In 1817, the Chairman of the Methodist Church of Sri Lanka, Rev James Lynch, an Irishman, reported that "it would not be easy to find congregations without schools". There was a good deal of anxiety among supporters at home (Britain) about the plan proposed by Mr. Lynch. However, the Home Committee gave its blessings to this project and soon schools were established in many places.
From the very beginning of the Wesleyan Mission in Ceylon, a great deal of money and effort was put into the running of schools. In very many villages, it was through the schools that the missionaries first established contact with the population, and they were used on Sundays for the holding of services and Sunday Schools.
The Methodist Church has always been in the forefront of Education and in 1961 when the schools were taken over by the Government, it had 125 schools and we retained just 2 - the girls' school being Methodist College and the boys' school Wesley College - to be run as Assisted Schools.
Kollupitiya, one hundred and thirty two years ago, was not the residential area it is today, with broad tree-lined avenues, and the wide Galle Road running along the sea front. Kollupitya was a village with narrow tracks, cinnamon gardens and a sparse population. It had a market place with bullock carts, horse-drawn carriages and rickshaws on its roads. One of the few things it still has in common with that past era, is the Indian Ocean, which lashes the shore behind Methodist College.
It was in this village, the Methodist Mission started a Sinhala School in the early part of the 19th century.
In 1866, a devout Missionary, Miss Catherine Scott, came out to Ceylon and started the Kollupitiya Girls' English School in a large room on this same spot with merely forty girls. As a school, it was then as unimpressive as any village school in a remote area. The large room was divided into three sections - two for the Sinhala and English classes and the third for the persevering Methodist Missionary, busy learning Sinhala from a pundit. There were no beautiful classrooms with educational aids and apparatus .... Not even desks and chairs! The girls sat on benches along the walls, wrote on slates and made valiant efforts to master the "three Rs" and the intricacies of English spelling from the now unknown book called "Carpenter's Spelling" They were of course taught religion, and in 1874 a boarding school was added.
By the time Miss Scott left in 1883, the school was registered as a 'Grant-in-aid' English High School with 99 pupils and re-named Kollupitiya Girls High School. With the same determination of spirit which enabled her to last 17 years in this country she laid the foundation for this most Christian and outstanding of educational institutions.
This then was the beginning of Methodist College, Colombo, which today is a leading Secondary Collegiate school for girls, with classes up to the University Entrance level. From meagre beginnings, the school has blossomed into an outstanding multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious educational institution, conducting two streams of classes in Sinhala and Tamil, with English as a strong second language It now has a manageable student body of 2046 and a staff of 100 Teachers. 132 years have elapsed since the founding of Methodist College which marks a significant milestone in the life of a big school. We are proud of her achievements and salute those who have steered it. The Missionary Zeal of Catherine Scott, who found the school in 1866, has continued to animate successive Principals.
To get back to the history of the school, Miss Scott was succeeded by Miss Sanderson who was of a rather delicate disposition. She was in charge of this school for only three short years, before she had to leave due to ill health.
At the end of 1886, Miss Male succeeded her. By now the numbers had increased to 150 and could no longer be accommodated in the old building. It was due to Miss. Male's tireless efforts that a new school hall was built. The foundation stone was laid by Lady Havelock in 1890 and the hall was opened by Sir Noel Walker in 1891. This new hall was used to house the growing student population.
At this point, it would be of special interest to note that when the site for the present "Peiris" block was being prepared, this very same foundation stone bearing the inscription "Lady Havelock - 1890" was unearthed. Thus we can safely conclude that this was the site of Miss Male's Hall.
Miss Male left this school in May 1894 to be married and was succeeded by Miss Choate. This was indeed a momentous year for the school as her stewardship of the school was to last a long period of 33 fruitful years.
When Miss Choate first arrived, the school compound was quite different to what it is now. It had rather a quaint lay-out then, with the old Church, the rambling mission house, the boys' school, a printing office, a well with brackish water used by the printing office and a bell with a roof over it ... all of which do not exist today. An old-fashioned land-mark - now vanished forever!
In 1896 the new Kollupitiya Church was built and two years later, in 1898, the Scott Memorial Hall was also built in memory of the Rev John Scott, his wife Mary and sister, Catherine Scott, the founder of the school. As the school continued to grow in numbers, the Scott Memorial Hall was soon used by the school and the old school hall (Miss Male's hall) was now converted into a dormitory for the girls.
