Mab and George: Will They Stay or Will They Go?

Elephant Nook

Newara Eliya

Nov 13th 1900

Dearest Tommie

We are really having very jolly weather here in spite of the monsoon. It is fine all day and comes on to rain about six, when it is nearly dark, so it does not affect us at all. I think the change is doing us both good, although things are so muddley just now, that we never know what we may have to do next. It is pretty well certain though that we shall not go back to Horekelly but to Veyangoda. Mr Hartor has had notice given him and is to go at the end of the month so we shall go there as soon as the house has been cleaned up. If George is not wanted for anything we shall most probably stay here until the end of the month and then go down to Colombo. I expect we shall go to Horekelly for a day or two to see after things, but the Boy and Solomon will do all the packing and bring the furniture by carts to Veyangoda. It will be a business bringing all our animals. I do hope my pussy will come all right. But of course nothing is settled yet and we must just wait and see. We may not be at Veyangoda too long as Mr Norman would much rather have George in Colombo but that will depend on how much the Home Office will raise his salary. He will have all the machinery under his charge and will have to visit Horekelly about once a month. Veyangoda is not much nicer than Horekelly in many ways, but the fact of its being near Colombo is the great point in its favour and we shall have a sort of feeling that we are on the way to living in Colombo. Nothing has been decided about the case yet so we don’t know if it is to be retried or not, it is tiresome as it would have been nice to have got it off our minds but these things always take time so it is no good worrying.


We got our mail today just before lunch. It is so tiresome getting it so late just as our letters have to go off. It does not give one time to digest your letter before I answer it. Please thank Dor very much for her jolly letter. I was so hoping she would write and let me know how she enjoyed the dance. I have been wondering if she would go to the Addiscombe or not. It would seem rather hard to leave her at home. We should like a bread platter immensely but tell her not to hurry about doing it, any time will do. So far I have had one pair of shoes soled, the brown thick lace-up pair, the others I have worn very little and I have still one quite good pair of evening shoes.

George will be very pleased to have Hockey and thanks you very much for it. You see, if we do go and live in Colombo, some time he will be able to play again. Don’t you worry about that cake, make it anyhow and it will be sure to turn out splendidly. I think I must have told you afterwards that I did receive the films all right, we have been busy printing photos taken on them now for Xmas cards. George has been busy all the afternoon cutting them straight etc and feels very virtuous in consequence.

He wants to go out now so I must be quick and finish up. Please thank Jack for sending the A.C.C. Report. George is pouring over it at this minute. Also George thanks him very much for sending the papers about the elections. He was so pleased to have them.

We really don’t know if we are going to stay on or not. Mr Norman is to let us know tomorrow if he wants George to go back to Colombo or not. I don’t think it is very likely as George has put it to him that we can’t afford to live at an hotel so if they want us to go back, the Company must pay our expenses. As it is, having to come up here has cost us a lot and we shall have to be uncommonly careful for some time. You see when we are in Colombo, they pay George’s expenses but not mine, staying at an hotel does mount up so, even for a few days. It is tiresome having to move just now too, but of course they pay for that, but all the same little things crop up that we have to pay. However we flourish on our worries and it will soon come all right again.

George is ready so I must say ‘adoo’. I do hope mother is better. She must try and do as little as possible and rest as much as ever she can. I do wish you could be at home altogether and that money weren’t so tight.

lots of love and kisses to everybody

your loving sister


The one where Mab is racist and takes drugs.

Here’s the next instalment of my Great Grandmother’s letters to her mother, sent from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1900. (Please don’t hold them against me!)


My dearest Mother,

I hope you came back from Kate nice and fat. I wish you could come here for a time and lead the lazy life I do, but I don’t believe you would like the heat, even with nothing to do, it would pall after a time. I do so pine to wear a woolly frock again, I do get so sick of everlasting cotton things. I am having a fight with the dhoby just now, he will make my frocks so frightfully stiff, my skirts are like crinolines and my blouses like cardboard. I spoke about it a few weeks ago and they were better for a time, but he has gradually got them stiff again. I suppose he thinks it is correct but it makes them so frightfully hot. I am busy making a cycling skirt. I have altered my dark blue gingham into one and for this one I have bought some holland. I got it very cheap as the shop is selling it off. It was only 45 cents a yard, that is about 6 1/2 pence. It is rather a loose one so I expect will shrink a good deal but I am going to allow for that.

I am getting on very well with my biking, although we have only been on very little rides at present as it does not get cool until half past five and it is dark soon after six just now. When the weather is cooler and we can get out earlier, we shall be able to go down to the sea. It is only about half an hour’s ride.

The people at the mill are so idiotic, they are always quarrelling about something. They are like naughty children, only very spiteful to one another. Last night one man who had finished his work went into the mill and began worrying another man who had not finished. They finally hit each other and then some more joined in and they began throwing stones. Then George came on the scene and took the man who began it outside to ask a few questions and in the middle of his talking, the man rushed away into the mill again and began hammering away at the other individual. So George sent for the head man and gave him a charge for a breach of the peace. Now he and his friends are going to bring an action against the other one for assault. This is ridiculous, they do so love going to law. If two men fight, the one who gets the worst of it nearly always brings a charge against his opponent or if not he gets a lot of men together and they fall upon the unfortunate man when he is alone and unprotected. George will have to go off to the courthouse at Marawila this afternoon to bring his charge against the man. This man had really no business inside the mill at all as he is a ‘sheller’ and works outside while the other man is head packer and it was just his busiest time. He is a very good worker, one of the best they’ve got, and if only instead of hitting the man for worrying, he had reported him to George it would have been all right and he would have been punished. The worst of it was that a poor unfortunate stoker who had nothing to do with it got a nasty cut on the leg with a stone. George bound it up with lint and a bandage but these people have got the most dreadful flesh for healing, just an ordinary little cut usually swells up. I suppose it is because they eat filthy dried fish and stuff. Unfortunately Mr Van Dort is away just now buying nuts so George is the one to help him in the talking. They all get so excited and will talk all at once that it is most difficult to understand them unless you are very well up on the language. It just shows you what silly people they are, we are always having little rows like that, only George generally manages to stop them from going to law.

