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29th November 1998

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The quest for the Hyacinth

Mirror Magazine 


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The last in the series, a glimpse of a colonial glory called Cargills 

A symbol of yore

"Motor Goggles, Field and Marine Glasses." Where can you see a sidewalk sign advertising such 1930-type items for sale in the heart of Colombo?

On the wall of the very store that is one of the city's most cherished landmarks. The building's prominence is such that if the owners ever desired to pull it down and replace it with an efficient chrome and glass tower, they dare not even whisper the idea.

I write of the Cargills department store building at the corner of York and the former Prince Street. With its well-kept, eye-catching facade of red brick with white trimmings, balustrades, friezes and horns of plenty, it is an irreplaceable symbol of all the good times of yore. When the building was completed as a department store in 1906, it was described as "the finest of its kind east of Suez.

"It was praised not only for its grandeur but also for its extensive installation of hydraulic lifts and electric fans. The principal departments, wholesale and retail, were "ladies' drapery, dressmaking, millinery, household furnishings, wines and spirits, groceries, horsefeed, gentlemen's tailoring and outfitting, and drugs and dispensary."

Enter the building now and you feel a frisson of regret that its days of prosperity have obviously passed. Sad to say, it looks on its last legs. Gaze at the solid marble counter stacked with pharmaceuticals and you yearn to see there instead grocery assistants carving huge cheddars and slicing haunches of bacon. You can't help longing for the department store to be revived in its old image, entrancing both visitors and citizens with its authentic early 20th century values of quality and graciousness.

But businesses survive on profits not nostalgia, and the Cargills building is an anachronism alongside the company's modern moneyspinners of Food City outlets and its lucrative international agencies. What has caused the Cargills department store to lose its cachet and customers is basically the dearth of somewhere to park. 

The story of Cargills is a long and honourable one. This distinguished red brick building has roots that make it the oldest department store in the country. It began in Kandy, though, not Colombo, when two young men, William Milne and David Sime Cargill, opened a small shop there in 1844. They were connected with the planting fraternity and there are Cargills buried in the Old Garrison cemetery in Kandy

Milne and Cargill were able to survive the collapse of the coffee planting industry through their shopkeeping activities. They expanded, and then moved their headquarters into a high-gabled building at the corner of Colombo's York and Prince Streets.

This was formerly the house of Peter Slusken of Amsterdam who was Commandeur of Galle in 1788. He lived in Grand Pass Road from 1796 when the new British administration acquired his building as the Residence of Governor North.

Whether North actually lived there is uncertain. A photograph of the old building taken in 1890, with Colombo looking like a village, hangs in the offices of Cargills. A foundation stone dated 1684 and a wooden statue of Mars, both retrieved from the gable end of Slusken's house, are preserved by the ground floor lift.

Cargills was formed into a limited company in 1896 after being taken over by David Sime Cargill upon the retirement to Glasgow of his partner, William Milne. The present building was begun in 1902 and by 1909 employed "an executive staff of 32 Europeans and 600 hands."

Cargills (Ceylon) Limited became a public limited company in 1946. In 1981 the controlling interest passed to the Ceylon Theatres Group. Millers Ltd., its neighbour on York Street, a subsidiary of Ceylon Theatres Ltd., is the holding company of Cargills. Fortunately, reminders of the days when Cargills was the pride of the city's shoppers, remain in the building's first floor private offices. An old delivery bicycle hangs on display from the ceiling and other relics like the cashier's wooden cage have been saved.

See, too, the bobbins that shuttled around the walls at high speed with cash and receipts, drawn through tubes by vacuum suction from counter to cashier and back.

The first floor is partitioned into offices now and its magnificent domed windows with art nouveau designs have suffered the impact of neighbourhood bombings.

While the owners continue to maintain the dignity of the building's exterior, it's a shame that its heyday as a department store has passed. We can only hope that the appreciation of the owners for the historical and architectural gem they inherited, will lead to this grand building being preserved (and even revived) to delight generations in the coming millennium. 

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