Challenging colonialism through the printed word | Sunday Observer
Magnetic spell of a press magnate

Challenging colonialism through the printed word

29 January, 2023

Lake House founder D.R. Wijewardene (DRW) is unarguably the doyen of the Press in Sri Lanka and one of the key architects of the country’s Independence. He used his pen fearlessly as a powerful tool to strengthen the hands of those who fought for the country’s Independence but always preferred to stay in the backroom. As H.A.J Hulugalle records in his 1960 D.R. Wijewardene biography, The Life and Times of D.R. Wijewardene, “The public knew next to nothing of the Press magnate. His photographs did not appear in his own newspaper or in other journals. He was a man of few words and unassuming ways.”

As Sri Lankans are gearing up to celebrate the country’s 75th Independence Day with much grandeur and pride, it is time to revisit the legendary life of D.R.Wijewardene, a patriot of all times and the trailblazer of the Lankan publishing industry.

Reproduced below are excerpts from an interview with DRW’s younger son, former ANCL Chairperson and Founder of Wijeya Newspapers Limited Ranjith Wijewardene which was first published in the Daily News to mark DRW’s 130th death anniversary on February 23,2016.

Governments may rise and fall, leaders may enter or exit the political stage, heroes of yesteryear may turn into villains overnight, and different rulers may hit the headlines for different reasons. But one magnanimous truth will always stand the test of time: No matter who rules the country, D.R.Wijewardene still reigns over Lake House.

More than 40 years after the government take-over of Lake House, still the most sought-after portrait is that of its rightful ‘private’ owner, in front of which all its employees bow their heads, as a genuine gesture of gratitude, before starting their day’s work!

Portraits of the Press Magnate D.R.Wijewardene, with his usual pensive look, adorn the walls at the end of each long corridor of Lake House. Each entrance, each exit, each editorial, each architectural design, and each printing machine whether new or old, bespeak his everlasting commitment towards his goal.

Nearly a century ago, when the country was under the yoke of Colonial rule, the young Cambridge scholar reached the Lankan shores with a clear goal in his mind. By then he had decided that if he ever owned a newspaper he would call it the Ceylon Daily News, recorded H.A.J Hulugalle in his 1960 D.R. Wijewardene biography, The Life and Times of D.R. Wijewardene. Making profit was not the main intention that compelled him to set up a publishing house, but ‘his unflagging desire to see Ceylon take her place among the free and independent nations of the world.’

It was F.H.M Corbert, an Englishman who was born in Ceylon and practised as a Barrister in England in cases which came up before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council who emphasised to DRW ‘the importance of a well-informed public opinion for which a free and independent press was a sine qua non.’

And the man who began his career by buying a bankrupt newspaper reached lofty heights in his three-decade long newspaper journey both in terms of profit and popularity.

He used his Press as a powerful tool to strengthen the hands of those who fought for the country’s Independence. But he always preferred to stay in the backroom and Hulugalle records that “The public knew next to nothing of the Press magnate. His photographs did not appear in his own newspaper or in other journals. He was a man of few words and unassuming ways.”

Ranjith Wijewardene was barely 13 years when his father passed away in 1950 at the age of 64. Twenty-three years after his father’s demise, he was on the Board of Directors when the ANCL was taken over by the then government under the ANCL (Special Provisions) Law No of 1973.

Wijewardene said that his father would have never thought that the newspaper business would be nationalised “because that was a rather alien concept at the time.”

He recalled the day Lake House was taken over by the then government. Asked how he exactly felt when the Institution which was founded by his father was nationalized he said;

“I guess, a deep sense of guilt. We were on the Board of Directors. The Bill was passed in Parliament and the date was given when the new Board of Directors would take over the company, so we had to hand it over.”

Thus he lost his father’s empire nearly forty-three years ago, but today he retains his father’s much-loved title ‘Press Baron’ as the Managing Director/Chairman of Wijaya Group of Newspapers.


The Wijewardene’s had two sons and three daughters. Ranjith Wijewardene had faint memories of his early days spent with his father. He took a stroll down memory lane pausing to remember the very early years of his life spent during World War II.

“Since I was the last in the family and came sometime after the youngest sister I was indulged. Actually, he was a very kind father to me, I suppose to all members of the family, but there was a 10-year gap between me and the one born immediately before me,” he recalled.

“The first few years were War years, but I can remember as I was born in 1937. The war years were from 1939 to 1945. So in those days everything revolved around the war basically, and it was okay, no problems really,” he went on.

Being the youngest he was the child who was pampered often, but he vowed that he was not his father’s favourite.

“Because I was the youngest, I was indulged, but I wouldn’t say that I was the favourite. I would say my sister was. He was closer to her as she discussed politics with him.”

Wijewardene referred to his father’s biography penned by former Daily News Editor H.A.J. Hulugalle which included a whole section of his sister’s recollections of their father.

“My sister had put down everything in that book. There is a whole section of her recollections and I think that is probably the best recollection of my father!” Wijewardene added.

Just as Wijewardene mentioned, his late sister’s recollections are worthy of being reproduced.