I hope you went down to Seasalter* a nice lot of times when you were at Fairbank. You always enjoy it so. My tummy has been much better lately, in fact rather the other way about but I think that was the effect of the coach coming back from Colombo. It was even worse than usual, the roads were being mended. However I’ve got some camphor water which I imbibe if I get too bad and of course we always have Chlorodyne**.

The mill works has been going on very satisfactorily lately, last week they broke the record in the amount done, and the reports from London have been good too.

I do hope the bottle of beasts has come by this time and not smashed up.

The puppies are flourishing. Mr Van Dort is going to have Ginger, he is the only one we can spare. Moses and Tuppence are so sweet and cheeky.

It is breakfast time and George is hungry so I must leave off.

Lots of love and kisses to everybody

Your very loving daughter,


We shan’t get our mail till this evening.

*Village on the north coast of Kent.

**a mixture of chloroform, cannabis, and morphine used for upset tummies etc.

Mab is back and she’s living the dream!


Sept 26th 1900

Dearest Tommy

Behold us luxuriating in civilisation! Only for two days though, we came on Monday and go back tomorrow (Thursday). But still, it makes a little break in the monotony of one’s existence. We are staying here this time, we thought we would see what it was like and we like it better than the G of H which is right in the town. This is a little way out, quite on the edge of the sea and is much more breezy and open. We have got such a jolly bedroom with one window looking onto the sea. The beds, washstand and dressing table all up one end, there are thick curtains which can be drawn right across that part and the rest is furnished as a sitting room, with comfy chairs and sofa and a sort of little sideboard and tables. One could live quite comfortably in a room like that, in fact a lot of people do live here and at the G of H. It is almost less expensive than having a house.

We have had early tea at 7 in our room and George has gone down to the office. I have had a cold bath and have been sitting opposite to the sea to get a freshener. There is such a jolly breeze coming straight off it. There is a seawater swimming bath in the hotel but I have not the courage to go alone. I wish it was mixed so that George could come. Between here and the town is a long parade and drive (3/4 mile) by the edge of the sea. Everyone takes a constitutional along it early between 6 and 7, either driving, riding or hiking.

Yesterday morning I went shopping and then picked George up at the office and had a chat with the men there. Mr Waldrock, the manager, who went home just after I came out has got the sack. The reasons have not come to light, but he had been rather unlucky in his work lately and the directors, being in a cantankerous mood evidently, came to blows with him. It is hard times as he is married with two children, but he has heaps of friends out here and has got one small appointment already and will doubtless soon get one again. Mr Norman, the man next to him, is the manager now. They don’t seem as if they are going to put another man in at all.

Yesterday afternoon we went to call on the Stanley Bois but they were not at home and we have an idea that they, or at any rate she,  is up country as their drawing room floor was being relaid. I was sorry as I should liked to have seen her. In the evening after dinner we went down to the G of H to see Mrs Maxfield. I expect I have told you about her. She is the mother of the man in charge of the Mill at Veyangoda. She is the matron, or whatever you call it,  at the G of H.

The night before we went along Galle Face to get a blow before we went to bed. It is rather fascinating spinning along in a rickshaw at night, by the side of the sea with only the lights of the town in the distance.



I have been into the town again with George and now he has gone on to the office and I came back to write. I don’t think we are going to do anything much this afternoon except go to a nursery garden and try to get some little ferns for the table.

We got the mail last night, or rather I did. George was very disgusted as all the letters were for me. I had quite a bundle. It was jolly. Five altogether, from you, Kate, Jo, Mother and Maudie, the first time she has written to me. I shan’t have time to write to people this week so I am going to send Mother, Kate and Mrs G. pictorial post cards as they are rather good little views. I have put a mark against our bedroom windows, the front one is over the porch and the sea is to the right by the coconut trees. You can get a little idea of the Galle Face from the view on this paper. Then there is a view of the lighthouse which is in the middle of the town and you get a view of a bullock cart with its great big thatched roof. Then there is a picture of a catamaran. The one we went out in at Negombo was a little bigger than that I think. You can see the out-rigger where they put the braid across for us to sit. You can see a rickshaw in the hotel scene. They are not very comfortable as you have to sit forward and it makes your side ache after a bit.

This hotel is really quite palatial like the Metropole only of course with huge verandahs and corridors which make it more airy, but all the appointments are very good and plenty of servants about. I am using all sorts of paper as I began to write in the reading room. Now I’m in the Ladies drawing room and they give no smaller paper.

