Anna Goes To School (Our Present Past 3)

[ To get caught up on this story Click here   for OUR PRESENT PAST (1) / CLICK HERE FOR OUR PRESENT PAST (2) ]


Pink streaks of dawn stained the sky when the overnight train from Jaffna ground to a halt at the Fort railway station in Colombo.  Clutching his small bag of belongings, the boy stepped out of his carriage, overwhelmed by the noise and bustle of the waking metropolis. 

Aunt Rebecca Ponnamma was waiting on the platform, her husband — Uncle Samuel Alfred Perinpanayagam — at her side.  She waved to catch her nephew’s eye. Rebecca Ponnamma wrapped her arms around her dead sister’s boy and Shadrak heaved a quiet sigh of relief. This was his mother’s flesh and blood.  His own.  

He was home.

Tramcars on York Street, in the bustling metropolis of Colombo, circa 1900’s. (Courtesy Google images).
Goodbye farming communities, wattle-and-daub abodes and coconut-thatch roofs in the rural the northern province of Jaffna … (Google images)


Rebecca Ponnamma Danvers was an intelligent young woman, as beautiful as she was bright.  She conversed fluently in English, a bright star at Uduvil Girls’ College where she was awarded a Queen’s Scholarship in 1901 when she obtained her Calcutta University Matriculation Certificate.  


Woman beyond her time: born in 1876, Rebecca Ponnamma Danvers (far left), with classmates (courtesy Eric Perinpanayagam)
Uduvil Girls School founded by the CMS Anglican Missonaries in Jan. 1824, the first girls’ boarding school established in Asia.


A senior class at Uduvil Girls’ School, circa early 1900’s (Courtesy Tishan Mills,









School teacher, evangelist, lifelong friend and ally of Dr. Mary Rutnam, Rebecca Ponnamma Danvers was a woman beyond her time.

Dr Mary Rutnam (1873-1962), a Canadian pioneer, physician, philanthropist and political activist, came to Ceylon in 1896. She was rejected as a missionary doctor because of her marriage to a Ceylonese Tamil man. In defiance of missionary and colonial society, she remained in Ceylon and worked for the government.

In 1904 Rebecca married Samuel Alfred Chellathurai Perinpanayagam who was a first cousin.  They were both grandchildren of Kadirgamar and Harriet (Theivenei)  Danvers.  (Kadirgamar Danvers was the first in the family line to convert to Christianity). The couple moved to Colombo where Samuel Alfred was employed by the British firm, Messrs Boustead Brothers.  They settled in the then fashionable suburb of Kotahena, where they purchased a home in Silversmith Street (now Bandaranaike Mawatha)



Shadrak found shelter in the kind maternal presence of his aunt and was happy in the home in Kotahena.  Barely approaching his teens, the boy was apprenticed to the British firm, Hoare and Company.  Here he was initiated into the hardware business.  The job called for hard manual labour and his duties often included heaving heavy bags around on his back.   

Samuel Alfred and Rebecca Ponnamma (Danvers) Perinpanayagam, grandly attired in colonial finery (courtesy Eric Perinpanayagam)

Young though he was, and now a cog in the wheel of big city life, Shadrak never gave up the daily discipline of a quiet early morning time alone in prayer and scripture-reading. 

He clung with steadfast determination to the early discipline of  his grandmother’s teaching,

From time to time he paused to open the twelfth-birthday letter from his granny to refresh his memory and savour the words in of the blessing scrawled in Tamil script.


Granny Victoria Harriet (Theivanei) Danvers, one of the earliest graduates of Uduvil Girls’ School, whose birthday blessing written to Shadrak on his 12th birthday, were a powerful source of inspiration. She wrote: May you one day, little one, be a millionaire and a great man …


Fishing boats in Kotahena, circa 1900’s. (Courtesy Google images).


Pettah, Colombo, circa early 1900’s.  A Colombo suburb in young Shadrak’s new territory (Google images)










Little Anna felt forlorn.  She missed Solomon, her twin and boon companion.  

