Life Abroad- - Pt. 124 - Successor to Sir Oliver Goonatillake

Continued in Pt.. 4 - 1962 Ceylonese coup d'état attempt – Colonel’s coup – Sir Oliver flees to Paris

 Continuation of a fascinating true to life story of Wijesim Peelige Bandiya, son of a Kandyan ‘ hack & burn’ peasant farmer, who sailed away from the Colombo harbour to the UK at a very tender age, with only three Australian pounds in his pocket, accompanied by Sir Oliver Goonatillake in 1948, married a German girl and transformed his life into something unimaginable over the years and returned to his roots as a ‘ laxapathiya’ (millionaire) and is now settled in a spacious house at the age of 86 with his brother Wijesim Peelige Ran Kira, 98 years old, in Pahatha  Dumbara, Kandy. Following are excerpts from an interview the writer had recently in Kandy with Wijesim Pelige Bandiya. Part 3

SUCCESSOR TO SIR OLIVER GOONATILLAKE 

Peter Wijesinghe was accommodated (rent free) on the 4th Floor of the High Commission Building at 13 Hyde Park Gardens, London W2. As an additional responsibility he had to assist the caretaker Buluwela on every other week alternatively.  To fill the vacancy that created after Sir Oliver Goonatillake left London as the Ceylon High Commissioner, it took nearly eleven months for a replacement to arrive. The new appointee was Sir Edwin Wijeratne whose tour of duty confined to a period from 1952 to 1954, during which Peter Wijesinghe was delegated as The High Commissioner’s Personal Messenger for two reasons. Firstly, Sir Edwin being a ‘ Kegalle man’ himself had a soft corner for someone from Kegalle; secondly he was fond of Peter as he had proven to be an efficient and a humble employee.

Learning Process 

This made Peter Wijesinghe attend English Classes to learn the language properly at Workingmen’s College at Morning ton Crescent in Camden, London NW1. A remarkable feature in the English education system is that it has continued over the years, with their far thinking ideas of making the society literate, by affording further education to all ages of citizens.  

After the basic and secondary education in the UK, the normal stream of learning continues up to University graduate and postgraduate levels.  Equally, there are other opportunities open to ‘drop-outs’ from the main stream, for the young as well as to adults, to continue the edification in a wide and varied manner, which can take in the form of ‘ day release courses’ covering City & Guilds exams for those who work full time. In such cases the employers become legally bound by law to allow their staff to attend such classes with full pay. 

Evening classes cater for other types who are eager to continue with higher learning, but who are subjected to time constraints during office time. Sandwich courses help students (especially overseas students) to attend the minimum requirement of 15 hours a week full time, to qualify as ‘ bona-fide students’ according to the Home Office regulations, which most of the foreign students used to make use of by working and studying simultaneously. The latest is there are special ‘English as a Secondary Language’ classes solely created for the benefit of the foreigners, immigrants and refugees to the UK.

In the case of Peter Wijesinghe, once he had mastered reading the Bible, influenced by Rev. De Silva, he became an avid reader of many books and magazines thus expanded his general knowledge and became a versatile figure on many a subject. 

German Influence

After the World War II, and Adolf Hitler got defeated, a German gentleman by the name of Fredrick Richter migrated to England. Later he was employed by the Ceylon High Commission in London as the ‘Education and Technical Attaché. Seemingly the association between Fredrick Richter and Peter Wijesinghe developed into a bosom friendship. Whenever there was a function at the Ceylon High Commission, Richter invited many German girls to such parties; during such an occasion Richter introduced a young German girl to Peter called Johanna Anthonia Worschech. 

Johanna Worschech had arrived in the UK from Munich to work as “ mother’s help” initially, and was based at Worcester Park, Surrey. Later she gave up the ‘mother’s help job and enrolled as a student nurse at the St. Mary Abbott’s Hospital at Kensington, London West 8.

St. Mary Abbott’s Hospital at Kensington, London West 8 happened to be a ‘ hop step and a jump’ distance from Addison’s road where Peter lived, as such; it became very convenient for him to visit the hospital whenever he needed any medical attention.  It was such a coincidence that whenever Peter sought any medical treatment, Nurse Joanna happened to nurse him at the hospital, which helped them to build up a platonic friendship.

With the passage of time, Peter invited Joanna to the Independence Day celebrations at the Ceylon High Commission. During that period the Independence Day celebrations were held either in Porchester Hall or Seymour Hall in London. Seemingly the chemistry between the two developed over a period of 2-3 years, and in 1954 the two of them decided to take a trip to Venice on the well known ‘Orient Express’ train to participate in the legendary Venice Biennale ("Venice Biennial") which was a major art exhibition that took (takes) place once every two years (in odd years) in (Italy).

Coincidently the Ceylon Ambassador in Rome at the time Mr. H.A.J. Hulugalle, with his involvement with the  ’43 Group’ in Sri Lanka had managed to influence the organisers of the Venice Biennale to afford an opportunity for Sri Lankan paintings too to be exhibited at the Venice Biennale. The contemporary art scene in Sri Lanka was the formation of the 43 Group in 1943 equivalent of the Salon des Independents.  

Peter and Johanna had the occasion to visit the exhibition in Venice in the company of famous Ceylonese artists at the time such as George Keats, George Claessen, Justin Deraniyagala, Ivan Peiris and Aubrey Collette. The young couple travelled from Victoria railway station and had their first stopover in Munich to meet up with Johanna’s parents, Alfred Worschech and Emile Worschech, before proceeding to the exhibition.

Worschech Family 

Alfred Worschech had been a soldier during the World War I, and the Worschech family originally came from Sudetenland, part of Czechoslovakia which was annexed by Hitler just prior to the World War II. When Czechs expelled the Germans from Sudetenland, Worschech family among other residents from there managed to smuggle themselves out to East Germany.   However, When Russians invaded part of Germany and Hitler lost the war, the Axis Powers (Americans, British, Russians and the French) ‘raped’ Germany and the country was divided into West and East Germany. In such circumstances, Worschech family had to abandon their assets such as an apple yard, a mill and a bakery they owned when they smuggled themselves into East Germany. From there they moved to West Germany and settled down in Munich (Bavaria).

Once young Peter after meeting with the Worschech family at Munich in 1954 and managed to get their blessings and the consent to take the hand of their daughter in marriage, the young couple continued their journey to Venice and stayed at Hotel Danieli, the legendary five star luxury hotel close to St. Mark's Square before they proceeded to Venice Biennale exhibition.

In 1958 Peter Wijesinghe married Johanna Anthonia Worschech and became the record holder to have a wedding  reception ( up to this day) at the Board  Room of the Sri Lanka High Commission at 13 Hyde Park Gardens  in London where 200 guests ( inclusive of the High Commission staff) were invited.  Among the distinguished guests at the reception were  the High Commissioner Gunasena de Soyza and wife, Deputy High Commissioner K. Kanakasundaram, Prof. J.C.L.Rodrigo, Mr. T.D. Perera  etc., (the former Commissioner of Ceylon Currency).

After the marriage Peter and his young bride could not live at his quarters  inside High Commission office building, so they found a cozy flat in London SW1 at No. 3A, Carlisle, Place, Victoria.   In 1963, for the first time since he left Ceylon many years ago, he made his first trip back to his homeland with his newly wedded wife Hannah. Later the couple had a daughter.

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