100th anniversary of Joseph Fraser Memorial Hospital | Sunday Observer

100th anniversary of Joseph Fraser Memorial Hospital

27 August, 2023
The Joseph Fraser Hospital
The Joseph Fraser Hospital

On August 10, the Joseph Fraser Memorial Private Hospital in Thimbirigasyaya celebrated its centenary. Patricia Molly Fraser, a descendant of Fraser, along with a group of Fraser family members residing in Scotland, visited Sri Lanka to mark the occasion. She is the daughter of Joseph Frederick, who was the son of Frederick Henry, himself a son of Joseph Fraser.

“Approximately twenty years ago was my last visit to Sri Lanka. During that trip, I contemplated sharing the history of my grandfather with my children and even my 17 great-grandchildren. Recognising that now was the opportune moment, I, along with my entire family, embarked on a two-week journey to Sri Lanka. It brings me joy to witness this hospital’s remarkable and graceful existence for a century, operating in such an immaculate and splendid manner,” she said.

Joseph Fraser, a Scottish trailblaser in coffee, tea, and rubber cultivation in Sri Lanka, resided in the country for an extended period. Beyond this memorial hospital, his name is etched onto the tombstone at St. Andrew’s Cathedral Cemetery in Haputale, where his infant daughter found her resting place.

Patricia Molloy Fraser

Despite the passage of 146 years, the inscriptions carved onto the stone remain unblemished to date.

Joseph Fraser was born on September 20, 1852, in the vicinity of Skene, just eight Km west of Aberdeen, Scotland, at Bishop Dames Farm. His father bore the name Robert Fraser, while his mother, Mary Orcheston, was the sister of the Aberdeen Harbour Master. Joseph found himself as the ninth member of a sizable brood, encompassing 14 offspring.

Nurtured on the expansive 200-acre farmland that had once been tended by his grandfather John, Joseph’s formative years were spent in this environment. With his elder siblings already engaged in labour alongside their father on the Bishop Dams farm, Joseph embarked on a new phase at the age of 13. He departed from schooling to assume the role of an apprentice on another farm.

In 1872, Joseph, then just 20-year-old, made the significant choice to journey to Sri Lanka, a path already ventured by his older brother James, who had visited the country and eventually tied the knot with Annie Duncan in Galle back in 1869. Their first two children came into the world in Matale before the family eventually returned to farming in Forvern, Scotland.

Initially aiming to reunite with one of his siblings in Canada, Joseph’s plans took a different turn after he encountered a plantation factory in Ceylon. Captivated by what he saw, he chose to remain in Ceylon. He embarked on his journey by working at a coffee plantation named Duffus in Haputale.

On November 18, 1875, Joseph entered into marriage with Chrissy Ramsay Watson hailing from Aberdeenshire. The sacred union took place at St. Andrew’s Church in Haputale. Their first child, a daughter named Julia Annie, came into the world in June 1877. Tragically, at the mere age of four months, Julia Annie’s life was cut short on October 14, 1877. Her final resting place became the cemetery of the quaint St. Andrew’s Church in Haputale, nestled upon a hill that is perpetually cloaked in fog amidst the chilly mountains. Her tombstone remains a poignant presence within the St. Andrew’s Cemetery to this day.

Following the loss of young Julia, Joseph’s perception of Haputale turned sombre. Coupled with the impact of the ‘blight’ that devastated the coffee plantation, Joseph sought a new direction in tea cultivation. Relocating to the Dambulagala Tea Estate in Matale, he embarked on this new journey alongside his wife Chrissy. It was in Matale that their son, James Robert, was born on July 29, 1878. James’s birth brought a ray of happiness to the Joseph Fraser family, offering solace amidst the grief over the passing of their daughter.

In May 1880, they welcomed a daughter named Christine Fraser, who later became Mrs. Carver. Their son, Frederick Henry, was born in 1882. Their final daughter, Josephine Fraser, entered the world thereafter. She would eventually marry F.N Sudlow. The couple retired from their life in Ceylon, choosing to settle in Dornoch, Scotland.

Joseph Fraser was a visionary figure, known for his innovative spirit. His involvement within the Planters’ Associations was marked by extraordinary dedication, initially in Haputale and subsequently in Matale. During the latter part of the 19th century, he emerged as a fervent advocate for the use of organic fertilisers. This advocacy stemmed from his personal experimentation involving elements like fish, meat, bones, and more, within his own tea garden situated in Pitakanda.

