In search of Whitehouse Bridge in Ratnapura | Sunday Observer

In search of Whitehouse Bridge in Ratnapura

 GLIMPESES OF HORRIBLE EVENT: The steel pillars of the old ‘Whitehouse Palama’ where the crime took place on the bridge.
GLIMPESES OF HORRIBLE EVENT: The steel pillars of the old ‘Whitehouse Palama’ where the crime took place on the bridge.

The “Whitehouse Murder” which took place in 1948 rocked the country. Exploring the site where the crime was committed, we stumbled upon the remains of the old bridge known as “Whitehouse Palama” (bridge) that still lies under a thicket along the Colombo-Ratnapura highway.

The sprawling Sabaragamuwa Province contains mist laden majestic landscapes of greenery, tea and rubber estates bordering the Uva, Southern and Central Provinces where vast tea plantations stretch in the sylvan surroundings. During the colonial period, especially, during the British era these areas were a haven for tea planters. They built winding roads and comfortable bungalows on hill tops with mesmerising scenic locations for their luxury lives amidst the lush tea estates.

However, Ratnapura and Kegalle in the Sabaragamuwa Province are the only two districts where tea and rubber both grew in the plantations and many plantation workers, especially, Tamil labourers had been brought from South India by British planters to work in their plantations.

The term “Whitehouse” here does not refer to the US Presidential residence. Actually, it is the name of the Briton, John Edwin Frank Whitehouse, an experienced planter, appointed in 1947 as Superintendent of Madampe Estate, Rakwana, one of the bigger estates in the Ratnapura district.

Madampe Estate had both tea and rubber plantations where Whitehouse as Superintendent, won the hearts and minds of the labourers. He had taken a decision to pay labourers’ wages on the tenth of every month. Since the wage money should be drawn from a bank in Colombo, Whitehouse often made his journey to Colombo accompanied by his wife. However, the return trip to his Estate in a car full of money bags was often dangerous and he always drove back with trepidation, as gangsters may wait at strategic points of the road to loot the money.

Elements of a gangster film

Unknown to Whitehouse, his trips to Colombo and back were meticulously charted and studied by none other than the gangsters of the underworld in Colombo. The gangsters knew the planter’s routine, when he would go to the bank and draw large sums of money, in notes and coins which were placed in gunny bags in the rear of the car.

On the ninth day of the month he made his return trip to the estate to pay the labourers’ wages. Aware of the dangers posed by the gangsters, Whitehouse carried a revolver to protect himself from any harm.

It had all the elements of a gangster film. The fateful day was April 9, 1948, just two months after Independence was won by Ceylon.

As usual, Whitehouse drew the money from the bank and left Colombo in the morning and motored along the Colombo-Ratnapura road with Mrs. Whitehouse at the wheel.Two other white women occupied the rear seat.

Four kilometres from Ratnapura on the A4 road, just off Amutagoda junction in Panukerapitiya, close to Palm Garden Estate, at 11.30 a.m., they came to a sharp curve and found a car halted on the road at the approach to a bridge, blocking the road.

Mrs. Whitehouse slowed down and stopped, owning to the obstruction. As Whitehouse asked her to drive on, a man approached from the left of the car, and leaning against it brandished a revolver. He demanded of Whitehouse that he hand over the money.

Whitehouse then reached for his own revolver, which lay handy in front of him. At that moment the man fired, Mrs. Whitehouse immediately started the car and drove off. As their car passed the stationary car, Whitehouse, injured though he was, turned round and fired at the other car through the rear window. As he fired, seeing his strength falling, one of the two women at the back held his arm up till he finished firing.

Thwarted, the gangsters in turn fired a whole volley of shots at the departing car riddling the back of the car. If not for the fact that there was luggage in the boot, the women in the rear seat would also have been seriously injured.

Mrs. Whitehouse cradling her mortally wounded husband in her lap drove the car to the Palm Garden Estate factory from where they attempted to get medical attention which was to no avail because Whitehouse died soon afterwards.