Then I am going to make your mouth water as it never did before – I’ve got a bicycle! We got so sick of walking along those beastly roads always the same way and George would not go out for a ride without me, so he got it for me, and it came down as a surprise. Wasn’t it sweet of him? It is an American machine. White is the maker and it is to cost R.187. George is going to pay for it in three monthly instalments. It would have been R.170 cash. Of course it is a fairly cheap one but it is strong and well-made and suits me capitally. I’ve only had it since last Wednesday and have been out three times. I got on all right only the roads are so rutty that sometimes I get off a little unexpectedly. But tell Mother I will be very careful. She is not to think I am going to be reckless and try to go fast or anything and besides George is much too cautious over me to allow me to do anything rash. But it will be so much nicer for us to go out for a little spin of an evening instead of just meandering along the road and of course the exercise will be much better for us and will be just the thing for my tummy.

I do hope you did not hurt yourself when you fell down those steps. It sounds horrible. The Long’s party does sound jolly. I wish I had been there. Your blouse does sound sweet, I do want to see it so badly. You must keep it till I come home.

Isn’t Jane awful? Do tell me all about it or send me a paper with her trial. Who is the child like? Sil Ryder is good to take it but why is it a handful? It must be quite small? How lucky Fay is. I should think she’s off her head with joy. I can quite imagine Ma being sceptical.

I am so sorry Aunt Lin has rheumatism so badly and hope it is better now. Tell her she had better come out here and all of the heat will work it out. George will be coming in for lunch in a minute. It is past 1.30 and I’m hungry so I hope he won’t be long.

Tell Jo I was awfully pleased to have her letter and will answer it soon.

Lots of love and kisses to everybody

Yours ever



My Dearest Mother


Negombo Rest House
May 14th 1900

My dearest Mother

I expect you will wonder where on earth we are and what we were doing. I told you in my last letter that we were most probably going down to Colombo for the weekend to get money, but on Wednesday George had a letter to say they were sending someone over to us with it instead. Mr Marshall, the accountant, came – a very nice man indeed and easy to get on with. George went down in the launch to Negombo on Friday to meet him, that is halfway between us and Colombo. He came the first part by coach. Then yesterday (Sunday) we brought him back here in the launch and he went on to Colombo in a regular steamboat which goes backwards and forwards. We are staying here till tomorrow. We shall start away about 12 and get home between 5 and 6. We had to get up at 5.30 yesterday morning. Neither Mr Marshall nor I appreciated it. the water is rather low now so we did not get along as fast as usual and got stuck once or twice. It was very hot too so we were fairly tired out by the time we got here. I did not envy Mr Marshall having four more hours of it.

This is not a bad little place and has water nearly all round it, as the lake and the sea join here. The rest house is on the edge of the lake. I wish it were on the sea as it would be cooler. It was frightfully hot last night. Our room had only one window and as we could not very well have the door open, there was no draught through. George was so hot and sleepless that he got up and had a whiskey and soda which made him feel much better. I was too tired to notice it much and slept very well.

A rest house is a sort of inn which is under government. The man in charge is appointed and has certain regulations as to price etc. This is a fairly good one. The sanitary arrangements are rather unwholesome but they might be worse.

This afternoon we are going out in a catamaran. I must tell you my experience tomorrow. A catamaran is a boat cut out of a single cocoa nut trunk and is about a foot wide and then it has to have a huge out rigger made out of another log of wood to keep up the balance. You sit on a tiny narrow seat with your feet screwed into the trunk. The men paddle them along and they go at a tremendous pace. I can imagine your horror at the sight of one but they are very safe and, besides, the lake is quite shallow. I am very glad for George to have the days rest in between going and coming as Jeremiah is still ill so he has to drive the engine himself and it makes him dreadfully hot and tired.

Tuesday, 9.00 am.

We got home from our sail safely last night although we got drenched as it came on to pour when we were halfway home. It was very jolly though and a very novel experience. I was wrong about where you sit. I did not have to screw my legs inside the boat but we sat on a board put across the out rigger. We had a cushion on the board and rested our feet on the side of the boat. They put up a huge sail when we got into the wind and we simply spun along. It was lovely but I don’t think a nervous person would enjoy it much as you felt you were suspended on one frail board over the raging ocean.

We did get wet coming back. I was worse off than George as my sunshade dripped so much it was like a little torrent on my back. On my hips where the rain beat, I was wet to the skin. I had got another pair of combies, of course, but I unfortunately had not brought another skirt or petticoat as I only thought we were going to stay one night. I could not get my things dried as they don’t have any proper fires, only smoky wood things and my clothes would have got pitch black. I thought I should have to return to bed and have my diner there but George suddenly had a brilliant idea. I pinned my waterproof cape round me as a petticoat and wore my skirt above it and no wet could come through. I went to bed directly after dinner though as it was not exactly comfortable and George dosed me with hot whiskey and water in case I might have caught cold, but I am quite all right this morning.

The men were awfully funny on the boat. We could not understand a word they said as they spoke Tamil. One of them took off his skirt and put it round us to keep off the rain and then kept on jabbering away to me and laughing but as ‘lady’ was the only word I could understand I could only smile back at them.

We shall start off this morning about 12 o’clock. I hope it won’t be very hot, but the rain last night has cooled the air a little.

Tell Amy not to get excited if the moonstones drop out of her ring. They are so roughly made but what can you expect for 1 rupee, and besides moonstones always come out, George says, because they are so smooth and hard. I hope Tommie’s bruises soon got better after falling off the little bathroom steps. However much does she weigh? I always thought those steps were fairly solid.

I am afraid I have got used to seeing George walk about with his trousers inside his socks. He does it partly to prevent animals crawling up his legs and also because the sand gets so into the hems of his trousers. His moustache is quite a decent size now and he is secretly proud of it. I must say I don’t like it very much but then I never do like moustaches. But it was best to let him try as he wanted to and he will get sick of it himself presently and will shave it off again.

