The Havelock Race Course in Reid Avenue was a stone’s throw away from Royal College. Most Royalists were familiar with the names of the race horses, their trainers, owners and the jockeys. The Turf Club was mainly patronised by the English and the race horse owning Ceylonese gentry. Government servants, those working in the mercantile [...]

Sunday Times 2

Turf Club robbery and murder in 1949

Sensational criminal trials of yesteryear revisited

The Havelock Race Course in Reid Avenue was a stone’s throw away from Royal College. Most Royalists were familiar with the names of the race horses, their trainers, owners and the jockeys. The Turf Club was mainly patronised by the English and the race horse owning Ceylonese gentry.
Government servants, those working in the mercantile sector and self-employed people who were living a hand to mouth existence, became inveterate gamblers. On a Saturday afternoon, during the racing season, they would dump their entire salary on one or more horses. Invariably, they would go home without a cent, much to the chagrin of their wives and children. Some marriages were on the verge of break up, while other wives resorted to discreetly carrying on with more affluent men, in order to keep the home fires burning. Gambling was almost a disease in some, like drinking alcohol.

The Race Course. Pic courtesy

In the late 1940s and 1950s, Cotton Hall and Owen Grange – names of horses — were regular winners and brought their owners stupendous amounts of money. The well-known trainers who had stables were Wallace in Thimbirigasyaya Road and Renga Selvaratnam down Vajira Road. Jockey Ted Fordyce was a household name in Colombo. Ted Fordyce to Ceylon was what Lester Piggott to Britain. He married Dhanalakshmi, the beautiful daughter of trainer Selvaratnam.

T.G. Francis owner of Cotton Hall made an enormous amount of money, built several houses at Balapokuna Road, and Balhenmulla Place in Kirrilapone. On race days he not only paraded his horses but also his pretty daughter Sheilagh Francis, who later married lawyer Asirwatham. Fordyce owned the house at the intersection of Alfred Place-Bagatelle Road, and also owned a tea estate, Roehampton, with a cute little bungalow, on the main Haputale-Bandarawela Road. Amongst the other race horse owners were King’s Counsel R.L. Pereira, Sir Ernest de Silva, Sir Chittampalam Gardiner, Sir Oliver Goonethilake (later Governor General), Sarath Wijesinghe, later Minister of nationalised Services, who was the uncle of my classmate Upali Wijewardene. There were social climbers — first generation in shoes, who entered their decrepit horses too, in order to rub shoulders with the big shot race horse owners. There were many nobodies who were struggling to become somebodies. That was the Ceylonese society of that era.

All the Kalu Suddas, the so-called high society members who loved to ape the West, flocked in their numbers in top hats and tail coats, and the women in their finest regalia were on parade. They wanted social recognition more than the love of racing. The less affluent were confined to what was popularly known as the “Gandhi Enclosure”

Every Saturday after payments were made to the punters the balance cash and cheques were kept in the Turf Club safe. The secretary in 1949 was F.G. Morley and the chief clerk and cashier was F.R. Peiris. Morley and Peiris would make thousand-rupee bundles of notes. On Monday, after all payments were made, the money would be put into two trunks and firmly padlocked to be taken in an Armstrong Garage car to be deposited at the Chartered Bank in the Fort.

Armstrong Garage had three seven-seater Chevrolet cars and a Packhard. These cars and drivers were well-known to the staff of the Turf Club. The trunks would be then put into an Armstrong car, generally driven by John Silva. Armstrong would hire the cars to others as well. On Sunday the 30th of January, John Silva was detailed on a hire, to proceed to Puttalam, little realising that it was his last journey.

Just opposite the Reid Avenue entrance was the statue of the doyen of racing, Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike. When the car carrying the money reaches the Chartered Bank, it was the duty of Herman Alles, the shroff, to receive the money.

Those who planned the Turf Club robbery targeted the collection of the races of Saturday January 29, 1949. On January 31 the Armstrong car carrying the trunks containing Rs. 322,000/ was held up and robbed. It was a daring robbery executed in broad daylight. For the execution of the robbery, the regular driver had to be liquidated and the murder of the driver preceded the commission of the robbery. Another driver was substituted which arose no suspicion. The amount involved was almost Rs. 400,000 which in today’s context would be equivalent to about Rs. 40 million or more.

Eight persons were charged with conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to commit robbery, robbery and murder. The biggest catch was Nanayakkara Athulugamage Simon de Silva Jayasinghe, alias Aratchirala, a brother of S. de S. Jayasinghe, a former MP and Minister and the owner of a bus company. S de S was the regular political opponent of Dr. Colvin R de Silva. Alternately each of them was elected MP for Dehiwela-Mt. Lavinia.

