Saga of Lunawa Hospital

A century gone, names changed, what remains are only a few original edifices

By Dhanesh Wisumperuma

The Nation, 27.11.2011 –

We were standing in front of two long, single-storied medical wards with high walls; long open verandas flanked by Tuscan and Roman Doric style round columns that supported a Calicut tiled double roof. These architectural features, spacious nature of the building and its doors and windows clearly depicted the fact the building where we were was built probably in the British era. The buildings show signs of recent additions and repairs. After a recent repair, one ward is still unused.

Although it had undergone some changes, the narrow and long building connecting the two upper wards seem to belong to the same period. At the western end of the two wards is a housing scheme that has been constructed a few years ago for tsunami victims replacing the administrative block of the hospital. Anyone who has not seen this lost building can imagine its beauty with the remaining structures.

We were at the Lunawa hospital, also known as De Soysa Memorial Hospital. My friends from the area mentioned about its past. Nevertheless, only a few knew that it was ceremonially opened a century ago on November 20, 1911. There are other interesting characteristics of the hospital as well; the foundation stone for the hospital was laid by a princess of the British royal family and it was first named after her – ‘Princess Louise Hospital’. It took nearly six years to complete the construction and it was opened by Henry McCallum, then British Governor of Ceylon. Later on, the hospital was named De Soysa Hospital as it was built by the members of the de Soysa family – a family well known for their philanthropic activities.

Origin and the laying of the foundation

According to sources, the grave need of a hospital for the people of Moratuwa – about 30,000 persons in 1907 – was widely discussed and one of the main concerns of the Local Board of Moratuwa. This was answered by two generous sons of Moratuwa, J. W. C. de Soysa and F. J. Mendis. An advertisement in The Ceylon Observer on February 21, 1906, invited friends and well-wishers for the ceremonial laying of the foundation stone of the hospital. F. J. Mendis was to donate the site and J. W. C. de Soysa was to undertake the construction of the hospital. However J. W. C. de Soysa had paid for whole or part of the land according to a letter written some times back.
The foundation of the hospital was laid ceremoniously in the afternoon on February 22 – described the then newspapers. It was laid by Princess Louise Augusta of Schles

wig-Holstein as mentioned on the foundation stone: ‘This stone was laid by H. R. H. Princess Louise Augusta of Schleswig-Holstein, February 22, 1906.” Unfortunately, the historical foundation stone have not been seen at the site since the demolition of the administration block few years ago. The slab as well as the ‘treasures’ which the two gentlemen mentioned above buried in a crevice, it seems, may have been lost f


Who was this princess? According to the available sources, her full name was Franziska Josepha Louise Augusta Marie Christina Helena – a daughter of Prince Helena, the third daughter of Queen Victoria. Her father was Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, a minor German Prince. Her parents lived in the United Kingdom and they all were members of British royal family. Princess Louise was well known throughout the empire for her philanthropic activities.

The building was designed by Edward Skinner, who is mentioned as the ‘famous Colombo architect’. He had also designed the Victoria Memorial Eye Hospital. The De Soysa family undertook the burden of constructing the hospital, for which, Jeronis William Charles (J. W. C.) de Soysa, was keenly involved. He was the eldest son of Charles Henry De Soysa – the well known philanthropist. Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon mentioned this family as “…De Soysas of Ceylon are a family of philanthropists, held in the highest esteem by their countrymen…”

J. W. C. was a prominent businessman, a planter, exporter, importer as well as general merchant. Being a well known philanthropist, he was continuing his family tradition. Many institutions were built under his patronage and the Bacteriological Institute is one of them. However the construction of the new hospital – expected to be completed in thirteen months – was slowed down due to various reasons. Some people who promised supports were unable to do so due to their financial issues. Hence the construction was delayed and even alterations were made to reduce the cost. Meanwhile, a number of government officials including the government agent, and Public Works Department officials were concerned about the completion and the supervision of the hospital.

Fortunately, J.W.C.’s mother and brothers supported in the endeavour. The de Soysa Saga mentions that Lady Catherine De Soysa, wife of Charles Henry de Soysa, contributed jointly with her sons the requisite funds for the construction of the Princess Louise Hospital at Lunawa. The road leading to the hospital from the railway station was also named after the mother – Lady de Soysa Drive.

E. L. F. (Edwin Lionel Frederick) de Soysa, third son of Charles Henry and younger brother of J. W. C., was communicating with the government officials regarding the hospital since 1910 and he was the main character at the opening ceremony which took place in 1911. The same family donated the land for Lunawa station. Charles Henry de Soysa also initiated the construction of the road to Lunawa, currently known as Station Road, and the bridge over the lagoon in or about 1889. (However, in 1935, Public Works Department built the existing bridge.)

The opening

The Princess Louise Hospital was completed by November 1911 – It was officially informed on November 14. The hospital building was described as a ‘modern and roomy building’ in contemporary local newspapers. The two wards – one for males and one for females – were single storied and spacious enough to accommodate 40 patients. The building at the rear side was intended to be house stores. A news report specifically mentioned that the only wood used in the building was teak and jak. The brass furnishing such as blocks, hinges, door knobs and other necessities were taken from Moratuwa area itself and nothing was imported. The said newspaper stressed that the contractor – Cornelis Mendis – is a man that ‘whole Moratuwa town should be proud for his achievement’.

The grand opening ceremony was held in the afternoon of November 20, 1911 and newspaper reports fully detailed the event not excluding event its slightest decorations. The chief guest was the governor Sir Henry McCullm. Several high level government officials including the Colonial Secretary, the Western Province government agent and many senior officials from the government medical establishment were also present.

The Governor opened the main building with a silver key presented to him by E. L. F. de Soysa. He went around the buildings and a series of photographs were taken in front of the portico by Messer F. Skeen – A famous contemporary photographer. The guests then joined the party commenced at De Soysa Walawwa.

According to the official records there were only 77 hospitals and 418 dispensaries for the entire country in 1912. Some new hospitals were individual donations or built with donors’ contributions – another two hospitals were donated by individuals in the same year built at Watupitiwala and Negombo.

Lunawa Hospital today

Although it was known as Princess Louise Hospital, the name of the hospital was changed later to honour the family who took the burden of constructing the hospital. However the hospital seems to have been neglected now by the authorities as well as by the general public. The people in the area and suburbs now opt for other reputed hospitals for their medical needs.

In 2001, it was proposed to upgrade Lunawa Hospital at the expense of Rs. 50 million. The project included building an administrative complex, a ward and an out-patients department. The new building exists today in the hospital premises could be a result of the new project. There was a plan to use this hospital to relocate the Military Hospital in 2006. Nevertheless, the proposal did not materialise.

A most unfortunate incident had taken place sometime after 2004. The main building or the original administrative block of the hospital was demolished and the land was used to relocate tsunami victims. I was unable to find a photograph of the demolished building despite a thorough search. The demolition altered the hospital entrance and it now lies from the opposite side of the block along Uyana Road. What remain today from the original edifices are the two old wards and the building at the rear. The rest of the structures are of more recent origin.

Lunawa Hospital and its related events urge me to make a note on prevailing trends in the country in the case of protecting our physical cultural heritage. Protecting important historical buildings belonging to government agencies is not the sole responsibility of some authorities such as Department of Archaeology. (remaining building of Lunawa hospital is fully eligible for declaration as a protected monument as it is 100 years old) Indeed, the authorities who own and occupy these buildings should be more aware of the history and importance of them. They should play an active role in preserving such buildings for our posterity.

Photos: Muditha Karunamuni

The Nation, 27.11.2011

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