The history of Richmond College is in a special way connected with the pioneer Wesleyan Missionaries who landed in Ceylon on the 29th of June 1814. Three of the Missionaries landed in Galle and the other two who were coming ashore in a boat with the luggage could not make port at Galle owing to a monsoon gale. They eventually landed at Weligama Bay. They were reunited on the 30th of June 1814. Of the party, “the Rev. Benjamin Clough remained in Galle and opened the first Wesleyan School in all Asia in the upstair house of Maha Mudliyer or Great Mudliyer Don Abraham Dias Abeysinghe Amarasekera in Dickson Road, Galle.”
In 1857 the Rev. Joseph Rippon, who was then stationed in Galle, with daring foresight persuaded the Mission to purchase 17 acres of land at Kumbalwella, two miles to the north of Galle Fort. This block consisted of five contiguous allotments of a land called Mount Seymour or Seymour’s Hill. The original owner of this land, Doctor Robert Seymour Sillery M.D., had purchased it upon a crown grant in 1839 for Rs. 137/50. At an auction sale in 1851 four Burgher gentlemen purchased this 17 acre block for Rs. 475/-, and in 1857 Rev. Rippon bought it on behalf of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Trust Association. The amount paid was Rs. 937/50. Since then other lots of the same land have been bought from time to time up to 1906, and the estate by then was about 26 acres in extent. Its total cost has amounted to a little less than Rs. 3,000/-.
Doctor Robert Seymour Sillery M.D., was an Army Doctor and was a Captain by rank in Ceylon Rifle Regiment. He was popular with the good folks of Galle in his day. People spoke glowingly of his skills in treating the sick and ‘Sillery’ was a household name then. This place got the aristocratic name of Seymour due to Dr. Sillery’s second name, but under Sillery it became known as “Dostara-kanda” or “Doctor’s Hill”. After the Mission purchased it the missionaries started living there and the people began calling it “Padilikanda” or the “Hill of the Padres”.
Rev. Rippon probably had his theological training at Richmond College in Surrey. This institution which is situated on the banks of the Thames is famous for the grandeur of the scenery. Rev. Rippon either out of love for his old College or because of the scenic splendour of the local counterpart renamed this place Richmond Hill.
When the Mission purchased this estate it was a neglected coconut plantation standing on a hill 500 feet above sea level and overrun with low scrub. Rev. Rippon soon set to work. He chose the highest point on the hill, got it levelled and had a house built on it. The treacherous foot paths gave way to a winding cart road. This road had in the course of its short climb, three hairpin bends and two blind corners. Rev. Rippon “indulged the hope that he would be able to establish an Industrial School and a Farm, and at the same time a High School for the boarding and educating of the sons of native headmen and respectable Burghers. It was also to be a Training College for school masters, catechists and native ministers.”
It was a bold scheme. “Buildings were erected, ground inclosed [sic], and stock procured.” But the venture failed for want of capital. Of this effort only two buildings stand today—the Principal’s bungalow remodelled and enlarged at a later date by the Rev. George Baugh, and the Rippon Girls’ School Hall to its left. Some distance away to the right of the bungalow was a long line of rooms for the Theological and Normal students. A third building was a Boys’ Anglo-Vernacular School and Chapel which stood on the mound where the trellis work block is now situated. Known as the “Kaha Iskolaya” or “Yellow School” from the colour of its walls, it came down in a storm in Rev. Darrel’s time.
In 1864 the Rev. George Baugh succeeded Rev. Rippon. Almost from the beginning he pursued the idea of establishing a “superior” English School on Richmond Hill. Rev. Baugh’s reasons were mainly that the standard of English of the local Theological students was not satisfactory and that the energies of the missionaries and local ministers were going to waste because the children of the Church were attending non-Methodist English Schools in Colombo. For these reasons he and his fellow-workers made frequent representations to the Foreign Missions Committee of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in England about the necessity for such a school.
In 1864 the Rev. Robert Spence Hardy, the immediate superior of Mr. Baugh, wrote: “I have referred at some length to the subject of education and I have expressed it as my conviction pressing upon me with irresistible force that it is our solemn duty to take a higher and more decided position in the cause of education than any we have yet occupied.“
Rev. Robert Spence Hardy was an Honorary Member of the Royal Asiatic Society and General Superintendent of the Wesleyan Mission in South Ceylon, and was a devoted Christian, the author of many works of learning and piety and promoted the welfare of mankind. After labouring as a missionary in Ceylon for 22 years and making full proof of his ministry in various parts of Great Britain, he died at Headingley, near Leeds, April 16th, 1868, Aged 64 years.
Robert Spence Hardy wrote several books and papers on Buddhism, e.g., “Eastern Monachism” in 1850; “A Manual of Buddhism” in 1853; “The Sacred Book of the Buddhists” in 1863; the article on “Gotama Buddha” in the “Encyclopaedia Britannica”; “A Word Book in Three Parts in English and Singhalese” in 1843; “Jubilee Memorials of the Wesleyan Mission in Ceylon” in 1864. In 1865 he returned to England, “leaving behind him a reputation for profound scholarly learning. His works were among the first to awaken the interest in the faith of 470,000,000 of their fellow men.
Sometime later, in 1865, Mr. Baugh wrote again: “I believe it is the final decision of our Chairman that Richmond is the best place for our institution……We have 17 acres of land surrounded by a purely native population and a healthy situation and, in short, almost in every particular, Providence points this out to us as the place for Methodism to make a stand. It is by being on the spot and seeing all these things as they really are that I am constrained to write thus and ask, Can we not do something towards getting a new Chapel, a Training Institution and a large self supporting English School here, all connected together under the eye of both European and Native Ministers?“
“We are anxiously hoping to get some help from the Jubilee Fund, and without forgetting the claims of the most needy mission stations, I feel sure that no mission station can be in greater need of help than this. If any praying of mine could prevail with you and the Committee I would not wait one moment to beseech you to help us in the matter I have dwelt upon. Why should our mixed schools be mere feeders of Government and other schools?“
The Rev. Spence Hardy in his famous “Jubilee Memorials” advocated Richmond Hill as the site for an English School for South Ceylon. He referred to “the extensive grounds connected with the Mission, House, the salisburity of its position and its quietness.” He further argued that the people here were anxious that their sons should learn English and were prepared to pay for such an education. The school could therefore be self-supporting.
As a result of these representations about “the desired school of a superior class in Point de Galle,” the Committee in England resolved that, the establishment of such a school was a measure of the highest importance to the interest of the Mission in South Ceylon, and was delayed only by the lack of necessary funds. This decision was taken in 1865.
Rev. Scott was stationed in Galle from 1860 to 1864. Three years later he became the Chairman of the District in Colombo, and pressed for the appointment of a Missionary thoroughly qualified to take charge of a superior Anglo-Vernacular Institution. Where in the district he should placed was not of great consequence to him, but he thought the most convenient place in every respect would be Richmond Hill.
The Rev. James Nicholson, the Chairman of the Galle District, who did much to popularise Richmond College when it started functioning some years later wrote in 1868; “I have never been particularly enthusiastic on the educational question, believing that our work mainly owes its success under God to direct engagement in pastoral duties. We have not needed schools to introduce Christianity. We require an institution under a thoroughly efficient Principal not so much to open a mission and evangelise the masses as to consolidate work and retain our own people. Providence has given us on this estate every advantage which could be desired for such an institution as we have requested“.