The police offered a reward of Rs 20,000, a huge amount in those days. Two conspirators Rupananda de Silva and Weerasinghe, perhaps because they did not get a fair share of the spoils, decided to squeal. On February 3, when the police learnt of the murder of driver John Silva in the Puttlam jungles, the reward was enhanced to Rs 50,000. The Chevrolet which was hijacked bore licence plate No Z 6033, a regular car which took cash from the Turf Club to the Chartered Bank.

The conspirators killed John Silva and got possession of the regular vehicle belonging to Armstrong’s garage, which they intended to use the next day, for the daring robbery. The murder weapon was a gas mask. Having tied John Silva firmly to a tree in the Puttlam jungle, they covered his face with the gas mask. He died of suffocation. Whether there was in fact an intention to kill was argued at length. The evidence demonstrated that “the manner in which the deceased was handled by the assailants was sufficient in the ordinary course of nature to result in death. The conspirators must be presumed to intend the natural and probable consequences of their acts and they must have known that John Silva would die in the ordinary course of nature within a few minutes”.

The Trial began at the Colombo Assizes before Sir Arthur Wijewardene, the first Ceylonese Chief Justice, and an English speaking Jury, on January 24, 1950. The Prosecution was led by Sir Allan Rose, Attorney General, later Chief Justice, with T.S. Fernando (later Justice Fernando) and Douglas Jansze (later Attorney General) and Ananda Pereira, son of Dr Cassius Pereira. Dr Cassius was the brother of R.L. Pereira KC. He was later ordained as Bhikku Kassapa.

A.B. Perera with G.F. Setukavaler and A.K. Premadasa appeared for Gilbert Dias and Wilson. Siri Perera (later QC) with R. Sivasitamparam and J.V.M. Fernando, brother of Bertram Fernando of De Silva & Mendis, appeared for Madavia. R.L. Pereira KC with Sir Ukkwatte Jayasundara KC, K.C. Nadaraja and R. Markhani appeared for Aratchchirala. Charles Jayawickrema appeared for Wijedasa. Colvin R. de Silva with A.H. de Silva and J.W. Subasinghe appeared for Munasinghe and James Seneviratne. K.C. de Silva with A.C. (Bunty) de Zoysa and Lal C. Gooneratne appeared for Premalal. Lal C. Gooneratne was the son-in-law of D.R. Wijewardene, the owner of Lake House and the brother-in-law of Ranjit Wijewardene, Barrister-at-law and present Chairman of the Wijeya Newsapapers Ltd. Bunty de Zoysa was a son of Francis de Zoysa, King’s Counsel.

The Trial lasted 25 working days during which they visited the Turf Club premises and the murder scene on the Puttalam-Anuradhapura Road.
At the close of the Prosecution, on the Attorney General admitting the insufficiency of evidence against the third accused Madaviya and the fourth accused Aratchirala, they were discharged.

Over one hundred witnesses including Government Analyst W.R. Chanmugam and JMO Dr. G.S.W. de Saram gave evidence. Witnesses stood their ground and Counsel could not shake the credibility of the witnesses.

However R.L. Pereira KC, and Siri Perera later QC secured the release of their clients. Siri Perera QC, was my father’s batch mate and close friend.

Some of the accused were sentenced to death, and some to long periods of imprisonment. This was the last case presided over by Chief Justice Sir Arthur Wijewardene. After his retirement Sir Edward (EGP) Jayathilake succeed him as CJ.

The Appeals of Wijedasa, Munasinghe, Seneviratne and Premalal came up before the Court of Criminal Appeal, with the judges being Justice R.F. Dias, Justice E.H.T. Gunsekera and Justice Swan. The counsel appearing in the CCA were G.E. Chitty (later QC), Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, M.M. Kumarakulasingham and Charles Jayawickreme. The Crown was represented by Sir Allen Rose with T.S. Fernando and Douglas Jansze. After seven days of arguments the appeals of all four appellants were dismissed and they were hanged. None appealed to the Privy Council, even in “forma pauperis”.

The greater part of the investigation was conducted by ASP Lionel Goonethilake though the IGP detailed SPs Rockwood, C.C. Dissanayake, E.O. Koelmayer, Albert Silva, ASPs J.W.L. Attygalle, Kitto, B.W. Perera, Inspector Talaisingham and the Registrar of Finger Prints, S.F. Goonethilake. This was perhaps the biggest investigative team appointed by the IGP.

As if to teach all punters a lesson, the son of the doyen of racing S.W.R.D. Banadaranaike banned racing in the late 1950s, to the relief of many a poor housewife.

After the 99-year Lease enjoyed by the Turf Club expired, the Arts Faculty and the Law Faculty of the Colombo University moved to the premises. Later Royal College Sports Complex, Thurstan College Cricket Grounds and the Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA), were given land in the former Race Course.

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