|My grandfather Richard Hall|
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:
"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.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.
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.
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.
My dad with his older brother Alan in 1952 &
(inset) outside the same building in 2013
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."
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!