Mab and the Tea Leaves of Ceylon

Elephant Nook

Nuwera Eliya

Nov. 6th 1900

My dearest Mother

Here we are in our little elephant hutch again and very jolly it is too. We came up on Thursday and had a very nice journey, getting in here about 5 o’clock. I am not enjoying myself just at present as I am a grass-widow. George had a wire from Mr Martin on Sunday asking him to go down to Marawila as further evidence was required evidently before the Attorney General decides the case. So off he went by the night mail on Sunday night and would go to Marawila in the coach on Monday and get to the courthouse in time in the afternoon. I had a wire from him last night to say he is coming back by tonight’s mail so he will be here by 8.30 tomorrow morning and shan’t I be glad to see him.

We went to church on Sunday morning, it was nice to go again. We have only been three times since we have been married and this is a proper church too with an organ and choir, not like the quaint one we went to before. I am revelling in the garden here, real English flowers, roses, yellow daisies, violets, verbenas, lovely arum lilies (very common here) and big tree fuchsias. Begonias grow very well here and so do those red leaved plants, coleus aren’t they called? Maiden hair ferns grow all over the place, in holes in the walls, on the side of the banks, it is so scrumptious to be able to pick it as much as you like.

It was so tiresome, poor George went away without any luggage. It must have been horrid for him spending the night in the train with no pyjamas or anything. It was all Solomon’s idiocy. I could have boxed his ears. George walked down to the coach office (one goes to take passengers to the train) and told Solomon to meet him there with his bag. But instead of waiting for George, he went off with someone else to show him the way and waited at the wrong coach office. He didn’t have the sense to go to the right one when George did not appear but waited till the coach went from there, and then went to the right one but was of course too late. I expect he could have got it down somehow if he had really tried. You see, the station is not at Nuwera Eliya, but at Nanuoya nearly a thousand feet lower down, it takes nearly an hour to drive down or up as the road winds round and round and is of course tremendously steep in some places and on the slope the whole way. I wired to George to know if it would be any good sending the bag on but of course he wired back no, as by the time it got there, he would be coming back and, of course, being so near Horekelly, he could get anything he wanted from the house. I expect he slept there last night with Mr Van Dort.

I expect Mr Brine, the clergyman, will come to visit us as he saw us going into church and asked where we were staying and for how long. He is fairly nice but rather too smug.

By the way, Mr Brown is coming to Ceylon this month to conduct a mission in Colombo. I wonder if I shall see him when we go back. I quite forgot in my last letter to tell you that we say Charlie Antram the day he arrived. He was spending the night with his brother-in-law who had come down to meet him, at the G.O.H. and I spotted him at dinner. I sent a card across to him asking if he had had a good voyage. He looked very mystified at first until he caught sight of me and then he recognised me at once. We had a nice little chat after dinner and he told me scraps of news. He looked very well and not altered a bit. He was only going to spend ten days in Ceylon and was then going on to Assam to learn tea-planting. He had altered his plans of staying in Ceylon as this was a better offer.

George and I have joined the Club here. It combines everything, tennis, croquet, golf, and library and reading room. I have not liked to go alone as I don’t know anybody but directly George comes back we shall go. It was rather unfortunate on Saturday. We went to call on the Wickwars, the only people George knows well enough, but Mrs Wickwar was ill in bed and the daughter out, however I expect she will return it and we are sure to see them at the Club.

We have not had much rain so far, only one wet evening. It is the rainy time here really so I hope we are going to be fortunate. It is so funny being so high up, sometimes a cloud comes right along the road when we are out like a wet fog but that is when we are closer to a hill, we don’t get them here. We have tea growing all around us, it is not very interesting, just little low bushes, rather like evergreens. Of course it is kept pruned and not allowed to grow high. They pick just the three top leaves to make into tea, the tiny top leaf is the best, that is orange pekoe. When the leaves are picked they are put onto hair clothes with air blowing over them to wither and then after so many days they are sorted out and put into machines to be rolled.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

Wednesday. George has not come this morning after all. I had a wire from him to say that he is coming by today’s train, so he will be here about five. I expect when he got to Colombo yesterday afternoon, Mr Norman wanted him for something or other and he could not get away in time.

It rained nearly all night last night and thundered but not badly. The thunder is so curious up here because there are so many hills it resounds all around and goes on for such a long time. This is a hilly place. It wouldn’t suit you. There is just a plain where the village is and most of the houses and then mountains all around, some of them covered with jungle. I went down to the village this morning and got caught in the rain, at least it was a sort of Scotch mist but very wetting so I had to come back in a rickshaw. With such hilly roads, you have to have one man to pull and one to push. I’m afraid they found me a tough job.

