I heard the astonishing saga of Mary Palliser – aka “Bloody Mary”- from Gamini Fonseka four decades ago when discussing possible subjects for a film following our collaboration with Manik Sandrasagra on Rampage (1977). I was so intrigued that Gamini sent me to see the journalist Nalin Fernando, who had researched the life of Mary [...]


Bloody Mary’s fiery trail in the hill country

Richard Boyle explores the story of Mary Palliser, who, during and after World War Two, ran a rest camp at Pattipola for the military and then the civil service, which ended in catastrophe

I heard the astonishing saga of Mary Palliser – aka “Bloody Mary”- from Gamini Fonseka four decades ago when discussing possible subjects for a film following our collaboration with Manik Sandrasagra on Rampage (1977). I was so intrigued that Gamini sent me to see the journalist Nalin Fernando, who had researched the life of Mary Palliser.

During the course of an evening – I never met Nalin again before his death though we did correspond – he gave a full account of what he knew in order for me to devise a treatment for a film script. The treatment was never written but the notes were kept as I planned to write about Mary Palliser one day. In fact she already figures in Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya (2012), where she hung out at the hotel’s very British bar.

I must acknowledge Nalin Fernando’s research, without which this article could not have been written. Some of his information has been corroborated by articles on Mary Palliser from The Sunday Leader: “Pattipola’s Amazon Queen” by Raine Wickrematunge and Wijith de Chickera (July 28, 1996), Christine Wilson’s response containing first-hand knowledge, “An encounter with the Amazonian lady” (August 11, 1996) and in the same issue E. Gunasekera’s “A brush with Palliser”.

From Hong Kong to Trincomalee

According to Nalin, the story begins before World War Two when T.M. Palliser (forenames unknown) was wedded to Mary in Hong Kong. Palliser, in his late 30s, was short, quiet spoken and hen-pecked; “an insignificant civil servant”. Mutual attraction appears unlikely as Mary was of diametrically opposite character and from a far different social stratum.

Her father owned and captained a vessel that traded between Hong Kong and Macau. He carried illicit cargo such as weaponry and Chinese immigrants. Mary, his first mate, was six feet tall, broad and belligerent, able to control boisterous crews. There were reports she had ejected overboard unruly sailors and stowaways.

Back in 1904, the British First Sea Lord, Sir John Fisher, ordered that in the event of war, the three main commands in the Far East should combine as the Eastern Fleet, based in Singapore. (Fisher was born in Ceylon in 1841, grew up in the island, and created the expression “OMG”. See “From Orphan of the Empire to Admiral of the Fleet”, The Sunday Times, October 18, 2015.) However, this fleet was not constituted until December 1941, after the fall of Singapore, and was based at Trincomalee.

In 1940, Palliser, or rather Commander Palliser as he was a Royal Navy reservist now enlisted, was transferred from Hong Kong to the Royal Naval Dockyard at Trincomalee. He was later joined by Mary. According to Nalin “he imbibed moderately making him somewhat unique among his fellow officers. He was a civil servant at heart, a man typical to be in charge of boring base chores”.

Contrariwise, “Mary was a head taller with stringy, unkempt dark hair and a deep voice. She was never manicured and extremely masculine in demeanour.” Nalin said she had “a voracious appetite for gin” and “was much more comfortable in male company. Thus she was thought to be ‘jolly good fun’ by the officers.”

At Diyatalawa

Nalin related that after several alcohol-sodden weeks, she was sent to recover to Diyatalawa, a sprawling “rest camp” for the “Military and Imperial Navy in Eastern Waters”. Diyatalawa had a murky history. After its establishment c. 1885 as a British Army training base, a prototype concentration camp was constructed there in 1900 to contain Boer prisoners captured during the Second Boer War.

Also, at the start of World War Two, the camp had housed Germans resident in Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as Buddhist monks of German extraction in Ceylon such as the revered Nayanaponika Maha Thera.

