venue for the filming of a very dramatic scene from the 1954 movie, “Elephant Walk”. The particular scene, a very dramatic climax in the story, had to feature a stampede of wild elephants reclaiming their ancient jungle pathway. In the story the elephants have a grudge against the plantation because the manager’s bungalow blocks their traditional migrating pathway. The stampeding elephants in the process of their charge and destruction of the building also cause a fire. Hence the request by the film studio for the presence of the Kandy Fire Brigade during the filming of this particular scene.

Dad’s recollection of this event was very amusing because he recounted how difficult it was for the director and camera crew to keep the mahouts, who in their enthusiasm to be seen featured in the film, from constantly getting into the camera shots. Perhaps they had visions of stardom in the movies! This however necessitated the re-shooting of the same scene several times! (A more detailed account of the filming of this scene can be accessed on “Google” under the title “Film-Elephant Walk”.)

There were advantages and disadvantages for me the son of the Fire Chief in a small town such as Kandy. Most people would know me as being “Bobby Cox’s son’ or “The Fire Chief’s Son”. One of the advantages was when entering the Muslim Hotel in town with a group of friends to enjoy some of the delicacies there, I would frequently be recognised by the staff and on completion of the meal told that the bill was “on the house”. Needless to say we were not unhappy to accept this favour being teenagers not exactly flushed with cash resources. At other times some of the firemen, many of whom belonged to the Muslim community, would be in the Hotel having their lunch and on recognising me, they would inform the staff that I was the Fire Chief’s son and order a meal for us, on their account.

Later years

I left Sri Lanka then known as Ceylon in 1962, leaving behind a man still showing strength and strong leadership qualities as well as a keen interest in his hobbies, especially radio technology. In 1968 when he migrated with my mother, two sisters, nephew and niece to Melbourne, I was sad to observe that he had changed considerably from the strong commanding robust man I remembered from years gone by. As a heavy smoker all his life he now suffered acutely from emphysema and had become dependent on oxygen.
I was very pleased during a visit to Kandy in 1980, to know that he was fondly remembered by quite a few of the men still working at the Fire Station. It was also good to have our photographs taken with the old Dennis Fire Engine now decommissioned but still standing proudly on display.

My father succumbed to emphysema in 1983 at the age of 82.

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