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When I hear Penelope Gordon is 78 years old, I’m worried about how bored I’m going to be, making conversation with an old lady. But if I’ve ever enjoyed listening to stories of the past over a cup of tea, it had to be at Hayley’s down Dean’s Road last week. The great-granddaughter of Charles Pickering Hayley, founder of what is now Hayleys PLC, is one lady who is not going to let time play his games with her.
When Charles (known fondly as Chas) Hayley boarded the Percy Douglas heading towards Sri Lanka – what was then Ceylon, the “crown jewel” of the British colonial empire – in 1871, it must have been with a knot in his stomach and fear in his heart about leaving home. It is quite likely he never imagined at the time, the scale of what he would achieve on the island. In 1878 he founded Charles P. Hayley and Company, a small coir trade which would grow into what is now Hayleys PLC, one of Sri Lanka’s biggest multinational businesses involved in Global Markets, Agriculture, Transportation, Consumer Products and Leisure and has sister companies in seven countries including the USA, France, India and Japan.
Nearly a century and a half later, as Penelope (aka Pene) Gordon walks in through the Bandaranaike International Airport for the twenty-first time in fifteen years, her heart sings “I’m home, I’m home!” What her great-grandfather achieved in Sri Lanka was more than a family legacy and much more than just a booming business, it was the making of a history and a home. “Little did I know what I wonderful seed I was planting on that far away day” he is believed to have said of himself, and he probably never knew how little he knew.
Pene Gordon was born in Hatton in the year 1937 to Ray Beadon and Phyllis Hayley, the granddaughter of Chas Hayley. Her father being a planter meant that Pene’s childhood was spent mostly on tea estates in the Nuwara Eliya and the upcountry areas. “I remember going to Hill School” she smiles, adding “and running around the lake” with a twinkle in her eye. “My father was a rugby player, he played for Dimbulla, as did my brother-in-law as well as my husband. So I was always on the rugby field or the golf course” she laughs, adding that the girls played a lot of tennis and indulged in their father’s love of building swimming pools by growing up “in the water”.
She remembers even more fondly the time during the Second World War when her father’s appointment to the RFA meant they had to move to Colombo before he was transferred to England. “We lived at 22 Colpetty Lane” Pene informs me, reading my mind immediately after by saying with a giggle “I remember that very well”. It is difficult not to see an image of a troupe of youngsters screaming and running around (“we were naughty and a little wicked, and our nanny was never allowed to do anything about it!” she has just confessed with an impish grin) the Galle Face Green as she talks of flying kites every morning and following the kadala man around.
In 1945, an eight-year-old Pene Gordon visited England for the first time. She remembers fondly her aunt, Violet Hayley who she refers to as a “funny little lady”. Pene screws up her face and squints as she leans forward, imitating her aunt sitting at a sea side café. “We were having tea and it was such a beautiful day” Pene explains, “and she kept saying ‘but there’s such a mist out here’”! She struggles to contain herself as she describes how in their confusion the children watched their aunt carefully to understand her meaning. “And we discovered that she’d powdered her glasses!” she bursts out as we all erupt into laughter. Pene next spent time in England as an undergraduate, returning to Sri Lanka, her home of 27 years, to marry Trevor Gordon and settle down. As were her mother and younger sister Sally after her, Pene was married in Nuwara Eliya. “My son, Graham, was born in London in 1971 because we happened to be there at the time” she continues her story. A few weeks after though, they returned to Sri Lanka and Trevor took up work in Colombo.
The relatively peaceful and comfortable lifestyle into which the young family had settled over the next three years was suddenly torn apart and in 1974, Pene again found herself in unfamiliar territory both physically and emotionally. “My husband got ill with a nervous breakdown and couldn’t be helped here” she explains quietly. “We had to go back to Ireland because that’s where he was from. I had never been there before and it was traumatic” she admits, but stresses “we had to go”. They struggled in Ireland to pick themselves up and at the completion of a year there were ready to welcome Wendy, Graham’s younger sister, into the family.
As Pene watched her family grow and resettle though, a troublesome thought began to take root in her mind. “All of Graham’s baby photos showed him here (in Sri Lanka)” Pene shares regretfully, “but there was nothing for Wendy. She knew nothing about my family and my growing up out here.” Wendy too shares memories of “curry parties” in England and the frustrating awareness that there was “another history” out there for her which she knew nothing about. Until Wendy was nineteen, they simply could not afford a trip back to Sri Lanka, but by this time Pene had made up her mind. “I brought them both back, but particularly for Wendy” she shares, adding that “she has loved it ever since”.
“This is my heart home, this is my heart home” Pene reiterates, moving on to her return to Sri Lanka in 1994. “We went straight up to Kandy because the Perahera was on” she says with a look on her face that says she can’t believe herself, “and it was like murder with the crowds and everything after twenty whole years! But the next day we travelled up to Nuwara Eliya, and we were all tired so Graham and Wendy were both sleeping, but here I was, shaking them, telling them ‘Wake up! Wake up, we’re coming home!’”. She laughs at her own childish excitement. “I don’t know how well you know Nuwara Eliya” she says a little quieter now, “but once you’ve gone up the Ramboda pass and come down into the Nuwara Eliya valley, there’s the sixth green. And by the time we’ve hit the sixth green…” Pene’s voice catches, hushed and overcome with emotion as tears collect in her clear blue eyes. “I’m home! I’m home, you know?” she manages to whisper quietly.
“Things were different” she admits, adding with a grin that “everything was twenty years older. The fairways at the golf club were smaller and the trees bigger, but not enough had changed to make it not home for me.” She recalls appreciatively how staff at the golf club recognized her and spoke to her. Going back to the estate, she recalls, was “just lovely, and it was very emotional”. The room that Pene used as a child and all the furniture around the house was “there just the same” she says, smiling shyly that “it was very antiquated, but it was very nice”.
“I had been away for twenty years without the money to come back” she shares thoughtfully “but I knew I couldn’t let this go on for another twenty.” So Pene Gordon returned home, again, in 1997, the year she turned sixty (“and life begins at sixty!” she laughs) and continues to make the trip to Sri Lanka twice every year since 2001. “I’ve got my memories of growing up on the estate” Pene continues, “and it was like a magic life which I came to appreciate only later.” In gratitude for these untarnished memories and warm feelings of the heart Sri Lanka calls up within her, and inspired by God she says quite simply and frankly, Pene now tries in her little ways to help the people who were part of her history in Sri Lanka.
Despite suffering from diabetes and having had most of her digestive system removed due to health complications last year, Pene is still bubbly and energetic. “It was a bit wow” she laughs, explaining that her spleen, pancreas, gall-bladder and “half” of her stomach contents have been removed. “Let me show you my digestive system now” she grins as she opens a small scallop-shaped case holding two clear enzyme capsules, one of which she pops in her mouth before lifting a cup of tea to her lips.
She was smiling, smiling as she walked into our meeting after a lunch engagement and she is smiling, smiling as she rushes off next to a coffee engagement, a true testament to the energy and fire that runs in her blood. “My mother (Phyllis) is 102 and still very much alive!” she laughs, and I walk away from the meeting thinking Penelope too, must be ageless.