Older than London's Big Ben, Chatham Street's Clock Tower is an ornament to Colombo. Joining this historic landmark, stand many more attractions on Chatham Street which was once called the 'finest of all cross roads' of the Colombo Fort.
Once a tree-lined street and home to the top officials of the Dutch-occupied Sri Lanka, (or Ceylon as it was then) present Chatham Street of Colombo 01 or Colombo Fort, was ‘Bier Straat’ for them. Dutch traveller Daalmans called it ‘the finest of all cross roads’ of the Colombo Fort. An accidental discovery for the Portuguese, this tiny island was too good to lose. Having secured their foothold in the strange and exotic land to which they were virtually washed off by a storm, the Portuguese built a fort of 12 bastions and an esplanade in Colombo- their trading post. Guns were mounted on the ramparts and men were stationed to keep close vigil on any possible sea-faring rival who would claim this bountiful island with salubrious climate.
A fort takes shape
More than a century later since the Portuguese fortified Colombo, it was lost to the Dutch in 1656 and they remodelled the Portuguese fort. A new fortress or a Citadel ringed by nine bastions, ramparts and replete with deep moats thus replaced the original Colombo Fort. The Fort, translating to kotuwa in local parlance, was known as the ‘Casteel’ or the castle by the Dutch and outside the fort translating to Pitakotuwa or Pettah, was called in Dutch times as ‘Oude Stad’ or the old town. During the British occupancy of Ceylon, Colombo Fort was notably modified; Dutch structures were replaced by British architectural features and the streets of Fort were rechristened. Between 1869 and 1871, the fort was demolished by the British to enable span for urban development. Despite its ramparts being razed to the grounds more than two centuries ago, the environs continue to retain its identity as the ‘Fort’ or Kotuwa and vestiges of British colonialism are still unmistakable.
An eclectic medley of vendors
Possibly deriving its name from the famous dockyards at Chatham in Kent, Colombo’s Chatham Street is one of the principal boulevards of the metropolis, centrally located in the economic hub of the country. Chatham Street’s eclectic medley of jewellers, money exchangers, travel agents, antique dealers, eating houses and drapers validate its close proximity to the Colombo Harbour. Once a street dotted with the finest silk emporiums and watering holes for sailors, Chatham Street also boasts of being the central point of the country’s road network.
Chatham Street’s 166-year-old clock tower is synonymous with the street steeped in history. Two years older than London’s Big Ben, this clock tower is the pride of Chatham Street. Designed by Lady Elizabeth Ward, the wife of the then British Governor of Ceylon, Sir Henry Ward, the construction of the clock tower was entrusted to J.F Churchill of the Public Works Department. The tablet erected inside the tower-arch confirms that the construction of the clock tower was completed on February 25, 1857, two years before the Big Ben rang across London for the first time on May 31, 1859.
One time a centre from which the distance of the local road network across the island was measured, the clock tower was joined in by a lighthouse ten years later, becoming the only lighthouse clock tower in the world. The lighthouse was first installed with oil lamps and was later upgraded to ‘dioptic flash lights’ in 1885. Two years later gas lamps were introduced which formed a pattern of tiled glasses illuminating the Indian Ocean. In 1932, the dioptic flashlights were replaced with an electric bulb equaling 1500 lit candles. In the early 1950s, the light house was dimmed over forever as it shifted quarters to Galle Buck Tower. Towering over the changing skyline of Colombo, the Chatham Street’s clock tower still stands tall continuing to be ‘an ornament to the town of Colombo’ as Governor Henry Ward who commissioned this historic monument alluded to it.
The Central Point Building
Drawing its title from the Chatham Street’s clock tower which is considered the central point of the island’s road network, is the magnificent Central Point Building standing right opposite the clock tower. Built in Greco-Roman architectural style and opened to the public in 1914, this edifice was once the tallest building in Colombo. Home to the Economic History Museum (EHM) of Sri Lanka now, the Central Point Building once served as the office for the National Mutual Life Association of Australasia Limited- a global insurance company.
Coming under the purview of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, the EHM was established in this historic building to feature the evolution of Sri Lanka’s economic journey from the days of the ancient monarchs to now. The Currency Museum of the EHM offers a visitor a wide and an interesting range of currency used in the island dating back to the 3rd Century BC. A large collection of currency used during the colonial rule of the country including a sizable collection from the British colonial period is also on display. The EHM offers free tours to interested parties. Several publications are also for sale.
