Singapore Institution Library (1837–1844)

Singapore Infopedia


The Singapore Institution Library grew from a vision, by Sir Stamford Raffles, for an educated Singapore. Upon the founding of Singapore, one of Raffles’s early initiatives was the setting up of an institution of learning and along with it, the means to collect and preserve the treasures of the region. This was the genesis of the National Library, with its history closely tied to that of the Singapore Institution (present-day Raffles Institution) and the National Museum. The library remained a part of the Singapore Institution until 1845, when calls for a public library led to the formation of the Singapore Library.1

Historical development
On 1 April 1823, Raffles called for a meeting to consider the setting up of a Malayan college, a process which included transferring the Anglo-Chinese College in Malacca to Singapore. The proposal was supported by Dr Robert Morrison, a founder of the college and a noted missionary and educationist. The resulting birth of the Singapore Institution led to the call for a library and museum as “a means of diffusing knowledge” to Chinese and Malay students equally.2

This vision for education was supported by funding from various segments of new Singapore. Raffles himself contributed $2,000 from his personal funds, and the Sultan and the Temenggong each $1,000.3

On 15 April 1823, J. Maxwell, Secretary to the Board of Trustees, was put in charge of setting up the library and museum in the absence of Morrison, who was originally slated as the first librarian of the General Library. With Raffles’s hastened departure on 9 June 1823 due to illness, differences with the new Resident, John Crawfurd, and the apathy of the trustees, the drive for the establishment of an institution of learning and the library soon flagged.4

In 1836, the idea of a library and museum was revived when a memorial fund was set up to rebuild the Singapore Institution as Raffles had first envisioned it. The building was completed in 1837 and leased to the Singapore Free School. A room in the completed building was set aside for a library, named the Singapore Institution Library. Although a museum was proposed, it did not materialise. In 1839–40, the Singapore Institution and the Singapore Free School was merged to form the Singapore Institution Free School. By the late 1830s, it was reported that books were being circulated among the students at the school library. Although mainly a school library, with free access to students, teachers and donors to the Institution, lending privileges could be extended to the public for a monthly subscription of 25 cents. This was the start of Singapore’s first subscription library. By the early 1840s, the Singapore Institution Library was established as a recognised institution within the school.On 15 August 1844, the Committee of Management resolved the motion to establish a public library in Singapore, setting the stage for the formation of the Singapore Library.6

1 Apr 1823: Raffles calls for a meeting with Dr Robert Morrison, educationist and missionary, and Reverend Hutchings, chaplain at Penang. After the meeting, Raffles makes public his proposals for an institution of learning, which include a library and a museum.7
8 Apr 1823: The Singapore Institution obtains its lease for land along Victoria Street (known then as Rochore Street) and Bras Basah Road (known then as College Street).8
5 or 6 Jun 1823: Raffles lays the foundation stone for the Singapore Institution prior to his departure. However, the building remains incomplete as Lieutenant Philip Jackson had underestimated the cost of the effort to build the school.9
1 Jan 1836: The Monument Fund, in memory of Raffles, is established and the moneys channeled to complete the Institution which Raffles first conceived.10
May 1837: The Free Press reports that the building is nearing completion. The school is occupied and begins operation by the end of the year.11
12 Dec 1837: The Singapore Free School moves from High Street to the Institution. The library within this educational institution has over 350 volumes and its collection is highly utilised by students.12
30 Apr 1838: Ramasamy (sometimes spelt Ramsammy) Pillay is hired as a library assistant at $4 a month.13

Bonny Tan

1. Thomas Stamford Raffles, Minute by Sir T. S. Raffles on the Establishment of a Malay College at Singapore ([s.l.]: [s.n.], 1819), 17 (From BookSG); K. K. Seet, A Place for the People (Singapore: Times Books International, 1983), 5–18. (Call no. RSING 027.55957 SEE-[LIB])
2. Thomas Stamford Raffles, Formation of the Singapore Institution, A.D. 1823 (Malacca: Mission Press, 1823), 3–4, 50, 54. (From BookSG)
3. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 122 (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); Abdullah Abdul Kadir, The Hikayat Abdullah (Kuala Lumpur: The Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 2009), 181. (Call no. RSEA 959.5 ABD)
4. Seet, Place for the People, 8–9; Raffles, Formation of the Singapore Institution, 75, 101, 106; Sophia Raffles, Memoir of the Life and Public Services of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (London: John Murray, 1830), 540, 548–49 (From BookSG); Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 123–28; Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 429–32. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
5. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 129–32; Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 432, 521–24; Singapore Institution Free School, Sixth Annual Report (Singapore: Singapore Free Press Office, 1840), 3–6. (From BooKSG); “Report on the Singapore Institution Library,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 8 November 1838, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “The Free Press,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 15 August 1844, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Raffles, Formation of the Singapore Institution, 3–4, 50, 54; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 122; Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 519–21.
8. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 123–24.
9. E. Wijeysingha, The Eagle Breeds a Gryphon: The Story of the Raffles Institution 1823–1985 (Singapore: Pioneer Book Centre, 1989), 28, 33 (Call no. RSING 373.5957 WIJ); Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 429; Raffles, Memoir of the Life and Public Services, 549.
10. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 123–24; Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 432.
11. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 131.
12. Seet, Place for the People, 13–16; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 131; Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 432, 521.
13. Seet, Place for the People, 13; Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 523.

The information in this article is valid as at September 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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