The factory at the Hethersett tea plantation played an important part in the development of Sri Lanka’s tea industry, and in helping Pure Ceylon Tea to become renowned as world’s favorite beverage.
Tea from the Hethersett factory was the first to fetch the highest price in the world for silver tip tea from Ceylon. In 1891, Hethersett tea was auctioned in Mincing Lane, London, for £1.10s.6d, over 30 times the then average price of £1s.0d for a pound of tea. This was an exciting achievement for a new tea factory.
Tea was first grown commercially in Ceylon by a Scotsman, James Taylor, on a coffee estate called Loolecondera, near Kandy, in 1867. Taylor, who encouraged Dr. Thwaites, the Director of the Royal Botanical Garden at Peradeniya, planted 20 acres of tea grown from seed imported from India. It was a wise move as, soon afterwards, a dreadful blight ravaged the coffee plantations on which Ceylon’s economy depended. Planters turned in desperation to tea and cinchona (for quinine) as alternative crops. Within a decade of Taylor’s planting, there were 5,000 acres of tea growing in the hills of Kandy and Nuwara Eliya.
In response to requests to open up plantations, the government sold virgin crown land around Kandapola to pioneer planters in the 1870s. Among the bidders was Mr. W. Flowerdew. He was the first planter, proprietor, agent and resident manager of what became Hethersett Estate. This consisted of 250 acres of which he planted 150 acres of cinchona.
Flowerdew was a pioneer. He camped in the wilderness he had bought, working alongside labourers hired in gangs from India. Before clearing and planting the land, he built himself a log cabin, using boards sawn from trees felled to open up the land. The roof was foliage used as thatch. It was a primitive and tough life.
The Tamil name for the plantation is Pupanie. Translated into English it means Flowers of Frost. It is a picturesque way of describing the cold mist that occasionally descends on Hethersett, which is 6,800 feet above sea level, although only six degrees from the Equator. Actually the plantation name, however apt, is a direct translation into Tamil from the English name of its original owner: Flowerdew.
Flowerdew had a partner during his first year on the plantation, Jas. R. Jenkins, an experienced tea planter who advised him to grow tea as well as Cinchona. History does not recall what happened to Flowerdew, but by 1881 he seems to have sold the plantation and returned to England. A temporary manager, A. C. W. Clarke, was in charge and the estate was in the name of Jas. Whittall, with his own company, Whittall & Company as agents.
The agent’s role was vital in the early days of the tea industry. Usually an estate proprietor was an individual or company based in England who needed an agent in Colombo to provide support, and supplies, to the manager of the plantation. A broker handled the sale of the crop.
Whittall & Co. remained as agents for a few years but ownership passed to Mr. K. MacAndrew. An experienced planter, MacAndrew became the resident manager. In 1885, Hethersett consisted of 254 acres cultivated in tea and cinchona.
Cinchona served as a cash crop while the MacAndrews were nurturing tea. MacAndrews was also manager of the neighbouring estate, Denmark Hill. This was the beginning of a link that resulted in green leaf grown at Denmark Hill being processed into made tea at the Hethersett factory.
The successful sale of the early shipments of Hethersett tea in London, and the record-breaking selling price in 1891, began the formidable reputation of the Hethersett mark, making it synonymous with pure Ceylon Tea of quality.
By 1897, Hethersett was swallowed up by the Nuwara Eliya Tea Estates Company Limited into a combined holding of 3,000 acres. The company, registered in London, had Leechman & Co. as agents in Colombo. It was an association of both companies with Hethersett that was to last 75 years, until nationalization.
George Leechman founded his agency house in 1866. He was previously a partner with Wilson, Ritchie & Co. That company, which was founded in 1830, eventually became part of Aitken Spence & Co. Ltd. the present managers of Hethersett.
The tea factory that produced Hethersett’s silver tips (a hand-rolled, sun-dried whole leaf tea) and its Orange Pekoe, was located downhill from the present factory, where the village creche now stands. It was a small, wooden building that expanded under the direction of a dynamic young planter called John Mac Tier.
MacTier arrived at Hethersett in 1900 when he was 27. There were 272 acres of tea then. He stayed for 25 years, dying suddenly in the old Hethersett factory when he was 52. There is a memorial plaque in the Holy Trinity Church, Nuwara Eliya, “in affectionate memory”.
During MacTier’s tenure the owing company happily reported dividends of between 9% and 12% very year.
Tea from the factory began its journey to make in the tea chests carried by bullock cart down the rough tracks to the railway station at Kandapola. The narrow gauge railway line was opened in 1903 (it closed in the 1940s) from Ragalla via Kandapola to Nuwara Eliya and Nanu Oya. At Nanu Oya the tea chests were transferred to the main board gauge line and sent for delivery to the Colombo godowns. After auction, the tea chest went by steamship to England or Australia.
Cyril Travers Nettleton, an unofficial police magistrate was the planter as Hethersett for a couple of years after MacTier. He, too, rests as Holy Trinity Church, having been in charge of the Concordia Group, which includes Hethersett, when he died in 1944. He was succeeded at Hethersett, by A. J. Waterfall. During Waterfall’s time the original wooden factory in the village was burnt down.