I am not writing to anybody this week but you as I have not had any time. The coach passed here yesterday with our mail in it; it was so tantalising not to be able to have it. I hope you will be able to read this, but I have been writing on the verandah in a long chair so it is rather difficult.

Lots of love and kisses to everybody

Your very loving daughter, Mab

Hope you got nice and fat while you were at Fairbank.

Mabel’s Wedding Photograph

For those of you who have been following Mabel on her adventures in Ceylon, I have an exciting development. I visited my Great Auntie Ruth yesterday and, while having a cup of tea, took a closer look at the Victoria photograph that has hung for many years on her wall. I never realised it was of Mabel and George’s wedding.

Now, to explain a bit, George Gillespy was Auntie Ruth’s father. But Mabel Gibson wasn’t her mother. (More of that in time…) It was odd that Auntie Ruth chose to put this wedding photograph on her sitting room wall, and not the one of her mother’s wedding to George many years later which is stored in a drawer upstairs in the guest bedroom. Auntie Ruth said she hung this photograph because she loved the costumes. And they are quite something.

Mabel and George's wedding, Colombo, Ceylon, 1899
Mabel and George’s wedding, Colombo, Ceylon, 1899

At first glance it is hard to work out who the bride and groom are. George is more centre stage, the man without the moustache. Mabel has the finest hat but she is sitting down. The other lady is Maggie Bois, George’s sister (with a Gillespy face) who is married to Percy Bois, the man with the moustache. They lived in Colombo with their four children, all in the photograph, including the oldest daughter, Maud Gillespy Bois, who is standing next to her Uncle George. (The other daughters are Dorothy and Gwynneth and the boy is Dudley.)

This photo was taken, I believe, in the grounds of the Bois’ house from where Mabel married George three days after her arrival in Colombo from England.

I am so thrilled to be able to put faces to names, to look back into the past and catch a glimpse of what it was like to be married in 1899. An English wedding so far away from home.

I made many other discoveries yesterday which I will be able to post in time as Mabel’s life unfolds. I am thankful that this side of my family had unusual names or spellings of names as it is so much easier to track them down online. For instance, why is George’s surname spelled with a ‘y’ instead of the usual ‘ie’? A-ha! I now know but more research is required to back up the family legend…

Letter from Mab

Here is the latest letter from Mabel to her mother back in Croydon.

April 9th/00

My dearest Mother

We are still stewing slowly but surely. I really am beginning to feel quite limp, but it can’t last much longer. Every evening it clouds over and it looks as if it were going to be a tremendous storm and then it slowly clears away again. But one of these evenings it will give the most enormous ‘bust’ and then we shall have plenty of rain for a few days. What makes it worse here is the glare of the sand. Wherever you look on the ground you see nothing but this white sand and it gets most annoying after a time. Of course there is plenty of green because there are such heaps of trees, but it would be so nice to have grass on the ground.

We went for a very jolly trip in the launch yesterday afternoon, starting at 2.30 and getting back at 6.30. We went up the canal and through one big lake then up another bit of canal and halfway across another big lake but that was full of weeds which got twisted round the propellor so we had to stop. We have got oars for the boat when the water is too weedy to steam but it is very hard work and wants strong men. We got nearly as far as Chilan, our nearest town, but we had to turn back as it was getting late and of course it is dark soon after six.

There are man-eating crocodiles in the swampy parts. We have not seen one yet but a man had his hand bitten off yesterday by one at Madampe which is only two miles away. George called me down this morning to see a young crocodile that some boys had caught, such a beastly looking thing, 3 or 4 feet long. They had its mouth propped open with a bit of wood to prevent its snapping. It pretended to be half dead, but Mr Van Boot says they are awfully artful and do it on purpose to put you off your guard. They had a piece of rope tied round its neck and they put it in the canal and let it swim about. If one of them had gone in the water, it would have made for them at once.

The mills are closed this week, they won’t be open till next Monday. The Bhuddists have a big festival at the beginning of the week. It is their New Year, so none of them would come to work, and of course the Roman Catholics would not come at the end of the week so they think it better to close altogether. The people here are all either Bhuddists or Roman Catholics, hardly any Protestants.

George and I have decided not to go away for Easter but to wait and go later on. For one thing it will either be very hot or very wet in Colombo and in either case we should not be able to do much and also staying at an hotel of course is fairly expensive, and although the Orient Co. paid for our actual moving, still there were a good many things we did for ourselves. So with one thing and another there are sone fairly big bills to pay off this month. It will be much nicer to go presently and have a ‘bust’ with a clear conscience. I don’t think it would do either of us much good to go to Colombo now as it is dreadfully hot there and the bedrooms at the G. O. H. would be quite unbearable. Here we always get a breeze however hot it is and when the monsoon bursts the wind will be S.W. and will blow straight from the sea which is only a few miles away.

George will be able to take things easy this week, although I think he wants to do something to the engine. Still he will have plenty of time to lazy about and the rest will do him good as his work is very worrying and he is beginning to get a bit done up with the heat. He has been taking Eno pretty regularly and I am also making him take quinine. I took some this morning as I had a headache. I think I was in the sun too much yesterday although the awning to the boat is very thick and I had my sunshade up as well. The sun is pretty well exactly overhead now at noon and between about 8am and 5pm it is dangerous to be out in it without a thick head covering.

I shan’t be able to get any butterflies until I go to Colombo as I want to get the ‘Killing Bottle’ myself. I don’t like to risk sending for it by post as they are sure to send something wrong.

