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John Marcellus Lewis Moonemalle

John Marcellus Lewis Moonemalle, one of my eight great-grand-fathers, was born I think in 1835. He died in 1887, at the age of 52. That is recorded on his tombstone. He was not at all distinguished, certainly not a patch on his father-in-law, John Graham Jayatilleke Hulugalle, who built up the fortunes of that side of the family, in Kurunagala, and died just five years before his son-in-law.

John Marcellus was also overshadowed by his son-in-law, Edward Gregory Gunawardena. Born  in Galle in 1858 and having enrolled as a proctor in the Galle Court at the age of 22, he transferred to Kurunagala five years later, when he married Ada Moonemalle. Their eldest child, a daughter, was born in 1886, so John Marcellus had the pleasure of seeing at least one grand-child before he died.

His picture used to hang in the main drawing-room at Old Place, the mansion Edward Gregory built, where I spent many happy days as a child, and then as a young man, before it was sold. It was pulled down in the nineties, and on the site the Bank of Ceylon built a complex of buildings, including quarters for staff as well as an office.  I visited the place some years back, and tried to work out where everything had been, the garage, the deep and frightening well, the outside storehouse for paddy, but everything had been built up and a clear perspective was not possible.

Beside John Marcellus on the wall of the dark drawing room was a picture of his father-in-law, who was stout and commanding, rather like a Dickensian patriarch.  Next to him the younger man seemed frail, despite bristly hair that stuck out and a straggly beard. The pictures all vanished when my aunt, the last of the Goonewardenes, moved from Old Place, and it was only recently that I found this one, nestling forlorn in a cupboard. Hulugalle sadly seems to have vanished for ever, and also the other picture that I remember from that section of the drawing room, under the ornate lamps next to the piano. This was of my great-grand-father sitting together with other members of some Association, and my recollection is that he was the only Sri Lankan in the group.

Despite his evidently modest demeanour, and retiring character, John Marcellus must have been of considerable importance to the family fortunes. He had claims I believe to some sort of aristocratic lineage, and that splendidly ostentatious record of a colonial society, ‘Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon’, declares that the Moonemalle ‘ancestral seat is the Walauwe at Moonemalle’. Perhaps to rub in the fact that Edward Gregory was not really of an established lineage, Old Place was known in the town as ‘Galle Walauwe’. I suspect that the English name was a subterfuge of sorts to claim a temporal authority the family did not possess.

John Marcellus then seems to have been the only authentic element in the family’s claim to distinction, lending an old name to his self-made father-in-law and providing a respected establishment for the go-getting Gunawardena. I am not sure whether I am not doing an injustice to old Hulugalle, but I can claim the authority of my uncle Lakshman, Bishop of Kurunagala from 1962 to 1983, for this view of him.

Lakshman combined deep pride in his family with a healthy disdain for anything he saw as pretension. He would say that Hulugalle had made his fortune by supporting the British during the 1948 uprising, and that he was then able to marry into a relatively established family, that of the Tennekoons, who were ‘Ratemahattayas of Pannala, in the Kandyan provinces.’ His wife rejoiced in the name of Dorothea Peternella, and her tombstone has the splendidly cryptic inscription, ‘What I do thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter’.

Their daughter, who married John Marcellus, was called Mary Anne, but Lakshman used to claim that her real name was Makamma, and that the name on her tombstone arose from the Anglicization that was essential for social climbing. The name Makamma suggests a Tamil origin, but of course Tamil was the language of the aristocracy in those days, certainly of what were termed the Wanni Kandyans, if not of all the Kandyans (as suggested by the fact that the signatures to the 1815 Kandyan Convention with the British were almost all of them in Tamil).

Be that as it may, by the time Edward Gregory married into the Moonemalle family, they were most definitely Sinhalese Christians who were fervent in their beliefs. There is in the Kurunegala cemetery a tomb also of a Reverend Peter Moonemalle, who died just under a year after John Marcellus did. I suspect this was a brother, but there is no easy way now to check.

There certainly are other Moonemalles around, a family of three boys who were at S. Thomas’ when I was Sub-Warden, the wife of one of my first students at Peradeniya, but we have no record of relationships. John Marcellus and his family, as far as we know, consists only of the offspring of his two children, his daughter Ada and his son Theodore Barcroft Lewis, who was much more distinguished than his father in that he became a member of the Legislative Council in 2006, following on the McCallum Reforms. This however was through appointment by the governor. When he tried to get back into the Council after the franchise was extended to territorial constituencies in the twenties, he lost badly.

He had two sons and three daughters who grew to adulthood. I do not know how many died in childhood. His sister had twelve children altogether, but five of them died young, four in infancy and one when he was just five years old. There was a large picture of this boy, called Brian, at Old Place, and I remember a beautiful child with large liquid eyes, but that too is now lost. He remains now only in small pictures, a tiny figure seated between his siblings, most memorably in a high horse drawn carriage between the two eldest, Eva and Ida. They were in their teens then, winsomely elegant figures themselves, at a time before they turned into the formidable spinsters they were known as in living memory.