Young Solomon, along with his two older brothers, was sent away to the northern city of Jaffna, to be taken in by foster families and educated at St John’s College, a reputed missions school for boys.  The twins, perhaps due to the traumatic circumstances surrounding their birth, had been inseparable.  It would be many years before she would set eyes on her beloved twin brother again.

st johns college
St John’s College as it stands today, renovated and restored after the civil war (picture taken by this writer in 2017)


Souvenir published in 1998 to mark the 175th anniversary of St John’s College, a prestigious seat of learning for boys established by Anglican missionaries, shows the original school buildings.









Sara Chinnamma (the oldest of the three sisters) and Anna Chinnathangam (the youngest) attended the local missions school in Vavuniya. 

Students at a local missions school, with a native teacher at the blackboard. (Google images).

Elizabeth Thangamma, the middle sister, who had no particular desire or inclination for book learning wasn’t unhpappy when her schooling was discontinued prematurely.  She stayed home and assisted  Grandma with the household chores.  

Vavuniya in the Vanni region, where the girls lived with their widowed grandmother, was still wild, undeveloped territory.  Foreigners hesitated to set foot in the area and all missionary work was relegated to the native converts to Christianity. The local centres of leaning were staffed by native teachers and the level of education offered at these schools was basic.

Anna was a student at such a school, which was a short walk away from her grandmother’s home.  She shone like a star.  

One unforgettable day, an unexpected visitor was directed to this modest seat of education in Vavuniya.  The Reverend S.S. Somasundaram from Saint John the Baptist Anglican Church, Chundikuli, Jaffna, was on a tour of inspection.  Wearing a long, flowing beard and unusually short cassock, the famous bicycle-riding priest cut a striking figure when he stepped into Anna’s classroom.  The child eyed the stranger with fascination. 


A little Tamil girl from northern Ceylon, Bible in hand, early 1900’s. An Anna lookalike, perhaps?
Rev. Sangarapillai Somasundaram (later Canon Somasundaram) was born (1877) to an orthodox Hindu family.  He was disowned by his family when he became a convert to Christianity.  He was once called the greatest Christian of the century in Jaffna.  His chosen mode of transport was his bicycle, on which he was known to travel long distances. (Google images)


A vintage map of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) showing the northern Vanni region where Anna lived with her sisters and grandmother (Google images)











The clergyman conducted a spur-of-the-moment quiz, utilizing a large map of Ceylon, which hung on the wall.  He pointed and encouraged the young scholars to identify various locations on the the island.  Burning with enthusiasm, Anna was the one student who eagerly raised her hand and stood up every time to deliver a  correct response.

Intrigued by bearded the stranger, she lingered during lunch recess and observed curiously as the august visitor partook of his meal.  She noticed that the accompaniments surrounding the plate of rice were bland and wondered why there were no spice-hot curries in the mix.  Something didn’t seem right.

A traditional Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) lunch. Rice with fiery curried vegetables and meat or fish (Google images)

As she watched, she saw the visitor’s hand go his stomach and gathered from the way he winced and the grimace contorting his face, that he was suffering great pain.  

 Boldly she stepped forward and enquired in Tamil, “Rasam kondu varalama?”  (“Could I bring you some rasam?”) (Rasam is a spicy soup, a northern speciality, tasty eaten with rice and curries and an excellent remedy for digestive ills.)

Taken aback the Reverend replied, “Where would you get the rasam from, little girl?”

“My granny will make it,” Anna answered with unhesitating conviction and darted away.

She returned a short while later carefully holding a jar of the promised liquid, still hot from Granny’s cooking pot.

With grateful gulps, the gentleman availed himself of the thoughtful offering, pleased and taken aback by the child’s unexpected action.  Touched by the concern she showed, he told her he felt much better.

“You’re a clever little girl,” Reverend Somasundaram declared, smiling at the bright-eyed child.  “Would you like to study in Jaffna?”

“I’ll have to ask my grandmother,” Anna responded.

“Then I want to meet your granny,” the priest replied.

Anna ran back home again.

