Tuesday, 7 May 2013

From Ceylon to Sri Lanka: my father's quest to trace his family history

In a slight departure from the usual content of my blog, today I'm posting about a fascinating aspect of my family's history and my father's journey to discover more about his childhood.

My grandfather Richard Hall
My grandfather, Richard Hall (b.1917- d.1969) enjoyed a long and distinguished career in the Royal Navy. Joining at the astonishingly young age of 15, and after training in signals and spending time on cruisers and aircraft carriers, he volunteered to go sub-marine in July 1937. Throughout the Second World War, he served on submarines, most notably from 1940 on HMS P36. HMS P36 was sunk on 1st April 1942 by Luftwaffe bombing whilst docked in Sliema Harbour on the island of Malta. My grandfather survived, although we don't know whether he was on board or on shore at the time the vessel sank- like so many others, he never spoke about it, or, in fact, any of his war service. Soon after this, he was involved in mine laying and mine sweeping in the North Atlantic which he did until the end of the war. Shortly after the end of the war, Richard was based at HMS Highflyer (the name given to the “stone frigate” naval base) in Trincomalee, Ceylon, where he developed a great love for the island. He remained in the navy until 8th January 1948, probably timed with my father's impending birth on 16th May 1948.

The lure of the navy remained strong, and unable to settle fully into civilian life, Richard re-enlisted in 1951, and on the 15th June 1952, he was posted back to HMS Highflyer in Trincomalee. He took advantage of the opportunity to take his young family with him, and so in 1952, my father Stephen, along with his older brother Alan, and my nanna Madge left the greyness of Wythenshawe, Manchester behind for the tropical climes of eastern Ceylon (today known as Sri Lanka). Unfortunately, my father is the only living member of his family who was alive when they lived in Ceylon, and as he was only 4 when they arrived, his memories of the period are limited.

The Halls in Ceylon, 1952

He remembers the long sea voyage from Enlgand, passing through the Suez Canal and stopping at Aden, which he recalls as being "very smelly!" He remembers wild monkeys and elephants, swimming in the warm sea, and playing on the fantastic beaches. On one occasion, he broke his leg after jumping from the wreck of a rusty barge on the beach, and my uncle Alan, having no sympathy for his plight, made him walk the several miles home! He vividly recalls the snakes, particularly one which came up the bath plughole and scared my Nanna. He remembers the family's cook, Tilly, disappearing, and years later, my grandfather Richard revealing that he was involved with Tamil activists. Fragmented though these memories are, the stories were enough to captivate me and my brother's minds when we were younger, forming the basis for many of my childhood daydreams and adventures!

Since leaving Ceylon in 1953 my father had always intended on returning. Spurred on by his research into my grandfather's naval record and the recent opening up of the north and east of the island after the end of the bloody 20 year civil war in 2009, my dad, with my mum, Christine, alongside him, finally returned to Trincomalee in February of this year. Armed only with his memories and a clutch of photographs taken by my grandfather, my parents arrived unannounced at what is today the Sri Lankan Naval Base on 8th February 2013. After 45 minutes spent convincing those on the reception that my father was indeed the little boy in the photograph returning some 60 years later, they were allowed onto the base. At this point I'll let my dad's memoirs do the talking for a while:
The Naval Base clock tower in 1952 and (inset) in 2013
"We travelled through another gateway, probably the original entrance in the 1950’s, and then almost immediately we saw the building that was once the Royal Naval School as shown in the photograph of my brother, Alan and me standing in front of the then entrance. Although the white fence and the gate had long since gone it was still possible to make out where they had been; time for another photograph. We moved on, looking for familiar sightings, but had to turn back as we had ventured close to a shooting range! Having turned around we headed for the Naval Museum where we spent about an hour looking at the artifacts from the various periods of history, many from the British colonial years. The museum visit concluded with a climb up the old lookout tower, a fabulous 360 degree panorama showing all the bays, the immense size of the harbours, and the sheer scale of the base. Whilst in the museum, we showed our photographs to many of the young ratings and it was encouraging that they recognised many of the views and, more importantly, the buildings. They believed our bungalow was probably in the Sandy Bay area and could still be in use.

As we drove away from the museum, we were intercepted by a motorcyclist in combats who invited us to follow him down a track leading to a bay housing the Rapid Response Squadron where we were introduced to Lieutenant Commander Aruna Weerasinghe, who was to be our host for the remainder of our visit. On showing him our photographs he confirmed that the buildings in the pictures were still in use and he also confirmed that the part of the original British settlement was at Sandy Bay. He also said that his boss was extremely interested in preserving the heritage of the base and, in particular, information pertaining to the British period, as very little had been left on their departure in 1957.

My dad with his older brother Alan in 1952 &
(inset) outside the same building in 2013
As we stood perched on the viewing platform watching trainees coming in from manoeuvres in the bay, he informed me that somebody was driving down to meet us. As we left the platform a white 4x4 pulled up and we were privileged to be introduced to Rear Admiral P.H. De Silva. After brief introductions, we discussed our photographs and my time on the base. He recognised many of the buildings but specifically, the offices alongside the naval dockyard, as this was where his office was now located. This was likely to also be the building that my father had worked in sixty years earlier.

