Project Canterbury

Padre Rowlands of Ceylon

By R. P. Butterfield, M.A., B.D.

London and Edinburgh: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, Ltd., no date.

Chapter X. Colombo: Third Period of Work, 1873-1877

ON October 20, 1873, after eighteen months' furlough, William Rowlands, with his wife and three children, returned to Ceylon, the eldest son, Charlie, having been left at home. Part of the furlough time had been spent in pleasant surroundings in the little village of Stanton St. Bernard, Wiltshire, and here another son had been added to the family, who was named Bernard from the place of his birth.

Among other passengers on the S.S. Sultan was a young missionary of the C.M.S., the Rev. H. Horsley, who thus describes his first meeting with one with whom he was to be closely associated in after years: "Dear Rowlands was, in my opinion, one in a thousand--a rare man, and one whom to know was indeed a privilege.

"My memory of him goes back more than fifty-four years, for I met him on board the Sultan in October 1873. He was then returning to Ceylon, and I was going to Madras, en route to Tinnevelly. During the month that we were together he taught me to spell out the Lord's Prayer in Tamil."

Among other passengers there was the usual complement of brides-to-be going out to be married to planters and others. Concerning one of these, Mr. P. R. Shand, the doyen of Ceylon planters, contributes a reminiscence. "I met Padre Rowlands," he writes, "first in Colombo on November 29, 1873, when he married my brother, J. Loudoun Shand, at the Galle Face Church. Next time I met him was at the same place, when he baptized my brother's eldest son, W. C. Loudoun Shand. . . . My brother's golden wedding was celebrated by a lunch at an hotel in London, and the Padre, who had come out in the same ship with the bride, proposed the health of the couple he had married fifty years before!

"When I saw that Padre Rowlands was one of the guests, I sent a note round to my brother, 'May I propose the Padre's health?' and as he agreed, I did so, and said what joy it always gave us in Ceylon when he rode up on his faithful pony we got to know so well."

Rowlands returned to Ceylon at a time when the island appeared to be at the zenith of its prosperity. Fortunes were being made out of coffee cultivation, and the new districts of Upper Dimbula and Upper Dickoya were being feverishly planted up. A small cloud, no larger than a man's hand, had, however, appeared on the horizon, the precursor of a disaster, which, in the course of a few years, was to bring about the ruin of a flourishing industry, and to reduce hundreds of planters to poverty and despair. It was in May 1869 that strange orange-coloured spots had appeared on the coffee leaves, indicating the presence of a disease called Hemeleia vasta-trix, which, during the succeeding years, rapidly spread over the whole coffee region.

Rowlands now set about the completion of his schemes for the Borella Schools. Hitherto, provision had been made for the education of gkls only, as that seemed to be the greater need. But now the time had come for a Boys' School to be added to the existing institution.

Early in 1874, whilst working out the scheme for the new Boys' School, with his accustomed energy, fateful news came of the death of his beloved father. As the eldest son, it was necessary to take a flying trip home to assist in the settling-up of his father's affairs. Rowlands accordingly left Ceylon on February 6, 1874, returning, on the completion of his business, on April 16. 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 the previous January the happy little home at Ward Place had been blessed by the birth of another daughter, Lucy, so well known in Ceylon in after years.

The work on the Boys' School was now vigorously pushed forward, and, in 1875, the buildings were formally opened and quickly filled with pupils drawn mainly from the higher grades of the estates upcountry and Colombo.

So important did the work in the schools become that Rowlands, in 1875, immediately after the opening of the Boys' School, paid a special visit to Tinnevelly in order to procure a good headmaster for the school. He was fortunate in securing a Mr. Ambrose, a stepbrother of Bishop Azariah of Dornakal. To Ambrose, Rowlands attributed very largely the success of the school. Miss Rowlands writes with reference to Ambrose, "Father loved him dearly, and had a deep regard for him. One of his last messages before he passed away was, 'Tell Ambrose I never ceased to thank God for him.' Ambrose died many years ago, but dear father, having lost his memory, had forgotten this. Very often during the last few months of his life he thought himself back in Ceylon, and more than once on a Saturday evening he would ask for his Tamil Bible and Prayer Book so that he might prepare for the services on the following day."