His pioneering efforts opposed the prevailing trend of ‘synthetic’ fertilisers containing imported phosphates and nitrates, highlighting his forward-thinking approach to sustainable farming practices. His endeavours yielded remarkable results, as he emerged as one of the pioneering tea estate proprietors advocating for enhanced conditions for his workforce. Joseph Fraser stood out as an employer who spearheaded positive changes, establishing a school, a shop, medical facilities, and an improved standard of living for his employees. Notably, he constructed living quarters within his estate premises, a testament to his commitment to the well-being of his employees.

A group of hospital staffers

Despite his deep affection for life in Sri Lanka, Joseph Fraser made the decision to send his two sons, aged 6 and 7, to school in Aberdeen, Scotland. Tragedy struck when his eldest son, James Robert, met an untimely demise due to drowning at the school in September 1891, at the tender age of 13. Fred, his second son, persevered in his studies. He eventually pursued education at Aberdeen University, earning a Diploma in Agriculture.

In honour of Joseph’s legacy, the Planters’ Association and the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce jointly established three scholarships in tropical agriculture at the University in 1915. These scholarships continue to thrive to this day.

Following his return to Ceylon in 1902, Fred took on roles of increasing responsibility, becoming an assistant and eventually the manager of the Matale Pitakande Group. Revered for his expertise, he enjoyed a distinguished career as a planter.

Subsequently, Joseph embarked on a triumphant endeavour by cultivating rubber in Pitakanda. His exceptional contributions earned him a coveted gold medal from the Rubber Growers’ Association in London, a distinction bestowed upon him in July 1913. His pursuits were notably focused on the scientific cultivation of both tea and rubber, establishing him as a recognised authority in their botanical aspects, micro-diseases, and overall characteristics. His expertise became sought-after by UK-based companies. His stature was such that he held positions on the boards of numerous esteemed companies.

Joseph frequently journeyed back to Aberdeen, where he generously shared his wealth of knowledge to assist aspiring young men who harboured ambitions of building their careers in the East.

In April 1914, a few months subsequent to his son Fred’s marriage in Colombo, Joseph heeded his doctor’s recommendation and embarked on a holiday to Aberdeen due to a recent bout of illness. Tragically, he passed away unexpectedly on August 28, 1914, in Aberdeen, at the age of 61, after a brief illness. His final resting place lies in Allenvale Cemetery.

Following Joseph’s passing, Chrissy exhibited her generosity by contributing funds to establish a hospital in Sri Lanka as a tribute to her husband’s enduring connection to the country he had called home for an extensive period.

Their children followed suit by contributing vital equipment to the cause. Sadly, Chrissy passed away approximately a year prior to the hospital’s inauguration. On September 6, 1922, Chrissy breathed her last in Aberdeen, and was laid to rest alongside their son James.

Despite the challenges, Chrissy’s persistent efforts bore fruit as the ‘Joseph Fraser Memorial Hospital’ was inaugurated on August 10, 1923. The honour of opening the hospital was bestowed upon the then-governor. The hospital occupies a spacious two-and-a-half-acre tract of land. Its architecture mirrors the Dutch period style, enveloped by a splendid garden adorned with towering trees and flourishing wild plants.

Strolling through the corridors, guided by imposing wooden pillars, evokes a sensation of journeying through time’s tapestry. The ambience resonates with an era long past, an aura of antiquity palpable in every step. Beyond the majestic wooden sentinels, through the saloon doors and grand entrances, every edifice stands with a sense of solemnity, bearing witness to a century’s worth of history.

The hospital, inaugurated in 1923, had its foundations laid in 1921. A child born in 1923 would now be celebrating their 100th year. As time has passed, those infants born within these walls have grown into remarkable individuals, living their lives and eventually passing into the beyond. Through the procession of lives and the myriad emotions they entail—birth’s jubilation and death’s sorrow—the hospital endures, a serene witness to an enduring history that spans both joy and grief.

Since its inception, the hospital’s operation has been entrusted to a dedicated board of trustees, and this legacy endures till the present day. Currently, Manilal Fernando assumes the role of Chairman of the Board of Trustees for Joseph Fraser Hospital. Its management is overseen by the Access Group in collaboration with Ninewells Private Hospital. 

The Fraser family