Lord Nelson’s Salon
Nearing a century, ‘Lord Nelson Salon’ is another quaint little haunt of attraction, enthused by the Lord Nelson’s Bar next door, now long gone. The salon specialising in men’s haircuts and one of the oldest professional facilities to do body tattoos in the country, is an enduring tribute to one of Britain’s greatest naval heroes- Lord Nelson. Opened by Justin Fernando in 1928 who was a one-time barber at the British Garrison’s salon on nearby Hospital Street, he named his son, the present owner of the place (Nelson Fernando) after the mighty admiral.
The place was frequented by British militia and other VIPs. Once Prince Phillip, father of King Charles, had also got a tattoo done at Nelson’s Salon during his visit to the country. Lord Nelson’s Salon is more than a place to get a haircut, an invigorating hair massage, a shave or a tattoo; it’s a window to the British colonial times of the island. The salon chairs are more than a century old, imported from England. The solid wooden chairs with leather upholstery and ‘head rests’ add charm and character of a bygone era. Some of the equipment is more than 60 years old. The tattoo machine, manufactured in the US is another special device.
Lord Nelson’s Salon’s present owner Nelson Fernando’s mantra that, “the place is more than a business, but a way of life”, offers inspiration to any modern business. Today his son Prabhashana the third generation, too has joined his father to keep the legacy of this modest dwelling built and sustained on the cornerstones of quality, trust and hospitality, alive.
A few blocks away from the Lord Nelson’s Salon is the Fort Mosque or the Jumma Mosque. This place of worship was built in the 19th Century during the British occupancy of the island. The mosque which had its humble beginnings was later expanded. Today it is an impressive three-storeyed structure with striking dark green steeples.
The mosque on Chatham Street is an index to the vibrant cultural diversity of Sri Lanka. Nestled among its other religious counterparts, the mosque is patronised by prominent Muslim businessmen and professionals who participate in the noon, afternoon and evening prayers.
N.D.H. Abdul Caffoor Jewellers
Where Chatham Street intersects with York Street, stands the stately N.D.H Abdul Caffoor Jewellers proudly proclaiming to have been in business since 1884. Named after its founder, the shop is one of the oldest dealers in precious stones, gems, pearls and jewellery and takes pride in stocking and selling only genuine articles including one of the world’s rarest and largest collections of precious stones and gems. Among its patrons had been the crowned heads of England, Spain, Romania, Belgium and Indian Maharajahs.
The 19-year-old N.D.H Abdul Caffoor (affectionately known as NDH) founded his jewellery shop initially at the Bristol Hotel building in 1894 and by 1915 had built the iconic Ghaffoor Building on York Street, Colombo which was described as one of the largest and finest commercial structures in Colombo. His jewellery store had girdled the globe featuring at several international exhibitions dating back to the turn of the last century.
In 1901 NDH was invited to display his finest pearls, rubies, sapphires and other jewellery art to the Prince and Princess of Wales at the Kandy Pavilion during their Royal visit. Just two years later in 1903, he presented at the St Louis Exhibition, USA. Then again, he had a stall at the All Ceylon Exhibition in 1912, and the British Empire Exhibition in 1924. The very next year, in 1925, he exhibited at the Wembley Exhibition where Her Majesty Queen Mary visited his stall and took a keen personal interest in the exquisite gems and jewellery he displayed. His final exhibition was at the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition in 1926, where he was awarded the Grand Prize for the biggest collection of gems ever displayed in the USA.
Now into its 139th year, the mantle has fallen on the founder’s grandson Iqbal Caffoor who attributes their success to the good will extended to their customers at all times.
A slice of the Orient
Among the other attractions of the present day Chatham Street are The New Chinese Shop and S.L.A.M Markar. Founded by Chang Yung Hsien in 1941, the interiors of The New Chinese Shop mirror Dutch architecture found in many of the the buildings in the Galle Fort, characterised by gambrel roofs, thick walls and high double-hinged doors. Once a stop for fine tailoring and all things oriental, including fine Chinese fabrics, it is today confined to school uniforms. The present owner Win Lee Chang warmly welcomes any customer including tourists who come merely to bask in the antiquated layout of the store.
The adjoining store, S.L.A.M Markar is another bizarre haunt which offers trinkets, old coins, leather goods and local handicrafts. The store has been in business for the past 118 years.
Bask in hospitality
Chatham Street, like all its other counterparts in the commercial capital of Colombo, has seen its skyline change. It has seen its green-mango tree days in which lies its origins as history has it; a port with green mangoes (kola-amba-thota). It has braved many wars and other trials, yet continue to usher a visitor with a smile; the staple of Sri Lanka.
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