Charles Henry de Soysa was born on March 3rd 1836.
He was the only son of Mudliyar Jeronis de Soysa and Mututantrige Francesca Cooray. The baby girl born to them died 11 months after her birth.
With his background it was natural for Charles Henry, the sole heir to the vast property of his father who was bestowed the title of Mudliyar of the Gate for his social welfare activities to continue the unfinished services of his father.
The Holy Emmanuel Church in Idama, Moratuwa was constructed by the father at the request of the pastor of the church and was completed by the son. His baby sister died in her infancy and Charles who became the owner of his father’s assets further enhanced his wealth by acquiring the massive wealth bequeathed to him by his paternal uncle Susew who died without issue.
He was taken to Hanguranketa by his father to acquaint him with agricultural activities. He rode on horseback supervising the work on the estates and was known for his numerous acts of charity and kindness which qualities endeared him to his employees. He was known as ‘Punchi Mahattaya’ in the estates and although his only income then was a small stipend his father gave him, more as ‘pocket money’ than an allowance, he spent even that money on the welfare of the needy.
He was in the prime of his youth at 26 years when his father died and he was entrusted with the management of an estate worth millions of £ sterling.
Young Charles, a devout Anglican, sought the hand of Catherine, the daughter of Lindamulage Jusey de Silva and Weerahennadi Weerabala Jayasuriya Patabendige Ana Fernando who were staunch Catholics. There was yet another suitor — a most eligible Karawa Catholic from Kalutara who rivalled his claim to Catherine’s hand. However, a compromise was made to solemnise the marriage according to the rites of the Roman Catholic Church.
Catherine is said to be the first in Moratuwa to wear a gown as her bridal attire.
At the wedding ceremony held at the bride’s residence, the ‘Chevalier Walawwa’ at Moratumulla, his father-in-law gave the couple a dowry of 7,500 Australian pounds. The young couple handed over the entirety of the dowry, to the groom’s paternal uncle Susew, who soon increased it to 10,000 Aus. by judicious investment.
His bride encouraged him and joined him in his numerous philanthropic activities. It was said that his marriage to Catherine brought him more wealth as a result of her ‘luck’ that she was bestowed with from her birth.
Their union begot 14 children — 7 boys and 7 girls with one son dying in his infancy.
It fell upon Catherine to look after the education and well-being of their large brood of children whilst at the same time playing perfect host to the people of all walks of life who called at the ‘Walawwa’ as their Moratuwa residence was known and also to the ‘Bagatalle Walawwa’. The latter was named ‘Alfred House’ in honour of the Royal visit of 22-4-1870.
Alfred House was a massive mansion and its garden extended 120 acres (0.49 km2).
When the coffee crash occurred even the European planters went back home. The wisdom of Charles in not depending on one crop enabled him not only to survive the coffee crisis, but also to increase his profits earned through coconut, cinnamon and real estate in other parts of the country.
It is said that he paid the Colombo Municipality a sum of Rs. 20,000 annually as taxes.
He started planting tea in the former coffee plantations of Hanguranketa and Maturata areas and soon his tea fetched record prices at the Colombo and London auctions. When he visited England in July 1886 he saw the produce from his estates filling most of the space in the warehouses of his agents Arbuthnot Lathan & Co. of London.
Being a great philanthropist he recruited young locals, mostly his relations as Superintendents giving preference to those who have worked under the British in their plantations. The British always had their own kith and kin to run and manage their properties and often looked down upon the locals. But Charles de Soysa was able to beat them hollow at their own game.
In 1875, to commemorate the visit of H.R.H. the Prince and Princess of Wales, Charles decided to name the two schools he was building in Moratuwa in 15 acres (61,000 m2) of land between the Galle Road and the Lunawa Lagoon, ‘Prince of Wales’ and ‘Princess of Wales’.
Not only did he build these two institutions which soon became leading educational institutes in the island, he also paid the salaries of the teachers and other employees.
He and his wife always supported poor children in their educational activities by providing them with school fees, books and even clothes.
The magnanimity of this duo knew no bounds and nobody who approached them for assistance went away empty handed. His wife ran open house for visitors who called on them either at the Moratuwa or Begatalle Walawwas or the bungalows the De Soysas had in seven of the nine provinces in Ceylon whenever they were in residence.
The banquet he gave his Royal visitors is still talked of by old timers. The Royals were served in crockery and cutlery made of pure gold! Even in Buckingham Palace Royalty did not eat from gold plates!
The Royal reception was not only extravagant but also a great extravaganza where local craftsmen from the puppeteers, to the kolam and mask dancers entertained the Royals. There were short dramas mostly hilarious in nature the texts of which in English had been distributed prior to the staging. The prince and the party thoroughly enjoyed the local theatrics.
To commemorate the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh he renamed the Model Farm of 160 acres (0.65 km2) for agriculture and animal husbandry, as the Alfred Model Farm. Charles was a lover of animals; he had cattle imported from India and Ayrshire cattle from Australia. Each year he sent a team to India to purchase from Nellor cows for the model farm, his estates in Hanguranketa, Negombo and Puttalam areas.