The bewildered grandmother was ushered into Rev. Somasundaram’s presence and almost collapsed from shock when she heard him say, “May I have your permission to take this child back with me to Chundikuli?  The Church will be responsible for her education.”

Grandma Harriet Danvers gladly gave her consent and little Anna Chinnathangam was whisked away to her new life by the timely intervention of fate.  She was enrolled as a boarder at Chundikuli Girls’ College, an Anglican missions school in Jaffna, where she adapted well to the dazzling overnight change in her circumstances.


Chundikuli Girls’ College as it stands today, restored after a brutal civil war. (2017)
Chundikuli Girls’ Collge at its original location, in the fashionable Jaffna suburb of Chundikuli, in 1904








Anna excelled in her studies, successfully completed the Senior Cambridge examination and embarked on her chosen career as a trained teacher.


Anna Chinnathangam bloomed into an elegant town girl.  She came to be known as a stylish dresser.
Staff at a CMS Anglican Missions school, circa 1900’s 









Big brother, Shadrak, in the meanwhile, domiciled in Colombo, impressed his employers with his intelligence, disciplined work ethic and quiet wisdom.  He rose to the position of store manager at Hoar and Company.


Rebecca Ponnamma (Danvers) Perinpanayagam (seated, centre) with her family.  Her younger son, George Walter Kulasingham Perinpanayagam on her lap.  Standing (right) her older son, Stephen Edgar Rasasingham Perinpanayagam.  Her husband, Samuel Alfred Chellathurai Perinpanayagam (standing behind her).  Seated (left) her mother, the praying grandmother, Victoria Harriet (Theivanei) Danvers
Still pretty in old age – Rebecca Ponnamma (Danvers)  Perinpanayagam, circa 1950’s.  Rebecca had a second son who died before his first birthday.  There was also an adopted daughter who passed away in her teens.  (Courtesy Elizabeth Gnanaselvam)















Shadrak referred to his Aunt Rebecca’s sons – his cousins, Stephen Edgar Rasasingham and George Walter Kulasingham Perinpanayagam (later known to his children as Rasa Unca and Geo Unca) – as his brothers.  The affection was mutual and the closeness remained till the end of their lives.


The closeness remained till the end of their lives. Rebecca Ponnamma (Danvers) Perinpanayagam holding her nephew Shadrak’s first grandchild, Srikanthi, on her lap (courtesy Cynthia Pillai)
Cousin Stephen Edgar Rasasingham Perinpanayagam, a learned intellectual, older son of Samuel Alfred and Rebecca Ponnamma (Danvers) Perinpanayagam (Courtesy Eric Perinpanayagam)


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Cousin George Walter Kulasigham Perinpanayagam the younger son of Rebecca and Samuel Alfred Perinpanayagam (courtesy Bala Abraham)
Shadrak Chinniah Samuel in his forties.
















Faith was the glue that held the community together.  Sunday was a day of rest and socializing when immediate and extended family met to worship at morning service at Saint Thomas’ Anglican Church, Ginthupitya, and spent the rest of the day visiting each other’s homes.  This tradition was maintained for several years as a steady trickle of migration brought relatives from the north, to the island’s capital and they all settled in Kotahena, within visiting distance of each other.


The little church of Saint Thomas, Gintupitiya, one of the oldest Anglican churches in the country, built on the mound where the apostle Thomas is believed to have preached when he visited the island of Ceylon en route to his missionary journey to India (Google images) 


Young Tamil woman, circa 1900’s. (Google images)

Always uppermost on Shadrak’s mind were his siblings, two hundred miles away in the arid northern province of Sri Lanka.

To be continued …    

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Widow’s Dilemma: Our Present Past (2)

Click here to read Our Present Past (1)

Life changed with the grisly demise of her husband, Vethanayagam Subramaniam Samuel. In ways Mary Chellamma never imagined. The breadwinner struck down in his prime, she was left alone to raise month-old twins amongst six young children. There was neither time, nor expertise to tend the land which was the family’s only source of income.

