CWW Kannanagara – Father of Free Education


CWW Kannanagara – Father of Free Education

( Recently published article by Ariya in “NewsLanka” weekly news paper in London)

“Skill is a marvellous thing. It can adorn a humble man as much as it graces a king. The poorest can acquire skill through hard work and constant Practice, which a prince may not acquire despite much coaching” (Maha Baratha)

Full many a gem of purest ray serene – The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear Full many a flower is born to blush unseen – And waste its sweetness on the desert air. (Thomas Gray – elegy)

Early Life

Christopher William Wijekoon Kannangara (CWW kannangara), ‘The Father of Free Education in Sri Lanka’ was born on October 13th, in 1884 and passed away on 23rd September 1969.

His father, John Daniel Wijekoon was a Fiscal officer attached to the Magistrate court Balapitiya but lost his job causing enormous financial difficulties to the ‘Kannangara family’.

In fact, in later life Mr CWW Kananagara, addressing a gathering of distinguished men had remarked ‘I do not think, anyone else here knows about poverty as much as I do. Sometimes we only had one meal a day and slept on mats’.

Though his father recognised the intellectual brilliance of the prodigious young son, he could not afford to send him to an Elite school and sent him to a Wesleyan Missionary School in his village, Randombe, Ambalangoda, (Southern province)

Undaunted by the difficulties and the ‘abysmal hand’ he had been served, young Kannangara impressed his teachers and peers with academic brilliance and impeccable discipline. When he was in Grade 5, at annual prize giving, Kannangara collected about fourteen prizes. This accomplishment and his mannerism, immensely impressed the chief guest, Rev. Darell, who was the principle of the Elite institution of education in the Southern province, Richmond College, Galle.

Rev. Darrel pleasingly remarked in view of young boy’s brilliance, ‘son you will need a cart to take all your prizes home’. As the saying goes, ‘a gem cannot be hidden for long,’ CWW Kannangara was given a chance to sit for a Richmond College Foundation scholarship exam. to study as a resident student at Richmond College Galle. Excelling in Mathematics he won the scholarship, an award for free board and lodging at Richmond College.

This benevolent encounter became a fortunate turning point, not only for young Kannangara also of the future of education of Sri Lanka.

Richmond College at that stage was meant exclusively for the rich and Kannangara had to face many difficulties and embarrassments from his peers at the school.

However, Kannangara’s brilliance was not limited to studies; he played cricket and soccer and in 1903 captained Richmond College First XI and played for Galle Cricket Club as well. He was also a member of the school soccer team and won Richmond College Colours for both sports in 1903.

In addition young Kannangara was a very fine orator and an actor and became the captain of college the debating team as well.

Though poor in wealth, he was a gifted child not only in the academic and sporting prowess, he had the determination and tenacity to reach high, overcoming obstacles.

He carried away the largest number of prizes at every prize giving during his tenure at Richmond and also held the prestigious position as the ‘Head Prefect’ of the college.

In 1903 he passed Cambridge Senior examination and was placed in the first division obtaining the highest marks for Mathematics. Having superseded all other candidates of the British Commonwealth, brought honour not only to Richmond College but to the entire country and tears of joy to the eyes of his great mentor, Rev. Darrel.

Young Kannangara would have never known that experiences gained as a poverty stricken child in Richmond College would induce in him such determination and valour to battle so valiantly for free education for us all, later in his political life.

Professional life

Rev. Darrel invited Kannangara to join the tutorial staff and teach Mathematics at Richmond College, which he duly obliged.

When his ‘God Father’ Rev. Darrel passed away suddenly in 1904, Kannangara could not bear the grief and moved out of Richmond to join Prince of Wales, Moratuwa. Later joined the tutorial staff of Wesley College, Colombo, where Sir Oliver Goonatilleke was one of his pupils. Having moved to Colombo he had opportunity to study further and attended the law college and qualified in 1910 as a lawyer.

He returned to Galle to establish his law practice and stoutly defended innocent people, without receiving any remuneration. who were accused and arrested by the colonial regime as involved in the unfortunate 1915 riots.

Entering into politics

CWW Kannangara joined as an active member of the Temperance movement which was initiated by patriots, F R Senanayake, Sir Baron Jayatilleke, Arthur V Dias. He was a founder member of the Ceylon National Congress which was working to obtain independence for Ceylon. In 1924 he was elected to Legislative Council and represented Galle District. He held the office as the Minister of Education in the State Council from 1931 to 1947.

The Bill for ‘Free education scheme

Opposition to the concept and elements of the proposed ‘Free education Scheme for all’ came from two contrasting strata of the then society in Ceylon. The privileged class with influence and power fought tooth and nail to abort the ideal as they felt education as the right of the ‘haves’’ Much greater opposition at least in numbers came from the poor majority, objecting that door to free education should not be available for the well to do people. CWW Kannangara , who had faced many difficulties and discriminations did not want to have class segregation in education and create an ongoing conflict not only among the students and staff insisted on free education concept for all.