In “Memories of the Happy Valley” (Daily News, September 12, 1992), Deloraine Brohier tells how in the early 1940s the camp also saw “thousands of troops awaiting posting to Burma, and they swarmed all over the town and its environs.

“The wars brought posterity, and Diyatalawa grew. The shops and stores were packed with foreign goods – unavailable at the time. There was Scotch whisky, corned beef and sausages, tobacco and British brands of chocolate.”

However, Mary found the facilities limited at Diyatalawa; the only bar kept English pub hours, the only pursuits either trekking along mountain paths or riding a bike through tea estates.

Some notes on a 9-minute black-and-white silent documentary titled Diyatalawa Camp in Ceylon, courtesy of Colonial Film, show the camp had not changed much by 1945: “a small party visits waterfalls at Nuwara Eliya where they find time to persecute a millipede”, “men play tennis”, “beer served at the pub”, “the hall where couples dance to the accompaniment of a pianist”.

Pattipola: the beginnings

Mary envisaged a more liberal camp. She had been transferred to Diyatalawa in a roundabout way – first flown to Colombo then sent by train to her destination. She noted on the rail journey that near Pattipola station – the highest in Sri Lanka at 6,223ft and the world’s twelfth highest – there was an area of great natural beauty, with a temperate climate, and no human habitation. It was a forest reservation of eucalyptus and pine, with patches of patana.   Mary, recovered, took the train from Diyatalawa to Colombo. Reaching the area she desired she pulled the emergency cord and alighted. Apparently she argued heatedly with a guard who tried but failed to make her pay the Rs. 20 fine for using the emergency cord without valid reason.

She roamed the area guided by members of a rail gang and found an ideal clearing for her camp opposite Pattipola station situated on Crown Property. That night she camped with the hospitable railwaymen. And next morning she persuaded them to flag down the train for her to proceed to Colombo to persuade the British administration to lease the land.

Within a week she succeeded in accessing three acres. She didn’t return to Trincomalee but travelled to Diyatalawa town, where she recruited workers, then left for Pattipola. It took just a few months to complete the construction of a dozen mud-walled and grass-thatched cottages encircling a dining room and bar, and the development of an adjoining farm. Overlooking the camp she built a dwelling for Commander Palliser and herself, for he eventually joined her there, presumably post-war.

Nalin remarked: “Servicemen found her camp was the place to go between leaving Diyatalawa and joining the various units in Colombo or Trincomalee.” Little wonder as Mary supplied attractive services. With the wartime suspension of horse racing at Nuwara Eliya, the equine participants were sold at moderate price, so she constructed a corral and bought a few.

“It was beautiful riding country with grassy plains to gallop across and windswept pine forest for couples to get lost in. For Wrens [the common name for members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service] were always welcome as special non-paying guests.

“There were few rules to be broken. Justice was dispensed with her riding crop. For two years the rest camp was a great success. Mary had a good head for business and she made much money catering to hedonistic pleasures.”

Post-World War II:
the Civil Service

When the war ended and the military left Ceylon, Mary turned her attention to the English administrators. Many of them, especially high-ranking civil servants, sought a hideaway far from the officialdom of Colombo.

The Minister of Transport and Public Works, John Kotelawala, appointed her Conservator of Bridle Paths in the Pattipola area. Subsequently, she convinced the authorities to refurbish the station with a 75ft platform and stationmaster’s quarters. These were constructed and a stationmaster appointed. “The permanent population of Pattipola was then two,” Nalin quipped. It turned out to be one too many.

Mary rode into Nuwara Eliya for provisions with staff following her to transport the purchases: “She was an imposing figure in black jodhpurs, fatigue shirt and black boots, carrying a bull-whip. She would have a drink at the very Victorian Grand Hotel. But she was never popular with staff or patrons.”

I write in Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya (2012): “At first the bar must have been a predominantly men-only spot but Mary broke that tradition. She had a full figure that would have fitted neatly into the enigmatic carved buttock-impressions of the bar stools. I can picture her, glass in hand, complaining to the barman about the Pattipola stationmaster.”

