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The Rafflesian 1979: The Early History of Raffles Institution

© The article was written for The Rafflesian, 1979
© Charles Seet, 4ASc


As Rafflesians, it is befitting that we know and appreciate the effort and work done by our predecessors in establishing and keeping up the name of the school. Here is thus a brief article on the early years of the institution:

Education was recognised by Raffles as one of the first needs of his new Settlement. His minute 'On the establishment of a Malay College at Singapore'; although not publicly read till 1823, is in his memoirs dated 1819.

Both the British and the Native Races would benefit from 'An Institution of the nature of a native college, under the immediate control and superintendence of the Government'.

Here is the first mention of the name 'Institution'; but from 1819 (despite Raffles’ efforts) it remained only a name. Meanwhile, Raffles sought to interest influential natives and Europeans in Education. In particular he endeavoured, as a temporary measure, to persuade the Sultan and Temenggong to send the young native Princes to study in Bengal. But prejudice and jealousy were too strong for him. About a month later he called a meeting of local dignitaries and, agreement having been reached on the desirability of local education, he opened a subscription list.


Raffles and the East India Company put down subscriptions of $2,000, and after some persuasion, the Sultan and Temenggong each gave $1,000. Other liberal subscriptions followed, the total being $17,000.

In 1823, the original plan was for Anglo-Chinese College from Malacca to be transferred to Singapore and united with the proposed Malay College, under the general name of ‘Singapore Institution’. This was, of course, never carried out. Raffles was now entering his last few weeks in Singapore. His time was short and crowded; his educational project had been long frustrated although he was determined to complete his work before his departure. On the 14th of April he wrote, 'It (The rearing and establishing of an Institution at Singapore) will be my last public act'; and next day, the 15th, the first meeting of the appointed trustees took place.

How evidently the spirit and inspiration of Raffles dominated that meeting! He had already chosen a building site; for we find the trustees reporting:

'It appears that the funds of the Institution are already sufficient to authorise the commencement of the necessary buildings, and an advantageous site for the same is fixed upon and the Lieutenant-Governor intimates his intention of authorising a grant of land without delay.' He now went further and announced his desire to endow each of the colleges with an appropriation of land at Singapore to the extent of 500 acres, independently of 100 acres attached to Institution Hill already allotted to them'.

Well might Raffles feel gratified at that day's work! Had the work of the 15th of April been followed up by his successors in a like spirit, the early history of the Institution would make a less melancholy study.

Two days later, Raffles drew a message to Dr Wallice:

'I trust in God this Institution may be the means of civilizing and bettering the conditions of millions; it has not been hastily entered nor have its possible advantages been over-rated.

Our field is India beyond the Ganges, including the Malay Archipelago, Australasia, China, Japan and the islands of the Pacific Ocean by far the most populous half of the world…Would that I could infuse into the Institution a portion of that spirit and soul by which I would have it animated as easily as I endow it with lands! It is my last public act; and rise or fall, it will always be a satisfactory reflection that I have always done my best towards it.'

The foundation-stone of the Institution was laid by Raffles on the 5th of June, 1823, four days before his final departure from Singapore. This institution ground extended inland to present Victoria Street and was bounded by what is now Beach Road; Bras Basah Road and Stamford Road.

Prior to reclamation, the Institution was close to the sea front. The actual foundation ceremony took place at six o'clock of a June morning in the presence of the whole European and Malay population; a stone box with coins sealed and set beneath the door, and Raffles pronounced the name "Institution'. Building started immediately and during the building operations three Chinese workmen fell from a broken scaffolding and were dashed to death. Was this an omen that the original structure was doomed to desolation? At about 1830, the building was uncompleted and left as derelict. It had not been completed for 12 years.

The spirit of educational enterprise seemed to have departed with our founder. According to current reports the construction of the original building (which was in the design of a cross) was faulty, the roof weak, the accommodation ill-adapted for school purposes and the situation inconvenient.

So far from attracting students from Siam and China, we find that the Institution was considered too far away even for residents in Singapore to send their children! In short, for more than a decade, it was never used as a school. It became notorious as a resort for thieves. This unfinished ruin became so well known as the Singapore Institution that the state felt the disgrace of the derelict structure. Various proposals were made to abandon the plan of the founder; to convert the building into a church; into a Town Hall; into a public library.


The history of the Institution founded by Stamford Raffles in a sense ends here. By 1836, his educational project was dead. What follows is really the history of an external education scheme - replacing the original; an external body occupying the institution properties, and gradually adopted as the "Institution" itself. 

On the 1st August 1834 a 'Singapore School' had been opened in a little attap building at the Fort Canning end of High Street under the headmastership of J. H. Moor. It was supported mainly by public subscription. In the first report on these Singapore schools in 1834, we find them referred to somewhat prematurely as 'The Institution'.

The actual facts seem to have been that the Committee of the Singapore Schools was negotiating for the occupation of the Institution Building, their High Street premises being described as 'the old and temporary house lent by Government for the purpose of a school.' Evidently, something was at last being done.

The second report of the Singapore Schools shows that the matter had gone a step further. The Committee was granted government allowance for one year 'towards the completion of the Raffles Institution', and later they allude to the time 'when the schools are removed to the building originally designed for the Singapore Institution'. The building which Mr. G. D. Colemen completed formed the nucleus of the old school building. The building was actually first used as a school in December 1837. A notice was then circulated throughout the ports of Malaya, Borneo arid Celebes in an unsuccessful effort to attract students, and in 1837, a bust of Raffles was presented to the School.