The Borella schools were very dear to the hearts of Rowlands and his wife. One of the great joys which the veteran missionary experienced on his return to the island, after twenty-three years' absence, was to find old pupils of the school standing out as fine Christian men and women. The careers of many were followed with interest and prayer. In a letter, written August 1882, from Chilaw to his eldest daughter, then at school in England, he alludes to having gone there for the marriage of Margaret Paulick, one of the old pupils at Borella. He says, "It was a very long journey for me to take from Newara Eliya--180 miles--but your dear mother and I always had such an affection for these two girls (Margaret and her sister), and they have retained such an affectionate memory for us that when Mr. and Mrs. Paulick asked me to come here for the wedding I felt I could not refuse to do so. The same night I left Chilaw again, travelled all night, and reached Colombo on Thursday morning. To-day I come up to Kandy, and by Monday evening I hope to be in Newara Eliya again."

It would be difficult to overestimate the influence of Mrs. Rowlands in this work which she shared so fully and freely with her husband. That influence is better described by a member of the family. "It is difficult," she writes, "to think of my father's early days in the mission field without thinking of my mother, so closely was she linked with him in everything, and took such a keen interest in all the work. She was a devoted wife and mother, and her home, with a growing family, made great demands on her time and strength, but, nevertheless, her mind was ever reaching out towards those round about her, and their needs, temporal and spiritual.

"She was a wonderful teacher. Few children could have had the Old Testament stories more graphically told, by the help of large and beautifully coloured pictures, than we had. Geography lessons with her were something quite out of the ordinary! Married when still quite a girl, she had many latent talents, of which she was quite unconscious until the time came to use them, such as the cutting out and making up of little garments, metamorphising some hat bought in the Pettah, and making it appear as something just sent out from England, so that it might suit some childish face!

"How she did long for the best and highest good for her children! She once said to a friend, 'I never ask God that my children may be great, but that they may be good.'

"After the Borella Girls' Boarding School came into being, she entered into the school life of those girls, teaching in it sometimes herself, and carefully and regularly superintending the care of the dormitories, the arrangement of the girls' clothes on their individual shelves, and the cooking, when, in turn, the elder girls would have to go and help prepare the meals for the whole school, under the cook, and so be trained for the work in their own homes on leaving school.

"On the occasion of a school treat she would be seen taking a very active part in such a game as "Fox and Geese," though those who knew her best would realise, as the years rolled by, that she was putting a great strain upon herself, as she was far from strong. The climate, in the first few years of her married Ufe had told considerably on her, together with the sorrow occasioned by the loss of her eldest little daughter."

In 1876, a daughter, Zoe, had been born at Borella, shortly before which Rowlands, in order to provide a cool and healthy retreat in the hills for his children, bought the house known as "The Priory" in Newara Eliya.

Mrs. Rowlands' health about this time began to give great cause for anxiety. The writer, a member of the family, who has kindly contributed the above, continues: "In those far-off days, trained nurses, such as we have now, were unheard of in private homes. My father, for a period of one month during a very serious illness, constituted himself head nurse, attending to all my mother's wants by night, and seeing to the preparation of her food; relieved at intervals by day, by the kind ministrations of devoted friends, who would come in turn to help to nurse her; but as the months passed by and she did not rally, they both realised that for her the work on earth was soon to end.

"The call came on August 25, 1877, and on Sunday afternoon she was laid to rest in the Colombo Cemetery, not far from Borella. She had drawn to herself many, 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 among the Tamils many indeed felt that they had lost their 'Mother.'

"Never shall I forget the feeling of utter desolation after her death, nor the lonely look my father had when he brought his baby girl, only fifteen months old, up to Newara Eliya to join the rest of the family at 'The Priory,' having nursed her on his lap the whole journey through. Little wonder that he was so much run down in health after such sorrow that it was thought better that a change of scene, as well as of work, should be sought for, which led to his appointment to the Tamil Coolie Mission, making his headquarters at Newara Eliya."

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