The Head of a hill was scalped to create a plateau for the New factory which is the hotel of today. When it was built in the mid-1930s, it was regarded as a remarkable work of engineering. There was no water or steam to power it, or mains electricity, only the ingenious use of an oil fried engine with fly wheels and pulleys to operate the large fans for withering the tea, and also the rollers and sifters.
The factory produced top quality orthodox tea, both whole and broken leaf, for export. Tea grown on the neighbouring Denmark Hill estate was shuttled down to the factory in sacks along a wire stretched across the valley separating the two estates.
The planters in charge of Hethersett during the 1940s to 1960s were personable, capable men from Britain. Gordon Windus, manager for most of the 1940, was a member of the prestigious Hiss Club in Nuwara Eliya. In May 1934, he wrote testily in the visitor’s book there
I should like to suggest that peas from the garden instead of tinned peas are served.
Windus is remembered by the Hethersett villagers for the agricultural projects he started. These included a piggery in the a vegetable farm in the jungle at Kuruwatta.
Planter John Bousefield used to surprise the labourers by working in the fields with them, pruning the tea bushes himself. It is said that the bushes he pruned yielded the most tea.
Another British planter, J. M. E. Waring, who took over at Hethersett in the late 1950s and eventually, as group manager, supervised the closing down of the factory. He owned a horse which he rode whilst inspecting the fields. He also raced this horse with a jockey at the Nuwara Eliya race events.
By 1968 the Hethersett tea factory had passed its heyday. Its machinery was regarded as old fashioned and uneconomical. It was the time of cost cutting and so the factory was closed. The Hethersett green leaf was sent to other factories in the Concordia group for manufacture.
For three years the factory was used as a warehouse for refuse tea. which is the fibrous reject after the manufacturing process. A few people were employed to shift the fiber and extract any remaining tea for local consumption. The residue was sold as fertiliser.
The factory finally closed in 1973, to remain as a silent monument to the grate days of pure Ceylon Tea.
With the open economy sweeping the world in the eighties and nineties, Sri Lanka also embarked upon a wave of privatisation. As far as the plantations were concerned, the first step was for the State to hand back only the management of estates to the former Agency Houses, on the basis of transparent bids. Under this scheme, Aitken Spence was awarded in 1992 a group of plantations that included Hethersett Estate.
As the Director with planting experience on the Main Board of Aitken Spence, G.C. Wickremasinghe took over the management of these plantations as the Managing Director. During his first inspection of these properties on 29th September 1992, he spotted a magnificent tea factory building silhouetted against the rising sun and the mountains below.
On the day of his first inspection, G.C.Wickremasinghe had dictated a memo to Aitken Spence on his decision to convert this ideally located, abandoned factory building into a unique theme hotel whilst retaining the facade and the exterior of the building exactly as the British planters had left it.
During the planning stages, the Tourist Board considered the guest rooms too small for star classification. Consequently, there were moves to broaden the building, but G.C.Wickremasinghe did not permit this as he was of the view that the lines of the original building were perfect and any tampering with the facade would be disastrous. He reduced the number of rooms and proposed the construction of a tunnel instead so that more rooms could be constructed outside in the future, if necessary. He did not allow any alterations or additions to the exterior. The windows and woodwork one sees from outside are entirely original, as designed by British engineers. The timber used in the old days had been mostly teak from Burma and Jarrah from Australia. The entire steel structure of the building has been imported from Dorman Long of UK. The floorboards of the four lofts are of the original pinewood that was imported from Sweden in the nineteen thirties.
The conversion, the interior decor, furniture etc. were designed by Nihal Bodhinayake, Chartered Architect of Nihal Bodhinayake Associates. The structure had to be strengthened to accommodate the weight of the 57 rooms, beds, cupboards, the other furniture, fixtures and fittings plus the weight of 57 attached toilets with baths. Designs to strengthen the structure and the structural changes that were necessary were provided by B. A. Dayananda, Chartered Engineer of Dayananda Associates. The main Contractor was Link Engineering Ltd.
G.C.Wickremasinghe encouraged setting up the first oil-fired central heating system in the country on the ground floor of the hotel. The large engine that had been the main source of power for the old factory, it was relocated and set to work at a slow speed. It now rotates the line shafts and pulleys that have been retained to give the guests some idea of how power was transferred to individual items of machinery in the old days by using camel hair belts.
Wickremasinghe designed the layout for a miniature tea factory which he set up in what was previously the Teamaker’s quarters. He obtained some of the rare miniature machinery that was required by searching in Gampola second-hand shops; while the miniature drier was obtained by him from the Tea Research Institute as a gift. The miniature factory now produces some exclusive teas and is visited and highly appreciated by hotel guests.
The Tea Factory Hotel has contributed greatly to the economic development of the surrounding Hethersett village. G.C.Wickremasinghe insisted that youth from the labour “lines” should be given preference whenever employment opportunities arose and the hotel paid the cost of the transformer for the supply of electricity to the labour “lines”. Generous donations were made to the local kovils and crèches.
Now revitalized as a hotel, the Hethersett Tea Factory is set to become as a successful in tourism as it was in top quality tea.