Please thank Amy for sending me the ambulance books, I quite forgot last letter. My tummy is very well now. I do hope you are feeling better. It is so tiresome, we shan’t get our mail till tomorrow as it goes to Horekelly first, so I shan’t know how you are. Has Jane’s trial come off yet because I want to have a paper about it. Give my love to Mrs Grundy when you see her next.

This must go off to the post or it will miss the mail.

lots of love and kisses to everybody, from Mab

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.

Letter from Mab to her sister, Tommie

Monday march 5th, 1900

Dearest Tommie

Of course our letters have to go this afternoon just because we shan’t get yours till this evening, we always just miss them. While I think of it, always put Madampe, N.W.P. on your letters. Horekelly doesn’t matter as it is only the name of the estate. The N. W. P. is necessary because there is another Madampe somewhere else.

I have got what I call a suppressed cold and feel stooped in consequence. I have got just the sort of feeling that you have in your head and nose and eyes when you have a bad cold, but that is all, it is only feelings and nothing else. I suppose that’s how they take you in the tropics. George is very delicious. I found him this morning solemnly looking in a little medical book he has got to see if they said anything about a suppressed cold, and every morning, the instant he wakes up he says ‘Does your head feel better?’ It is pretty well all right this morning. George quite thought he told you about the doctor being close when he wrote to you.

We went out in the launch twice yesterday, morning and evening, and it was very jolly, but it is a quaint little boat. We went quite a nice long way in the morning, right out of the canal into the open lagoon and the scenery was quite Englishy, no cocoa-nut trees, but ones not unlike oaks and elms. I steered nearly all the way home and George says I can do it quite all right. The great thing is to keep in the middle of the stream as it is so shallow at the sides. We got aground once yesterday over a tree stump. The water was quite deep, but the beastly thing was right up in the water. The stoker and engine man and George managed to shove us off again. In the evening Mr Van Dort came too and we went in the other direction, but it is not so interesting that way as the canal is much straighter. That is one good thing about this canal, that it winds about so, it is very rarely in a straight line for any distance. Tell Mother that in the very deepest place the water is only about four ft deep, but nearly always not more than three ft so she need not think I am likely to be drowned. That is why we have to be so careful as the launch draws 2 1/2 foot.

Thank you ever so much for the Chambers. We were delighted to have it and also for the Living Waters, also for the paper with John Ferguson’s lecture. It wasn’t bad, was it? John Ferguson Esq. looks on himself as the mainstay of Ceylon and is a person to be avoided in many ways. If you look at him even, he puts something about you in the Observer. I was warned about him on board so laid low. I did not care for his family extra much either. The girls were very insipid and the very spottiest boy I have ever seen. I really saw hardly anything of them on board as I was always with the other boys and girls.

I had a letter from Mr. Renny this week. He is a very cheerful person. I sent off my photographs to them on Friday. They have really all come at last. I will send off the ones for you this afternoon, also those that are left of George. I want you to send one of each to Gwen and also to Dollie, I think perhaps she may like to have them. I will write to her next mail and send the letter for you to direct, and then you can send them off together. The other one of George perhaps Arthur would like. He has only got a midget of him. I don’t know what you will do with those terrible silver plates of mine. They are put too low down in the card and such a black background. I shan’t go to them again.

The ‘Boy’ and his satellites are all going at the end of the month. He asked for his wages to be raised when he was paid this month and George told him he would think it over. But he has been getting very slack lately and that evening when I was going to have a bath, George went in first and found the room very dirty. He had had his hair cut there in the morning and they had not swept it up or anything. So George told him if he could not look after things better than that he had better go altogether. He is having R 20 a month and that is very good wages, especially for around here where R 12.50 or R 15 is the usual amount. We were not going to keep the house boy anyhow as he is inclined to fibbing and is also extremely dull. He never seems to understand what you mean. If you say anything to him and he doesn’t understand, he goes away and it makes you feel most enraged. It is so much better to have a fresh lot in altogether, so the kitchen cooly is going too. I am rather glad the boy is going for some things, as now I understand more, there are several things I want better and it is rather difficult to do it with this one. He has had charge of all the stores, so it is difficult to know how we get through things, but I shall keep the key of the cupboard in future and deal them out.

I did not know that I had not told you about my tips on board. I quite thought I had. I asked one or two people and decided to give 10 /- each to the stewardess, steward and table boy, 5 /- to the deck steward, and 2/6 to the bath man. I did hate giving them and was very glad when it was over. I enclose the only three photos I took on board that have come out decently. I had them developed in Colombo. Mr Renny looked so sweet in that big hat, I wish it had come out more distinctly.

There is to be communion service at 8 am tomorrow morning at Marawila, a village about a mile or so off and George and I hope to go if we can get a cart. I think the clergyman comes over once a month.

I do hope your letter will come tonight. The mail was due yesterday.

with much love to all

From Mab