Landmarks of A Time Past


These buildings and landmarks have disappeared from the face of Singapore.  But thanks to the photographic ‘eye’ of Marjorie Doggett, they have been captured for posterity.

By Rebecca Chua

[Source:  The Straits Times, 6 July 1985]

“For me, a building remains like a cold stone monument unless it is possible to visualise the sort of person who constructed it and live in it.  One learns of the scenes of happiness or sorrow enacted within its walls and it is then, in one’s imagination, that the house assumes its atmosphere.”

– Mrs Marjorie Doggett in the foreword to the first edition of her book, Characters of Light.

“Let it still be the boast of Britain to write her name in characters of light; let her not be remembered at the tempest whose course was desolation, but as the gale of spring reviving the slumbering seeds of mind and calling them to life from the winter of ignorance and oppression.  If the time shall have passed away, these monuments will endure when her triumphs shall have beome and empty name.”

Sir Stamford Raffles, Singapore 1823

Little did Sir Stamford Raffles know, when he declared Raffles Institution open in June 1823, that the school, which he envisaged for students of all races and religions as “the means of civilising and bettering the conditions of millions”, would not stand the test of time.

Where the Raffles Institution used to stand, Raffles City now towers.

In fact, Singapore has changed so much in the past quarter of a century that many of the buildings Marjorie Dogget photographed in Singapore almost 30 years ago have disappeared.

IMG_20191201_081753.jpgMarjorie Doggett

Even roads have vanished.  Although the Hadji Fatimah Mosque is still standing, a mite tipsily, it must be admitted, “Java Road, the charming little street where it once stood, parallel to North Bridge Road, has ceasted to exist”, she said.

Most of the buildings that have been earmarked for preservation are places of worship.  But Mrs Doggett feels that “you can’t just save the building and not the environs”.

“The Hadji Fatimah Mosque, for example, is a misfit, standing amidst a redeveloped area of modern highrise flats.  There used to be a large area of the surrounding environment with which the building was the building was so compatible, but all that’s been demolished.

Still, she believes, it’s not too late to take stock and start preserving not just the building, but the surrounding that give a building its character and sense of place in the community.

Mrs Doggett is no fanatical conservationist.  She remembers how the architects wanted to save Raffles Institution, and how impassioned letters to the press lobbied for both preservation and demolition.  But the official verdict to demolish came in July 1968.

“Okay, one realises you’ve got to progress,” she admitted.  “Some things have got to go.”

And yet … what if they hadn’t demolished it and had restored it, instead?

“They could’ve made it a history museum and constructed an underpass to the Japanese obelisk,” she suggested.

That would have reinforced a Singaporean’s sense of history – after all, the Raffles Institution was the very first monument to education here – and provided a tourist with a starting point.

When she first began taking photographs for this book, Mrs Doggett did not realise how history was to repeat itself, or what an ironical turn the title, Character of Light, would take.

She had come with her husband Victor to Singapore from England in January 1947, arriving a month before published Donald Moore, who was to become a good friend.  She had been trained as a nurse and at first worked at the Kandang Kerbau Hospital.

In those early days, her bouts of photography consisted of taking pictures of visiting musicians to enhance the walls above the steps of the Victoria Concert Hall.  She had been interested in photography ever since she was a teenager and had, at the age of 15 or 16, a home-made enlarger (made from a soapbox) that engrossed her.

More than a decade later, a fortuitous meeting with photographer C.A. Gibson-Hill set her camera clicking.  With the encouragement of some friends, she took countless pictures.

She still has hundreds of negatives, all meticulously washed and developed and neatly filed away in individual waxed paper sleeves in several drawers.

The book was first published in 1957 by Donald Moore as a guide to the buildings of Singapore.  But even then, it was not the buildings alone that mattered to the young woman.

In the foreword to the first edition, she had written:  “For me, a building remains like a cold stone monument unless it is possible to visualise the sort of person who constructed it and lived in it.  One learns of the scenes of happiness or sorrow enacted within its walls and it is then, in one’s imagination, that the house assumes its atmosphere.”

The book had been written in the closing years of the British colonial era, “The British were leaving, people started knocking things down,” she said.