The Police were immediately informed and lost no time in appearing at the scene, both, from Ratnapura and Avissawella. Mrs. Whitehouse, who received injuries on the face from broken glass, received treatment at a nursing home in Colombo.

The following morning, almost every newspaper carried the lead story of the Whitehouse murder and reported that the Police had so far not made any arrests in connection with the murder of John Whitehouse, Superintendent of Madampe Estate, Ratnapura, shot by a gangster while conveying Rs. 35,000 (then a very big sum), of labourers’ wage money.

S. A. Dissanayake, Assistant Superintendent of Police, Technical Branch, and Central C.I.D. had been put in charge of the inquiry. The Police were in possession of certain clues and hoped to bring the culprits to book. Recently, I visited the old bridge at the bend in Amutagoda junction where the murder took place. Later, I scanned the old newspapers of the day following the murder, at the Lake House archives library and found the news report of the incident in ‘The Ceylon Observer’. Thereafter, I met an elderly villager in Amutagoda, S. V. Gunawardena, 86, who is the only person alive today, able to give an eyewitness account. “I was a 14-year-old boy then. A few yards away from the bridge known as Madillawala, I was bathing in the stream at noon. There were many villagers bathing at the time, including, farmers who worked in nearby paddy fields. Suddenly, we heard the sound of gunfire over the bridge. Everyone at the stream ran away, into the nearby home of Charlis Appuhamy. After about 15 minutes, we returned to the bridge where the gunfire was heard,” he recalled.

Registration number

“A few culprits disguised as forest cleaners stayed close to the bridge while Laathara Baas and three of his cronies in a green car, followed Whitehouse’s car, until at a sharp bend near the old bridge on the Ratnapura road it suddenly overtook Whitehouse’s car and blocked the road, with the plan to steal the cash.

The fallen revolver of Whitehouse was found by villager Premadasa, a few yards away from the bridge and he handed it over to Bodhipala Ralahami, the Village Headman. All the culprits were taken to the spot where the crime was committed before they were hung,” Gunawardena explains. The vital clue to find the culprits came from another nine-year-old I. D. Somapala (who is now no more), who also ran away from the stream with his father but remembered to keep in mind the registration number of the gangsters’ car. Armed with the number of the gangster’s car, the Police soon brought the culprits to book.

The full force of law, and the best detectives of the Police worked on the Whitehouse murder case, and after about three weeks, the four were charged with the counts of committing murder and conspiracy to commit robbery.

The biggest catch was Laathara Bass, and his cronies were Koti Albert, Halpe Martin and Surabiyel. The trial began at the Ratnapura Court and was eventually shifted to the Colombo High Court. It began on November 22, 1948. “Laathara Bass” and his three cronies were sentenced to death at the Welikada jail.

To this day, the old bridge on the A4 highway close to Palm Garden Estate, where the Whitehouse murder was committed is known by elders as “Whitehouse Palama.” However, it has now virtually disappeared from sight under a heavy thicket.

To photograph and explore the remains of the old Whitehouse Palama, my son and I crept on to its base, built across Madillawala on the stream called Maha Oya. Today, it flows serenely across the Whitehouse Palama in the middle of the sprawling paddy fields dotted with gem mines. Most of the villagers of Amutagoda were eyewitnesses to the broad daylight murder.

Observing the old bridge, we discovered the steel branded as “British steel” made in England by a reputed company called Dormanlong & Co, Ltd, Middleborough, England. We wonder how it still remains strong even though the steel has been left to the mercy of the elements for 150 years. Indeed, this may be one of the fine examples of colonial period bridge construction in Sri Lanka.

The Whitehouse murder is a terrible crime that rocked the country. Unfortunately, not many are aware of this spot in Ratnapura because it happened over sixty years ago, and with the passage of time crimes like this tend to be shrouded in the dark mist of memory.

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