“In spite of his being deeply absorbed in political and newspaper affairs, he found time to help my mother with household problems, to play with the current baby of the family, to follow school activities, end of term reports, to take me along with him to the dentist and to plan out interesting holidays and outings for the family,” writes Nalini Wickremesinge revisiting the memories of his father in the early ’60s.

Adding to his sister’s 1960 recollections on their father, Wijewardene said that he still remembers his father as a compassionate person.

A compassionate person

“I think he was quite a compassionate person unlike what the normal impression is, that he was very strict. He controlled the household and did everything in an efficient manner,” he recollected.

“He was sick from 1947 to 1950, the year he died. Sick in the sense he had got a stroke, but he used to get around ... So we all looked up to him and he was still the person we all went up to for anything. Again I think I had a little advantage because being the youngest, I was indulged, I could spend more time with him, hanging around and I was sometimes made to actually stay in his room,” he said.

He recollected how he was given a playmate, being the youngest of the family.

“Because I was the youngest I was given a playmate. This guy was a little older than I, but anyway he was the son of the caretaker of the family property in Kuliyapitiya. My father had a number of penknives and there was a penknife which I was very anxious to lay my hands on. It was given to me on the condition that I would not open it. But both of us got together and opened it and for some reason, the knife went missing! So when he came back from the office I told him that it was lost. That guy got the worst- he was chastised severely for being negligent and allowing it to be lost and he gave me a very grim look which was worse than being scolded!”

Anyway the next morning his playmate unclenched his fist victoriously to show him what he had got in compensation for having been chastised the previous night!

“He showed me five rupees! He had been given five rupees for having been chastised. Back then five rupees is a lot of money,” he reminisced.


Former Editor of the Ceylon Daily News and the author of Life and Times of D.R.Wijewardene, H.A.J.Hulugalle mentions in his biography that the lesson of Wijewardene’s life is that men can achieve great things for their native land if they have faith in the future and are prepared to work for their ideals with self-discipline and tolerance. Martin Wickramasinghe calls him a patriot in action, not in speech. The service he rendered to his country and his people must be determined not by searching for what he said, but by searching for what he did, wrote Martin Wickramasinghe to the Silumina on June 13,1950 on the passing away of D.R.Wijewardene.

Gunadasa Amarasekara speaking at the D.R.Wijewardene Memorial Award for the best unpublished Sinhala work of fiction 1985 said: “ I know at first hand the amount of admiration Martin Wickramasinghe had for D.R.Wijewardene. In fact he often used to say Mr.D.R.Wijewardene is the only national figure who deserved a statue.”

In the eyes of Nalini Wickremesinghe, her father was a perfectionist in whatever he did, whether at home or at work, whether it was religion, politics, newspapers, or social entertainment. Every detail was carefully thought out, personally supervised and expert opinion obtained if necessary, she wrote.

Wijewardene too recollects his father as a person who did his duty for the country.

“He was a family person. He was strict, basically a considerate person. But as far as newspapers were concerned I think he did what he had to do for the freedom of this country. They had a certain plan of getting at that.”


Wijewardene said his father had a fairly big library at home as he read a lot. Spending holidays with his family at his bungalow in Diyathalawa. too was among his main hobbies.

Arcadia in Diyathalawa which belonged to G.M. Crabbe, a well-known tea planter was bought by D.R. Wijewardene and the family spent a lot of time there.

“Diyathalawa was his big hobby. We went there in the war years and were there quite a long time.”

Everything related to horticulture inspired his father.

“My father was very interested in plantations- tea, coconut, and all. Gardens, flowers and everything related to horticulture was a great leisure time activity,” he reminisced.

As Hulugalle mentioned in D.R.Wijewardene biography, architects, landscape gardeners, engineers, and garden lovers were continually accompanying him to Arcadia on those rare weekends he snatched from his labours at lake House and the days passed in a whirl of digging, planting, building and breaking until Arcadia as he left it, with its rock gardens, pools and wild garden, emerged.

Wijewardene said his father owned a racehorse when he was very young.

“He used to ride it, but not as far as I can remember. I remember the booths and the room.”

While studying at Cambridge, D.R.Wijewardene had not taken part in university politics or sports. He went to Cooper’s riding school, being fond of horses, writes Hulugalle. Even though he had owned a couple of racehorses in partnership with Stanley Obeysekera, then a young crown counsel and well-known ‘‘gentle rider’’, his interest in racing did not last long.


He had friends from all communities. He met most of them during his daily constitutional walk in Viharamaha Devi (Victoria) Park. “I think a lot of political discussions took place during that early morning walk.”

Wijewardene remembers many friends visiting him at his residence too.

“Sir Mohamed Macan Markar, E.W. Perera, Dr. Andeas Nell, Lord Soulbury - a couple of times, D.S.Senanayake, Sir Oliver Goonatilleke, Sir John Kotalawela, Justice A. R. H. Kanakaratne, Hallock Vijayanathan, and Dr. E.N.V. Naganathan and Frank Gunesekera used to visit him.”

“D.S.Senanayake used to come across during his morning ride. I remember Sir. John coming in. J.R. was a favourite nephew until they fell out.”

