Raffles Lighthouse

Singapore Infopedia

by Cornelius, Vernon


Raffles Lighthouse is located on Pulau Satumu, or “one tree island”,1 23 km southwest of Singapore, at the western entrance of the Singapore Straits. Designed by John Bennett, the lighthouse was named after and dedicated to the memory of the founder of modern Singapore, Thomas Stamford Raffles. The foundation stone was laid in 1854 by William J. Butterworth, then governor of the Straits Settlements. The lighthouse began daily operations from November 1855.2

In July 1838, it was proposed that a lighthouse be built on one of the islands at the western entrance of the Singapore Straits, with suggestions that Barn Island, Alligator Island and Coney Island were the most advantageous.3 The eventual choice was Coney Island (today’s Pulau Satumu4), which was considered the best location with its position on the south channel sea passage into Singapore, and ideal for hosting a lighthouse.Raffles Lighthouse is the second-oldest lighthouse in Singapore.6

On 24 May 1854, the foundation stone and memorial tablet for Raffles Lighthouse were laid by Governor Butterworth.7 A Masonic ceremony with the laying of the foundation stone was officiated by William H. Read.Amidst much military pomp and followed by a party celebration, the Raffles Lighthouse project was thereafter executed with the help of Indian convicts and other labourers. Indian convicts served as stone-cutters, blasters and labourers of the project, supervised by an officer of the Convict Department.9 Raffles Lighthouse was completed and began operations on 1 November 1855.10

The lighthouse stands on an island with a superficial area of 70 ft by 22 ft (21 m by 7 m) and is only 30 ft (9 m) above sea level.11 It was designed by John Bennett, a civil and mechanical engineer,12 who had also assisted in the construction of St Andrew’s Cathedral.13 There are 102 steps to the top of Raffles Lighthouse.14 The original light beam came from a fixed bright dioptric light of the third order. The centre of the light beam was 106 ft (32 m) above the high-water mark, and was visible from about 12 nautical miles (22 km) away.15 On 1 October 1968, the lighthouse switched from kerosene to an electrical light source, and with a new fourth order optic, the light-beam strength was increased from 99,000 to 350,000 candle power.16 The tradition of manned lighthouses that originated in ancient Egypt ended for Raffles Lighthouse in 1988 when it became solar-powered and timer-activated.17

Raffles Lighthouse is still in operation today. It is out-of-bounds except for lighthouse staff and visitors with special permission. The Raffles Lighthouse held its first open house during the Singapore HeritageFest in 2014. It was the first time that a Lighthouse Trail featuring three lighthouses was included. Visitors got a rare look inside its glass-panelled dome as well as the opportunity to climb 88 spiraling steps, about six storeys high. Raffles Lighthouse is still well-preserved with a gleaming white exterior and polished original, century-old brass fittings. Visitors to the lighthouse are privy to maritime artefacts, such as lanterns and wind gauges used in the 1970s, in a small museum that was once the generator room.18

Inscription on foundation stone
The inscription on the foundation stone reads:19

In the Year of our Lord
and in the Seventeenth Year of the reign of
The Most Noble
James Andrew Marquis of Dalhousie, Kt.
being Governor-General of British India,
The Foundation Stone
of the Lighthouse, to be erected on the
Coney, and dedicated to the Memory of
LL.D., F.R.S. and S.A.L.S.,
to whose Enlightened Policy, the Mercantile
World is indebted for the selection of
and for the Freedom of its Commerce from
all restraints,
was laid on the 24th of May, the anniversary
of the birthday of
by the
and the
No. 748,
In the presence of
The Governor of the Straits Settlements, and
many of the British and Foreign Residents at Singapore.

Inscription on memorial tablet
The Raffles Lighthouse Memorial Tablet was inscribed in both Latin and English, and was placed in the visitor’s room. The English inscription reads:20

The Raffles Lighthouse
erected in the year of Our Lord
by the Honourable East India Company
and dedicated to the Memory of
The Founder of Singapore,
to whose liberal and comprehensive Policy
This Settlement is indebted for its
Free Port
and the unrivalled position it now holds
as an Emporium
in the Indian Seas.
Colonel W. J. Butterworth, C.B.,
Governor of Prince of Wales’ Island,
Singapore, and Malacca.

Vernon Cornelius-Takahama

1. Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 320. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
2. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 525–26. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
3. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 520–26.
4. “Centenary Visit to Lighthouse,” Straits Times, 19 May 1954, 7 (From NewspaperSG). Not to be confused by Pulau Serangoon, which is known as Coney Island today.

5. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 520.
6. Jeremy Au Yong, “Shedding Light on Life in a Lighthouse,” Straits Times, 15 October 2008, 30. (From NewspaperSG)

7. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 520–26; Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 590. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
8. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 520–26.
9. J. F. A. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders (Westminster: A. Constable, 1899), 62. (Call no. RSEA 365.95957 MAC)

10. “Page 6 Advertisements Column 1,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 1 November 1855, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 520–26.
12. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 62.
13. “History of the Victorias,” Straits Times, 3 January 2009, 89 (From NewspaperSG); 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])
14. Michael Lim, “The Last of the Lighthouse Brigade,” Straits Times, 4 October 1987, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 520–26.
16. Singapore Year Book (Singapore: [s.n.], 1968), 298. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 SIN-[HIS])

17. Lim, “The Last of the Lighthouse Brigade.” 
18. Audrey Tan, “Open House at Raffles Lighthouse,” Straits Times, 4 July 2014, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 522.
20. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 522.

The information in this article is valid as at July 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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