Horsburgh Lighthouse

Singapore Infopedia

by Koh, Qi Rui Vincent, Chew, Valerie


Horsburgh Lighthouse, located at the eastern entrance to the Singapore Straits, is the oldest lighthouse in Singapore waters and the first in Southeast Asia to be built in granite masonry. It is situated on Pedra Branca, an island 54 km off the mainland of Singapore.1 The lighthouse is named after the eminent navigator and hydrographer, Captain James Horsburgh, and has been in operation since 15 October 1851.2

For centuries, the waters around Pedra Branca were extremely dangerous to navigate due to the treacherous rocks and reefs here. The difficulty of sailing through this hazardous area was noted by early Portuguese travellers and recorded in 1583 by Dutch voyager John Huyghen van Linschoten. Between 1824 and 1851, at least 16 large vessels were lost in the area. The high number of ships that ran aground attracted pirates to the area, which further increased the danger of navigating these waters.3

In 1836, an initial step to address this danger was suggested, following the death of distinguished hydrographer Captain James Horsburgh. Described as “The Nautical Oracle of the World”, Horsburgh had created various surveys and charts of the Eastern seas and his India Directory was a crucial guide to sailing these waters. On 22 November 1836, a public meeting was held at Markwick’s Hotel in Canton (now known as Guangzhou), China, where it was decided that building a lighthouse on Pedra Branca would be the best way to pay tribute to Horsburgh. Fundraising for the project commenced immediately.4

By 8 January 1837, a total of 4,191 Spanish dollars had been collected, mainly from merchants and ship captains and officers.5 In April 1842, Jardine, Matheson & Co, as treasurers of the building fund, offered to hand over the whole sum of slightly over 5,500 Spanish dollars for the purpose of constructing the lighthouse.6

Two years later, the governor of the Straits Settlements, Colonel William J. Butterworth, asked Captain Edward Belcher to carry out a survey of the area and recommend a site for the lighthouse. In his report submitted in October 1844, Belcher identified Peak Rock, a short distance to the west-northwest of Pedra Branca, as the most suitable location. Plans and cost estimates for a lighthouse on Peak Rock were then prepared by government surveyor John Turnbull Thomson in November 1844 and sent to the Admiralty and the India House for approval. However, the replies sent by the Admiralty and the India House in April and May 1846, respectively, advised against building the lighthouse on Peak Rock as it was deemed too far inside the Straits to be effective as a safeguard to help navigators avoid the various dangers. At the same time, Pedra Branca was recommended as the better site for the proposed lighthouse.7 On 21 June 1847, Thomas Church, the Resident Councillor of Singapore, instructed Thomson to submit plans and cost estimates for a lighthouse on Pedra Branca.8

Preparatory work
On 1 November 1847, before the onset of the northeast monsoon, Thomson put up brick pillars on various parts of Pedra Branca to test the force of the waves. Upon returning to the island on 1 March 1848, he found that all the brick pillars on the north side of Pedra Branca, some of which were 13 ft (4 m) above sea level, had been swept away. This was proof to Thomson that a brick building would be inadequate and that the outer walls of the lighthouse had to be built with granite “set in the best hydraulic cement”.9

Thomson’s design and costing for the lighthouse, submitted on 20 May 1848, was subsequently sent to the Court of Directors of the East India Company in England for approval. On 14 December 1849, Church wrote to Thomson to inform him that sanction had been granted and that he was to proceed with the project.10 The process of constructing the lighthouse would turn out to be a challenging one.

Initial construction
During the early part of 1850, while the northeast monsoon was still strong, Thomson took steps to procure the items and manpower needed for the project. First, he sought the help of Alan Stevenson, engineer to the Northern Lighthouse Board in Europe, to determine the most suitable type of light and to oversee the manufacture of the lantern and machinery. Next, Thomson engaged a Chinese contractor named Choa Ah Lam for the stonework and brickwork, and appointed John Bennett as the foreman. The vessels attached to the project comprised two gunboats, a lighter and a steamer for the transportation of men and materials. The gunboats also provided the necessary protection against pirates, who were active in the area at the time.11

