Skip to main content

Colombo Harbour completed 1885 [Construction of South-West Breakwater, Colombo Harbour, 1875-1885]

Reference Code: GBR/0115/RCS/Y303C

Scope and Contents

An album containing mounted albumen prints by William Louis Henry Skeen and Company, measuring approximately 260 x 210 mm with captions pasted onto the page beneath the prints. The album is inscribed: 'Sir W.C. Sergeaunt K.C.M.G. with Sir John Coode's compliments'. The album documents the construction of the breakwater from the laying of the foundation stone to its completion in 1885.

Construction of the Colombo Breakwater. The creation of an artificial harbour to increase the shipping capacity of Ceylon was first suggested by the Earl of Carnarvon in 1866. At this time the favoured location was Galle at the extreme south of the island, but in 1870 the Governor, Sir Hercules Robinson, reported in favour of Colombo (whose commercial status was rapidly growing as a result both of the completion of the Suez Canal and of the Colombo-Kandy Railway) and Robert Townsend, the engineer responsible for Plymouth Breakwater, was sent out to make a feasibility study. He too was impressed by Colombo’s natural advantages over Galle and advised the construction of a breakwater across the harbour mouth. In 1872 the great harbour engineer Sir John Coode drew up plans for a breakwater running north from Customs House Point at the southern entrance and enclosing 500 acres of sheltered moorings. This plan was accepted in 1873, with land reclamation for a coal depot and the dredging of shallow portions of the harbour also included in the project.

John Kyle was appointed Resident Executive Engineer and arrived in May 1873 to organise such necessary preliminaries as the opening of a quarry at Mahara (11 miles from Colombo), the formation of a blockyard at Galle Buck near the works, and the construction of a railway to transport stone from one site to the other. The main body of engineering staff arrived in Ceylon in June 1874. The blockyard site was levelled, workshops and cranes installed, and in October the first trainload of rubble was delivered to Colombo. 300 convicts were used for loading the trains and over the period of construction never less than 100 tons per day (with a record of 600 tons) were shifted. By December 1882 the commercial advantages of a sheltered anchorage were becoming evident, and in the June of that year the P and O Royal Mail steamships abandoned their base at Galle in favour of Colombo. Between 1883 and 1889 the value of shipping passing through Colombo increased by 60% and steady growth continued throughout the century. The breakwater, 4212 feet long, was completed in April 1885 at a cost of £705,207.

In 1891, Sir John Coode was asked to design a further breakwater but his death in 1892 prevented him working on the project. The work was therefore entrusted to Sir William Matthews who erected two further breakwaters, at the North-East and North-West corners of the harbour, so that by the turn of the century Colombo was able to provide 640 acres of enclosed anchorage, impervious to the effects of either the SW or NE monsoons.


  • Creation: 1875 - 1885


Conditions Governing Access

Unless restrictions apply, the collection is open for consultation by researchers using the Manuscripts Reading Room at Cambridge University Library. For further details on conditions governing access please contact Information about opening hours and obtaining a Cambridge University Library reader's ticket is available from the Library's website (


1 album(s) (16 images in 1 album)

Language of Materials


Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

The prints are generally in good condition.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Purchased by the Royal Colonial Society in May 1892.

Existence and Location of Copies

This collection is available on microfiche: South Asia, fiche number 89-90.

Related Materials

For a portrait of Sir John Coode see R.C.I. 1/19.


For a general account of Colombo Harbour and harbour trade statistics for the late 19th century see: Wright, Arnold (1907), 'Twentieth century impressions of Ceylon', London: Lloyd's Greater Britain Publishing Co, pp.369-378. For a detailed technical account of the SW breakwater see: Kyle, John (1886), 'Colombo Harbour works, Ceylon (Minutes of proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers)', vol.87, pp.76-91.


This item level description was entered by NE and MJC using information from the original typescript catalogue.


W L H Skeen and Co

Includes index.
2004-07-15 09:11:32+00:00
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Cambridge University Library Repository

Cambridge University Library
West Road
Cambridge CB3 9DR United Kingdom