Rowsells of Ceylon and India

Not often is it that men have the heart, when their one great industry is ruined, to rear up in a few years another as rich to take its place: and the tea fields of Ceylon are as true a monument to courage as is the lion of Waterloo – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Two of the 7 children of Benjamin Rowsell (1820-1886)  and Sarah Norman (1821-1903) of Lambeth emigrated to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the late 19th century. In the early 1880’s a blight devastated the coffee crops of Ceylon and planters attempted to grow tea instead. In 1880, Norman Rowsell (1855-1919) left London and began a new life as one of the first tea planters in the majestic hills of central Sri Lanka. Norman’s younger brother Eustace Farquhar Rowsell (1867–1911) joined him 14 years later in 1894. The photo below was taken sometime around 1904, you can learn more about the Kirby and Maitland families in the picture on Descent from Adam.

Norman Rowsell Ceylon

Photograph of planters from ‘Ceylon in my time’ by Colonel T. Y. Wright.

Norman married Florence Henrietta Congreve (1857-1942) who was from another planting family. Her nephew Richard John Congreve (1881-1945), son of George Whittaker Congreve (1854-1937), was in the Ceylon Planters’ Rifle Corps, a volunteer unit. He went to South Africa in April, 1902 on P&O liner SS “Syria” with the second Ceylon contingent to fight in the 2nd Boer War (1899 – 1902) (source: Col. T.Y.Wright, “Ceylon in my time 1889-1949” p. 13 & 14). Sailed 22nd April, 1900 and returned July 15, 1902 – Congreve, KG* ; Rank : Private; No.7511 (*wrong initials).

Elephants Pulling Artillery Carts - Sri Lanka c1885

Elephants Pulling Artillery Carts – Sri Lanka c1885

Richard John Congreve was Superintendent at Blair Lomond Estate, Uda Pussellawa from 1916 to 1944, proprietor of Congowatte Estate and Share-holder of the Dimbula Valley (Ceylon) Tea Company Ltd., which company was the Agent/Lessee of Blairlomond Estate, among several others such as Bearwell and Lippakelle. He was also a Member of the “Horn Club”.

Richard took a Sinhalese “common-law” wife, Wijesekera Subasinghe Aratchige Mary Nona alias Siri Chandarasekera Mudiyanselage Napanagedera Punchi Menika, daughter of Napanagedera Ukku Banda of Polgolla, near Kandy. They had four children together: John, Samuel, Helen and Hubert. Hubert’s descendants, namely his son Kenneth Congreve, are still involved in the tea industry of the highlands of Sri Lanka to this day.

Ella Ceylon 1880

The area around Nuwara-Eliya just as tea plantation was beginning in the 1880’s

Norman Rowsell was a planter at Abbotsleigh Estate, Dickoya, from 1880-1904, although Wright says he was previously on Battalgalla. Abbotsleigh was taken over by J. D. Forbes after Norman. Norman and his wife Florence were living at Abbotsleigh estate when their first child was born, Vere Norman Rowsell (1887-1945). Ferguson’s History of Ceylon Tea 1883-1884 says that Abbotsleigh was owned by C. J. Braine when Norman was managing it and that only 19 acres were used for tea, while 209 were used for coffee and cinnamon. Norman was also managing another estate at the same time for J.M. Robertson & Co, on which 108 acres were used for coffee and cinnamon, 90 for tea and 20 for a South American plant called Cinchona, which was used to make quinine.The estate was called Florence (was it named after his wife?). Eustace was a planter on Moraokande Estate in Galagedara 1904-1906. By 1909 Eustace was manager of the Tonacombe Estate in Namunukula.

Both Eustace and Norman were keen sportsmen. Colonel Wright reveals that Norman Rowsell was the Captain of the Up-Country XV rugby team in the highlands of central Ceylon in 1892 when he was 37. Eustace F Rowsell was playing rugby for Blackheath 1st XV in England just a year before, as the photograph below shows (Eustace is standing on the right). You can see more photos of them both in their rugby kits in Sri Lanka here.

Blackheath 1st XV 1890-91

Back Row (L-R): C.A.Brenchley, P.Maud, C.H.Knight, G.L.Jeffrey, P.T.Williams, A.Allport, P.Coles, Eustace.F.Rowsell. Seated: R.D.Budworth, P.Christopherson, A.E.Stoddart (Captain), W.P.Carpmael. On Ground: G.C.Hubbard, J.Hammond, A.G.Johnson.