University education previously was available almost exclusively to the most privileged layer of the society. The proposal to make it open for to all children irrespective of their wealth or social class was made by the committee headed by CWW Kannanagara. To be undaunted against powerful antagonists, to fight for the right cause, to amplify the voice of the unheard and press on tenaciously to reach the just destination, to create a window of opportunity to the needy, at the right place and at the right time for sake of the down trodden masses, there was the right man with determination, wisdom, compassion at heart an eloquence to win the debate. CWW Kannangara spearheading the campaign with above qualities in abundance, was indeed our good fortune.

The great educationalist, sportsman and a politician of honesty and integrity, presented the free education Bill on June 6, 1945 and it became effective on October 1, 1945.

Dr Kannangara’s vision

Poverty stricken yet clever children had no opening for education and the concept of Central School was also a ‘brainchild’ of this ‘great grand master’ educationalist. He wanted these institutions of learning to imitate that of Royal College, Colombo. The first three being at Akuramboda, Weeraketiya and Matugama. He insisted the importance of teaching science and English across the communities.

There had been more than fifty Government Central Colleges in Sri Lanka.

Introduced free mid-day meal for school children

Responsible for rapid development in Pirivena education

Inauguration of University of Peradeniya (University Bill passed in 1942 and the majestic University complex was completed in Peradeniya in 1952 with Sir Ivor Jennings as its first Vice Chancellor). At first convocation of The University of Ceylon, the Father of Free education, CWW Kannangara was conferred an Honorary Doctorate (PhD) in recognition to his services to education.

Fruits of his vision

Due to the efforts and vision of this great son of Sri lanka, doors opened evenly in every corner of the nine provinces and opportunities, a great boon enriched our mother Lanka.

There are today, very senior administrative officers, Doctors, Engineers, accountants, architects, lawyers and judges including a former chief justice, and many brilliant politicians have benefitted by his great vision and the concept of free education from kindergarten to University.

Though he was a tough man, had he lived to see one of the most auspicious days in the political history of our beloved motherland (9th January 2015) to see a prestigious product of a ‘central college’ (Polonnaruwa Royal Central College) reaching the peak of achievement and becoming not only the first citizen of Sri lanka, but being honoured and admired by the world leaders, I am certain, we would have witnessed tears of joy in the eyes of the ‘Father of Free education; Dr CWW Kannangara.

As a product of a Central College via 5th standard scholarship (Hikkaduwa Sri Sumangala and a recipient of 8th standard science scholarship) and received free education up to medical entrance examination at Dharmasoka College, Ambalangoda) this writer salute Dr CWW Kannangara for his great vision and the strength to make the concept of ‘Free education’ a reality. 

The name, Dr CWW Kannangara should be etched in the hearts of all Sri Lankans as the father of free education in Sri lanka. It is pleasing that at least past pupils of Central colleges have formed an association in Sri Lanka and a UK branch over the last few years do commemorate and celebrate the contribution to education by this great hero. Writer takes this opportunity to appeal to all both in motherland and abroad who benefitted by ‘Free education in Sri Lanka’ to join hands to celebrate together the wisdom and contribution of this great son of Sri Lanka.

His vision to have wide spread educational institutions in all nine provinces was the right one if that concept was carried out with same vigour and vitality by the latter day politicians the disparity in education standards and contents (including science and maths) between the so called elite schools in the capital cities of the provinces and the rural land mass would have so distinct. Perhaps that would have even removed some factors which nourished division among communities leading into a full-fledged ugly war.

Finally, a gentle appeal to the good and the great ruling our blessed motherland to consider some steps within Schools and colleges to commemorate annually Dr CWW Kannangara’s contribution towards free education uniformly across the four corners of our country.

When I look back Dr Kannangara’s illustrious life as a student and a public servant, not only gave us the boon of free education but his life taught us the value of hard work, discipline and determination to win over powerful obstructions and handicaps. His example should reverberate in the heart and mind of every child every citizen and of course every ruler of our pleasant land.

‘The heights of great men reached and kept – were not attained by sudden flight But they while their companions slept – were toiling upwards in the night’ American poet, Henry Wordsworth Longfellow;


Dr Ariya De Silva OBE, MBBS (Colombo), FRCOG, FC OG (SL), FRCS Glas. FRCS Edin. FRCP (Lond.). Former Visiting Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, Sri Lanka

Nostalgia – in Praxy’s own words


It was a year ago to the date that we met
To celebrate RU 50 that we cannot forget
My decision was to keep in touch,
With every batch mate I love so much.
But alas has age taken its toll on my grey cells I wonder,
That I’ve not been able to keep in touch with friends from yonder.
But never mind another year will come
When we could meet and greet everyone.
So we shall patiently wait for that day
When we can meet and greet once again I pray.
Love and best wishes


Praxy de Saram