It was, perhaps, a natural tendency to ignore and discard all reminders of the previous colonial power.  The book went out of print, and Mrs Doggett herself only has a few copies left.

When Times Book International decided on a second edition, it was a chance for Mrs Doggett to revise and update not only the text, but to add pictures hitherto unused from her store of original negatives, still in good condition after nearly 30 years.

The result:  a nostalgic picture book of public buildings, places of worship, schools, hotels, private homes, the old Chinatown and the Singapore River.

For her only son, Nicholas, 25, and part of the new generation of Singaporeans, it is a means of getting acquainted with the past, with the history that is reflected in the architecture and the lifestyle of another age.

When she first started taking those pictures, she could not have guessed that, one day, many of them would make their way into the archives.  For in their eagerness to build the new Singapore, few bothered to record for posterity the buildings that would be torn down.  It seemed apposite, when she was casting around for a title, that the phrase “character of light” in Raffles’ speech at the laying of the foundation stone of Raffles Institution should come to mind.

But now, a century and a half later, the monuments which Raffles hoped would endure long after the waning of the British empire are no more than dust.

“Fullerton Building and the Victoria Memorial Hall,” landmarks on the southern coast, are now lost to view amidst a virtual forest of multi-storey office blocks in what has become the business centre of the city, and many of the buildings described in the book have fallen under the axe of progress.”

Still, it is not the past that commands her attention.  “Singapore has miraculously survived and flourished.  If, at times, one is apt to dislike some of the inevitable effects of progress, perhaps this is merely a sign of an older generation resenting change,” she said.

Recognising that the future lies with the new generation, she added:  “I hope that these young people will work out some agreement between the conflicting policies of conservation and development, retain some of the atmosphere of old Singapore, and find time to savour occasionally the nostalgia of a past era (because) historical value cannot be counted in economic terms.”

Excerpts of the book “Character of Light” by Marjorie Doggett

In the research for this blog to search for the book at many bookshops but was told that its like searching a needle in haystack, so to speak.  Bookshops would only carry books which customers are interested to buy, not old books exclusively for readers of nostalgia.

Fortunately, I was able to find a copy of “Character of Light” at the Reference Section of the National Library.  The book is not for loan outside the library.   With the courtesy of National Library Board, excerpts of this “treasure” to share on this blog.


Singapore is such an interesting place, so little understood outside and so little appreciated inside, that it really is worth writing about.”

ROLAND BRADDELL, The Lights of Singapore

This book makes no pretence to be a technical work on Colonial architecture, but is produced in the hope that it may be of some help of those who are interested in the short but fascinating history of Singapore.

Isolated names of the old pioneers often make little impression, but when one can visit the places where they lived and worked, and imagine the scene as they must have known it, both buildings and people come alive and assume an added attraction.

It is for this reason that I have written at times at greater length on the residents than on the actual building itself, for to me a building remains like a cold stone monument unless it is possible to visualise the sort of person who constructed it and live in it.  One learns of the scenes of happiness or sorrow enacted within its walls and it is then, in one’s imagination, that the house assumes its atmosphere.

I do hope that the succeeding pages will convey something of the pleasure, and nostalgia too, which I have found in their compilation, and will evoke a faint echo of the life and times of old Singapore.

To all the people who have so kindly given information, and permission for me to take photographs, I am most grateful.  My especial thanks must go to Dr. C. A. Gibson-Hill, an elusive but inexhaustible source of knowledge who first inspired a fascinatin search; to Mr. Lincoln Page, A.R.I.B.A, and Mr T. H. H. Hancock, A.R.I.B.A., for their helpful advice; to the Rev. Canon R. K. S. Adams for time so freely given; and last, but not least, to my husband without whose assistance his book would not have been possible.

MARJORIE DOGGETT, Singapore, December, 1955.

Assembly House

The dates back to 1827 when it was built by G. D. Coleman for a merchant, John Argyle Maxwell.  It was never used as a residence, but was leased to the Government for use as a Court House and Offices, and finally purchased by them in 1841.  The building was extended in 1873-75 and again at the beginning of the present century, so that it is now difficult to visualise the original structure, although the arches inside the porch, so distinctive of nearly all Coleman’s work in Singapore, remain as he built them.

