Walter Joseph Tombleson Small

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Walter Joseph Tombleson Small

Walter Joseph Tombleson Small
Born 4 July 1883(1883-07-04)
Died 28 December 1978(1978-12-28) (aged 95)
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Cause of death After a fall from an SLTB bus
Resting place Dadalla Cemetery, Galle, Sri Lanka
Education Boston Grammar School (C1892-1901); Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (Theology); BSc London
Employer Richmond College, Galle, Ceylon (Sri Lanka)
Spouse Thekla Hermine Guenther
Children Edgar Clöpingar
Parents Walter T Small, Emily F
Relatives Elizabeth and Emily (sisters)
Awards 1898 Parry Gold Medal

Walter Joseph Tombleson Small was educated at Boston Grammar School (C1892-1901). He won the Parry Gold Medal in 1898.

In 1900 he won two school prizes for Mathematics and French, and received an Honourable Mention for Classics.

Oxford Local Senior examination

Published in Boston Society, 4 October 1899, in a section entitled "Gossip of the month".

We congratulate Mr. W. T. Small, of Bargate Lodge, upon the brilliant achievement of his son, W. J. T. Small, in the Oxford Local Senior examination, for, out of over ten thousand candidates, the Boston boy has been bracketed first. This is the third time in the last five years that the first place has been gained by a pupil of the Boston Grammar School, a record of which Mr. W. White, the headmaster, may well be proud. Mr. Small has always been at the same time the youngest and the top boy of his class.

Boston Grammar School Speech Day 1900 programme

1st of all Candidates in the Oxford Local Examinations, awarded the prize of £30, given by the University of Oxford to the highest in the Honours List.

The same document goes on to record that he achieved...

Distinctions in Mathematics - (1st place), French; (2nd place), Religious Knowledge; (4th place), Latin and Greek.

Small of Richmond

Published in The Old Bostonian Issue 40, Autumn / Winter 2004. Largely extracted from "A Morning Star: Remembering 'Small of Richmond'" by Joe Simpson by kind permission of the author.

In September 1973 Joe Simpson had his first encounter with the man who, 120 years after his birth, is still referred to as "Small of Richmond".

He remembers the moment clearly. It was a typical morning for the south coast of Sri Lanka at that time of year, already hot and rather humid. Joe was a newly-arrived Cambridge University graduate, a teacher from Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). He had heard about Rev. Small from his VSO predecessor, another Northern Irishman who had served at Richmond a few years before. He remembers feeling wonderment on learning that not only had the Rev. Small been Principal as long ago as 1906, but also that at the age of 90 he still resided at the School.

Joe was chatting with some students outside his room, looking across the tops of the coconut trees towards the hazy blue of the Indian Ocean, when a tall, fairly erect but obviously venerable European gentleman dressed immaculately in white canvas hat, white long-sleeved shirt and white trousers appeared in the distance, striding towards the group across the playing field from the direction of the Principal's bungalow.

"Reverend Small, I presume?" Joe queried with a nervous attempt at humour as the gentleman drew near. “Indeed it is I, and you must be Mr Simpson?” he replied with a faint glimmer of a smile. He then went on to explain that he was on his way down to the post office to buy some stamps, and asked Joe if he would like some. His kindliness and innate modesty were immediately obvious, and the impression left on Joe by that brief meeting was such that the passing years have not dimmed the memory.

The BGS connection

Walter Joseph Tombleson Small was born into a Methodist family in Boston on July 4th, 1883. The 1881 census shows the family living at Bargate End, Skirbeck. Rev. Small's father, Walter T, a draper (junior partner), was born in Boston in about 1851. His wife, Emily F was born in Barton on Humber in about 1852. At the time they had two daughters: Elizabeth and Emily; and three live-in servants: a cook, a nurse, and a housemaid.

Small was an outstanding student, securing a place at BGS, and winning the Parry Gold Medal in 1898 at the age of 15. At 16 he came top in the country in the Senior Oxford Local Examination, and in October 1901 at the age of 18 he went up to Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge on an Open Scholarship. He gained First Class Honours in the Mathematics Tripos, being bracketed Wrangler. Small went on to achieve First Class Honours in Theology, winning the University's Mason Prize for Hebrew, and then earned a London University Bachelor of Science degree – all by the age of 23.