He also had cattle, imported horses, Indian and Chinese gees, Turkeys, guinea fowls and ducks. A great lover of pets he had many a deer, ornamental birds — local and foreign and even elephants at his ‘Bagatalle Walawwa’. However, he did not have any dogs and it is indeed tragic that it was a stray dog infected with rabies that caused his death at the untimely age of 54.
He conducted research and experiments in the model farms to improve agricultural productivity. To convince his farmers he had residential facilities at Model Farm where the modern techniques in agriculture and animal husbandry were explained and demonstrated.
He was the first Ceylonese to get down agricultural seeds from tropical countries and certain European countries.
Charles also extended his patronage to literary projects as well. When his friend the Ven. Weligama Sri Sumangala Thero, High Priest of Pulinathalaramaya, Kalutara wrote the 3rd standard reader, he met the entire cost of printing and insisted that a copy should be sold only at the cost price of 39 1/2 cents per copy. Another noteworthy literary contribution of de Soysa was the printing and publication of the Sanskrit poem, ‘Janaki Haranaya’ — compiled by poet Kumaradasa. In spite of being a Christian de Soysa arranged these educational charities through the Ven. Ratmalane Sri Dharmarama Nayake Thero, the Chief Incumbent of the Vidyalankara Pirivena.
When he visited England in 1886 he saw the famous artefacts, including the ‘Yapahuwa Gate’ and other historical monuments on display at the Colonial and Indian exhibition. These he purchased and presented to the Royal institute.
Although Charles moved with kings he lived amongst the common people. Long before the Co-operative Movement officially got under way he sponsored the Moratuwa Carpenters’ Guild on co-operative lines. He also founded the Low Country Products Association. He along with other like minded leading citizens formed the ‘Moratuwa Association’ to spearhead the various social welfare activities of the town.
S. Thomas’ College, then at Mutwal was his alma mater although as the custom then with the elite, his early education was at the hands of resident teachers who were lavishly paid and well looked after even in their retirement with generous land grants etc. Even after their demise, their families were looked after. He donated a sum of Rs. 30,000 to S. Thomas’ College.
During that time, there were various forms of taxes that the people had to pay. One such tax was the ‘Poll Tax’ which could not be paid by the thousands of poor people in Moratuwa and they ran the risk of their properties being seized. Charles came to their rescue by paying the huge sums involved on behalf of all the townfolk.
He constructed roads and bridges in various parts of the country and the road from Galle Road to Lunawa and the bridge across the lagoon which serves the people to this day are mere drops in the ocean of the social welfare activities of Charles Henry De Soysa. Charles also constructed the Katubedda Road at Moratuwa and donated land to build the Lunawa Railway Station.
Even expatriates who were stranded in Ceylon for want of funds for their passage home were helped by him.
Perhaps his most noteworthy gift was the De Soysa Lying-in-Home — the maternity hospital at Borella which he also equipped with the modern machinery of the day. Whilst Charles de Soysa built and donated the De Soysa Lying-In-Home, his uncle late Mudliyar Susew de Soysa built and donated the ‘Medical Museum’ attached to the Medical College. These two institutions were declared open by the Governor Sir Robert Longdon on December 9, 1879.
His generosity was not confined to the Ceylonese. During his visit to England he donated large sums of money to British Medical Institutes such as Children’s hospitals, Women’s hospitals and Dock workers’ hospitals etc. Most of these charitable activities in England were channelled through his agents Arbuthnot Latham and Co. of London.
When Charles was in Kandy at his Harambe House in 1878 the Burmese envoy with his entourage paid a courtesy call on him. He arranged for valuable gifts to be sent to Burma and the Burmese envoy was full of praise for the Christian philanthropist who lavishly supported Buddhist causes.
The respect for De Soysa sprang not only from the townfolk — it was said that the ‘Robin Hood of Ceylon’ — Saradiel too had instructed his band of highway robbers not to rob goods belonging to the De Soysas as they did a great service to the poor people of the country. The cart-trains carrying goods to and from Colombo used to be waylaid by Saradiel and his men at Uthuwankanda in Mawanella.
Charles Henry de Soysa was bitten by a rabid dog that strayed into the Bagatalle Walawwa on August 2, 1890. It was originally decided to remove him to Paris for treatment. This decision was reversed due to various reasons and Charles himself opted to remain in Ceylon and obtain native treatment. He wanted to be taken to ‘Moratuwa Walawwa’ where he remained until he breathed his last.
Unlike most other people bitten by rabid dogs, Charles was fully rational until his last.
He called his children who were in the island at the time to his bedside and gave them his final word of advice.
‘There is nothing that you are in want of now. Respect all people and live humbly and virtuously. Do not have vehicles and houses more than you need. Transfer the office at Fort to the Walawwa at Moratuwa. Death is what everyone has to face. That eventually I too have to face now. None of you need to worry over it. What I said to you all, convey to my three sons who are in England. When I die bury my body at Holy Emmanuel Church cemetery, next to where my deceased son has been buried. I have nothing more to tell you!’.
He died peacefully in his sleep around 9.00 p.m. on 29th September 1890.
- Quoted from Wikipedia -