Chapter 14 - Padre Rowlands and the Tamil Coolie Mission.

William Rowlands’ journals indicate that he took over the work of the over-burdened Incumbent of Christ Church in English work and met the Tamil congregation and their catechists and continued to work among the Tamil people of Colombo and continued the work begun by Rev: G.Pettitt, ten years before. He applied himself to the intricacies of the Tamil tongue with the same consecrated purpose which characterized his whole life. The Pauline motto “One thing I do” was also the note of William Rowlands life.

The Galle Face Church was built in 1854, on land purchased in 1853 and was described as being “on the Esplanade of the Fort called Galle Face, near to the bridge which passes from it into Slave Island and on the edge of the lake”. The Church held services for Sinhalese, Tamil and English congregations, a tablet in the church records the fact that “Mr Whitely ministered to congregations worshipping in three different languages”.

William Rowlands in addition to helping with the English work and the all-important study of Tamil, sought out and evangelized to Tamil labourers who worked in the extensive coffee stores of Colombo that were mostly found in and around Slave Island. He also preached at the Church to elderly people such as the Colonial Secretary, the Government Agent, and the Colonel of the Ceylon Rifles and others such as the Officers and men of the Garrison with whom he made many friends. A journal entry runs briefly; “Baptised a little boy of one of the Sepoys. Several Sepoys were present”. Another “Had a visit yesterday from Fred Jones, Private of 50th Regiment, whom I used to teach in St Clement’s Sunday school”. With the help of two Tamil catechists, William Rowlands learned the Tamil language and when confident that his knowledge of the classical tongue was sufficient, he went forth and took the next step to accustom ear and tongue to the colloquial, as spoken by the common people. Further practice was obtained by going out with catechists into the streets and lanes of Colombo. On one of these visits, he was disturbed by the miserable and thoroughly degraded state of most of those among whom he passed. In October 1862, following the break-down of Rev.Septimus Hobbs, William Rowlands was asked to go to Kandy to take charge of the Tamil Coolie Mission and join Rev.J.Ireland.Jones who was the Head of the Kandy Collegiate School, now Trinity College.


By the 1860’s much of the Kandyan country had been opened to coffee, leaving the dense forests of Dickoya and Dimbula. The adventurous British Planter had penetrated to the more open highlands of the Uva Province.

The problem of transport was still acute with a road only opened as far as Pulmadulla, but as Major Skinner, Ceylon’s great road maker, described it “there still remained at least 38 miles of the most execrable native mountain paths ever traversed and intercepted by rapid torrents, only fordable in dry weather. Over this path the Planters sent down their crops, which were always small and light, on men’s shoulders”. Such was the country and conditions in which William Rowlands was now to commence those indefatigable travels among Planters and Coolies with which his name is ever inseparably connected.

The labour to work the plantations was found in the abundant source of people from South India and whom Major Skinner called “the panting, half-famished creatures from the burning sandy plains of Southern India”, who were trudging their weary way down the North Road. These South Indian Tamils were the people to work among whom William Rowlands was allotted in October 1862.

Kandy was then a squalid town, but the comparatively cooler climate was a distinct gain after the stifling lanes of Slave Island. Kandy was also the centre of the planting enterprise and here forgathered from time to time coffee planters from the surrounding hills for business and pleasure. Also stationed there was a strong detachment of the Ceylon Rifles and the Garrisons of the redoubts on the surrounding hills were furnished from this detachment. Among its officers were such men as Captain Byrde and a subaltern named Tranchell, both of whom were warm friends of the young missionary, and more over were in sympathy with the work of the Tamil Coolie Mission.

Major Skinner Monument

The early days were occupied with constant journeys to the coffee estates around the Hill Capital. One such journey was made to the picturesque Rangala Hills to the North, passing on the way, as he traveler did, the scanty ruins of one of the great palaces of the last Kandyan Kings. He traveled by coach until he could go no further and then by pony to reach his destination. Until churches were built, his journal gives such entries as follows; “Held English Service in Court House at Teldeniya. Very few present.

Horse Trap

Another service is held in the Rest House at Kaduganawa. Many services were held in hospitable bungalows of the planters, as for instance, in the Moir’s bungalow on Hunasgeria which was reached by carriage for some miles on the Pangwelle Road, then by pony, where among the congregation was the famous “Jack” Tyndall, a sporting planter of those early days”. He also preached to the Coolies who assembled at one of the “lines” (row of Coolie dwellings).

