Oliver Ernest Goonetilleke

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His Excellency
Sir Oliver Goonetilleke
Sir Oliver Goonetilleke.gif
3rd Governor-General of Ceylon
In office
17 July 1954 – 2 March 1962
MonarchElizabeth II
Preceded byHerwald Ramsbotham, 1st Viscount Soulbury
Succeeded byWilliam Gopallawa
27th Colonial Auditor
In office
25 June 1931 – 16 February 1946
Preceded byF. G. Morley
Succeeded byE. Allen Smith
Minister of Finance
In office
21 March 1960 – 23 April 1960
Prime MinisterDudley Senanayake
Preceded byM. M. Musthapa
Succeeded byJunius Richard Jayewardene
In office
14 October 1953 – 18 February 1956
Prime MinisterJohn Kotelawala
Preceded byJunius Richard Jayewardene
Succeeded byM. D. H. Jayawardena
Minister of Home Affairs and Rural Development
In office
26 September 1947 – 22 July 1948
Prime MinisterD. S. Senanayake
Preceded byPost Created
Succeeded byEdwin Wijeyeratne
High Commissioner for Ceylon to the United Kingdom
In office
MonarchElizabeth II
Prime MinisterDS Senanayake,
Dudley Senanayake
Preceded byOffice Created
Succeeded byEdwin Wijeyeratne
Personal details
Born(1892-10-20)20 October 1892
Trincomalee, Ceylon
Died17 December 1978(1978-12-17) (aged 86)
Colombo Sri Lanka
Spouse(s)Esther Goonetilleke (nee Jayawardena), Lady Phyllis Goonetilleke (nee Miller)
ChildrenJoyce Wijesinghe
Shiela Sathananthan
Ernie Goonetilleke
ProfessionCivil Servant

Sir Oliver Ernest Goonetilleke GCMG KCVO KBE KStJ (Sinhalese: ශ්‍රිමත් ඔලිවර් ගුණතිලක) (20 October 1892 – 17 December 1978) was a civil servant, diplomat and politician. He later served as an important figure in the gradual independence of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) from Britain, and became the third Governor-General of Ceylon (1954-1962). He was the first Ceylonese individual to hold the vice-regal post. He was a member of Ceylon Civil Service.

Early life and education[edit]

Oliver Ernest Goonetilleke was born 20 October 1892 in Trincomalee in the northeast of Ceylon. He was the fifth child eight and only son of Alfred Goonetilleke and Emily Jayasekera. His father who served in the Ceylon Postal Service was the postmaster of Trincomalee at the time of his birth.

He was educated at Wesley College in Colombo where he won many prizes and scholarships including the Hill Medal and the Gogerly Scholarship. After completing his secondary education, Goonetilleke joined the staff of Wesley College as an assistant teacher. He later earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of London as an external student.[1]

Public service career[edit]

Leaving his teaching post, Goonetilleke joined the Bank of Colombo as a Sub-accountant, then became the Manager of the Ceylon Daily News. Few years later he joined the government service having been appointed as an Assistant Railway Auditor. He went on to become the Colonial Auditor of the crown colony of Ceylon on 25 June 1931 and served in this position until February 1946. As the Colonial Auditor he was an ex-officio member of the Executive Council of Ceylon in 1931. Thereafter he became the Financial Secretary of Ceylon. During world war 2, Goonetilleke served as Civil Defense Commissioner, developing the civil defense measures in Ceylon which came into effect Imperial Japanese Navy undertook its deadly Indian Ocean raid. He had also served as the Chairman of the Salaries and Cadres Commission.[2]

Political career[edit]

The first Cabinet of Ministers of Ceylon

By the 1930s Ceylon was increasingly self-governing in internal matters, and Goonetilleke rose through the colonial administration. With the coming of World War II and the likelihood that Ceylon would face a military threat from Japan, Goonetilleke was placed at the head of a new Civil Defence Department as Civil Defence Commissioner in the War Cabinet of Ceylon, a move that proved to be justified when air raids on Colombo and other cities began in the spring of 1942. Sir Ivor Jennings, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ceylon, served as Goonetilleke's deputy, and the two worked closely with D. S. Senanayake, the minister of Agriculture and Lands. Those three, the brains trust of the Ceylon government in their time, were nicknamed "the Breakdown Gang" as they began to talk about much besides civil defence, including the steps that might be taken to move Ceylon to complete independence after the War. Eventually, they were the leaders who brought the project to fruition, with independence for Ceylon on 4 February 1948, when Senanayake became Prime Minister. Sir Oliver was never a politician in the strict sense, his appointments to various positions including in the cabinet at that time were through invitation by the then political leadership.