The completed building was also the home of the Singapore Library for many years. In 1838 an attap shed was put up for play, and a gymnasium, five courts and a quoit ground. In 1844 part of the premises was allotted to the newly opened Girls' School; a well was dug in 1845. In the fifties and sixties, the trustees had a desperate struggle, owing to the continual shortage of funds to prevent the buildings from falling into complete decay. Once they were warned that 'several leaks exist in the building, which had been repeatedly flooded in the late heavy rains'.

One imagines that the pupils must have had many extra holidays when the school was underwater. The trustees had so hard a time finding funds for repairs, that in 1855 it was even proposed to sell the school and its grounds and build elsewhere, but fortunately, the proposal was abandoned. Government eventually relieved them of a great burden of financial worry by undertaking it in 1874 to keep the buildings in repair.

As for the school's headmasters, Mr Moor was its first and deserves more than the passing notice of Rafflesians. He had made his name both as an educationist and journalist, for before he was headmaster, he was editor of the Singapore Chronicle and Singapore Free Press. The annual School reports of the ensuing years tell a tale of steady progress under his guidance. The number of students increased from less than 50 in 1834 to nearly 200 in 1843, the largest increase being in the English section of the school.

His sudden death in May, 1843 was a great loss. An acknowledgement took the form of a very generous public subscription which provided comfortably for his widow and family.

The 'Moor Fund' was an item in the Institution accounts for many years. Mr Moor was succeeded for a few months by Rev. J.T. Dickenson who had joined the school as second master in 1840, but unfortunately ill-health necessitated his return to America in September 1843.

The next Headmaster was Mr John Colson Smith, who remained in charge for nine years. He resigned in 1852, and a Reverend W.B. Wright became headmaster in 1852. He had previously been a missionary in Sarawak. For five years he worked ably. The 1854-5 report states that he was the originator of instruction in drawing in the institution, that the school excelled in penmanship, and that the upper classes generally showed a marked advance. He resigned in 1857 to undertake chaplain's duties in Malacca.

Mr J.B. Bayley arrived on 20th March, 1857. Year after year the trustees congratulated the Headmaster on his zeal and ability. His two years' leave of absence (1866-7) was referred to by them as 'a serious ordeal to be undergone by a school'. He retired in 1870. Mr. Bayley was our last Headmaster.

In an effort to approximate the Institution more to the designs of its founder, a momentous decision was arrived at in 1870 which resulted in the creation of the post of 'Principal' and the arrival of'a graduate with First Class Honours of an English University' (Cambridge) to fill it. The graduate referred to was of course, Mr R.W. Hullett, our first Principal. For thirty-six years Mr Hullett played a leading part in Singapore education and he is remembered with affection and respect by many Rafflesians. He was Principal till 1906 and saw the transference of the Institution from the Trustees to the Government. Mr Hullett died in 1914. His name was perpetuated by the Hullett scholarships and by Hullet Road.

The difficult task of following Mr Hullett's footsteps fell to Mr C. M. Phillips. Mr Phillips did work with equal sincerity but his length of service too, fell short of that of his predecessor. The Principal had to contend with rapid changes of the staff; Raffles Institution being used apparently as a clearing-station for officers of the Education Department! During the First World War, Mr Phillips inevitably lost all his European staff; and his work in those difficult days and in the post-war reorganisation was a fitting conclusion to a long and useful career. Mr Phillips retired in 1921, and his portrait was presented to the Institution.

We shall now leave the History of Principals to come back to the school properties. It is a startling and melancholy thought that Raffles Institution might well have been one of the richest schools in the world! At the foundation considerable areas of land were allotted for its maintenance - lands of which, with the passage of a century, have increased in value a hundredfold.

Three separate grants of lands, on 999-year leases were apparently made to the Institution by Raffles in 1823, as provision for the security and development of his educational plans.

These were:

1) The original school site, bounded by what are now Beach Road, Bras Basah Road, Victoria Street and Stamford Road.

2) An area of 100 acres near River Valley Road, including Institution Hill.

3) Three separate lots of 500 acres of uncleared ground -- a total of 1500 acres in the Tanglin District.


The entire stretch of ground from Beach Road inland to Victoria Street remained in the possession of the Trustees until 1840; when, being in urgent need of money to complete a new wing to the Institution, they disposed of the block of land now occupied mainly by the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus.

The second of Raffles' grants, namely the 100 acres including Institution Hill, met with a more unfortunate fate. Public auction had to be resorted to, and on 7th April, the property was knocked down for a sum of $225.

Then, this was considered a high price, but had the school been able to retain it, what would have been its worth now? There remains to tell the fate of the third, and Raffles' greatest Grant - the extensive stretch of uncleared ground in the Tanglin District, a total of 1500 acres. The early loss of these lands was the main cause of poverty of the Institution in the middle of the last century.

It appears that in February, 1827, the Resident-Councillor, Mr Prince, reclaimed these lands from the hands of the Trustees, upon authority of a notice which read:

'All persons who have failed in fulfilling the terms of their original contract to clear and build on the land so bestowed, are required to complete their engagements on or before the 1st of May, next, in default of which the lands of such description will be resumed by, and revert to the Honourable Company as Proprietors of the soil'.

The Supreme Court went against him but could do nothing about it. The conscience of the Government was troubled and there shortly afterwards began to appear annually in the accounts of the Institution a Government 'Fixed Grant' of some seven or eight thousand dollars.

Such was the passing of Raffles' endowments!
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