It will be very horrid having Good Friday and Easter Sunday with no church. I have not heard yet that they are going to have any service. I wish they would but am afraid it is impossible.

Oh, how you would hate the ants and other insects, they are everywhere. I have to wrap the Pomade in wax paper and then it doesn’t keep them out entirely. They would soon eat it all up if they got the chance. I don’t mind them so long as they don’t bite, but there is a very tiny sort that give you nips that quite make you jump. I am a martyr to heat bumps now. They come up all over my hands and arms almost as bad as mosquito bites. I think perhaps it is the iron in the water, and when we get some rain it will be better.

Breakfast is ready and George is rampagious* so I must be off.

Lots of love and kisses to everybody

Your very affectionate daughter


I signed myself Mabel Gibson in two letters the other day. It is very difficult to get out of it.

*Violent and boisterous; unruly. From rampage. Originally Scottish. (Who knew. Not me.)

Letter to Mother, 5/2/00


c/o Orient Co.
Horekelly Mills


My dearest Mother

Here we are in our new abode and at present we feel strange and forlorn. We had a long day on Friday and I was very tired, but still not so bad as I thought I should be. We were nearly an hour late in getting to Negombo as about 4 or 5 miles away one of the springs of the coach suddenly broke. Luckily we had just got into a village and the blacksmith was able to tinker it up, but it took 45 minutes and it was very hot waiting about. There was not a vehicle of any description to be had or we should have gone on to Negombo. The coach landed us about 1 1/2 miles away and Mr Van Dort (the manager) was waiting with a bullock cart that he had borrowed, a sort of a low wagonette drawn by two bulls. It was not extra comfortable, but it was heavenly after the coach, my back was nearly broke and the thing jolted in the most awful manner.

They do have such miserable horses, you never saw such pairs. One would be a great enormous thing and the other almost a pony. Coming along in the cart, one of the bulls had an obstinate fit and would take its head from under the yoke, and keep turning round, the man had quite a job with it. I can imagine Lin saying ‘Oh, the brute!’. I have got quite used to seeing everything drawn by bulls. You scarcely ever see horses, only in small dog carts and things like Victorias with a cover that are called Hacknies, that go to and fro from the stations and that sort of thing in Colombo. What are called Trotting Bulls go along very fast, the natives tear about in these. They are little black ones and are bred in Ceylon, but the ones that pull carts and wagons are big white ones and come from India. They all have humps of course and are driven in a yoke which is a round piece of wood that goes across between their head and hump.

Our boxes and cases that we sent off by boat won’t come before next Wednesday. We just missed one boat or they would have come last night. So at present we have got only just the bare furniture, but we should not have unpacked anyhow as all the walls have got to be whitewashed. It is so tiresome it having to be done after we are in. The walls are always whitewashed out here and these have just been left the bare cement, a sort of yellowy white which is far from pretty. It is only the walls that are done, the ceiling is the bare corrugated iron roof and then thatch on top of that, made of dried cocoa-nut leaves. There is a space of about a foot between the top of the wall and the roof for the wind to blow through. The rooms are always very lofty here, about twice as high as at home, and the ceiling goes up to a point in the middle. It is so funny to see the bare roof. Sometimes the rain comes through but not often. Of course you very often have ceiling cloth stretched across, we had in some of the rooms at Veyangoda.

We are not in the bedroom we want, so the men are going to whitewash that tomorrow, then we can move straight in and settle down. They are both nice large bedrooms with two big windows in each and they are divided into three, two wooden divisions and one glass and they move round and round on pivots in the middle, to let in as much air as possible. There has been a lovely breeze here every day. It is the north-east monsoon and as the bedrooms face the north, they are delightfully cool. The verandah faces south so is very hot. It is quite unbearable between 12 and 4 as the temperature is about 94 and I expect it will be even more soon as this month and the next one are the hottest.

This is a very simple little house, just four rooms, two above and two below, like a doll’s house. On the ground floor there is the dining room and another room which at present is used as the office, but George is going to see about building an office as soon as possible. We shall want it as a sitting room as it is nice and cool. The stairs go straight up between the two rooms. The bathroom is at the bottom of the stairs, such a funny bath, made of cement, like our ordinary one at home only very shallow and narrow. George says it is like a coffin and it is rather an uncanny shape. I never have my bath quite cold, but have a pail of boiling water brought in, so can have it quite hot if I like. The upper verandah is a very jolly one, and I am going to make one end a little drawing room. I shall always have to be up here until we get the other sitting room and even then, except in the hot part of the day, it is nicer as there is more wind. We can’t sit in the lower verandah. It is too bare and open, but we have all our pots put along the edge. Some of the plants have suffered rather in travelling, but I think they will soon recover. We have lots of ferns, big leafed maiden hairs, and ordinary rather fine leafed ones, and some like harts tongues. Then there are some things of the Arum lily tribe, with big dark green leaves, some of them variegated. The flower is very insignificant. Arum lilies grow quite wild, like weeds.

Monday 4pm

The temperature has gone down to 90, so I have ventured out onto the verandah. We have had tea in our bedroom as it is the coolest place, and while we were having it, we interviewed the Tambi at the same time. The Tambi is a sort of pedlar who goes about with goods in a bullock wagon, and he tells us he will come once a month, so I may find him useful. He has been trying to make me buy some very pretty figured muslins but we only wanted curtain muslin and stuff for making cushions. George had a huge cane chair made for me, as he knew I liked big ones, but if anything it is too roomy so I am going to make some thick cushions for it.