The call comes

Small had determined to enter the Methodist Ministry. Then, while visiting Germany with his sister in 1906, his last year at Cambridge and the same summer that he became engaged to Thekla Hermine Guenther, he received a surprise "call" from the Wesleyan Missionary Society. It invited him to replace Principal JH Darrell at Ceylon's Richmond College, Darrell having died tragically in an outbreak of typhoid at the school's boarding hostel. Thus began Small's career as an educational missionary, one that led to him be described by a distinguished former pupil long afterwards as "one of the outstanding figures in the field of education in Sri Lanka in the early years of [the 20th] century…[who]…came out as a simple missionary…[and]…devoted himself to the teaching and training of boys in Sri Lanka, whom he learned to love, and to whom he gave of his best".

Seventy years on, P de S Kuleratne still remembered vividly the day in November 1906 that Rev. Small made his first appearance at the School. The boys were all gatheredin the Hall, looking up the Hill for their first sight of the new Principal. Suddenly a hush fell on the assembly: "[There appeared a] tall young man in cap and gown, bending down every now and then picking up something from the road as he came down the hill. Great was our amusement when we found out that he had been picking up the pieces of paper which we had probably thrown away as we came down to school from the Boarding House. No less was our surprise when we found out how young he was…" Kuleratne remembered not only that his new Principal was "tall" and "well built", but also that he was "not so awe-inspiring as Principal Darrell".


In a photograph of Reverend Small, in his 91st year, at the Galle Esplanade cricket ground (above) Small looks thin and frail, a far cry from the vigorous young man of almost seventy years earlier who was described by one of his pupils as able to "run and jump with the best of our athletes". This annual event had a special significance for Joseph Small, for together with Principal FL Woodward at Mahinda College, Galle he had long before ensured the survival of the tradition of the "Big Match" between the two premier educational institutions in southern Ceylon, a tradition begun by Woodward and Darrell in 1905. An old photograph survives of the two teams together at the time of the third "Big Match" in 1907, with Woodward and Small as joint umpires. The Methodist Joseph Small had recently arrived in Ceylon, while the Theosophist Frank Woodward was already well on his way to becoming a legendary figure in the South. By all reports, it was a most exciting match that year. Rev. Small evidently took his umpiring duties seriously, even racing after the bowler (Mahinda's skipper, George Weeratunga), when the latter ran towards the boundary line to try to save the situation after the Richmond batsman had sent the ball past him, as the two Mahinda outfielders were quite far apart. How fitting then that in Richmond's centennial year of 1976, at the suggestion of Dr. W Dahanayake, the Richmond OBA donated the "Woodward-Small Shield" for a 50-over tournament between cricketing schools throughout the Southern Province.

No mean cricketer himself, Small made a century the following year (1908) when he played for the newly-formed Richmond Masters' Club against the Galle CC, at the time a first class fixture. In 1910 Small scored 46 in the match where the Masters' Club lowered the colours of the Colombo Club, at the time the premier club in Ceylon. In 1975 Small wrote modestly to deny a rumour that he had once gained a Cambridge cricketing "Blue". Not only was this "far from the truth" but he went out of his way to point out that he did not even get his College colours, although he confessed to having played "occasionally" for the Gonville & Gaius College 1st XI cricket team.


Apart from carrying on with the work of Darrell in taking the School to new academic heights, assisted by an extremely able teaching staff, Joseph Small successfully steered the School through some extremely difficult times in the second decade of the 20th century. During those highly eventful years Richmond experienced rigours such as the Great War, the upsurge of Ceylonese nationalism, the trauma of the 1915 Riots, the "One Hundred Days" period of martial law, and the global influenza epidemic of 1918.

1910 saw the arrival in Ceylon of Small's German fiancée, Miss Thekla Guenther, a Lutheran pastor's daughter and friend of his sister, whom he had become engaged to during the summer of 1906. Rev. Small described that summer as: "one of the most wonderful experiences of my life… to be a young man falling in love." The marriage that took place in August 1910 would last for forty years until Thekla Small died in 1950.

The Great War

Thekla Small was perhaps the only "enemy alien" in Ceylon not to be interned for the duration of the conflict. Great must have been the anxiety of the Smalls throughout the war years in Ceylon, particularly in light of the 1914 "Emden scare" when wild rumours about enemy "secret agents" being in league with that legendary German battleship resulted in the unwarranted arrest and imprisonment of Engelbrecht, the one-time Boer POW who by then was a game warden at Yala. The strain of those war years may well have taken their toll on Thekla Small, and indeed concern about her health was cited by Rev. Small as the reason for his reluctantly-made decision to leave Galle in 1922.