But Mary was in control, for when the few trains a day arrived, it was she not the stationmaster who was on the platform to receive and hand over the “tablet”, without which the train could not continue.

“The scheduled stop was one minute,” Nalin explained, “but there was cargo to be loaded, mostly fruit and vegetables from her farm, sent to Colombo for sale. She delayed the train until everything was packed into the goods wagon by holding on to the ‘tablet’.”

To British planters and administrators she became that “bloody impossible woman”, or the more lyrical “Bloody Mary” as she will henceforth be called. They tended to ignore her outrages. However, those working for the Railways and Forest Department were infuriated with her. They called her napuru nona (“evil woman”).

One evening, some of them exacted revenge. She was riding to have dinner with Major Edmund Clarence de Fonseka, the ADC to the Governor, Sir Reginald Edward Stubbs back in 1934. He was, says a relative, a raconteur; more importantly for Bloody Mary he was person of power and influence.

On her way masked men ambushed her, dragged her off her horse and assaulted her. Fortunately she had a revolver in her saddle bag, managed to retrieve it, and scared off her attackers. Her horse bolted, but she kept her dinner-date, though on foot, dishevelled and muddy.

Convinced the stationmaster was responsible, next morning she was on the platform hunting him, and when found, he was mercilessly whipped. Consequently, he petitioned for a transfer. The stationmasters’ union and the engineers’ union threatened to strike. And the Forest Department rangers protested.

These complaints reached John Kotelawala, who had appointed her. But he found no evidence of neglect of duty; in fact she had done an excellent job, opening more trails and constructing firebreaks in the forest.

“Mary was aware that efforts were being made to take her official title away, but she did not care since the job carried no salary, only a horse and stable allowance,” Nalin commented. “Even if she was fired she could not be evicted from her land as she held a long lease from the government.

“It was then discovered her residence visa was coming up for renewal. The Colonial Secretary realised the political aspect of the protests from unions with anti-British feelings, fomented by the Trotskyist Lanka Sama Samaja Party, and refused a visa extension. She would have to leave the country within two weeks of its lapse.”

After the Colonial Secretary ruled against her, no other official she knew could help. Realising her days in Ceylon were numbered she frequented the bar at the Grand Hotel, got very drunk and shouted even louder. She threatened to emasculate the Colonial Secretary and gossiped about society women who had illicit liaisons at the camp while their husbands played golf at Nuwara Eliya.

The slaughter

Apparently Bloody Mary informed the barkeeper she had decided to set the forest ablaze before leaving. This information was passed to the Government Agent who contacted the Conservator of Forests. A ranger was sent to the camp and reported she had stockpiled kerosene.

“The Conservator of Forests ordered a complement of rangers to be deployed in the forest about her land. Nobody knew her date of departure from Pattipola but it was known she had paid for a passage on the P&O liner Chusan calling at Colombo one morning and leaving for Australia at midnight.

“Bloody Mary made no arrangements to move until the morning of the ship’s arrival. She had already sent her baggage to the shipping agent and sold some furniture and household effects, but her horses were still corralled and the pack of dogs in kennels. If she was to board the ship she had to leave by train at two o’clock. Carrying two bags she walked to the station and deposited them, then returned to her property and proceeded to shout obscenities at the rangers.

At midday they saw her live up to her name. “She opened the kennels and led the hounds into one of the cottages. Amid howling the rangers heard a volley of shots, then silence. From the corral she dragged the horses into the dining room in the middle of the compound and shot them between the eyes. It was a horrific scene as the last few horses had smelt death and had to be forced into the execution area.”

She torched the kerosene-soaked camp, then walked to the station in time for the train’s arrival. When the fire abated, the rangers entered the property and discovered arsenic buried at the bases of eucalyptus and pine trees. She had committed a criminal offence as the trees were on Crown Property, protected by the Fauna & Flora Act.