The men are whitewashing the bedroom but they are like English workmen and get on very slowly.

It is rather jolly – the company have got a steam launch which is hardly ever used and the boiler is out of order so they have sent it up here for George to repair. He has been overhauling it today (and getting black from head to foot in consequence) and he says there is very little wants doing to it and it will soon be all right. So we are going to to keep it up here and go about in it and it will be very jolly. Of course it is only a tiny thing, like a big rowing boat and George will look after it with a man to stoke. It will take us just as much time as the coach to get to Colombo but be decidedly more comfortable, even if we did it in a day. We shall be able to make some jolly excursions, especially when there is a moon. It is very pretty a little higher up than here, as the canal ends and we get into the natural water. It is really a long lagoon inside a big sand bank which goes up the west side of the island, joined together by canals here and there and a lot of work is done by barges, called “Padda” boats, which go up and down with goods. All the cocoa-nut cases go from here to Colombo in them as there is no railway.

I am glad such a nice lot of Addiscombe boys are going to the war. We saw ours off on Thursday. They marched past the G.O.H. to the jetty which is quite close. It made us feel very choky when they went by, they looked so sweet in their khaki uniforms with the band of the Highland regiment that belongs here playing before them. (That must be Capt Leigh’s son that died at Canary. He showed me his photo once and told me he was dying of consumption. He was very miserable about it, poor man, and I think from what he said, he was his only child, but I did not like to ask.)

The Rome will be in Colombo on the 15th. I am so sorry not to be able to go on board, but I am going to write to the Captain and send him my photograph.

It is much nicer having George so close. At Veyangoda the mill was half a mile away but here it is only a few yards and I can see him and Mr Van Dort walking about and it is much less lonely. And of course the office being in the house at present they are often in there and George can pop upstairs now and then to have a little gossip.

There is no attempt at a garden. Mr Harbor did not care about anything and the soil is all loose sand, so we shall have to get some mould before we can do anything. Exactly in front of the house is a square place that I think we shall turn into a tennis court. Then down a steep bank is the canal and on the other side a road and behind that a huge cocoa-nut estate called the Horekelly estate. This mill and house is built on a bit of ground belonging to it. We have nothing but cocoa-nuts all round us. They are very pretty, like huge Prince of Wales’ plumes against the blue sky.

I am suffering so from the mosquitos. They get at me everywhere, especially my feet. My ankles are a mask of bites ad I could tear them to pieces. Last night I sat with bandages soaked in ammonia and water tied round my ankles so as to get a little peace. George tears at his legs and cusses occasionally.

I hope you will understand the plans. I have put a cross on our bedroom in both houses. ‘Godown’ means where the servants sleep.

Plans for Horekelly bungalow

Veyangoda bungalow

I must shut up as the post cooly is waiting.

I do hope you are all better and that you’ve got a servant. That seems a hopeless case though.

With much love and kisses to all

Your loving daughter, Mab

(This letter included the two plans plus a sprig of rosemary which still survives over a hundred years later and all those miles.)

Letter to Mother, 24.01.00



My dearest Mother

I was so glad to hear from Amy that you were just a tiny, scrap better but it does not sound much all the same. You are a wicked old woman to go and get ill, and I only hope you are better by now. And the Aunts too, I hope they have got over their manifold afflictions.

I also most sincerely hope you have got a servant, it must be awful for you with the weather so cold. It makes me feel piggish to be luxuriating here.

We are going to move next week if all goes well. Monday and Tuesday we shall pack up, and on Wednesday the things will go off in bullock wagons under charge of the ‘boy’ and his satellites. They ought to arrive at Horekelly on Friday morning and I expect we shall get there that same evening. We shall go to Colombo on Wednesday and come on by coach on Friday, leaving at 7 am and arriving at Horekelly at 5 o’clock. I expect I shall be pretty well tired out as the coaches are not very comfortable. We stop halfway for breakfast, so that will make a little rest. George is very anxious and keeps on saying ‘I know you will be dreadfully tired’ in a doleful voice. He treats me as a very frail reed, and spoils me almost as much as you and Amy do, waiting on me hand and foot. In those ways, he has improved tremendously since he came out, he is much better in doing little things than he used to be.

I had to leave off then as first George came home and then the little black clergyman arrived to call. He is a very nice little man and can talk English quite well. He is only a deacon and the Vicar, who also has a living in Colombo, comes over once a month for communion. He came to see me on Saturday and I liked him very much. He is a native but white, what they call a burgher, a mixture of black and white.

Interval for dinner

There is a tremendous thunder storm going on. We had one tremendous crash while we were at dinner and then I thought it had left off and just now I wandered into the verandah to look at the rain and there came an enormous flash of lightning and the thunder exactly with it right over head. I have never heard a clap quite so loud before. I was quite paralysed for a second, and then simply flung myself onto George for protection. He says he does not remember ever hearing such a loud clap before. It is still thundering but only ordinary so to speak and I don’t mind it, but I hope it does not go on all night.

I don’t believe I have ever told you what wedding presents George has had. Of course, Maggie’s and Percy’s you know about, it is awfully nice but I only just had one peep the night we arrived and somehow could not take it in much, but there are knives in it, large and small I think. Then the boy who was going to be his best man and then got ill, Walter, gave him a picture, a very pretty girl’s head, but I have forgotten what it is called. Mr and Mrs Waldrock (the manager at Colombo) gave him a lamp, and Mr Masefield (the man here) a butter dish, oak and silver, a fern pot, and a photo of himself and bungalow. Another man, Mr Bolton gave him a set of silver afternoon tea spoons and tongs, such jolly ones. We are well off for teaspoons as that makes eighteen silver ones, besides a dozen in Maggie’s chest. Then the day before we were married, there came a little silver pepper pot from Vi and Reggie Saunders, and a few days afterward, a dozen Indian sort of d’oyleys from Colonel and Mrs Fanshawe, the married Miss Saunders.