In 1947 when the first cabinet of ministers was formed with Senanayake as Prime Minister, Sir Oliver, who had been appointed to the Senate of Ceylon after resigning from the public service, became the Minister of Home Affairs and Rural Development. He later 22nd July 1948 resigned and was appointed the first Ceylonese High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.[3] On his return to Ceylon he became the Leader of the Senate and the Minister of Home Affairs and Rural Development in the government of D.S.Senanayake.[4]


Shortly after a visit by Queen Elizabeth II to Ceylon in April 1954, the decision was taken to appoint a Ceylonese native to the post of Governor-General, the mostly ceremonial head of state. Senanayake had died in 1952, and Colonel Sir John Kotalawela was Prime Minister by the time Goonetilleke succeeded to the position and took up residence in Queen's House. He continued in office for eight years, through tumultuous times in Ceylon's history including the 1958 outbreak of ethnic violence, during which he was given credit for persuading the largely Sinhalese government to take action to protect the Tamil minority.

His willingness to take difficult or unpopular positions should not have been any surprise to those who had watched his work in civil defence fifteen years earlier, including steps to confiscate market stalls and even larger businesses whose owners had abandoned them in the face of the Japanese assault, and turn them over to others who were willing to reopen them. Similarly, he experienced criticism in 1960 for his decision when faced with the classic difficulty for a Governor-General, whether to dissolve Parliament, causing a new election, or call on a different faction to form a government when the Prime Minister (in this case Dudley Senanayake, son of his old friend) lost Parliament's confidence. He was a friend of the powerful philanthropist Sir Ernest de Silva who assisted him in the ascension to Governor-General.

He earned the respect of all parties and figures, including Solomon W. R. D. Bandaranaike, the leading figure of Ceylon's left wing in the 1950s and patriarch of future generations of such leadership. At one point some politicians protested that Bandaranaike had permitted Goonetilleke, no left-winger, to stay in office, and began a movement to cut his salary as a gesture of disapproval. "His Excellency has placed his knowledge, experience and constitutional powers at the full disposal of the present Government," Bandaranaike told Parliament, "and as constitutionally proper, been most helpful to the Government."

Later life[edit]

Sir Oliver Goonetilleke left the Governor-General's post on 2 March 1962 and led a retired life in London soon after an attempted military coup as some of the Crown witnesses tried to link him and former Prime Ministers, Dudley Senanayake and Colonel Sir John Kotelawala, with the conspiracy. Although this was never proven Sir Oliver Goonetilleke resigned and went into self-imposed exile in Britain. He also became both sufficiently affluent and sufficiently familiar with British business affairs to become an Underwriting Member of Lloyd's of London, the famous reinsurance house in London.

He died in Sri Lanka after a brief illness in 1978. A biography under the title 'OEG' was written by Charles Joseph Jeffries, and memorials to Goonetilleke include a six-foot bronze statue by sculptor Tissa Ranasinghe, commissioned by his family and installed in 1967 at a major roundabout in Colombo.

Personal life[edit]

Sri Oliver first married Esther (née Jayawardena) and had three children, Joyce Wijesinghe, Shiela Sathananthan and Ernie Goonetilleke. Esther died of a fatal illness when the three children were very young and before he entered the civil service. During his self-imposed exile in London, Sir Oliver married Phyllis Miller, who was the secretary of the Soulbury Commission, whom he had befriended during the period of the Commission circa 1944, and lived near Marble Arch at 14, Albion Gate, Hyde Park Place, London W2 prior to his death in 1978.

He was a Director of the YMCA and held several high positions in the Diocese of the Anglican Church of Ceylon. He was also an avid horse racing enthusiast and horse owner with his horses racing at Epsom and Ascot.


Throughout his life, Goonetilleke had close links with Britain, visiting the country many times on official business, and receiving a string of British honours:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ M. Lentz, Harris. Heads of States and Governments Since 1945. Routledge, 2014. ISBN 9781134264902.
  2. ^ Sir Oliver Goonetilleke (1892 –1978): The Road To Independence
  3. ^ Former Sri Lankan High Commissioners in the United Kingdom. Sri Lanka High Commission in UK.
  4. ^ Page 166 of Encyclopedia of Sri Lanka. Encyclopedia of Sri Lanka.

External links[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by
Sir Herwald Ramsbotham
Governor-General of Ceylon
Succeeded by
William Gopallawa
Legal offices
Preceded by
F. G. Morley
Colonial Auditor
Succeeded by
E. Allen Smith