Living legend Shelley honoured

“Working under Sir Cyril de Zoysa, Vere de Mel and NU Jayawardene was like going to three top universities.”

By Sa’adi Thawfeeq
The name of Shelley Wickramasinghe is synonymous with cricket especially Bloomfield cricket of which he is a father figure having rescued the club from its insecure past and putting it back on its feet again on terra firma at Reid Avenue.

Now frail and retired, Wickramasinghe lives at Park Road in his own house with his car and driver and looked after by his daughter Mrs Shyama de Silva. To the majority Wickramasinghe is known for his exploits with Bloomfield cricket which ‘The Nation’ gave due prominence in 2006 when he celebrated his 81st birthday. This article is not about what has already been written but on what Wickramasinghe has achieved in a field outside cricket.

Yesterday at the Galadari Hotel, the Institute of Automobile Engineering Association of Sri Lanka felicitated Wickramasinghe for the services he had rendered to transport and dieselisation in this country. He is the first to be honoured by this association (of which he was a founder president) in this manner. Frankly it must be admitted that today there is no engineer in Sri Lanka as highly qualified as Wickramasinghe on mechanical and road transport. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, London, Fellow of the Road Transport Engineers London, in addition, a Fellow of the Plant Engineers of London. He is considered a leading authority in the field of engineering.

Reflecting back on his career Wickramasinghe, a living legend, considers himself to be extremely lucky to have served under three top administrators in this country namely, his maternal uncle Sir Cyril de Zoysa, an eminent civil servant, Vere de Mel and NU Jayawardene, the biggest economist Sri Lanka’s ever had.

“I learnt a lot coming under them and working with them. It was like going to three top universities. I wouldn’t have attained this position if not for them,” Wickramasinghe told ‘The Nation’.

It was Sir Cyril who launched Wickramasinghe’s career when he sent him to British Leyland in England (the biggest and largest manufacturing company of diesels, cars, trucks and buses in the world) for three years to be trained on heavy diesels and double-deckers. At that time Wickramasinghe was an apprentice at South Western Bus Company (SWBC) owned by Sir Cyril, the largest bus company in the country with a fleet of 480 buses.

When he returned he was appointed deputy chief engineer of SWBC at the age of 29 replacing two Europeans, diesel engineer Thomson and chief engineer Kirkham.

Throughout his illustrious career Wickramasinghe had the knack of replacing expatriates from their top positions. While working at SWBC he was spotted by the chairman of Ceylon Transport Board (CTB) Vere de Mel and absorbed into the company as deputy chief engineer making him the first non-governmental officer.

When the nationalisation of the 27 bus companies took place on January 1, 1948, Wickramasinghe was given the arduous task of examining 2600 buses in one day, which even the experts from England said cannot be done.

“It was a colossal job. I had assistance from other engineers but they were all raw hands who knew very little about bus engineering. However I trained them and we did a good job,” said Wickramasinghe. “The reports we made on the buses were used to compensate the bus owners. It had to be an accurate job where even the worn out tyres had to be put down with the percentage of wear left on each tyre.”

The primary objective towards nationalisation Wickramasinghe said was because of the bad service that was provided by the private bus companies. “Except for 8 of the 27 bus companies they did not run a good service but made a lot of money.”

At 39 Wickramasinghe became chief engineer of the CTB replacing a highly qualified Londoner Wilanders. He was doing well when in 1966 Collettes, the leading automobile company in Sri Lanka at that time, spotted him and offered him the post of director chief engineer. He later became their deputy managing director replacing another expatriate by the name of Claessen.

It was while working at Collettes that Wickramasinghe met NU Jayawardene who then owned Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills. “He came to know about my capabilities and told me ‘Shelley you are wasting your time here, come and join me’.”

“I didn’t know much about textiles but I was a Fellow in Plant Engineering. Wellawatte Spinning and Weaving Mills was all plant with over 1000 looms, about 2000 spindles and 1600 people. But the labour was bad,” recalled Wickramasinghe.

“I was offered very good terms which was equivalent to anybody in the country. I replaced another expatriate Rajaraman from India and given the equivalent of what he got - a fully air-conditioned six-roomed bungalow at Park Road (which is today an embassy), servants, car and almost everything I wanted,” he said.

At the same time Wickramasinghe was offered the consultancy post at British Leyland and Britcom International which dealt with heavy vehicles and was paid in sterling which at that time was Rs. 65 a pound.

“At this time transport in Sri Lanka was becoming more diesel-minded and heavy vehicle minded. Very few or none had the knowledge of heavy vehicles upto about 30 tonnes, what we call normally prime movers and trailers 60 feet long,” said Wickramasinghe whose consultancy spread and quite a few of the local firms used his knowledge in this field to import huge transport diesel vehicles.

In fact he was the first to bring a 30-ton vehicle to Sri Lanka and the first diesel car that came to Sri Lanka was given to him by SWBC. At St Peter’s College, Colombo, a leading Catholic school where he received his education, Wickramasinghe broke all traditions when he became the first Buddhist president of the Old Boys Union, a post he held for six years. “To do that at a Catholic college is a terrific achievement.”

In retirement, Wickramasinghe who is very religious minded spends a lot of time with religion and in helping the needy and the poor in a big way. “I give about Rs. 10,000 a month to charity,” he said.


Hotelier Quyn elected Travel Trade SC president

Veteran hotelier Chris Quyn of Cinnamon Grand was unanimously elected as the 15th President of Travel Trade Sports Club (inaugurated in 1976) at the 32nd Annual General Meeting held at Holiday Inn.
The newcomers in the committee are: Anushka Tennakoon (Emirates), Prabath Harshakumar (Walkers Tours) and Tony Maheswaran (Confifi Hotels).
The following office bearers were elected for the period 2008-2009:
President - Chris Quyn/Cinnamon Grand
Immediate Past President - Prasanjit Perera/Aitken Spence Travels
Vice Presidents (3)- Gerard Victoria/BOC Travels, Dinesh Silva/Amaya Hotels, Dushy Jayaweera/Malaysian Air
General Secretary - Jayantha de Silva/Ceylonways
Asst. Secretary - Shafraz Abdeen/Airken Spence Aviation
Treasurer - Mani Sugathapala Keells Hotels Management
Asst. Treasurer - Himraj Jayasinghe/Saman Villas
Social Secretary - Ashan Seneviratne/Del Air
Committee Members (6) - Saminda Perera/SriLankan Airlines, Anushka Tennakoon/Emirates, Chinthaka Daluwatte/Mt. Lavinia Hotel, Tony Maheswaran/Confifi Hotels, Maurice Foenander/Travel Connections, Prabath Harshakumar/Walkers Tours.
Administrative Secretary - Eddie Silva
Sports Events cum Media / Publicity Co-ordinator - Tyrone Perera
TTSC the only sports body which conducts 14 different sports plus the gala dinner dance will endeavour to introduce a few more indoor games this year, such as carrom and table tennis. - [LW]