In 1905 as more help was needed, Miss Gertrude Parsons, B.A. (1905-1908) came out as Principal and Miss Choate with much grace, stepped aside from the Principalship (to make way for ladies who had technical qualifications which she did not possess) and took over the boarding as its superintendent. Miss Parsons however, left after 2 years to be married to the Rev A Brown. She was succeeded by Miss Ethel White B.A (1908-1912) who found the climate unsuitable and returned home after 3 years. Miss Choate resumed office as Principal once again. She was soon joined by Miss E. M Shire (1909-1942) and Miss Helen Park (1912-1944) as Vice Principal. The following three decades marked a leap forward in the growth and expansion of the school under the direction of this triumvirate. It was at this time that this school saw many changes which transformed it into a fully fledged Collegiate school.
Almost immediately after her arrival in 1913, Miss Park was responsible for introducing the teaching of elementary Science, a step which had far-reaching consequences for the institution. There was no laboratory, no apparatus or materials, but the girls were introduced to what science was all about and its importance in the scheme of things.
The curriculum was also broadened under Miss Choate in order to enrich the quality of education and the finer things of life. So, there was teaching of Music, Singing, the Arts, Literature, Poetry and Drama. Miss Shire took a leading part in the teaching of literature and poetry and her English class was held in high esteem by the girls.
The school had now been considered the pinnacle of educational efforts by the Methodist Missionaries and co-religionists. In 1915 the school was recognised as a fully equipped Senior Secondary School and its name changed to Methodist College.
Impressive innovations followed. The first Colombo Guide Company was formed in 1917 by Miss Choate and captained by Miss Shire. In 1919, the Old Girls' Association (OGA) was established and this organisation has developed into one that has ever since, taken a keen and devoted interest in the welfare of the school. The Methodist College OGA now has branches in London, Melbourne, Sydney and Toronto. It has played a prominent role in fund raising for the new buildings which now grace the compound.
The Methodist College magazine, begun in the year 1919, has served as an additional bond between those still in College and those who have already left. This magazine has been published uninterrupted ever since, with the possible exception of the war years.
Miss Choate realised that the boarding accommodation was inadequate to meet the increasing demands made by the growth of the school and so, a Hostel Building Fund was begun in 1919. The old girls promptly rallied round the Principal, presenting her with a cheque for Rs 1890/- However, it was only in 1921 that the foundation stone for the new Hostel was laid and the building was opened in January 1922 by the Colonial Secretary, Sir Graeme and Lady Thompson. Except for a break during the war, the hostel has continued to function and it now boasts 80 boarders.
At this point in the history of Methodist College, special mention must be made of the two managers of the School during that period - Revds W H Rigby (1907-1917) and A E Restarick (1917-1930) who had been a source of strength to the College.
From the Rev Rigby came the inspiration for the first re-building programme. It was mainly due to his endeavours that some of the old buildings were pulled down or adapted and the Rigby Hall completed in 1916, along with a new set of classrooms. The building of a new Hostel was a dream begun by him, for which he worked hard but never saw the fulfillment of.
His successor the Rev Restarick continued in his predecessor's path and gave great encouragement to the building of the new Hostel which was finally finished and opened in 1922.
Many changes have taken place since then and most of these old building have been demolished and newer, more modern ones have been erected in their place. It is sad that all the old familiar buildings are no more but then - this is the price one pays for progress. All that is still left of these lovely, old buildings are the Hostel block, the Restarick bungalow and the Scott Hall.
During these years the threesome Misses Choate, Park and Shire stamped their personalities on the School and moulded both the school and its students.
Miss Choate was hailed by the education authorities of the day as a great school mistress. Not only did she play a prominent part in building up this great institution, but also in cultivating the character of its pupils. This she felt was more important than academic education itself.
Miss Park, small made and diminutive in appearance, was however, quite strong-willed in character. From her the girls learnt to always speak the truth and share with others. Courtesy, kindness and sympathy were other qualities she expected from the girls.
Miss Shire grey-haired and brisk was something of a disciplinarian. Her invariable precepts for the girls being - "don't slouth, don't dawdle, don't sit on hat boxes, don't swing your legs and don't come decked in jewellery"
To these early missionaries, academic study alone was not enough. They set up high ideals for the girls to follow. The staunchest of Methodist values are taught here, now, as in the days of the missionaries - a non-ostentatious, simple life-style, humility, tolerance, caring for others, sharing, the brotherhood of man, learning and the enrichment of life through healthy, sober living. The teachings of Christ forming the bedrock of this approach to life. These ideals still shed their glow and, have been moulding several generations of children who have passed through the portals of Methodist College.
By 1922, the School appointed students as prefects and, in 1930 the House system was introduced. Both these new ventures were begun with the aim of giving the students responsibilities in the trend towards making them responsible citizens.