Maturata was an important centre in those days, situated on the long winding mountain road to Badulla, the Capital of the Uva Province. He held a service in the “Fort”, which refers to one of the ring of abandoned forts such as Fort Macdonald and Fort Williams, by means of which the British troops had formally held the Kandyan country after the Uva rebellion of 1818. On another occasion, he went to a Sunday School in Kandy and on his way was requested by a young Burgher man to come and see his father who was ill, which did and read and prayed with him. He then taught the first class at the Sunday School that was composed of Burgher boys. On the same day he attended a Sinhalese service and preached by interpretation. He later drove to Titawella, a small Sinhalese village, just three miles from Kurunegala, where a nice little school had been built by the richest men among the Christians.

Coolie “Lines” on Tea Estate

On one occasion he addressed the coolies without an interpreter and was confident that he had mastered the language. In September 1863, he came down to Colombo by the night coach to be ready for the examination in Tamil, which he had to pass before he was allowed to marry. In November of the same year Miss Evans came out to Ceylon, escorted by her brother and the marriage of the devoted couple took place in Christ Church, Galle Face.

In 1864, William Rowlands and his bride returned to Colombo and for the first year or two resided in a little house near Braybrook Lodge, Slave Island. He spoke at vantage spots on the streets of Colpetty, Kayman’s Gate, the “Cheroot Bazaar”, Slave Island and Pettah and became a familiar sight in the crowded quarters of Colombo. The European Managers of the coffee stores such as Darley’s and Dickson’s Stores, or the stores of Messrs Robertson & Co and Tatham & Co, gave cordial sanction to his work among the Tamil and Moor women who in large numbers worked in the verandahs, cleaning coffee and the men who were generally assemble before the evening roll-call and the perfect quite of the store at that time of the day.

William Rowlands and his wife quickly made a large circle of friends among the British residents of Colombo. In addition to missionary friends, there were many such as the Byrdes, the Lawrences, the Guys, A.M.Ferguson, the editor of the “Observer” and the “Ferguson’s Directories”, Christian families like those of Major Skinner and Colonel Hamilton, one of the senior officer’s of the garrison, who were regular attendants at Christ Church. That same year he was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Piers.Claughton.

In 1865, their first son, who was named Charles Edward Rowlands was born. The Ferguson’s Directory indicates that in 1890 Charles E Rowlands became the Proprietor Planter of the Attabage Estate in Gampola. William Rowlands’ tireless activities continued and the strenuous days spent on visits to the Borella Civil Hospital and the coffee stores and streets of Colombo, contributes to the establishment of Christian Tamil congregations in Colombo.

Barnes Place, Cinnamon Gardens, 1865

In 1866, the Rowlands family moved into the Galle Face Mission House and became parents of a daughter named Frances Ellen Rowlands.

His next project was the establishment of a Girl’s Boarding School for the provision of higher education of Tamil girls. A sympathetic friend, Mr.C.P.Layard, the Government Agent of the Western Province obtained from the Government a grant of land in Ward Place, cinnamon gardens of Borella, sufficiently large for the reception of both school and a Mission House. Funds were raised and in 1867, “Mrs David Fenn of Tinnevelly, South India, laid the foundation stone of the Girl’s Boarding School and she had to walk over white sand and among cinnamon bushes to reach the spot”. The Mission house was completed in September 1868, the Boarding School at the end of October and on 1st December, the first pupils were admitted.

Grave Stone of Frances Ellen Rowlands
Holy Trinity Church Graveyard, Nuwara Eliya

While the Borella School and Mission house was under construction, William Rowlands made a temporary home for his family in the cool and healthy climate of Nuwara Eliya, the Hill Station of Ceylon. It was here that little “Nellie’ became very ill and her death took place in December 1867, under most distressing circumstances. She was buried in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church, Nuwara Eliya.

Another daughter, Alice Rowlands was born in Nuwara Eliya in January 1868 and during the next three years two sons, Harry Fenn Rowlands born 1870 and Fredrick William Rowlands born in 1871, both of whom in later years became C.M.S. missionaries.