The bronze elephant standing in front of the main entrance was erected in 1872 to commemorate the visit to Singapore of the King of Siam in 1871; it originally stood in front of the old Town Hall.

Entrance to Assembly House (photo below).



The Supreme Court and City Hall

A private house originally occupied the present site of the Supreme Court and City Hall.  This house was built by G. D. Coleman in about 1830 and was occupied firstly by Mr James Clarks and later by Mr. Edward Boustead, the founder of the commercial firm which still bears his name.  The house became the main building of the London Hotel when Mr. Dutronquoy moved there from Colemkan Street in 1845, was later called the Hotel de l’Esperance and finally, in 1865, became the well-known Hotel de l’Europe when Mr. Casteleyns, the proprietor, transferred himself and his signboard from his premises in Beach Road.  At that time, the Court House stood where Assembly House is today.

The City Hall was designed by a Municipal Architect, the late Mr. A. Gordon, and was built in 1926-29.


Raffles Museum and Library

The origins of a Singapore Library and Museum date from April, 1823, when
Sir Stamford Raffles held a meeting to consider the establishment of a Malayan College in Singapore. This college, the Raffles Institution of today, and then known as the Singapore Institution, acquired a small collection of books, and, though these could be borrowed by anyone on payment of a very small fee, it never developed ino much more than a school library. The Museum never apppears to have been stared at all, probably due to lack of funds, and perhaps, internet.


The Victoria Theatre and Memorial Hall

The old Assembly Rooms, which had been designed by McSwiney in about 1848, and which were situated at the foot of Fort Canning opposite Whampoa’s Ice House, were falling into a bad state of repair by 1854. It was decided at a meeting of the Trustees that instead of repairing the old building, they should build a new and larger hall to satisfy the needs of the growing Settlement.

They gave up their old building to the Government, on the understanding that the new hall would be erected by a Municipal Committee; this Committee agreed to double the amount of money given by public subscription towards the building.

The site chosen was that of the present Victoria Theatre and the foundation stone was laid by the Governor, Col. W.J. Butterworth, on March 17th, 1855. The cost of building proved to be much greater than the original estimate, and, after various difficulties had been overcome, such as that created by the timber contractor, who vanished after receiving an advance part-payment, the hall was finally completed in 1862, Mr John Clunis superintending its construction. The design, highly esteemed at the time, was by Mr. John Bennett.

The Memorial Hall was built as a memorial to Queen Victoria. Various suggestions were received as to what form this memorial should take, but at a meeting in May, 1901, the Hall was finally agreed upon by all.


Goodwood Park Hotel

The “nut and bolt” columns proclaim the architect, R. A. J. Bidwell of Swan and MacLaren.

Originally built as the Teutonia Club (the tower at that time boasting a short spice) it was opened on September 21st, 1900, with a gala ball. The Teutonia Club was established in 1856 and the members were responsible, amongst other activities for forming the earliest musical society in Singapore. Looking back over a century to the year 1856, the year of Schumann’s death, it does perhaps seem appropriate that the German community should have been the first to introduce the music of the great European masters to the Colony.

After the war the building was taken over for use as a hotel, apart from a short period immediately following the Japanese surrender when it was
used as a War Crimes Court.


Telephone House, Hill Street

Mr Bennett Pell was the first owner of a small private telephone system, which the Oriental Telephone Company bought in 1882. The exchange, which had been in Paterson Simons and Company’s offices in Prince Street, was removed by them in 1898 to Robinson Road. The company transferred to a central exchange in Hill Street in 1907, their building being designed by Mr. Bidwell, who had joined Swan and MacLaren in 1895.

Mr Bidwell originally came out to Selangor, where under Mr. E. C. Spooner, he designed the public offices in Kuala Lumpur, which no doubt accounts for the reappearance of the Saracenic motif in this unique building in Singapore.


H.M. Prison, Outram Road

The foundation stone of the oldest block was laid in February, 1847 and was built by Capt. Faber had a rather unfortunate career in Singapore, his previous undertakings – a bridge, a landing place and a market – all more or less disintegrasting of their own accord soon after being built.  Mount Faber is named after him.

