Indian Contribution in the Founding of Saint Andrew's Church, Singapore

Compiled by Michael Poon

Return to Anglican Sources on SE Asia

See also A Historical Note on William Topley Humphrey ; Saint Andrew's Church

Background on the Convicts from India (Extracts from McNair, J. F. A. and W. D. Bayliss, Prisoners their own Warders. A Record of the Convict Prison at Singapore in the Straits Settlements established 1825, Discontinued 1893, together with a cursory history of the Convict establishments at Bencoolen, Penang and Malacca from the Year 1797. Westminster: Archibald Constable and Co., 1899, 38-39, vi)

On the 18th of April, 1825, the first batch of convicts transported from India to Bencoolen were transfered from there to Singapore. They arrived in the brig Horatio, and consisted of 80 convicts transported from Madras, of whom 73 males and 1 female were for life, and 6 male convicts on short sentences. (38-39)

When this old Singapore jail was put an end to in 1873, some six years after the transfer of the Straits Settlements to the Crown, the convicts then under confinement were removed to the Andaman Islands, at that time not long established as a penal settlement for India; while those on a ticket-Of-leave were permitted to merge into the population, continuing to earn their livelihood as artisans, cow keepers, can drivers, and the like. Those who were old and infirm were retained at Singapore at the expense of the Indian Government and a certain number of convicts from Hongkong were returned to that colony to complete their sentences. (vi)

The first church building (McNair, 45)

Mr. Coleman was no mean architect. It was he who desgined the first church for Singapore. It was erected on the site where the present cathedral stands. It as completed in 1837, and consecrated in September 1838, but was opened for service on the 18th June, 1837, by the first chaplain appointed from Bengal, the Rev. Edmund White. (See Bonham's letter of 11 August 1838 to Bishop Daniel Wilson). Indian convicts were employed in the erection of this church, chiefly as labourers as they were also at the public buildings which were erected about this time notably the first extension of the Raffles Institution and its museum. (45)

Macpherson's Design of the new Church (McNair, 71-72, 98-100)

When Captain Man went to Malacca as Resident Councillor, Captain Ronald Macpherson, of the Madras Artillery, succeeded him as Superintendent of Convicts, Singapore, and carried on the works in progress at the time. This was in the year 1855. The most prominent work commenced by the convicts in his time and subsequently carried to completion was the erection of the new church now the cathedral of the diocese. It must be acknowledged that it was a courageous act on the part of Captain Macpherson to have designed a church in the early English style of architecture, and to have pledged himself to the Government that he would undertake to construct it wholly by convict labour. We think it showed both confidence in himself and in his convict workpeople, and nothing could more clearly have proved to what perfection their skilled labour had advanced than that he felt himself able to embark on so elaborate a work.

It was in May of this year, 1855, that the Bengal Government approved of the project, and sanctioned the expenditure in cash of 47,000 rupees upon its construction. The Bishop of Calcutta laid the foundation stone during the next year before a large concourse of the merchants and residents of the place. (71-72)

In preparing the designs of this ecclesiastical edifice Colonel Macpherson had to select as simple and easy a form of architecture as he could, and with as little ornament as possible, and therefore within the capacity of his workpeople; so he chose the Gothic, or rather, we should say, the Early English style of about the 12th century, and in so doing he said he had somewhat reproduced the character of old Netley Abbey.

Colonel Macpherson had seen as a young man the ruins of the old church and abbey of Netley, or ”Letley,” as it was originally called from the Latin word laetus,” pleasant and the Saxon word “ley,” a field, and had been so impressed with the simple character and proportions of the Early English style church architecture, of which this was an excellent example, that when called upon to plan a new church for Singapore, he, as we say, chose this as his model.

We have a very good account of Netley Abbey given in 1848 by George Guillaume, architect and from his description it was founded in 1239, and was occupied by monks of the Cistercian order, who were brought over from a neighbouring monastery at Beaulieu in the New Forest where there was already an abbey dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Netley Church was built on a cruciform plan, and was proportioned according to the ancient mysterious figure called the “Visica Pisces” as will be seen in the sketch below from his work.

Singapore Church now as we have said, the cathedral of the diocese has been much admired for its true symmetry and exact proportion as well as for the delicate simplicity of its details.

He laid the foundations, and saw it built up to about three feet above the ground, and then left for Malacca to take up the appointment of Chief Civil Officer there and was therefore not able further to see the progress of the work that he had inspired. His plans, however were carefully followed by his successor with the exception, as has already been said, of substituting aspire for a tower owing to undue settlement at the tower end.

