Wesley College is named after John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of the Methodist Church. An Oxford graduate, he was one of the greatest evangelists in the history of the Christian Church. A preacher of great power and an organizer of genius, he founded Methodism in the face of intense opposition and laid the foundations of future world-wide expansion.
Wesley College began its life in Dam Street Pettah and was founded by Rev. Daniel Henry Pereira on the 2nd of March 1874. He became its first Vice Principal during the Principalship of Rev. Samuel Rowse Wilkin. Dam Street takes us back to the Dutch period. During the early days Pettah was a respectable residential area and its streets were lined by tall trees. Messenger Street was called ‘Rue de Massang’ by the Dutch as there were many Massang trees. Even today it is called Massang Gas Vidiya. Earlier Dam Street was called ‘Damba Street’ as Damba trees lined its path. The school had its beginnings on the dusty verandahs of the old Methodist Church at Dam Street, Pettah. Following is a notice published in the Weekly Christian Journal- Satyalankaraya or The Beauty of Truth on the 21st of January 1874.
Closely associated with Rev Pereira was Jan Crozier, a kindly Boer from the South African Rand. The Pettah merchants of mixed race and religions sent their children to receive their education in this school.
Daniel Henry Pereira was much loved by the people and his pupils. He laboured thus for years in the dust and the heat of Pettah. When Rev Highfield arrived In 1895 Pettah was rapidly becoming industrialized and he saw the need for quieter surroundings for his school with room to expand. Wesley College was moved to its present site in 1905 with the help of the dynamic Rev. Henry Highfield.
I was one of four young Missionaries who left London in the British India ”Golconda” for the East in September 1895. Two went on further for India. R.C. Oliver and I were for Ceylon and so left the ship at Colombo in the early hours of a mid-October day, being met by Rev. T. Moscrop and Mr. S. Passmore.
Mr. Passmore was to initiate me into the work of Wesley College and Mr. Moscrop was Chairman of the Colombo District and a former Principal of Wesley. I lived with him and Mrs. Moscrop until they left to return into the work at home. I was thus exceptionally fortunate in having two such fine and experienced men to guide me at the start.
Besides this, when Mr. Passmore took me the next day to Wesley I quickly found that I had two other unusually fine and experienced men on the Staff. Charles Peter Dias joined Wesley in its second year (1876) and continued as Head Master until after my departure in 1925. So too did W.E. Mack, the first assistant; and both, but especially Mr. Dias were of the very greatest help, not at the start only but all along, and the School should never forget what it owes to them. Of the premises I had a very different opinion and I think from the very first I was resolved that the School must have a better habitation.
It was good for Wesley that she had in Dias a genuine Church of England Christian and in Mack a good representative of the Dutch Reformed Faith. I quickly realised that the school believed in itself and was on its toes to spring forward towards the front and in Redlich and Honter we had two who would give any other school a hard tussle for the first place in scholarship.
Before Mr. Passmore took charge Mr. Hillard, venturing boldly, had built the one building that had given the School an Assembly Hall in which all could gather together twice a day and so get to feel their corporate existence. This hall too served for the teaching of four large classes – not an ideal state of things. It is true that Hillard was unable to get it paid for but he wisely pledged the future to make good. So when in 1899 Wesleyan Methodism at Home set out to raise a million guineas from a million Methodists and successfully reached the target, as we would call it, the resolve in my heart on the first day of my seeing the school was confirmed. As however none of these guineas was to be spent in cancelling debts I had to become a beggar. It was done almost as in a dream during the last six months of 1899, and so eventually the Committee at Home gave me a promise of five times all that we could raise in Ceylon.
By the end of 1904 that came to Rs.35,000 and the Committee, though much surprised by the total, stood to their promise and the building facing Base Line Road was erected and opened early in 1907 with the Director of Education, John Harward (previously Principal of Royal College), as chief speaker.
In a Journey; back in time; to the environs of the dusty noisy Pettah, we go over to the Wesleyan Mission premises in Dam Street, where we find a group of children at the feet of a benign Minister, the Rev. Daniel Henry Pereira. It certainly was no place for a school but in spite of the many difficulties, no doubt inspired by the Lord’s invitation “suffer the little children to come unto me” this man kept his grace. Rev. Daniel Henry Pereira, born (circa) 1926 was the eldest son of the Rev. Don Daniel Pereira, who started life as a young school master and taught in a school built by the Rev. Benjamin Clough. On joining the Ministry he followed deep evangelistic trends. He was called “the apostle of Kurana – Negombo “. The Rev. Daniel Henry Pereira had a younger brother, who was Rev. Peter Bartholomeusz Pereira.