The "1915 Riots" and the subsequent "One Hundred Days" of martial law, coinciding with the nascent nationalism that was making its presence felt in the island colony, presented yet another challenge to the young Principal at Richmond. It was said of Small, that he knew "no barrier of race or colour – even the simple-minded could make a friend of him". Long afterwards, it was remembered how he had secretly aided people financially in the dark days of the communal riots and their harsh aftermath, the wartime imported rice shortages, and the 1918 global influenza epidemic.

The 1915 crisis began with street confrontations between Moslems (mainly recently-arrived "Indian" Moors as distinct from the long-established "Ceylon" Moors) and Sinhalese Buddhists around Kurunegala and Kandy, and escalated due in large part to the prevailing official paranoia about German intrigue – even to the extent of believing that enemy spies disguised as Buddhist monks were conspiring to weaken the British Raj. Even in the British Parliament a senior Government Minister declared that "it was quite possible that German intrigue was at the bottom of the rising in Ceylon". In the confusion the Colonial government panicked and declared Martial Law over all of central and south-western Ceylon in late May 1915. Over sixty Ceylonese, many of them nationalists, were found guilty of "treason" during the next three months and sentenced to death. Punjabi regiments newly-arrived from India cracked down harshly on the local people. Many British planters joined the local militia and were let loose on the civilian populace. Buddhist clergy and nationalist leaders were imprisoned for no good reason. Moorish shops were broken into around Galle, a mosque at Hirumbura burnt to the ground, and Punjabi soldiers camped on the Galle Fort ramparts. As the Richmond College 1994 Souvenir put it: "Rev. Small's calm nature and balanced temperament were of much value in those troubled times".

In the aftermath of the 1915 upheavals, nationalism in Ceylon received a severe setback. The "ruling caste" of British administrators blocked further reforms, and native Ceylonese appointments to the higher government posts failed to materialize. In this atmosphere of combined jingoism and paranoia, and recognising full well the sensitive issue of his wife's German birth, Small's moral courage was such that he quietly but positively supported the nationalist movement at Richmond College during the war years and beyond.


In 1914, the year before the Riots, the National Association was revived at Richmond, a tribute to the liberality of Joseph Small, who accepted the Association's Presidency. This was a significant deviation from the political conservatism of Small's predecessors at Richmond. Unlike many Europeans in Ceylon at this time, Joseph Small gave a place to indigenous culture, religion and nationalism. The nationalist spirit had always found fertile ground at Richmond. In fact, an earlier National Association had been formed with Rev. Small's blessing in 1908, but after two years had become inactive as the key members had completed their time at Richmond and had left Galle. Among the revived Association's stated objectives were: "to foster patriotism, to develop national ideals and to influence thought in every direction for the uplifting of the Ceylonese as a nation." At the time Richmond College was the only school in Ceylon, of any denomination, with a National Association to provide a forum for pupils, staff and old boys to debate politics.


One of the abiding intellectual interests of Joseph Small's life, no doubt deriving partly from his outstanding mathematical ability, was astronomy. Joe Simpson remembers spending clear, star-lit nights on Richmond Hill with Rev. Small and his impressive, German-made brass telescope. On one such occasion Small remarked that he wondered if he would make it past his 100th birthday to see Halley's Comet return in the mid-1980s. He remembered standing with his new bride in 1910 on the same spot, watching the comet brighten the night sky so much that a newspaper could be read. After a disappointing performance in the early 1970s by the much-heralded Comet Kohoutek, Small is said to have commented that there had been "some disintegration between the promise and the fulfillment".

Small donated his telescope to the Galle Astronomical Association, a small group of friends who used to meet in a house in Galle Fort under the patronage of Rev. Small. On one occasion, members viewed slides loaned to him by Arthur C Clarke.


In September 1915, just after the dark period of martial law, a different kind of tragedy occurred at Closenberg Bay, Galle harbour that was to leave its mark on Joseph Small for the rest of his life. Along with some other masters, the Principal had for some time been taking groups of older boys for Saturday morning swimming sessions at Closenberg, in an area now built-up but then secluded and natural, and considered safe for bathing. On September 18th, 1915, an abnormal current carried some of the non-swimmers out of their depth, and one master and two boys drowned. The swimming entry in the 1976 Richmond Souvenir, probably written largely by Small himself, refers to the tragedy but modestly makes no mention of his own heroism that day, recalled long afterwards by local people, in swimming out into the bay to rescue several of the drowning bathers. Joseph Small said that the incident had come as "a terrible blow".