In 1870, William Rowlands visited the Coconut estates and the cinnamon gardens that stretched between the coast and the Kandy High Road. The Managers of the estates were most co-operative and ordered the coolies and other workers to be called together. This gave him the opportunity to preach to Tamil coolies who worked on these estates and the Sinhalese who did the cinnamon peeling.

Between 1872 and 1874 William Rowlands made two trips to England, the first for an 18 month furlough and the second on the death of his father. From this time, in consequence of the death of his father Padre Rowlands now became an honorary missionary and used his ample means freely in the cause of the work he loved. In January 1873 another daughter, Lucy Rowlands was born. That same year he started work on establishing a Boy’s school at Ward Place that was completed in 1875. In 1876, a daughter, Zoe was born at Borella, shortly before which William Rowlands had bought a house known as “The Priory” in Nuwara Eliya. Richard and Charlotte Rowlands were regular visitors to the house and they became good friends with Rev and Mrs Rowlands.

Coffee Planter and Workers

Unfortunately, Mrs Rowlands health about this time began to give great cause for anxiety and after a prolonged illness she died on 25th August 1877 and was buried in the Colombo Cemetery. She had drawn to herself many friends from amongst the English people as well as the Tamils, by her wonderful sympathy and affection, largeness of heart and human understanding and amongst the Tamils many indeed felt that they had lost their ‘Mother’.

In 1878, the Tamil Coolie Mission had fallen on troubled days through on fault of its own. The coffee disease had made such ravages in what once was a prosperous industry and estate were being abandoned, coolies turned adrift and planters themselves reduced in many cases to beggary. In its blackest hour relief came to the planting industry. The tea shrub had been introduced some years before and at the time that Padre Rowlands began his permanent connection with the Tamil Coolie Mission, the old coffee estates were being planted with the new product which was destined to restore the shattered fortunes of the Ceylon planting industry.

For the next few years William Rowlands and his band of missionaries traveled along the mountain roads visiting the isolated planters, preaching to the coolies and the planter’s families and gradually gathering out in each district small but increasing congregations of Tamil Christians. “The Priory” in Nuwara Eliya became his headquarters. In January 1881, he wrote from Lebanon Estate in the Knuckles district where he recalled the story he heard on the ship coming to Ceylon; ”I have only been at home two days this month, and it seems probable that I shall be away almost as much in February”.

Christian Priests in Ceylon

His influence over planters and others was quite extraordinary. One Sunday morning, while playing tennis a group of planters recognized in the distance Padre Rowlands approaching on his pony. They at once, out of respect to the Padre whom they loved and honoured, put away their racquets and stopped playing. He was also a good horseman and on one occasion in 1882, was lucky to have survived an accident in dense fog on the Ramboda Pass when his horse and another collided. His horse keeper when describing the incident to the Ramboda Rest house Keeper remarked “If my master were not a man of God he would never have escaped”.

Rock on Ramboda Pass Road

The Tamil Coolie Mission, being without Tamil Clergy was very much undermanned, resulting in Padre Rowlands having to visit such distant places from Nuwara Eliya such as Kurunegala, North Matale, Madulsima and Morowakkorie. This meant that the indomitable Padre Rowlands lived in the saddle.

In 1884, ill health forced him to return to England, fully expecting, after a restful furlough, to return to his work. Long years of overwork and unprecedented excretions in a tropical climate had taken their toll on his body and he had to undergo an operation that left him in pain for the next nine years.

Feeling health and strength returning after a second operation, he offered himself to the C.M.S. for Ceylon, but no doctor would take responsibility for passing him medically fit. He became the Rector of Bonchurch, Isle of Wight.

Bullock Carriage (Picture)

In 1907, the C.M.S accepted his offer to return to Ceylon and in October 1907, Padre Rowlands and his daughter traveling on the P & O “Mongolia” returned to the Island. On the Monday morning Padre Rowlands, left for Haputale, in the breezy uplands of Uva Province, on the eastern side of the central mountain range, which was to be his headquarters for the next five happy years.

The island of Ceylon had entered upon a new era of prosperity – the result of the “rubber boom”. Many thousands of acres were being opened up in the low country for the cultivation of the new product, and this new ear added considerably to the task for which the Tamil Coolie Mission considered itself responsible.