Thomson’s original plan was to obtain the granite needed for the building from Pedra Branca itself. However, the contactor could not find enough stonecutters willing to do the job, citing concerns over exposure to the heat of the sun, the cramped working conditions, as well as the lack of fresh water for bathing. As such, Thomson decided to use granite from Pulau Ubin instead and deployed the workers there in February and March 1850 to quarry and dress the stones, which were to be transported to Pedra Branca later.12

The first group of workmen landed on Pedra Branca on 29 March, but the rough seas prevented the unloading of sufficient water and provisions, leading to these men having to be rescued from the island on 2 April. The second attempt on 12 April was successful and all workers had enough water for 10 days and one month’s supply of provisions.13

On 1 May 1850, the gunboat Nancy arrived to relieve Charlotte, the gunboat that had been assisting in the project since March. However, after experiencing a heavy squall, the commander and crew of Nancy refused to remain at their station off Pedra Branca. Mindful of the fact that the work crew depended on the gunboat for water and firewood, Thomson kept the problem under control until the mutineers were sent back to mainland Singapore and a new crew deployed.14

Thomson’s next challenge came in the form of an illness. Having been severely unwell for several days, Thomson left for mainland Singapore on 14 May 1850 to seek medical treatment. Without recovering fully, he returned to Pedra Branca on 21 May to prepare for the laying of the foundation stone, which had been scheduled to take place on 24 May 1850.15

Laying of the foundation stone
The date 24 May was chosen for the laying of the foundation stone because it coincided with the birthday of Queen Victoria. Upon the request of Governor Butterworth, a masonic ceremony was held for the occasion by the Brethren of Lodge Zetland in the East. From available records, Horsburgh Lighthouse is the first lighthouse in the world to have such a ceremony held at the laying of the foundation stone. The ceremony was carried out in the presence of Butterworth, Church, naval and military officers, merchants from Singapore as well as several foreign consuls.16

The foundation stone was laid at 1 pm.17 Under it, several items were deposited, including a copperplate that bore an inscription marking the event; some silver money; Statements of the Trade of the Straits Settlements and Statements of the Revenue and Charges; an original edition of Horsburgh’s India Directory; a copy each of the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, The Straits Times and the Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia,; and a plan of the Town of Singapore.18


In the Year of our Lord 1850
In the 13th year of the Reign of
Queen of Great Britain and Ireland,
The Most Noble
James Andrew Marquis of Dalhousie, K.T.
being Governor-General of British India,
The Foundation Stone,
of the Light-house to be erected at Pedra Branca
and dedicated to the Memory of the Celebrated
Hydrographer James Horsburgh, F.R.S.
was laid on the 24th day of May, the anniversary
of the Birth-day of Her Most Gracious Majesty,
by the
Worshipful Master M.F. Davidson, Esq.,
and the
Brethren of the Lodge Zetland in the East
No. 748.

In the presence of the Governor of the Straits
Settlements and many of the British and Foreign Residents of Singapore

J.T. Thomson,

Soon after the laying of the foundation stone, Thomson encountered yet another challenge. In early June, he discovered that the progress at Pulau Ubin had been exceptionally slow because the contractor Choa Ah Lam had delayed payment to the workers. Under pressure from Thomson to hasten the construction work, Choa absconded on 14 June 1850. Left with the responsibility of procuring the resources needed to bring the project back on track, Thomson managed to obtain the necessary men and materials, though with much difficulty and at a higher cost than anticipated.20

With the onset of the northeast monsoon in October, Thomson and the entire work crew left Pedra Branca on the 21st, after they had completed all that had to be done on the tower. Over the next few months, work on the rest of the materials for the lighthouse continued at Pulau Ubin and mainland Singapore, with the team returning to Pedra Branca only at the end of March 1851.21 Work progressed steadily and the tower was ready for the installation of the light by mid-June. Once the lantern, machinery and apparatus arrived in Singapore, they were quickly transported to Pedra Branca on 27 August. By 21 September, the dome was in place and the lantern was ready for operation.22