Principal Small played a significant role in founding the Richmond Scout Troop, after FG Stevens, the initiator of Ceylon Scouting, gave a talk at the School. In October 1915 the Richmond Troop was registered at London HQ as the 2nd Galle Troop. That December Lord Baden-Powell wrote a personal congratulatory letter to Richmond. By the end of the following year the School had 7 King's Scouts and in 1917 the number rose to 37.

End of an era

By the time that Joseph Small left in 1922, Richmond College's place in the social and economic life of the country was assured. In his time the School provided the island nation with many of her finest leaders. For instance, CWW Kannangara became independent Ceylon's first Minister of Education and introduced the Free Education Scheme, and EFC Ludowyk (Jnr.) became the first Ceylonese Dean of the University Arts Faculty. Rev. Small had introduced commerce as a subject in 1912, preparing boys for the Chamber of Commerce Examinations, and by the time he left Richmond was one of the foremost commerce teaching institutions on the Island. The list of achievements goes on and on. A former pupil said that the Principal "walked among us, radiating an influence for good on all who came to him".

After Richmond

After leaving Richmond in 1922, Joseph Small spent four years at the Methodist Church's Peradeniya Training Colony as Vice Principal, and then returned to Britain where he was a circuit minister in Cardiff for two years. The East called him back in 1928, this time for three years as a member of the teaching staff at the United Theological College in Bangalore, India. From 1931 to 1942 he was a circuit minister in England, and then in retirement a supernumerary minister at Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire until 1950, the year that his beloved Thekla died. After three years as Chaplain of the Methodist International House in London, Joseph Small, by now in his 70th year, returned to Ceylon in 1953, initially as Warden of the Peradeniya Training Colony until it became a government-controlled institution, and then as minister at Nuwara Eliya's Union Church. It was around this time that Small applied his scholarly and linguistic gifts to compile the "Topical Sinhalese Concordance of the Bible" and as chief editor of "The History of Methodism in Ceylon".

Finally, in his early 80s, Joseph Small "came home" to Richmond Hill in 1965 as a permanent guest of the College. His residence for most of the final years of his life consisted of a simple, sparsely furnished, single-room annex of the same bungalow atop Richmond Hill where he had resided with his dear wife years before. From there he continued quietly to minister to the sick and needy among his former pupils and their families, to whom he would unostentatiously provide both spiritual and practical help as the need arose, to visit and correspond tirelessly with friends both old and new, to study German, Hebrew and Sinhalese literature, to keep up with global events by means of his venerable wood-encased wireless that seemed permanently to be tuned to the BBC World Service, and on clear nights to view the star-filled skies through his treasured telescope.

Furlough of 1974

In 1974, at the age of 91, Joseph Small visited Boston Grammar School, over seventy years after leaving the school. He was welcomed by headmaster, Philip Johnston and maths master, Norman Haworth.

Here is an account of this, his last visit to Europe, from Jī. Pī. Vī Sōmaratna's biography of Small, "Life and times of W.J.T.Small in Sri lanka"

Rev Small's letter to the Richmond College Magazine in 1974 offers some light on his activities during his periodic visits to England on furloughs.

Regarding his trip to Europe in 1974 Rev Small states: "Having got permission from the Ceylon Government to pay a visit to my friends in Europe this year, I booked a flight to London and back by Air Ceylon. My ticket was for ninety days and I left Sri Lanka on June 30th and returned on September 26th. The plane took off from Katunayake in the evening and we reached London Airport by 8am British Summer Time next morning. By then the time in Ceylon was 12:30pm and the journey had taken 17.2 hrd, including three stops of about one hour each at Karachi, Rome and Paris. Jayasiri Guruge, an elder brother of the two who recently left Richmond, is an Officer of Air Ceylon and was on the plane going to London. It was nice to have a friend with me on the journey."

Rev Small's brother met him at the Sheffield Railway Station and took him to their home for a birthday tea.

Rev Small says: "My birthday falls at the time when the strawberries are ripe, and it is a tradition that, when in England, I should have strawberries and cream for tea, so of course there were strawberries and cream and a special birthday cake."

