Memories of the oldest living WPC from Ceylon | Sunday Observer

Memories of the oldest living WPC from Ceylon

8 September, 2019

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above, Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love; The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test, That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best; - Sir Cecil Spring Rice 

Today there is much focus on gender equality and equal opportunity in employment. The history of the Ceylon Police service dates back to 1886, where officers have served with dignity and decorum.

I came to know that one of the first women police constables was still alive, from the first ever batch of women enlisted to the Police Department. Having found a lead through Senior DIG M.R. Lattif and retired Superintendent of Police T. Assen we were able to trace her address.

Layla Packeer is almost 90 years old. Yet she is totally focused, seated smartly on the sofa, beside her daughter. She explained, “I am the only child in my family. We are from the Malay community. My late father Samsudeen Packeer was a Chief Inspector of Police. I was born on February 22, 1930, in Weligama, in the Matara district. We lived most of our years in Colombo. I studied at Ananda College, Colombo, which was a mixed school in that era. During my school days I played netball and engaged in athletics.

I was a champion cyclist.” She stopped to sip some water and continued, ‘My father maintained discipline at home. We loved to study, back then. My parents wanted me to become a teacher. After completing school I did my basic teacher training and joined a Convent in Matara, where I taught Home Science and English Language. Here I befriended a girl called Hema Gunawardene. One day, Hema showed me a newspaper advertisement, calling for women to join the police. We were hesitant at first, but subsequently we applied and were called for the interview. I still remember going to the Depot Police (present day Field Force Headquarters in Colombo 5). There were many young girls. I was 23 years then. The interviewing officer was a Superintendent of Police named Scarnivel. He asked me if I was ready to face the challenges of police duty. I replied and told him that my father was a policeman and I knew a little of the duties of the police.

“Hema and I were both recruited in 1953. The concept of recruiting women was the idea of the late IGP Richard Aluvihare, a visionary officer. Only four women were selected, i.e. Hema Gunawardene, Jenita Perera, a girl named Lanerolle and myself.”

I then asked Mrs. Packeer if she could recall her training. She smiled and said: “Yes how can I forget that? The four of us were trained for six months at the Depot Police. The Police Training College in Kalutara was not yet set up then. We were trained in weapons drill, first aid, using a typewriter, police regulations and administration along with parade drills. We were taught to fire a rifle.

There were no automatic weapons then. After our training I was given the police serial number 02. My only regret is that my dear father was not alive to see me wear the police uniform. During my 27 years of service I worked in the following stations - Maradana, Fort, Narahenpita, Welikada and Wellawatte. I was also attached to the Fingerprints Branch which today has grown into the Criminal Records Division.

In those days there were few violent crimes or murders. Most were complaints regarding family or land disputes with a few pick pockets being locked up. On evening foot patrol we would chase away a few prostitutes. Some days we were sent on traffic duty near girls’ schools. Today there is so much traffic and drivers with no lane discipline.”

Sipping some water she continued, her eyes filled with excitement, ‘”One day the OIC wanted me and another WPC to guard the mortuary located in Colombo, next to Carey College. It was a night watch. I was anxious so I took a Quran in my pocket. We both sat outside the mortuary and spoke all night. The roads were silent and dark. Thankfully we did not see any ghosts. This was how we worked sharing the tasks with our male colleagues.”

The former WPC added, “Today things have changed to a great degree, in Colombo. The police department has grown, with so much technology and the female ranks have increased”.

Layla Packeer is married and has two daughters. She leads a quiet life in retirement. This humble law enforcement lady has seen the victories and vicissitudes of life. It was time to leave. This amazing encounter was certainly a memorable day in my writing career.