Financial problems faced by the Methodist Missionary Society in the United Kingdom had their repercussions on Methodist College. In 1934 the grant was cut by 10 percent. Regardless, the school carried on by making economies in its budget and, by 1935 the School became self-supporting.
Miss Park's foresight again anticipated the recommendations of educationists decades later, when in 1940, she was instrumental in the formation of the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) This brought together the involvement of parents and teachers in the welfare of the school. The PTA too has grown and takes an abiding interest in all activities of the School, in improvements and fund-raising.
1944 was another landmark when the first Sri Lankan, Mrs L G Loos, an old girl whose father was a Methodist Minister, became Principal, succeeding Miss Park. Mrs Gladys Loos was much loved by her pupils. She was steadfast in her devotion to the school and was unfazed by the financial problems the school was facing.
She had an understanding of human nature which few girls realized at the time. But many would remember her emphasis on gentility, feminity and womanliness .... with perhaps a touch of post-Victorian conviction.
When girls came clattering down the wooden staircase, she would come out of her office with her chin characteristically resting on one hand and the other touching her elbow and say, "You must walk in beauty, not clatter down like a pack of horses!"
In 1943, Methodist College was recognised as a Collegiate school and High School Certificate and University Entrance classes were started. This was crowned by the teaching of Science in the upper classes. Miss Park and Mrs Loos were responsible for introducing a comprehensive curriculum up to university level.
In this period of rapid development, the war intervened and coincided with political changes in the country. In February 1942, the College had to be closed because of the fear of air raids. Evacuation was discussed but the idea dropped. In May 1942 the day school did re-open but the Hostel was occupied by the Navy. It was only in 1946 that the Hostel was released and the College went into full session with 800 pupils.
As Ceylon gained independence from British rule, Methodist College could also say that the college too came into its own, when it was represented at the State Opening of Parliament, after the grant of Dominion status.
As the fifties dawned, Methodist College faced momentous decisions. In 1951 she entered the Free Education scheme as an assisted school. In this year, the College was raised to 'A' grade status and Miss Grace Robins took over as Principal on the retirement of Mrs Loos. These were years of further expansion and around this time Framjee House on Station Road was bought.
As the fifties closed the country as passing through a transitional period of political, economic, social, communal and religious transition. Far-reaching educational changes were being introduced. The College's Governing Board decided in 1961 that it should become a non fee-levying Private School. State assistance was no longer available but amidst all these tensions the College carried on.
In 1966 the Methodist College Education Society was formed with Parents, Teachers, Old Girls and Friends. The School faced a formidable task of raising funds to pay the staff and maintain itself as State grants were not available. Financially, these were difficult years; besides, the education system itself was undergoing diverse changes and the education authorities were making heavy demands on the school.
The tradition of high standards had to be maintained, competent and trained teachers had to be engaged and adequate salaries paid. Teaching in the University Entrance classes had to be of a high order, and teachers had to be found for all three language streams. All this could hardly be done on meagre facilities fees. The numbers had now risen to 1040.
Miss Robins at the helm, took all this in her stride. She faced the magnitude of the task with fortitude and ensured that standards were maintained and that the large portfolio of co-curricular activities was not curtailed.
In these years there was a tremendous demand for Science and the Science Department developed greatly under the able guidance of Mrs V S D Sathianadhan. There was no proper laboratory and the girls had to commute by bus and train to Technical College and Wesley College, and later to Bishop's College for their practicals. Despite this, in the first year 16 girls entered the University.
The demand for Science teaching was so great that one Principal was constrained to say that students would rather fail having taken up Science subjects than pass in Arts! Slowly the laboratories grew out of next to nothing. A leading firm donated secondhand acid proof sinks, and the apertures were cut in the tables to sink the sinks!
Throughout these years great emphasis was also placed on activities outside the curriculum. Games and athletics continued with undiminished vigour, and Methodist College's teams took part in national netball tournaments winning the Westrop and Nugawela Shields.
Other sports and extra curricular activities in the school were Tennis, Table tennis, Swimming, Music, Singing, Elocution, Dancing and the like. Inter-school debates, oratorical contests, general knowledge and quiz competitions - all these completed the many facets of school life.
As the Centenary year 1966 approached Methodist College could well boast that it was a fully fledged collegiate Grade 'A' secondary school with a wide-ranging academic curriculum and a cluster of co-curricular activities.
True to the spirit of Methodism the Centenary was celebrated on a modest scale with a Thanksgiving Service, a Birthday Party, an Anniversary Fete and Dinner. It was in this year that Miss Robins retired and Mrs Marbit Gunasekera acted as Principal till 1967.