On 27 September, Governor Butterworth arrived at Pedra Branca to inspect the works. He was accompanied by Sir William Jeffcott, Recorder of the Straits Settlements; Colonel Messiter, the commander of the troops; and about 50 other guests, including several notable merchants. As the group left the island, they witnessed the first illumination of the lighthouse. The lighting was temporary as the lighthouse commenced permanent operations only on 15 October 1851. The lantern revolved by means of a clockwork mechanism and was lit using oil lamps, with the light flashing for five seconds every minute. A memorial tablet on the sixth floor of the lighthouse bore an inscription, in Latin and English, dedicating the lighthouse to Captain Horsburgh.23

The total cost of the lighthouse eventually came up to about 23,665 Spanish dollars. This was funded partly by the sum raised through public subscription; according to Thomson, this amounted to 7,411 Spanish dollars when it was handed over to the government in 1847. The rest of the construction cost was borne by the government.24

Inscriptionon memorial tablet

A.D. 1851
is raised by the enterprise of British Merchants,
and by the liberal aid of the East India Company,
to lessen the dangers of Navigation,
and likewise to hand down,
so long as it shall last,
in the scene of his useful labours,
The memory of the great Hydrographer,
whose name it bears.

Col. W.J. Butterworth, C.B.
Governor in the Straits of Malacca

J.T. Thomson

Subsequent improvements
Since the lighthouse commenced operations in 1851, there have been many improvements made. In 1887, a new optic was fitted that allowed the light to flash once every 10 seconds. The height of the lantern room had to be increased in order to accommodate this apparatus.26 At the same time, the white tower was repainted with alternating black and white bands.27 The light source was also upgraded in 1930, with the oil wick lamps replaced by a vapourised kerosene burner. This increased the light intensity from 103,000 candlepower to 154,500 candlepower.28

In 1947, an outhouse structure was built around the lighthouse base to give the lightkeeper crew more living space. To facilitate contact between the lighthouse and the Marine Department on mainland Singapore, the lighthouse was fitted with radio-telephone communication in 1950. In 1959, a radio direction-finding beacon and an aerial mast were added to the lighthouse to help ships in the region navigate the waters better. A standby radio direction-finding beacon with automatic changeover was fitted in 1962 in case the main transmitter failed.29

A set of electrically powered optic and light source was commissioned in 1963 and successfully installed in 1966. The dismantling of the old optic, vapourised kerosene burner and clockwork machinery, and the installation of the new optic and light bulbs took only two days. An electric bulb suspended inside the old optic provided the needed illumination, albeit at a lower intensity, during the replacement works. The new light, which had a significantly higher candlepower of 449,000, began operations on 30 April 1966. A backup system with automatic switchover was also in place in case of the failure of the optic drive motor or the lamp.30

In 1988, due to the difficulty of recruiting younger men to take over from the ageing lightkeepers, the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) installed solar panels to power the light and automated Horsburgh Lighthouse. The following year, a radar tower was installed on Pedra Branca as part of a new system to enhance the monitoring and managing of vessel traffic in the Straits. PSA also built a helipad in 1992 to facilitate access for maintenance purposes.31

Sovereignty dispute
In 1977, the Singapore government learnt that a Malaysian navy lieutenant had made inquiries about the status of Pedra Branca. The government then received word in April 1978 that a Malaysian foreign ministry official had claimed that Horsburgh Lighthouse belonged to Malaysia. In December 1979, Malaysia published a map that, for the first time, showed Pedra Branca as Malaysian territory. After years of diplomatic exchanges over this issue, both sides finally agreed in September 1994 to refer the dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).32

The construction, operation, maintenance and improvement of Horsburgh Lighthouse since 1851 by the British colonial government in Singapore and subsequently by the Singapore government was held up as a key point supporting Singapore’s claim of sovereignty over Pedra Branca. The Malaysian government, on the other hand, argued that Malaysia had possessed original title to the island since the 16th century and that Singapore had merely been a lighthouse operator there. While the ICJ agreed that Malaysia did have original title to Pedra Branca at the time that Horsburgh Lighthouse was built, it noted that title had passed to Singapore by 1980 by virtue of its activities with regard to the island and its surrounding waters since the mid-1950s. In May 2008, the court ruled that sovereignty over Pedra Branca belongs to Singapore.33