Rice farmers in Ceylon in the early 1900s, clad in loin cloths and driving buffalo yoked to hand-crafted ploughs.  Similar scenes are still to be seen in rural parts of the island (now Sri Lanka) (Google images)

Mary turned in desperation to her brother-in-law, her husband’s brother, who cultivated rice and raised cattle on the adjoining property.   He agreed to take on the management of her farm. Mary was relieved to be rid of the burden.

Blood is thicker than water, after all, and they were neighbours …

Rice (paddy) cultivation in the early 1900s – back-breaking manual labour.  The same primitive methods are still in  practice in certain rural areas of the island. (Google images)

Woman of faith: Grandma Harriet Danvers, wife of David Danvers (who was the son of Kathirgamar Danvers, the first convert to Christianity in the family line)

Harriet (Theivanei) Danvers – Mary’s mother, the children’s maternal grandmother – a widow herself, lived in her own home, a stone’s throw away. This pious woman was a bottomless reservoir of strength.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw evangelical activity at its height in northern Ceylon.  The numerous schools and hospitals in the region bore witness to the presence and commitment of the American and British missionaries. Mary Chellammah, a young woman still, found employment with the CMS Missionaries in the area, who offered her a position as nurse’s aide at the local missions hospital.

The Misses Leitch ( AMSmissionaries) with Tamil converts in Jaffna.  Foreign missionaries did not venture into the untamed Vavuniya area (wary of both inhabitants and jungle animals). Mary would have been assisted by native Christians, who were sent to serve in this region (courtesy, Google images) American missionaries in Jaffna, northern Sri Lanka, where the Samuel family originally hailed from (courtesy Tishan Mills,

Northern provinces of Ceylon (highlighted) Vethanayagam Samuel relocated from the Jaffna province (shaded pink) to Vavuniya in the Vanni region (shaded brown)

Bullock carts, a bull trussed up for branding,and  a young boy with branding iron in hand. (circa 1900’s, Google images)

Disaster struck again.   Neighbour-brother-in-law turned perfidious predator and assumed ownership of the widow’s property.  By unscrupulous means he had changes were made to the the title deeds and the cattle were re-branded accordingly.

Grandma Harriet – Paatti to the little ones – was a woman of prayer and unshakeable faith.  She was known to sit in her house for hours by herself, lost in prayer. Her hands one upon the other, palms facing heavenwards, she pleaded with tears for heaven’s favour. 

Aunty Paranidhy (Anna Chinnathangam’s daughter) recalls the stories her mother told her. She shows me how her great grandmother Harriet’s hands reached heavenwards in prayer.

Subramaniam Vethanayagam (S.V.) Chelliah, her oldest grandson, looked in through an open window one day, and heard the old lady praying out loud in Tamil: “Heavenly Father, what am I to do about these children?  Open the windows of heaven and bless them, I pray.” (“Aandavaney, intha sinna kulanthaihalodu naan enne seivan?  Vaananthin palahanhelai thiranthu intha chiruvarhalai aasirwathiyum.”)

Irreverently tickled by the pious woman’s fervour, Chelliah summoned his brothers and sisters to witness the peep-show. The amused youngsters gawked at their grandmother while she made her petition to the unseen Almighty.

“Look at how her hands are open and reaching upwards,” he snorted with  laughter.  “She’s waiting for heaven to open and blessings to fall into them.”

The yield from the land continued to be purloined by the greedy uncle. Mary and her little ones lived in a home, which, according to the doctored deeds, was theirs no more.

Life was a struggle. 

The stuff that ugly fairy tales are made of …

When the twins – Solomon and Anna – were six years old, Mary Chellammah took ill and was confined to her bed. Grandma Harriet, who carried on as best she could, was out of earshot when young Chelliah complained, “The food is not good (chaapadu chari illai).”

“Be patient, my son,” his ailing mother urged. “I’ll be up and about to cook tasty meals for my children (porungo rasa, naan elumbitu wanthu, nalai chamaichchu kudukiren pillaihalukku)

Mary was unable to keep her promise.  Fate struck another foul blow when she succumbed to her illness and died a short while later. The six fatherless offspring of Vethanayagam Subramaniam Samuel  were now orphans.

