Life Abroad Pt. 126 - PENNILESS, but MIGHTY!

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.

In 1962 immediately after the unsuccessful coup attempt to depose Mrs. Bandaranaike's government and to arrest all the top government leaders, Sir Oliver Goonatillake was expelled from Ceylon while all the others found guilty of the conspiracy were jailed.

According to Peter Wijesinghe (Bandiya), his master Sir Oliver had ‘nothing’ with him except the clothes he was wearing at the time when he was escorted to the airport under strict orders from Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike, Minister of Finance at the time. Fortunately, through his International contacts, Sir Oliver had a bosom friend in Paris, Baroness de Waldner, among many others in Europe. Sir Oliver had been quite shocked and distraught at the time, however he managed to recuperate from the jolt gradually with the help of his friend Baroness de Waldner while in Paris.

After a few days of the incident, Peter Wijesinghe received an unexpected telephone call in an evening from Sir Oliver in Paris while he and his wife were watching television at their flat in Carlisle Place, London SW1, which belonged to Sir Oliver's another friend in the UK, Mrs. Saunders.

During the telephone conversation Sir Oliver made a request to Peter Wijesinghe: “Peter, I want to come to London, can I stay with you in the flat......? Also, can you inform Mrs. Saunders about my plan.....? There will be letters addressed to me delivered to your home address, please keep them for me”. Excited Peter Wijesinghe responded swiftly by saying: “You come anytime Sir, you are most welcome”

New Surroundings 

A few days later Sir Oliver arrived in London and stayed in cognito at 3A, Carlisle Place, London SW1. Hannah and Peter made Sir Oliver comfortable to the best of their ability and looked after the old master for one whole year whilst protecting and concealing Sir Oliver's presence in London to anyone.

Due to stringent exchange control regulations imposed by Felix Dias Bandaranaike at the time, Sir Oliver could not get any of his money out to London. Although he had sincere and intimate friends such as Baroness de Waldner in Paris, Mrs. Saunders in the UK, Maharaja and Maharani in Baroda, Agha Khan, the German Industrialist Herr Krupp, Sithambaram Adayer, a wealthy Indian entrepreneur in Bombay and many other distinguished ladies and gentlemen, he was reluctant to be seen as becoming a liability to any of them.

Under the circumstances Peter and Hannah came to Sir Oliver's rescue and extended a helping hand in whatever form they could. Simultaneously, Sir Oliver's daughter Sheila managed to arrange British Pounds in London for her father by disposing of Ceylon rupees in Sri Lanka through influential contacts in Colombo intermittently.

The term ‘money laundering’ had not been evolved at the time, although in technical terms it amounted to violation of Exchange Control Regulations, and it was illegal under the monitory laws that prevailed then. This caused a sudden starvation of funds for Sir Oliver in London and left him in a quandary. Only in the evenings he went out to meet with his friends disguised.


An individual's destiny can shape in many forms during one's sojourn in this corporeal world. This theory was proven beyond any doubt when a person of Sir Oliver's calibre and position is taken into consideration. Here was the most powerful official in Ceylon once who held the supreme position as Governor General & Queen's representative, yet overnight he had become so powerless, helpless and vulnerable.

Sir Oliver was married to Esther (née Jayawardena) and had three children, Joyce, Sheila and Ernie. As a brave man he did not succumb to grief under the circumstances; instead he embraced all such humanoid chastisements as God's providence. He wanted to build up a new life by putting his past away since ‘ all his wealth had been frozen'.

Against such a backdrop, he took up a job in Central London initially, at the upper market famous Indian eatery, Weerasamy's Restaurant, in Regents Street, Piccadilly Circus, as cashier. Seemingly he managed to upgrade his position by working at several companies based in London, related to Ceylon's tea and rubber businesses. 

Finally he rose to the position of becoming the first Asian to be elected as an Underwriter at the renowned reinsurance house in London, Lloyd's of London. The financial qualification to become an underwriting member of Lloyds Register demanded one to show £250,000 in credit in one's bank account. In this regard, Mrs. Saunders loaned him some money, as an additional sum he required, to obtain his Lloyds Registration.

As a Lloyds Underwriter, Sir Oliver managed once more to earn quite a lot of money. He travelled around the world, from place to place. In such an instance, while he was in India, he managed to meet up with his children and grandchildren, who had travelled from Ceylon to see and greet him, as he was barred from entering his homeland.

During another visit to India, Sir Oliver Goonatillake wrote a personal note to Peter, from a town in Bombay called Juhu, on 23rd March 1963 which read thus:


  Juhu, Bombay



My dearest Hannah & Peter

I am leaving India on 27th March on my way to you, but I am not likely to get there till after the 10th April -Mrs. Saunders may be in Paris at that time.

I let you know the exact date of arrival later on. In the meantime letters will keep on arriving, addressed to me, at your address -Please Peter keep them for me. I have seen all my children and their families. Sheila is here now (second time) for my last week in India. She returns on March 26. 

If you are likely to be away for your holidays after the 10th April, please ask the gentleman in charge of the building to expect me. I left my flat keys behind.





Tilak S. Fernando

Be kind to unkind people; they need it most

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