Young Daniel Henry was keenly interested in teaching and at a very early age took an equally great interest in the snakes which he studied identifying their species and habits under a famous South Indian Snake Specialist who reserved no secrets as he instructed his pupil. Daniel Henry was quick to absorb the life pattern of these ophidian reptiles. In fact, in later years, he had edited a catalogue in Sinhala and had contributed to journals. He submitted papers to the Ceylon Friend a journal associated with the Wesleyan Church. His contribution to these many journals gave rise to research. He was also an authority on ants in Ceylon.
He had great hopes of being a scientist, but in response to his dying mother’s wish he entered the Ministry in 1851. In addition to his knowledge of reptiles, ants, snails and slugs as a nature scientist he was also proficient in English, Sinhala and Portuguese. His fluency and masterly use of these languages kept his congregation spellbound. He had also knowledge of Hebrew and Greek. He had a brilliant mind displaying itself in his clarity of expression. Certainly he would have been on par with the Western Missionaries of evangelistic fervour. He was a pupil of the famed Oriental Scholar, the Rev. Don John Gogerley who was in charge of the Institute of Colombo, which was an early “Divinity School”. His interest in teaching, combined with his parish work and his deep interest in natural science, made him eminent. In his Parish work he served in many stations for over 25 years. Moratuwa, then a very large Parish which he took over from the Rev. G. G. de Zilva, saw him work with zest and vigour. He founded an English School at Gorakagaha in Mankada, conducting cottage meetings in the homes of those Methodists whilst he resided at Rawattawatte. He contributed largely to the spiritual revival at Moratuwa. When he fell ill his work was taken over by the Rev. Robert Hardy. The school at Dam Street marked the beginning of Wesley College which was founded on the 2nd March 1874 of which he was the first ever Vice Principal, with the Rev. Samuel Rowse Wilkin its first Principal (from 1874 -1879) followed by the Rev. Arthur Shipham (1880 – 1883), with whom Rev. Daniel Henry Pereira worked till the latter’s retirement. The Rev. Daniel Henry Pereira’s son, William H. D. Pereira, studied at Wesley. He was later an Assistant Accountant in the Colombo Port Commission. On his retirement as a Minister in 1882 Rev Daniel Henry Pereira settled in Hambantota. Though not in the best of health, he visited homes of those persons who had surrendered their lives to Christ. They were greatly helped by this erudite but simple priest with his life style, though plain, rich in the -scriptures and its application. His was a life of deep prayer and faith of wide labour and concern, ever with an alert mind. His old friend Rev. Arthur Shipham who was stationed at Matara, no doubt may have had communication with each other. The last few months of his life had been a challenge. His health was failing but his discipline and training and his deep reliance on his Saviour had increased his faith. He faced the storm, yet on an even keel, though confined to his home with restricted movement.
A large number of villagers visited him. It was on the 22nd November 1886 that death took him. His was a life that laboured and was well spent in the Lord’s vineyard as answering the Master’s call ”come follow me”.
Wesley commemorates the memory of her Founder, the Rev. Daniel Henry Pereira, annually on Founder’s Day – March 2nd. This is the most important event in the School’s calendar. A three-storied imposing building dedicated to his memory, the “D. H. Pereira Memorial Building”, built to accommodate the junior school, was constructed during the Principalship of Dunstan Fernando. No doubt the labours of the Rev. Daniel Henry Perera, servant of God, has nurtured a rich crop of which we in this present age are beneficiaries; no doubt this harvest will be reaped by generations yet unborn.
Henry Highfield is to Wesley what Thesius is to Greece. His legend is everywhere. Spurred on by his Missionary zeal and love for humanity he collected the money to build the school in its present site. In the new Wesley there was pride in teaching and dignity in learning in an atmosphere of tranquillity and understanding. On leaving school, boys were able to face the struggles of the wider world with courage and fortitude. He was born in Bengal, India in 1865, and was the son of Rev. George Henry Highfeld, who spent many years on the Indian mission-field. His early education was at Kingswood, England, and he afterwards took the MA degree at London and Cambridge. He was accepted as a candidate for the ministry, and after training at Richmond near London was sent to Ceylon in 1895. Here he had charge of Wesley College. Colombo, and remained in Ceylon for thirty years. On returning to England he served in the following circuits: Aberystwyth, Marazion and Cradley Heath. He retired to Pickering in 1936 and to within a few months of his death was actively engaged in the life of the circuit, taking regular preaching appointments and leading a society class.