In 1968 Mrs Shanthi Peiris was appointed Principal and was in office till 1991. During this period, Methodist College saw an unprecedented blossoming both in school activities and in the expansion of the building complex, sorely needed with the school's development in the latter part of the century.
In the period between 1964 and 1989 there were several policy changes in the educational system. Among these were : The closing down of the English stream; (2) Introduction of a shorter school day from 7.30 a.m. to 1.30 p.m; (3) The teaching of other religions; (4) Changes in the minimum age for admission and (5), A new scheme for University admission.
The Education Society determinedly campaigned for funds throughout these difficult years. Special mention must be made of Messrs C R de Alwis and V S Nadarajan, the President and Hony Secretary of the Society, for their invaluable services.
The new Science Block was opened in 1968, and the Loos Building which has 10 classrooms was completed in 1977. It is a tribute to the Education Society, OGA, the PTA Staff and Pupils that this massive task was completed. With the shifting of classrooms to the new building it was possible to provide the boarders with a reading room and library and an extra staff room.
By 1970 there were 1200 students on roll with 80 boarders. The school could not escape the political turmoil and unrest which wracked the country in 1971, and Methodist College had to close from April to June of that year. But during this break, the older children were not allowed to remain completely idle, because the teachers sent them assignments by post.
From 1976 onwards, Methodist College launched its biggest building effort - building new classrooms and the Auditorium. The Building Fund was established and a campaign was launched to collect contributions in Sri Lanka and abroad. Parents, Old Girls, Teachers and Students never flagged in their efforts to raise money. Cards for contributions of Rs 1000 and Rs 5000 were distributed and there was a very good response, particularly from abroad. Special mention must be made of the special efforts made by the OGA to collect funds for the Hall Building Fund.
In 1980 the school received a bonanza when Government decided to pay the salaries of eligible teachers in private non-fee levying schools.
By 1982 Methodist College and the Hall Building Fund were confident enough to start its most ambitious project - the building of the Auditorium. But by 1983 the communal riots were to disrupt this programme. Several families of children in Methodist College were affected and had to be helped. In addition to setting up of a refugee camp in the school, a special refugee fund was set up and students took a leading part in distributing food, clothes and other requisites to those affected.
By 1985 the Education Society had completed 25 years of service. Yet it had the same vigour and dedication. The Auditorium was coming up fast and in 1985 Methodist College was s able to hold its Prize Giving in the Auditorium, though it was still incomplete.
In 1986 the school celebrated its 120th Anniversary. In keeping with the ethos of the school the celebrations were on a modest and unostentatious scale. There was a Birthday Service, followed by an entertainment and gymnastics display by the pupils, after which all were entertained at a party. An Exhibition of Science and Needlework was also held.
The Auditorium was declared open on 24 June 1988 by the Rev Harold Fernando, President of the Methodist Conference. On the same day the foundation stone was laid by Mrs Marbit Gunasekra for a four-storeyed block of classrooms and staff rooms. For this building a grant of GBP 40,000 was received from the Methodist Church Overseas Division in Britain.
With the completion of the Auditorium Methodist College has been able to hold Prize Givings, entertainment and other activities in comfort. It has seating for 1000, two green rooms and other facilities.
By 1990 the four-storeyed lock of classrooms was completed. Thus Methodist College was able to accommodate the 1780 children who were now on its roll. The new block has 15 classrooms, two spacious Staff Rooms, a Home Science laboratory and Vice Principal's office. It must however be mentioned that 1988 and 1989, when the country experienced severe disruption and violence, the school had to be closed for a considerable time. But even during these most distressing times, the school's teachers organised home study packs for the children, which were collected by parents.
So the wheel has now come the full circle, when from its small beginnings, its difficulties, it has emerged to stand self sufficient, proud of its achievements and outstanding, but with enlightenment and humility, as one of the pre-eminent schools in the country.
The pioneers who steered the early course of the school's destiny would perhaps be much surprised to see what it has become today. Begun in the British colonial era, as s small establishment set up by foreign missionaries who were "wholly absorbed in doing good" the school now takes its place in our national life as an institution making a worthy contribution to the progress of the women in Sri Lanka.
Methodist College has the proud distinction of being a school which pioneered women's education. While we look back with pride on 132 years of achievement, it is not enough to pat ourselves on the back in congratulation - rather we should ask, with T S Eliot, "What have we given?" An educational institution must have something of value to give to the students, so that they in turn may give something of value to the society in which they live. Methodist College has built up from its inception traditions of discipline, devoted service and loving concern for others; it is these values that her students acquire, and that they carry with them into their future life.
Long may the lamp, symbol of our school, continue to illumine the world in which we live!
Grow & Serve graphic courtesy of General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church