When a character, encountered only in books, suddenly steps off the page, it is an electrifying experience. Nothing prepares you for that moment when the bare bones of history suddenly acquire flesh. You do not know where the discovery will come, or when. It is so unexpected that it seems surreal. Yet one thing is certain, it is always accompanied by a frisson of excitement.
I was fortunate enough to have such an experience at a birthday party held in a converted barn only three miles from my home. I was sitting next to a local farmer – the owner of the barn – and had mentioned my interest in 1950s Ceylon, including one its Prime Ministers Sir John Kotelawala.
“Oh,” said the farmer. “My Dad knew Sir John. He lived around here, didn’t he?”
He did indeed, but I had not expected to meet anyone who recognised the name – let alone had any memory – of the colourful and pugnacious man who was Prime Minister of what is now known as Sri Lanka.
Sir John’s personal story was a remarkable one of rags-to-riches. Having been accused of murder, his father had committed suicide and the family had faced destitution. However, Sir John’s mother had staged a remarkable comeback and rebuilt the family fortunes.
Sir John must have inherited her determination, climbing the exceptionally greasy pole of post-colonial politics to become the country’s third Prime Minister after Independence (1953 -1956). Cast in the ‘old school’ mould, he maintained close ties with the British establishment, being appointed to the Privy Council in 1954 and proving himself a fierce anti-Communist.
Pathé News reels show him on several official trips abroad, including a summit of Commonwealth Prime Ministers at 10 Downing Street where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Churchill and the Indian premier Pandit Nehru.
While Sir John is only briefly mentioned in my book The Devil Dancers, he acquired a particular interest for me when I discovered that, after losing Ceylon’s 1956 General Election, he had bought a house in Kent where he lived for a number of years.
On Saturday, 7 July 1956, The Times’s Property Correspondent recorded Sir John’s purchase of Brogues Wood estate at Biddenden in Kent. Interestingly, this idyllic village with its medieval half-timbered houses had previously provided a home for another political exile: the King of Siam.
Situated a couple of miles from the genteel country town of Tenterden, Brogues Wood was described by The Times as having “four reception rooms and four principal and three secondary bed rooms and stands in grounds of some 103 acres.”
While Sir John appears to have pre-empted an auction of the property which was to have taken place later that month, The Times politely omits to report how much he paid for it.
While his attendance at glittering social events was frequently recorded in the columns of the Court Circular, Sir John Kotelawala also appears to have taken a keen interest in local Kentish life. A number of old black-and-white photographs show him attending local fêtes, including one at Tenterden.
My meeting with the local farmer fleshed out the fascinating, but ephemeral information that I had already gleaned about Sir John’s life in Kent.
“Sir John Kotelawala and my father both shared an interest in horses,” explained the farmer who told me that his father had arranged tickets for Sir John and his retinue to attend the racing at Ascot.
“The ladies in Sir John’s entourage all wore beautiful saris,” said the farmer. “They turned a lot of heads in the royal enclosure!”
Pathé newsreel: Sir John Kotelawala meeting India’s Prime Minister Pandit Nehru and dignitaries, laying wreaths and inspecting Guard of Honour on an official visit to India.