“I cannot recollect Ponnambalan Arunachalam coming in. But I know he always spoke very highly of him and there was a great big statue of him at home until it was installed,” he reminisced.

Special mention has to be made of Hallock Vijayanathan. “He was particularly a very good friend. When my father had to attend the Imperial Press Conference he did not have money with him and had to take a loan. You could not get loans those days because all British held unless a shroff at the bank stood guarantee for you. It was Vijayanathan Hallock who did that.”

Sir Ivor Jennings, the first Vice Chancellor of the University of Peradeniya too maintained a cordial relationship with D.R. Wijeweardene.

Peradeniya University

Though lesser known, DRW played a pivotal role along with Sir Ivor Jennings in setting up of the first residential university of the country modelled on the University of Cambridge. Hulugalle mentions in his biography that at the meeting of the Finance Committee of the Legislative Council held on April 23, 1926, a suggestion was made by an unofficial member that the Buller’s Road site which had been earmarked for the University should be used for other purposes and that the University should be built away from Colombo. “The men behind this move were D.R.Wijewardene, Dr.Andreas Nell, and S.C. Paul and three wise and worthy in their respective spheres.”

Wijewardene recollected how his father spent a lot of time planning the University of Peradeniya with famous town planner Oliver Weerasinghe and Architect Shirley De Alwis.

“He was interested in its architectural design. He was also very particular about the varieties of trees that should be planted in the University premises. This was a thing he very much wanted to do.”

The University of Peradeniya which stretches over many acres with its magnificent buildings and mesmerizing landscaping had named one of its Hostels after the press magnate who spent valuable hours of his busy life designing the country’s first residential ‘citadel of wisdom.’

Lion’s flag

How DRW along with E.W. Perera successfully traced the Lion’s flag , the banner of Sri Lanka’s last King Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe, is indeed a milestone in Sri Lanka’s long and determined struggle for freedom. The recovered flag finally became the flag of the Dominion Ceylon in 1948.

Wijewardene recalled the story of discovering the Lion’s flag at Chelsea Hospital in London.

“From what I remember, I think it was E.W. Perera who was asked when he was in England to follow this up. Eventually, the flag was discovered in Chelsea hospital and I think my father commissioned a British company to do a print of this. I still have that print. I think that was published in all Lake House newspapers in colour. I don’t know how they managed to get the flag back, but anyway the location was discovered and I think they took steps to get it back,” he recalled.

Contribution to freedom struggle

DRW’s contribution to the country’s freedom struggle through newspapers had been discussed repeatedly. It is well known that the primary reason he wanted to establish a newspaper publication company was to strengthen the fight against the Colonial rule.

Commenting on his father’s contribution to the country, Wijewardene said:

“I don’t suppose we quite understand what it was like to be a second-class citizen in our own country. When he was an officer in the CLI, he was censored for having entertained in the officers’ mess a Sinhala member of the Legislative Council. He should have got permission before bringing Sinhala people into the mess.”

Wijewardene was not quite sure whether his father resigned from the Commission because of that, but that was a key incident which made him even more determined to free the country from the Colonial yoke.

“I remember Sir John was also saying that when he was a Minister in the State Council he couldn’t still enter Colombo Club without permission. So they were determined anyway to throw off the Colonial yoke. But he wanted to do it strategically without open confrontation, but more by lobbying and using the war effort as a lever.”

When asked as to why S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and A.E. Goonesinghe were never among DRW’s ‘favourites’ list, Wijewardene said that he cannot recollect any incident to justify that his father disliked the former Premier.

“My sister Nalini was actually quite close to Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and she took part in Mrs.Bandaranaike’s Lanka Mahila Samithi meetings.

I remember S.W.R.D and Sirimavo coming home to drop off my sister Nalini after Mahila Samithi meetings,” Wijewardene reminisced. “I believe they were invited for the wedding also. But it was probably the Bandaranaike- Senanayake conflict that might have had an influence on my father’s relationship with S.W.R.D. But I am not too sure of it,” he added.

However, he accepted that his father clearly disliked A.E. Goonesinghe.

“The problem was A.E. Goonesinghe spearheaded a strike at Lake House and that of course made him very annoyed. I think the whole problem was they were very anxious that there should be a peaceful move towards Independence and that during wartime we should give the British the least amount of problems as far as this colony was concerned, to show that we were responsible and to make use of that as a bargaining point to gain the much-desired freedom,” he said.

As DRW’s daughter Nalini Wickremesinghe mentions in the biography, comments and criticisms which the newspapers carried could be effective only if he, himself was above suspicion and this principle DRW rigidly maintained. He kept aloof from all political and social organisations, and maintained only a small circle of intimate friends and relations. As Hulugalle mentions in DRW biography, during three decades of journalism Wijewardene learned much about its techniques, but from the outset, he possessed the instincts of a good newspaperman. He had a clear idea of the kind of newspaper he wanted, the resources at his command, and the way to bring together the men and material needed for his purpose.

And today after 65 years of his demise, DRW still remains the greatest newspaper personality the country has ever produced.