Sri Lankan rugby 1897

Dickoya vs Maskeliya & Bogawantalawa 1897

dickoya cricket club


Norman Rowsell – Rugby ref in 1902

According to Ferguson’s History of Ceylon Tea 1883-1884, Norman was Honorary secretary and treasurer of the Dikoya and Maskeliya Cricket and Athletic club (now referred to as the Darrawella Club – see pic above). Norman was also a keen tennis player. In 1889 he competed in the Men’s singles of the Ceylon Championships at Nuwara Eliya, Central Sri Lanka. A Malaysian newspaper called The Straits Times described Norman Rowsell as one of the best known sportsmen in Ceylon in the following obituary in 1919.

There will be many planters in Malaya who will hear with deep regret of the death in South India of Mr. Norman Rowsell, one of the best known Ceylon planters and sportsmen of his day, and the first Ceylon Labour Commissioner of South India.

Norman Rowsell left the planters life behind in 1904 when he became the first Ceylon Labour Commissioner in Tiruchirappalli (formerly Trichinopoly) in India. According to Patrick Peebles in his book The Plantation Tamils of Ceylon, Norman and some recruiters already in India submitted a plan in August 1904 to the Plantation Association and he began his work in September that year.

ceylon labour commissioner

excerpt from Nandanar’s Children: The Paraiyans’ Tryst with Destiny, Tamil Nadu 1850 – 1956

Hindu Temple in Trichinopoly - 1860's

Hindu Temple in Trichinopoly – 1860’s

The CLC was supposed to recruit Tamil coolies in India who could work on the tea plantations in Ceylon where they would earn far more than they could in their native land. Norman made it clear when he attended the annual general meeting of the Planters’ Association in February 1905 that the main objective of the CLC was to acquire cheaper labour. In 1911 an assistant was appointed to Norman, a man named John Still who was to become quite a famous figure.

From the book

From the book “Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon: Its History, People, Commerce” by Arnold Wright

Norman’s daughter Maud Esme Rowsell (1891-1932) also lived in India. She was married to her second cousin Cecil Ralph Townshend Congreve (1876-1952) on February 28, 1911. Recent research as described in this article shows that the modern stigma surrounding such marriages is ill founded. They had three sons, Peter, John and William.

Rowsell Congreve wedding COIMBATORE India 1911

A photo from the wedding of Cecil Ralph Congreve and Maud Esme Rowsell in Trickinopoly, Madras, India – 1911

rowsell congreve wedding

The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 3 February 1911

The Congreve residence in Scotland

South India for StJ

Snooty Ooty and Blair Athol

Esme and CRT Congreve’s second son, Peter Congreve (1915-2005) was born at Blair Athol, a mansion complex near Coonoor, India. This is also where Esme’s father Norman Rowsell died four years later in 1919. Coonoor was a tea planting area in the hills and a popular holiday destination for colonial Britons due to the altitude which provided a pleasant climate and relief from the tropical heat. It may be that Blair Athol was the Rowsell’s holiday home or a second home, since Norman worked nearly 170 miles away in Tiruchirappalli. Florence is listed as living at Blair Athol in the 1916 Nilgiri Directory as was her daughter Maud Esme Congreve. The Pioneer Mail records that in the 1920 Autumn golf meeting in Ooty, a Mrs. Congreve competed and beat Mrs. Robert in the first round, only to be defeated by Miss Pakenham in the 2nd. A Mrs Rowsell also competed, and this must be Maud’s Mother Florence Rowsell, unless her sister in law, Dorothy, was visiting with her husband Vere all the way from Valsad in Gujarat about 870 miles North.

Esme left India for England in 1921, but went to Sri Lanka in 1922. Her husband went to Vancouver in 1925, apparently without his wife and their marriage must have broken down around this point as they divorced around this time. CRT Congreve married his second wife, Margaret Louis Wilson Somerville, in May 1933. CRT must have been quite a famous chap in the Ooty/Coonoor area, because there is a waterfall named after him, “Congreve falls” near Valparai, on a hill, of which CRT was an early explorer.

Blair Athol is now a hotel called Wallwood Garden, located on Kotagiri Road, Coonoor, Tamil Nadu. Hung on the wall of the nearby Ooty club there is still a picture of Cecil Ralph Townsend Congreve on horseback during the local hunt of which he was the master.

blair athol

Blair Athol (now Walwood Garden Hotel)

The End of the Rowsells in India

Eustace Rowsell returned to London in September 1910 and died in Woolwich the following June at the age of 43. I presume he had contracted a tropical disease. Norman Rowsell died in India in 1919 at the age of 63. His wife Florence Henrietta Congreve moved back to England and lived a long life, dying in Cheltenham in 1942 at the age of 85.