My two boys on the ‘Rome’ have also sent me presents. Mr Wren some Maltese lace d’oyleys and Mr Renny a lovely table centre, white satin all worked in silver wire sort of stuff and an Indian tea cosy, worked in thick gold. Wasn’t it nice of them? I am going to send them my photograph as soon as I get it. The proofs came today and also our wedding ones. The big group is very good, but the one of George and I alone is too awful for words. We are going to have the negative and everything destroyed. I simply tower over George in that beastly hat. The ones of me are not at all bad, one is rather good, better than usual. We shall send you some of both as soon as we get them, but they are very slow here and we can’t see about them until we go in the shop next Thursday.

I am so glad our ‘boy’ will come with us to Horekelly. George was rather afraid he wouldn’t and I was dreading having to cope with a new one. This one looks after everything so well and is strictly honest. He takes great interest in me and likes giving me new things to eat. George was afraid he might not like him getting married but he seems rather proud of it and told George he was used to looking after ladies. They all call George ‘Master’ and me ‘Lady’. It sounded so funny at first. The boy has got a nice little ‘House coolie’ who can talk English and will come to Horekelly but I don’t think he has got any others yet, but I expect he will manage it all right. A ‘House coolie’ helps wait at table and cleans silver etc and is like a parlour maid, and is supposed to be ready to come whenever I call him. The ‘kitchen coolie’ washes up, and sweeps the rooms, does washstands and baths.

Thursday 8.30 am.

The ‘boy’ is gong to Colombo for a holiday today and coming back tomorrow morning. His wife and family live there but I don’t think he sees them very often. He is quite a middle-aged man and has grown up children. This evening we are going to dine with Mr Masefield. He has his sister staying with him. They are not bad sort of people in their way, although I should not exactly care to get intimate with them. I am hoping I shall like the manager at Horekelly. He is a burgher too, his name is Van Dort, of Dutch extraction as so many are here. He is quite young and George likes him very well, so I expect I shall too. It would be awkward if I didn’t, as he lives quite close so we are bound to see a certain amount of him and if we play games or anything it would be so mean not to ask him in. I expect he is very glad to have us as Mr Harbro is the sort of person who never does anything at all, but just sits in a long chair in the verandah and won’t take any kind of exercise. They all hate him and Mr Masefield is awfully sad at the prospect of having him here.

I wonder how Eddie Goddard will get on at the war? It is nice and plucky of him to go but aren’t Mr and Mrs Goddard dreadfully cut up abut it? Why doesn’t that cowardly little Ronald go and try to be of some use in the world? I think all loafers ought to be compelled to go. It would be a case of kill or cure and would prove if they have any pluck at all. Our Ceylon contingent leaves next Thursday and as we are in Colombo that day we hope we may see them off. They are sending 120 and they had no end of applications, ever so many more than they wanted. They are cavalry, so were obliged to ride well.

We had cocoa for ‘early tea’ this morning and used Walter Lovett’s silver jug. It looks awfully nice on the table. The ‘boy’ likes to have everything nice, and is very pleased when I give him out new things, but I have not got out much at present. He always makes the table look very pretty for breakfast and dinner, with lots of flowers. We’re using Miss Willis’ table centre for breakfast and Lucy Greenwood’s for dinner at present. Well, I must finish this up as the ‘boy’ is going to take it when he goes. Will you ask Amy to tell Florence that her photo came on Monday and thank her very much for it and the frame. I have not time to write to her this week, if she won’t mind only having a message.

Lots of love and kisses to everybody from Mab.

Mabel Gillespy!! It sounds so funny, doesn’t it?

Letter from Mabel, 21st December 1899


SS Rome
Thursday, December 21st

My dearest Mother

Not much longer to wait now, but the days do crawl. I can’t a bit realise that I am going to see George in three days. I suppose it will dawn on me soon and I shall be wildly excited by the time Sunday comes. I had a letter from George at Aden and also one from Maggie. She is coming to Colombo on the Friday to do some shopping and then she and Mr Bois and George and I will all go up by the 7 o’clock train on Xmas morning and we shall arrive at their house in nice time for dinner. It seems rather a shame to cut up their Xmas day, but she is awfully kind and does not seem to mind.

Mr Haines bought me such lovely feathers at Aden with his share of the prize money. Wasn’t it nice of him? There are four bunches, one of white, three of natural. The only drawback is that they are all quite straight and flat. I don’t know whether I shall be able to get them curled at Colombo. The Captain says they are worth the money he gave for them. I am going to send some home to Amy when I am sending a parcel. They might come in for something or other.

We all felt very sad on Monday when all our various soldier boys left us. We had quite an affecting parting. Mr Renny got quite chokey. He and I have been such chums. There is hardly anybody nice of the male sex left except Mr Haines. The first officer Mr Bruce is an awfully nice man, and the doctor and purser are both jolly fellows, quite youthful specimens. I don’t know any of the other officers except the fifth. He looks after the library and we have great fun with him.