New roads were being made, old ones improved and the railway through the hill country had crept over the summit and had reached Bandarawella. Other lines had been opened making accessible new tracts of country both to planter and missionary. Education was making great strides forward and even on tea estates provision was being made for the education of Tamil children.

Holy Emmanuel Memorial Church,
Lock Gate, Maradana, Colombo

In 1911, fifty years having lapsed since Padre Rowlands landed in Ceylon, the Tamil congregations determined to celebrate his jubilee of service. Special services were held in various centres and at the little Tamil church in Kandy, Christ Church, which had always been considered the “Cathedral Church” of the Tamil Christian community. A big service was held attended by English and Tamil clergy from every part of the island and the collection of a considerable sum of money was devoted to the setting up of a Pension Fund for Catechists to be called the Rowlands Memorial Pension Fund.

In the same year Padre Rowlands presented a church to the Tamil Christians meeting at Maradana. This magnificient gift was to be a memorial to his first wife Mary Blackwell Rowlands who had given her life in the service of the Tamil people. On September 19th 1912, the new Holy Emmanuel Memorial Church was consecrated by the Bishop of Colombo, in the presence of a large gathering of Tamil Christians.

Rev.W.E.Rowlands Memorial Hall
Lock Gate, Maradana, Church Grounds

In 1918, he decided to retire and gave his farewell sermon at St Mary’s Bogowantalawa, to the English congregation in the morning, where every lady and gentleman of the district turned up to hear this grand old Padre for the last time.

The last message of the veteran was preached in the Holy Emmanuel Memorial Church – his great gift to the Tamil people. In burning eloquent Tamil did he commend his beloved Tamil people to “the words of His grace” while many among them wept “that they should see his face no more” .

The Planters Association of Ceylon at a General meeting of the association, through it’s Chairman Mr.J.Graeme.Sinclair proposed the following resolution, which was unanimously carried: “This Association desires to express the deep sense of the Planters of Ceylon of their appreciation of the long and valuable services rendered to the community in general and to planters and their coolies in particular, by the Rev.W.E.Rowlands, Secretary of the Tamil Coolie Mission, and that District Associations be circulated with a view to collecting a Fund wherewith to perpetuate his memory; and that Messrs.C.Gibson, Keith Rollo, G.H.Hughes, E.M.Wyatt, the Rural Member of Council, the Chairman, and the Secretary be appointed a Sub-Committee to consider what form the presentation should take”.

After consultation with Padre Rowlands, it was decided that presentation should take the form of a silver salver with the following inscription: “Presented to the Rev.W.E.Rowlands, Hon. Secretary, Tamil Coolie Mission, on the occasion of his retirement, by members of the Planters’ Association of Ceylon, in affectionate and grateful remembrance of his long and unwearied ministry among the planters and their Tamil employees – J.Graeme.Sinclair (Chairman, Planters’ Association of Ceylon Incorporated), Kandy, Ceylon, 1918.” The balance of the fund collected was, by the express wish of Padre Rowlands was allocated to the Catechists Pension Fund.

The Most Reverend R.S.Copleston when he met Padre Rowlands in his latter years, remembered him as a strong and active man when he knew him first – courageous and outspoken; and it was delightful to find that he was in many respects as young as ever. He recalled how much he enjoyed their rides in Ceylon together, many rides they had taken, extending over many days, through the beautiful estates of the island.


How pleasant were their recollections of those early starts and of the hospitality and cheerfulness that met them all along the way! It was delightful in those days when visiting a planter’s bungalow, the host would say “How many coolies do you want?” and in five minutes all would be made ready. They would hardly ever pass a bungalow without a warm welcome and he had the most pleasant recollections of such men as Graeme Elphinstone and many others who had gone to a better land even than Ceylon, with all its glories and its beauties….. When he as the Bishop, was requested to get a Padre for a district, some men said: “We want a man who will be one of ourselves, who will join in our sports and enter into all our ways”. Others said: “I like a padre to be a padre”. It was not easy to combine the two qualities, but they were combined to perfection in Reverend William Rowlands.

In 1919, Rev.William.Edward.Rowlands was made an Honorary Life Member of The Ceylon Association in London.

Padre Rowlands was “Called Home” in England, on September 25th 1927, having fought a good fight and finished his course, entered into rest he had so worthily won.

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