Koh Qi Rui Vincent & Valerie Chew

1. Norman Edwards and Peter Keys, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 480 (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA]); Percy Seneviratne, “Beacon That Shows the Way to S'pore,” Straits Times, 29 March 1973, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “Sentinel Which Points Way to China Sea,” Straits Times, 6 March 1932, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
3. J. A. L. Pavitt, First Pharos of the Eastern Seas: Horsburgh Lighthouse: A Chronicle (Singapore: Published for the Singapore Light Dues Board by Donald Moore Press, 1966), 1–2. (Call no. RSING 623.894 PAV)
4. Pavitt, First Pharos of the Eastern Seas, 2–3; Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 510. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
5. Pavitt, First Pharos of the Eastern Seas, 4, plate xiii.
6. “The Free Press,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 28 April 1842, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Pavitt, First Pharos of the Eastern Seas, 4–5; J. T. Thomas, “Account of the Horsburgh Light-House,” Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia 6 (July–August 1852): 390. (Call no. RCLOS 950.05 JOU)
8. Pavitt, First Pharos of the Eastern Seas, 5.
9. Pavitt, First Pharos of the Eastern Seas, 7–8.
10. Pavitt, Pavitt, First Pharos of the Eastern Seas, 11; The Horsburgh Light House,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 13 March 1902, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Pavitt, First Pharos of the Eastern Seas, 9, 11–12; Horsburgh Light House.”
12. Pavitt, First Pharos of the Eastern Seas, 12–13.
13. Pavitt, First Pharos of the Eastern Seas, 16–19; John Hall-Jones, The Horsburgh Lighthouse (Invercargill, N.Z.: John-Hall Jones, 1995), 18. (Call no. RSING 623.8942 HAL)
14. Pavitt, First Pharos of the Eastern Seas, 21–22.
15. Pavitt, First Pharos of the Eastern Seas, 22.
16. Pavitt, First Pharos of the Eastern Seas, 22–23; The Horsburgh Light–House,” Straits Times, 28 May 1850, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “Points Way to China Sea.”
18. Thomson, “Account of the Horsburgh Light-House,” 427–8.
19. Thomson, “Account of the Horsburgh Light-House,” 427–8.
20. Pavitt, First Pharos of the Eastern Seas, 33–34.
21. Pavitt, First Pharos of the Eastern Seas, 37–40.
22. Pavitt, First Pharos of the Eastern Seas, 42–43.
23. Pavitt, First Pharos of the Eastern Seas, 43–45, plate vii; The Free Press,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 3 October 1851, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Pavitt, First Pharos of the Eastern Seas, 45–46; Thomson, “Account of the Horsburgh Light-House,” 497; “Horsburgh Light House.”
25. Thomson, “Account of the Horsburgh Light-House,” 474.
26. Pavitt, First Pharos of the Eastern Seas, 47.
27. “Horsburgh Light House.”
28. Pavitt, First Pharos of the Eastern Seas, 47.
29. Pavitt, First Pharos of the Eastern Seas, 47–48.
30. Pavitt, First Pharos of the Eastern Seas, 48–50.
31. Michael Lim, “The Last of the Lighthouse Brigade,” Straits Times, 4 October 1987, 3; “PSA to Build Helicopter Landing Pad on Pedra Branca,” Straits Times, 9 October 1991, 3; Laurel Teo, “An Islet in the Storm,” Straits Times, 12 January 2003, 28. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Teo, “Islet in the Storm”; Zakir Hussain, “Pedra Branca: Behind the Scenes,” Straits Times, 20 December 2008, 26. (From NewspaperSG)
33. Hussain, “Pedra Branca”; “How ICJ Arrived at Its Decision,” Straits Times, 24 May 2008, 56; Lydia Lim, “Pedra Branca Belongs to Singapore,” Straits Times, 24 May 2008, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resources
International Court of Justice, Case Concerning Sovereignty over Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh, Middle Rocks and South Ledge (Malaysia/Singapore): Judgment of 23 May 2008 (Hague: International Court of Justice, 2008). (Call no. RSING 341.448095957 INT)

John Hall-Jones and Christopher Hooi, An Early Surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853 (Singapore: National Museum, 1979).
(Call no. RSING 925 THO)

The information in this article is valid as of 7 October 2014 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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