Grandma Harriet – was left to raise the children on her own.

The children became unofficial wards of the Anglican Church.              

The Anglican Church of the Holy Spirit, Vavuniya, where the family would probably have worshipped.

Elizabeth Thangamma, who showed no particular interest in academic learning, was constrained to give up her schooling in order to remain at home and help cook and care for her siblings.

The boys were fostered out to benevolent families in Jaffna, sixty miles north of Vavuniya. The providential intervention of the church enabled them to continue their education at the reputed CMS Missions boys’ school, St. John’s College , Chundikuli (Jaffna).

St. John’s College, Jaffna, as it stands at present, renovated and reconstructed after the civil war.

Jaffna town is approxiamtely 60 miles north of Vavuniya


On Shadrack Chinniah’s twelfth birthday he received a letter from his grandmother (who remained in Vavuniya with his sisters), mailed to his new address in Jaffna.  The single sheet of notepaper was laced with weighty words of blessing written  in the Tamil language. 

Granny wrote: May you, little one, go from strength to strength, and become a millionaire (Chinnavan aigiramum siriyavan palaththa seemanum aavaan).

This birthday proved to be a milestone marking the end of Shadrack’s formal schooling.  He bade farewell to Saint John’s College where he learned to read, write and speak with the polish and ability of a highly educated individual.    His dreams lay beyond the confines of the arid northern province, far away in the colonial metropolis of Colombo.

The landscape shifted from dusty-dry to lush-verdant as the tracks snaked inland and the train rattled on its way, two hundred miles down to the capital city in the south of Ceylon.

A steam train speeds along the British-built coastal railway lines of early 1900s Ceylon (courtesy Google images)

In his shirt pocket, pressed to his heart, was the precious birthday letter.

The memory of his mother grazed his thoughts. The grim ghost of his uncle’s unthinkable actions haunted these quiet moments.  

Shadrak pressed his face to the train window.  Coconut-thatch huts and green fields flew by.                                                                                         

Mary Chellamma (Danvers) Samuel, young mother of Sarah Chinnamma, S.V. Chelliah, Shadrack Chinnathamby, Elizabeth Thangamma, Anna Chinnathangam and Solomon Chinniah

The new life beckoned.                                         

World War I was still to come.

To be continued …

the wide, wide world.  Dam Street, Colombo, circa 1900 ((Google images)

Geneology of the Danvers and Samuel lines (from the files of the late S.E.R. Perinpanayagam, courtesy Eric and Tim Perinpanayagam)

Danvers family line –

 * Kanthar married Thangam and had 4 children – 2 sons and 2 daughters (Circa 1790)
 * Their son, Kathirgamar Danvers (born 1809) married Anna Saveriyal.
*  Kathirgamar and Anna Danvers had 7 (8 ?) children – only 1 daughter
           David, Jane, Daniel, Gabriel, Samuel, Solomon & Joseph.
* David Danvers married Harriet Theivanai
* David and Harriet Danvers had 3 children, all daughters.
      Mary Chellammah, Elizabeth Annamma & Rebecca Ponnamma
* Mary Chellammah Danvers married Subramanium Vethanayagam Samuel
* Mary Chellammah Danvers and Subramaniam Vethanayagam Samuel had 3 sons and 3 daughters –
      Sarah Chinnamah, Subramaniam Vethanayagam Chelliah, Shadrack         Chinniah, Elizabeth Thangammah, Solomon Chinniah and Anna Chinnathangam
*Rebecca Ponnama married Samuel Alfred Chelladurai Perinpanayagam

Samuel family line –

Illanganayagar Udaiyar of Kaithady – Vethanayagam married: Seeniachi of Urumpirai
They had 6 daughters and 3 sons which included
* Subramanium Vethanayagam Samuel who married Mary Chellammah Danvers
  Thangam Vethanayagam who married Solomon Danvers


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