“By the time the news reached the Conservator of Forests, she had arrived in Colombo at the Grand Oriental Hotel. Her luggage was already aboard the Chusan and there was time to take a launch to the liner.”

However the Conservator of Forests decided to charge Bloody Mary and, apparently, the fastest plaint ever filed in the history of the Ceylon Judiciary was read before the Colombo South Magistrate. The police waited until she boarded the Chusan at 11pm, served a summons, and had to literally drag her off the ship, United Airlines-style.

“As she was being booked, the Chusan sailed for Australia. She spent the night at the police station since she could not contact anyone to bail her out – all the phones were mysteriously dead. Next morning she was produced before the Colombo South magistrate. She pleaded guilty and was fined £75.

Three days later she took another liner to Australia. At Customs she was strip-searched and her luggage thoroughly scrutinized. Some Ceylon gems were found, which were confiscated and a fine imposed. “The natives had exacted their revenge and Mary’s legendary tenure in Ceylon was finally at an end,” Nalin concluded.

Bloody Mary first hand

Christine Spittel-Wilson gives us the only personal and dependable account of Bloody Mary, left until last as it deserves to be read separately. Christine often made the 16-mile horse ride from Nagrak Estate to Pattipola. One evening she encountered Bloody Mary at the beginning of the return journey. “Of course I had heard of her. A strange lady who rode, shot like a man, and was unpredictable. She stood, one hand on her hip holding a riding crop, the other grasping the reins of her horse. I saw a revolver in her holster. I had been told about that.”

Bloody Mary knew Christine was from Nagrak Estate and asked her to spend the night at the camp, should she wish. “Piercing blue eyes squinted against the sunlight at me, as she stood, boots planted firmly in the wet mud. I looked up at a heavily muscled woman with greying, short-cropped hair and a leather-belted safari suit.”

Accepting the offer, Christine rode with Bloody Mary to the camp, and saw what she was to recognize later in Kenya as an “African-style settlement” with its circle of huts. Inside the Palliser dwelling Christine found “faded chintz covers on sagging chairs, photographs of long-gone people. One of herself looking rather splendid, long ago. A smaller one of Commander Palliser in uniform.

“Over the back of the settee was draped the skin of the largest leopard shot in Sri Lanka. ‘One clean shot,’ they both said. The one with the 7-inch pad. I had heard of it. Shot on the Horton Plains by Mrs Palliser. It saddened me.”

Whereas Nalin was convinced that by this time Commander Palliser had left his wife, Christine relates he was still present: “’My husband,’ said Mrs Palliser as a man entered the room.” To confirm his supposed anonymity, Christine couldn’t remember his name or what he looked like.

He seems to have left prior to the horrific end of the story for his absence from the final scenes is notable. That he was active at Pattipola is evident from E. Gunasekera’s “A brush with Palliser”. Gunasekera relates how Palliser’s “boss”, a certain “MacDonald” advised him of Palliser’s skill in diagnosing sick horses; that he was a former breeder.

Though Nalin insists gin was Bloody Mary’s drink, Christine observed she embraced naval tradition. “He handed his wife a pewter tankard. ‘Rum and milk’s my tipple,’ she said. ‘Best bloody drink.’” Christine’s next quote provided new information regarding the Pallisers. “’Used to drink it when sailing the West Indies, didn’t we?’”

After an icy night, Christine awoke to find Bloody Mary “doing the rounds of her stables, the cattle shed, and the piggery. Around her scrambled her pack of dogs, all eighteen of them, varying from miniatures to German Shepherds, and one huge black dog.”

With a brief farewell, Christine departed. “Her farm was magnificent and run with an efficiency and expertise which, considering it was created out of raw patana, was unique. It is not surprising she intimidated the people who worked for her. That she was tough, and feared, is undoubted.

“I remembered as I rode away that she had told me there was some problem about her retaining her land. ‘I’ll damned well burn it down first,’ she said. It was in Colombo shortly afterwards that I learned that’s exactly what she had done.”

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