There are two very nice Australian girls, Miss Way and Miss Stirling. The latter is most comic and we never know what she is going to say next. We played cricket yesterday and the day before, mixed teams, and it is rather good fun. I have proved the champion bat, much to my amazement. I made 24 on Monday and got too excited for words.

Maggie said in her letter that she thought we should be married on Wednesday the 27th. It does seem close now and I can’t quite believe it. I have a dreadful sinking sort of feeling every now and then when I begin to think how far I am away although generally I only feel as if I were just staying away for a time. I think when I get on shore I shall begin to take it in more. Life on board is so messed up somehow that one’s thoughts won’t flow properly. And we are all so terribly lazy, it is quite dreadful.

I shall be very glad to get on shore and have a more comfortable bed. Mine is like lying on wood, it is so hard ad lumpy. My bones quite ached at first. Both the bed and the pillows are stuffed with horse hair, so you can imagine what it is like.


Tuesday, December 26th

Well, Mother dear, here I am safe and sound and in a state of excitement too great for words. It is so lovely seeing George again and he has not altered a bit, just a scrap thinner, that is all. We had a most awful time landing on Monday night. We did not get in till past nine and it was simply pouring with rain, thundering and lightening as well. George and Mr Bois came to fetch me. It was too wet for Maggie especially as it was so late. We managed to get my big trunk all right but I had to go down in the pelting rain to pick it out. We finally got on shore about eleven o’clock and got to the Bois house at 11.30. I had put on my clean blue print and it was absolutely filthy when I arrived. We came up here by the seven o’clock yesterday morning and got here about 5 o’clock. It is three quarters of an hour’s drive from the station. This is a jolly house and all the furniture and everything is perfect.

We are going to be married tomorrow at one o’clock, quite quietly I am thankful to say. Then we are going to stay up here for about a fortnight. George has taken a little house a few miles away. It is called ‘Elephant’s Nook’, why I can’t imagine. We went over to see it this morning and it is a dear little place, quite hidden away. George’s ‘boy’ has come up to this house and will take charge and look after everything, so I shall not have anything at all to do with the housekeeping, unless he suggests anything I don’t like. He was there this morning and filled me with awe and admiration. I know I shall be dreadfully frightened of him.

I have just been unpacking and looking at my clothes and they all look satisfactory, so be sure you let Kate know as it will ease her mind. My hats are also all right, the feathers hardly a scrap out of curl. I am wearing my check coat and skirt here as it is quite cool enough for it. I am going off in my white alpaca tomorrow.

It was quite affecting saying goodbye to the Captain and everybody on Monday. I had the chief and fourth officers and Purser to see me off, nearly all the passengers had gone. Mr Bois had a special launch so we did not go with the others, and we were so late because of my box. I was the only one who got any heavy luggage. It was so delicious! Mr Bois passed the box with the silver teapot inside it through customs as a Christmas pudding, wasn’t it cute? He did not know what was in it so said the first thing that came into his head.

Well, I must say goodbye now. Thank you and everybody for the calendars and cards. We were very delighted to have them. We drank to ‘absent friends’ last night at dinner. All the children sat up for it. Gwinnie is such a duck, tell Lottie she is simply sweet. I will write next mail and tell you everything. I feel too topsy turvy today to think much. Maggie has got another wedding cake. We could not possibly get more.

Goodbye, kisses and love to everybody, from Mab.

Letter from George Gillespy


This is a letter I have found from my great grandfather in Colombo to his prospective mother-in-law, Amy Gibson (my great great grandmother), in Croydon, October 18th, 1899.

My dear Mrs Gibson

After leaving it till the very last moment, I have at last made up my mind (after talking it over thoroughly with my sister and Mr Bois*) to ask you to let Mab come out to me at the end of next month, so that we can be married from my sister’s house before she leaves for England which will be on the 18th January. As she will have all her preparations to make before leaving, it will of course be most convenient for her to have Mab before Christmas, necessitating her to leave at the end of November.

I am afraid I have not given you much time in which to finally make up your mind to entrust Mabel to me, and I know what a trial it will be to you to part with her, but I am sure you will be glad that the uncertainty in which I have kept her and all of you for so long is at last at an end. Any slight hitch there may be to Mab’s comfort in our being married now instead of a year or so later when I might have offered her a home in Colombo instead of a dull pit-station, will be counter-balanced I am sure by her being able to be married from my sister’s house, and I know you will be glad to hear from the latter all about our wedding when she comes home in February (Maggie).

And now dear Mrs Gibson, please be quite sure that I shall do my utmost to make Mab’s life out here as happy a one as it is in my power. Things unforeseen may arise which will make our stay in Ceylon longer or shorter but I expect we shall be able to return to England either for a long holiday or for good in three years time.

You know that my indecision has been due to the company proposing to place me in Colombo, but I have since had another letter in which the matter is not again referred to and therefore have concluded that it has been abandoned or is in abeyance and I have written to the managing director of the company announcing my intention of settling at Veyangoda anyhow for a time at the end of the year. I have the assurance of Mr Waldoch, the manager in Ceylon, that I am not likely to be required to live in Colombo on my modest income, and therefore I think the risks of the course I am taking are not of any significance and Mr Bois, with whom I have discussed it, is of the same opinion.

Goodbye now. I have not said anything about the best way for Mab to come out as you will be able to get the necessary information from the different lines better than I can give them to you. Although the time will be short, I don’t think there will be any difficulty in getting a berth for Mab at the end of November.

With love to everyone

Yours affectionately, George Gillespy.

*George’s sister, Maggie, is married to Mr Bois and they also live in Ceylon.