The gaol was extended in 1879 from designs prepared by Major J. F. A.  McNair.  It might be interesting to mention that Major McNair, Executive Engineer and Superintendent of Convicts, learned photography while in England in 1861 so that he could photograph the convicts for identification purposes.   It was quite common for ladies and gentlement of that time to visit the gaol to be photographed by the major.

The first gaol in Singapore was for transported Indian convicts and was situated in Queen Street.  The first gaol for local felons, built about 1823, occupied the site of the present Central Police Station in South Bridge Road.












Collyer Quay

The land on which Collyer Quay is built was all reclaimed from the sea, the shoreline in the early days of Singapore taking a route which would now lead approximately through the centre of the Padang, across Fullerton Building, along the centre of the buildings standing on the south side of Raffles Place to Finlayson Green, where it turned even farther inland to continue just in front of Telok Ayer Street to Tanjong Pagar and Keppel Harbour.

Col. George Chancellor Collyer, after whom the quay is named, arrived in Singapore in 1858 to reconstruct the fortifications of the town.  He was appointed Chief Engineer.  He made plans for a new sea-wall, to extend from Johnston’s Pier to the old Telok Ayer market, but left Singapore in 1862 before this was completed.

By the end of 1861 the sea-wall was almost finished, the foundations having had to be proceeded with at fortnightly intervals in over a foot of water in ordinary tides.  The land behind, where a road and godowns were to be built, had to be gradually filled in, and this was not finished until 1864.

By 1806 nearly all the buildings along the sea front were constructed; they had godowns on the ground floors and ofices above, and must have presented a scene similar to that which can be seen even today along Boat Quay, with merchandise being unloaded straight from the boats into the warehouses.  From the wooden verendahs of the offices, the merchants would watch through telescopes for the ships to arrive, and great was the excitement and bustle as the boat drew alongside.

Some of the original buildings of 1864 are still standing on Collyer Quay today.  One of these is Shell House, and in the tower of the building can be seen a small door which, in those early days, was used for hauling up merchandise to the first floor.

Another original building extends from Collyer Quay up Prince Street.  This was the offices of Paterson Simons and Company and the first home of the Telephone Company.

A third building dating from these times is the office of Nassim and Company.  Originally two storeys high, a third floor was added in about 1880, and at a later date the building was refaced, and some of the wooden verandahs were removed, those remaining now being seen along De Souza Street.

Johnston’s Pier, now demolished, was named after one of Singapore’s earliest citizens, Alexander Laurie Johnston, who arrived here in 1820 when the Colony was little more than uninhabited swamp and jungle.  He was one of the first magistrates to be appointed by Sir Stamford Raffles, the first Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, and his name figures prominently in all public affairs of that day.

He established the firm of A. L. Johnston and Company, the pioneer mercantile firm of Singapore, and he become one of the most esteemed merchants in the country.  His premises were situated where Whiteway’s stands today, and were then at the mouth of the Singapore River.  He retired to Scotland in 1841, and, when he died in 1850, left a generous donation in his will to Raffles Institution.  His premises were moved in 1848 to the site of the present Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank.

At the time that Johnston’s Pier and Clifford Pier stood almost side by side, they were known as “Old” Johnston’s Pier and “New” Johnston’s Pier separately, and there was quite a public outcry in the papers when the new pier was given its present name.  It does seem rather a pity that Johnston’s name should have been lost as Singapore with the demolition of his old pier.

It was to Johnston & Co., that Charles Burton Buckley was appointed when he came to Singapore in 1864.  Buckley, “C. B.” to his friends, was for ever generous and warm-harted, a man perhaps best remembered by the children of his day for whom he did so much.  During his forty-eight years’ residence he collected the information which forms his History of Singapore from its foundation to the time when it was transferred to the Colonial Office in 1867.

This was a labour of love, his sole reward being a great discovery during his researches – that of recovering the original Treaty made between Sir Stamford Raffles and the Temenggong of Johore on February 6th, 1819, which authorised the original Settlement as a British dependency .   In 1912 Buckley paid what was intended to be a short visit to England but the old man contracted a chill and died, far from the land he loved and had served so selflessly.

Corner of Prince Street … Prince Street, once leading to Raffles Place, no longer exists.  In its place is a cul-de-sac leading to the car-park of the new Ocean Building to its left.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s