After lunch L.C. Weerasinghe took us on a guided tour around the base visiting all but one of the buildings in our photographs. Much of the accommodation from the British period has been refurbished and was now used by the Sri-Lankan navy for their married quarters. Although we did not find our actual bungalow, I am almost certain that it was on the right hand side of the road leading towards the new hotel with the bay and the golf course on the left. I thought this looked familiar but could not recall being able to see the bay from our bungalow; however, this fact was confirmed by photographs that I looked at on returning home which showed my brother on our veranda with the bay in the background.

We returned to the Rapid Response Unit’s Offices for L.C. Weerasinghe to scan our photographs for the archives of the base. After saying goodbye and thanking him for making the visit to my old home in Trincomalee a special day for both myself and Christine, I promised to send more photographs from 1952/53, and also any information I could research on HMS Highflyer, the British Royal Naval Base in Trincomalee. As we drove out, passing the old school on our right hand side and went through the gateway, I could not believe that I had lived here 60 years ago. It seemed like another life and I thought I would love to return."
With part of Sandy Bay now being re-developed as a golf course and hotel, and many of the colonial period buildings being replaced, I hope what began as a quest by my father to record his own family story has in fact, in its own small way, helped to preserve some of the social history of this naval base and colonial family life in the 1950s.

All the content of this post is based on research and memoirs, conducted and written by my father, Stephen Hall. All photographs are copyright of Stephen Hall, please contact me for permission to reproduce.

Please leave any comments or questions below, and I will pass them on to my dad!


  1. I think we have a photo showing your Uncle Alan at the Naval School Trinco.
    Glynn Ford

    1. Hi , Alan was my brother 5yrs older ,would love to see the picture ,have many pics of our time there .Dad was a keen amateur photographer. Regards Steve (stephenrhall@msn.com ).

  2. I was there 53-56 (I think), came back(age 12) educationally sub-normal but bloody good at games.

    Father CPO A.J.Burden (aka "dicky"). Lived at no 12 coconut grove in naval family enclave.

    Recent tragedies in NE have put me off going back, but others may advise?

    Robin Burden (burdenz@virginmedia.com)

  3. This is very interesting, just putting together a photo book for my brother based on our time in Ceylon. We were there with my father, Arnold Abraham, who was a submariner with the Royal Navy. Have heaps of photos of that time between 1952-1954. would love to see yours.
    Regards Andrea (daughter) - I was only two years old but remained until I was four, ,such memories....

  4. Hi - am from the 'other side' as it were. I was a Navy Brat, born in 1955 and from a few years later spent my childhood in the Dockyard (H.M.Cy.S. Tissa). My father, Lt.Cdr.Muhsin Wahid, was the first Ceylonese Navy officer to take over the Base when the RN left. Although your period was before my time, I was fascinated by your story since I grew up in Trinco and my first school, St Mary's, was in the town there. Later I joined the Merchant Navy and sailed for 35 yrs qualifying for my Master's Licence eventually at Warsash near Southampton. I now however live in the German town of Bremen with my family where I work as Nautical Supt for a German shipping company. I happened to find your blog while searching for pics of Trinco! Glad you had the chance to visit The Dockyard. Kind regards, Mehran Wahid

  5. Hello Mehran,
    Thanks for your response,I have many pics of Trinco ,beaches ,dockyard ,town, naval base etc .Let me know what you are looking for. Regards Steve (stephenrhall@msn.com)

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  7. Hi, Dear all I am really enjoyed about reading history of Trincomalee dockyard and presently living in the dockyard (Belfry House). If anyone know about Belfry House I would like to know the history. Further, If anyone interest about Trincomale (Specially dockyard) I will help you to see and enjoy present day dockyard. nadeerakulapathi@gmail.com. Thank you.

  8. I was living in Trinco 1950-1953 My father was the Deputy Victualling Officer and we lived with a lady doctor (Wallace) on the Inner Harbour Road. I also remember the trip out the Suez and Aden but more so the return in'52/'53 My father lucky so and so flew both ways by flyingboat!!Some where I have hours of the tours of Ceylon on 8mm cine film.

    1. Hi,I also remember the boat journey via Suez & Aden, via this link I have the names of some of the kids on my photos.We lived in Coconut Grove .If I can help you my email is stephenrhall@msn.com .Cheers Steve

    2. I lived in Ceylon 1954-56, firstly at Kotagoda, near Negumbo (?) wih was an old Wold War II airfield. Our bungalow was at the end of the runway. After some time we flew in a Valletta to Trinco and lived in the peta for a while before moving to a bungalow at China Bay. Sister and I went to school by boat across the harbour, We then moved to the lower half of a house overlooking the Lido across the harbour. My father was the Radio Officer at HMS Highflyer. Wonderful childhood swimming, sailing and fishing, quite often at night in a dug out canoe. On leaving Columbo on troop ship Suez crisis started so we sailed around the Cape!