He will always be remembered for his outstanding work in Ceylon. It was under his guidance that the new Wesley College at Colombo was built, at a cost of £15,000, and largely through his unremitting efforts this magnificent structure was opened free of debt. He cycled throughout the length and breadth of Ceylon soliciting subscriptions for the enterprise, and actually collected £2,500 in this way. He left a lasting impression on the public life of Ceylon and many of his former pupils came to occupy posts of great administrative responsibility. The first Governor-General of Ceylon was one of his old students. The Education Officer for Ceylon writes: Like “Arnold of Rugby “, he will ever be remembered as “Highfield of Wesley “. He excelled as an expository preacher, his intimate knowledge of New Testament Greek enabling him to present ever-fresh aspects of Christian truth. During his retirement he freely placed his knowledge at the disposal of the probationers in the Ryedale area and guided their studies. He exercised a wonderfully helpful ministry in the homes of his people, where he was ever a welcome visitor. He was utterly consecrated to his Lord and counted no sacrifice too great for the extension of the Kingdom. He was most generous in his financial support of the work of God at home and overseas, and never refused a duty he was able to fulfil. He died at Scarborough on 1st February 1955 in the ninetieth year of his life and in the sixtieth of his ministry. Henry Highfield is no more but his legend lives on.
The present site on which Wesley College stands and the surrounding land was once owned by Charles Ambrose Lorensz. The Burgher intelligentsia in the 1860s was led by a young man who hailed from Matara – Charles Ambrose Lorensz. Being a brilliant lawyer he was popularly known as the “morning star of Hulftsdorf”. Together with a group of young Burghers like Leopold Ludovici, Francis Bevan, Samuel Grenier and James Stewart Drieberg they produced a leading local literary journal called Young Ceylon.
In 1859 Lorensz and a syndicate purchased the Ceylon Examiner which became the first Ceylonese newspaper. Until his death in 1871, at the age of forty two, Lorensz wielded the powerful influence of his pen for social reform, championing democratic causes and courageously criticising the British colonial government, the Governor and his Executive Council. The Principal’s bungalow was built around 1860. The architecture of the building is typical for that period with tall cylindrical columns supporting a large porch, a wide verandah and the lovely lounge with many spacious rooms. Part of the beautiful front garden has been taken over for the Chapel, a useful addition.
The following account of this interesting function is taken from the “Ceylon Independent,” November 6th, 1905.
Thirty years ago, on November 4th 1905, the foundation stone of the buildings which Wesley now occupies was laid by the then Lieut. Governor A. Murray Ashmore, Esq. “Karlsruhe” Grounds, opposite Campbell Park presented quite a festive appearance on Saturday afternoon, (November 4) when His Excellency the Lieut. Governor laid the foundation stone of the new Wesley College, in the presence of a large and sympathetic gathering of friends. The entrance to the premises was spanned by a handsome archway, bearing the inscription “Welcome to H.E. the Lieut. Governor”. Immediately above this was the shield of the College and the words “Wesley College – Ora et Labora”. A very handsome little cadjan structure, octagonal in shape and elaborately decorated, accommodated His Excellency the Lieut. Governor, the Rev. Robert Tebb who presided and a distinguished few, while the rest of the gathering were accommodated on chairs on the right and left of the building. The roadway opposite, and the grounds looked gay with flags and bunting, and the Coronation Orchestra under the guidance of Mr J Fernandez, help greatly to enliven the proceedings. The Lieut.Governor, who was accompanied by Capt. Tarbot, ADC, was received by a guard of honour of the Cadet Corps of the College under the command of Capt. C.V. Honter, with Lieuts. Foenander and Zilwa. His Excellency having inspected the guard, walked up the drive, and was received at the entrance to the marquee by the Revs. Robert Tebb, P.M. Brumwell, H.J. Philpott, J.H. Darrell and Messrs John Ferguson, F Dornhurst and J Harward.