As a pattern for the convicts to follow, we built two arches on the ground the exact counterpart of those in the building; and, indeed, at an time when they wanted a guide, we had a model made and the natives of India are such wonderful imitators, as we all know, that they soon were able to follow the copy we had given them. So the work progressed from day to day, until it was ultimately finished in 1862. We found that the skill of the convicts never failed them, and their capacity as builders and carpenters never seemed to slack

In dealing with the interior walls and columns we used what is well known though little employed with us in England “Madras chunam” from shell lime without sand; but with this lime we had whites of eggs and coarse sugar, or “jaggery,” beaten together to form a sort of paste, and mixed with water in which the husks of cocoanuts had been steeped. The walls and columns were plastered with this composition, and after a certain period for drying, were rubbed with rock crystal or rounded stone until they took a beautiful polish, being occasionally dusted with fine soapstone powder, and so leaving a remarkably smooth and glossy surface. (98-100)

F. G. Bonham's Letter to Bishop Daniel Wilson on the Completion of the Church Building, from Frank G Swindell, A Short History of S. Andrew’ Cathedral Singapore. Singapore: Malaya Tribune Press,1929, 16.

11th August 1838

To the Right Reverend Father in God, Daniel Lord Bishop of Calcutta and Metropolitan of India.

My Lord,

In my official capacity as Governor of the Straits I beg leave to inform your Lordship that the Church at Singapore, begun under your auspices in 1834, is now completed, and has been for some time opened for the celebration of Public Worship according to the Rites and u8agesof the Church of England.

I have further to assure your Lordship that if you should feel at liberty to consecrate and set apart the said church, the local Government of the Straits will afford all the aid to protect, and keep and appropriate it for the purpose for which it was erected, which the peculiar circumstances of this Settlement will allow.

I have the honour to be,


Yours obedient servant,


Governor of P. of Wales Island, Singapore, and Malacca

Gladwin's Appeal in 1854 from Frank G Swindell, A Short History of S. Andrew’ Cathedral Singapore. Singapore: Malaya Tribune Press,1929, 18-19.

The Rev. C. H. B. Gladwin shortly after his appointment in 1854 complained of the old and useless convicts attached as labourers at the church, and made a proposal to the Government.

The Resident Councillor replied:-

“Most of your predecessors have scupulously abstained from interfering with the Burial ground and the church compound; if however you will take upon yourself the trouble and responsibility of maintaining the grounds in a clean and orderly state, much benefit will, I think, accrue therefrom. Convicts will of course be periodically supplied s at present, should the coolies etc., attached to the church be insufficient for the purpose”.

The same letter stated that the plans of the new church had been approved.

Note on Netley Abbey, from Nikolaus Pevsner, Hampshire. The Buildings of England Series. London : Penguin, 1967.

Netley was a Cistercian house. Monks came from Beaulieu and moved in, in 1239. In 1251 Henry III declared himself patron, and his name appears on the base of the north east crossing tower. So work no doubt began in the 1240s.

As one approaches the site, the impression is curiously domestic, for reasons which will soon be explained. It is best to walk through at once to the CHURCH at the far end and start in its chancel, since almost without exception building started at the east end of the church in the Middle Ages. Netley has a straight east end with a spectacular east window. This is a Westminster Abbey chapter house motif (c1245-53) and seems improbable here as early as in the Abbey. However, Netley was a royal job, and the King’s Mason may well have been responsible here as at Westminster. The window has an inner surround which is richly and finely moulded. Otherwise, however, all the windows are just lancets, and in the aisles even pairs under a round arch.

All these arrangements can be seen much more vividly in the south transept. The north transept has vanished. The south transept has an east aisle, and here the rib-vaults have stiff-leaf bosses. The arches are triple-chamfered. A doorway leads from the transept into the sacristy, another, at first floor level, led to the dormitory. A third doorway goes into the cloister.

The nave. Of the arcade piers we have nothing, less even than of the crossing piers, where at least the base tells something of the distribution of responds. The aisle windows on the south side are placed higher up than those on the north, because of the cloister walk. One important change of detail must be noted: the groups of lancets now have pointed trefoiled heads. Also the aisle west windows have cusped Y-tracery. So the year 1300 must have been reached. At the top of the south aisle wall brick courses appear, and this is a reminder that at the Reformation Sir William Paulet, later first Marquis of Winchester, was granted Netley Abbey and converted it to a house. His hall was in the nave, and a typical C16 doorway indeed leads into the nave from the south. “The ranges round the CLOISTER are fairly well recognisable. The cloister is now lawn. The cloister walks have all gone entirely. Of the west range we have the east wall, one complete apartment at the south end, and to the north of this a C14 entry (ogee-headed windows) with a C15 porch nearly all gone. Here was the KITCHEN (brick chimneys) and then the REFECTORY. This ran north-south in the Cistercian way and is not preserved. Instead we have Sir William’s porch. It led into the cloister by another doorway. Sir William must have treated the cloister as his spacious inner courtyard.

When a Mr Westall recorded Netley Abbey in 1828 the ruins were embedded in trees. It must have been a wonderful site, but the Ministry of Public Works [1967] are rightly concerned with making the ruins instructive and their neat, landscape does that and has its own attraction. It is right and proper to leave Odiham Castle rough and picturesque: at Netley there is too much to learn, and intellectual pleasures have their privileges side by side with visual ones.

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