In keeping with his habit of visiting missionary friends who served in Sri Lanka he paid a visit to Miss Ridge who for many years was Principal of Southlands (girls' school), Galle (1929-1946). She was now living in Sheffield and she invited Rev Small to tea several days later.

Regarding an ailment he contracted during this trip he says, "Coming back by bus I noticed that I was coming in for some skin trouble on my head. It turned out to be an illness known as shingles or herpes; and it spread to the left side of my face, closing my left eye, so that for some days I could not go about but stayed on with my brother. When I was somewhat better, I went back to London, and then flew to Germany to visit my son who trains the pilots for the German airline, Lufthansa, at Frankfurt. While I was there he took me to stay with some of my wife's relatives at Heidelberg and Freiburg. Heildelberg is on the river Neckar. It has a famous castle on a hill overlooking the river and the town. Freiburg is further south on the edge of the beautiful Black Forest."

Rev Small was especially glad to see his 96 year old sister-in-law at Freiburg once again. She had been a good friend of Rev Small and his wife for many years.

Rev Small's son, Edgar Clöpingar, wished to spend some time in England before the end of his holidays. Therefore he brought Rev Small back to England by car after a two weeks' stay in Germany. They first travelled through Belgium to Ostend, and then drove on to a steamer which took them in five hours to Dover. Next day they drove to Sheffield to Rev Small's brother's home, and the following day to Manchester where they stayed with a Sri Lankan family who had settled in England. While there he visited Rev W.C. Bird, an old Methodist missionary who served in Sri Lanka (in Jaffna, Mannar, Kalmunai and Trincomalee). He came to Sri Lanka in 1906, the same year that Rev Small arrived (Bird returned to England 1923). Rev Small reports that Rev Bird at 94 was quite vigorous and doing gardening and carpentry.

The Rev Small says: "I paid a number of visits to other places in England, but I will only mention one more which was of special interest to me. Several years ago in Sri Lanka I heard that a lady from my native town of Boston, England, was living near Kalutara, being married to Mr S. Gunawardena, a planter. I visited them there, and when they went to live in England at Boston, a couple of years ago, they invited me to stay with them if I should come to England. I was very glad to do so as I wanted to visit Boston, but have no relatives there now. They were very kind in taking me to see friends in the neighbourhood and also in arranging for me to visit the Grammar School, which I attended from the age of nine till I went to the Cambridge University at 18."

The Headmaster and a senior member of staff of Boston Grammar School showed them round many new buildings. A local newspaper took photographs and published an interview with Rev Small. Photographs were taken at the door of the former Headmaster's class room, in the old building of the school. Now it is used as a Library. Most of Rev Small's schooling took place there. The Headmaster at the time was Mr William White. He was a very good mathematician. There was a tablet commemorating his 25 years of service. Rev Small expressed his gratefulness for the kind interest this master took in him.

He also mentioned two people connected with Richmond College whom he contacted on his furlough in England. One was Mrs Cash, wife of Rev Percy T Cash. The latter acted as Principal of Richmond twice when Rev Small was on furlough, first in 1914-5, and again in 1920-1. Rev Small considered him as a special friend, and was very sad when he died in 1958. His wife, who was 95, was still living, though she was in a Nursing Home at St Leonards-on-Sea. Rev Small was impressed by the fact that she even played the piano an hour almost every day. She used to teach music to many pupils when she was in Sri Lanka.

The other person that he visited was Mr R.J.Seal, who was Vice Principal of Richmond College (1925-1937) and was a science graduate who greatly developed science teaching at Richmond College. After leaving Sri Lanka he was engaged in science teaching for a good many years in Africa. He was retired and living in Exmouth, in the county of Devon. Rev Small was especially glad to contact him because he had for many years been trying to find out his address without success.

In his letter Rev Small says, "Old pupils have often asked me about him, but I was not able to tell them anything. So, in case any of them would like to write to him, I will give it here. It is "Frensham", 30, Oldfields, Exmouth, Devon, UK."

Finally he says: "Altogether I had an interesting and enjoyable time in Europe, I am quite glad to be back in Sri Lanka, and especially at Richmond Hill, which has so many happy associations for me."

This was the last trip he made to England. The author remembers a friend of Rev Small requesting him to bring a picture of Jese when he returns to Sri Lanka. He faithfully remembered and brought a painting of the Supper at Emmaus by Steve and Gwen Smith.

See Also