Their son Vere Norman Rowsell had been sent to England to be educated at Wellington college and is recorded as living there in 1901 at the age of 13. After school he joined the Cold Stream Guards and fought in WWI as a lieutenant. Vere was wounded at Somme in 1916 then sent to NT Polesden Lacey in Surrey probably after treatment at Edward VII Hospital for Officers. He was wounded again at Paschendael 1917 and again in Cambrai. Vere was married in Somerset in 1917 and then returned to the front to fight yet again!

Beresford dormitory 1904 - Vere Rowsell

Vere seated in white trousers on the right 1904

He was reported missing on 13th April 1918, just a few months after the wedding and was presumed dead. He was cited for a Victoria Cross but was discovered in a German hospital on 24th December 1918 and was awarded with a Military Cross instead.

Vere remained in the military until 1920 and was married in Somerset in 1917. His son Colin Merville Norman Rowsell (1919-2000) was born the same year that Norman Rowsell died. Vere and his family moved back to India in 1920, the year after his father’s death, and probably met up with his remaining family there. He received his MC that year at an address listed in Bulsar (Valsad). He seems to have gone back to England though as a passenger document in 1934 lists his home address in Cheltenham.

Vere Norman Rowsell OBE MC, Lieutenant Coldstream Guards.

In 1935 Vere returned to India, where he and his wife, Dorothy Isobel Edwards (1890-1971), remained until his death in 1945, after which she returned to England. Vere had been working in the State of Rajasthan as a Railway Traffic Superintendent on the Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway when he died of a cerebral haemorrhage caused by an injury he had sustained during the war. Six months before he died, as part of The King’s Birthday Honours celebrating the official birthday of King George VI, Vere was awarded with an OBE, civil division, for his work on the Indian railways. At the time of Vere’s death, his son Colin had just finished fighting in WWII, and like Vere, tragically missed the last chance to see his father and share his experiences of battle.

Vere Rowsell's medal certificate

Vere Rowsell’s medal certificate

Thus ends the story of the Rowsells of Sri Lanka and India


14 thoughts on “Rowsells of Ceylon and India”

  1. Kenneth Congreve said:

    An observation: It was Richard John Congreve (1881-1945) who was the Ceylon Tea planter on Blairlomond Estate, Uda-pussellawa etc. Richard Jones Congreve (1805 -1879) was Richard John Congreve’s grandfather.


  2. vanesh babu said:

    interesting history


    • Thanks Vanesh


      • Kenneth Congreve said:

        Hi Tom, One person who, I believe, embodies the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s quoted statement, is my maternal great grandfather, George Duncan Jamieson. He came out from Scotland in 1886 to be a coffee planter. When that industry collapsed, he left for New Zealand, in 1882. However, he returned to Ceylon in 1885 to take up tea planting. He retired in 1909 and went to Canada but returned to Ceylon again in 1920. He once again became a tea planter until his death here in 1923! Cheers! Kenneth

        Liked by 1 person

  3. As the Great Grandson of Cecil Ralph Townshend Congreve I’ve enjoyed reading the fruits of your research. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kenneth Congreve said:

      Hello Peter, Was the late Lt. Col. John Congreve (nicknamed “Jungle John”) a son of Cecil Ralph Townshend Congreve? I was intrigued by his obituary, which I read some years ago. Kind regards, Kenneth


      • Hello Kenneth, CRT Congreve had three sons of which my Grand Uncle, Lt. Col. John Congreve was one. He firstly married Elizabeth Lucy Harding (dau. Major Charles Henry Harding) in c. Sept. 1939; but it was a short marriage. She died in Cairo on Dec 18, 1940. He married secondly, Judith Christabel Baker (1911-2004), Mar. 24, 1945, and had two sons (one now deceased). Regards, Peter

        Liked by 1 person

      • Kenneth Congreve said:

        Thank you, Peter. Judging from that obituary notice, Lt. Col. John Congreve had been quite a character – fearless, it seems! It also said his father was a Tea planter in Ceylon. Now I know that the latter statement isn’t correct. Thanks again. Kind regards, Kenneth

        Liked by 1 person

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