The Martin Leake family and Ceylon

Susan Payne

The Martin Leake family in a garden c 1880 doc ref 87578
The Martin Leake family in a window, c. 1880 doc ref 87579

The Martin Leake family was based at Marshalls in the village of High Cross, north of Ware on the old A10. Stephen Ralph Martin Leake and Georgina Stevens had a family of five children surviving to adulthood. The oldest son, also called Stephen, inherited Marshall’s as well as property in Essex and elsewhere. A younger son, William, took up colonial service in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

William M. Martin Leake (1831 – 1918) trained as a civil engineer. According to testimonials held at Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (HALS) (document reference 86661), he went to Ceylon in 1859 with a friend, D. G. B. Harrison to work on irrigation projects. Once there he became a partner in the firm Keir, Dundas & Co of Kandy in the Central Highlands. He oversaw the coffee plantation called the Loolecondera Estate from then until 1873. During this time William married Louise Harriet Tennant, daughter of a colonel in the Bengal Artillery at Galle. The couple had a family of eight children, all born in Ceylon.

The British had gained total control of the island from the Dutch in 1802. Coffee was a common crop for the native Sinhalese, but a commercial approach to cultivation brought in by the British, moved the coffee cultivation to the cooler highlands allowing the plant to flourish. Plantations were developed in areas of cleared jungle, where dangers from leopards and tropical diseases had to be overcome.

By the mid-19th century coffee production was in decline, as the disease called coffee blight, left thriving coffee plantations in ruin. William became involved in the introduction of tea and cinnamon as replacement crops. With estate manager James Taylor, he ran a successful trial growing the Assam tea plant at Loolecondera and produced the first Ceylon tea sold in Kandy in 1871.

William became Chairman of the Planters’ Association of Ceylon to represent estate owners’ interests, as well as a member of the colony’s legislature. By 1873, he had returned to England but retained interests in plantations and became the first Secretary of the Ceylon Association in London.

Meanwhile in Britain, Stephen Martin Leake (1826-1893) trained in the law to become a barrister. He married Isabel Plunkett, daughter of a fellow barrister. Although Stephen does not appear to have travelled to Ceylon, he owned two coffee plantations there: the Kirimettia and Goomera Estates.

Monthly accounts and reports survive from the late 19th century for both estates at HALS (document references 86662-86720). In 1880 the Kirimettia plantation covered 640 acres in total, over half of which was given to coffee growing, but also 70 acres set to grass pasture for the 93 head of cattle. Plantations needed labour and workers were brought in from the Tamil population of southern India to work the fields. Accounts show that over a hundred men, women and children worked on the estate.

The slightly larger estate of Goomera (752 acres) was trialing cinchona and cardamom plants in 1882. The bark from the Cinchona plant produced quinine, at that time the only effective treatment against malaria, making it an important economic crop. Stephen was kept up to date with progress on both estates by Frank and Spencer Shelley, the plantation managers.

Stephen died in 1893, passing on the Marshalls estate in the care of his wife. He was survived by seven children, three of whom took up posts in the Indian railway service.


This page was added on 10/08/2021.

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