Alexander Laurie Johnston

Singapore Infopedia


Alexander Laurie Johnston (b. Dumfriesshire, South Scotland–d. February 1850, Bluehill, Kircudbright, Scotland), a former ship’s owner/captain, merchant, businessman, magistrate and Justice of the Peace, arrived in Singapore between 1819 and 1820. One of the earliest and much-liked settlers, he was among the first magistrates appointed by Sir Stamford Raffles. The latter also made him one of the first Trustees of the Singapore Institution (later Raffles Institution). Johnston established A. L. Johnston & Co. in 1820, and was an active member of the mercantile community. He was a founding member of the Singapore Chamber of Commerce in 1837 and was elected its first chairman. A pioneer businessman in Singapore, he spent more than 20 years of his life here, made his mark and left Singapore in December 1841 for England before his retirement in Scotland. He died on February 1850 in Scotland. Johnston’s Pier, now demolished, was named after him.1

Early life
Johnston was born to a respectable Scottish family in Dumfriesshire, a county in southern Scotland. He went to India with the merchant navy of the British East India Company, leaving the service upon reaching the rank of chief mate. He then took command of a “free trader vessel”, of which he was owner or at least part-owner, and in which he made several voyages.2

Johnston was among the earliest settlers in Singapore, and may have arrived before 1820, the year in which he set up his company, which was the first European mercantile firm formed in Singapore.A sociable, kind, generous and high-spirited gentleman, he was much liked by the Europeans as well as the local community.4   

A. L. Johnston & Co. (1820–1892)
In 1820, Johnston established A. L. Johnston & Co., one of the earliest European agency houses in Singapore. Around 1823, he secured a piece of dry land on the western bank of the Singapore River, on which he built a new warehouse and home.5  

His office building was on Battery Road, and was the first house from the mouth of the Singapore River on the western bank. This location was advantageous to the business for many years. The building was nicknamed Tanjong Tangkap because other merchants said that Johnston built his office there so as to be the first “to catch” (tangkap in Malay) captains of vessels as they came up the river. The building was demolished in 1848, and the firm subsequently moved to the site that is occupied today by the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank building, at the corner of Battery Road and Collyer Quay.6

Business partners
Johnston’s first partner, Christopher Rideout Read, arrived in 1822 from Bencoolen on the advice of Raffles. Read’s son, William Henry Macleod Read (b. 1819–d. 1909) arrived in Singapore in 1841, and took his retiring father’s place in the company from 1 January 1842. Johnston retired two months after the young Read’s arrival. William Read carried on the business with other partners up to the 1880s. The company went out of business in 1892.7

Friendship with Raffles
Johnston enjoyed the friendship and confidence of Raffles, who in February 1823 placed his name at the head of the list of magistrates who were appointed to administer the laws of the “new settlement”. Letters and notes addressed by Raffles to Johnston bear testimony to the frequency with which his advice and assistance was sought in all matters affecting the interests of the Settlement, and the resultant benefits. He was highly respected by the business community and by other locals too. In almost every public transaction related to the affairs or interests of Singapore, Johnston ensured best results for the good of all. In 1823, when Raffles established the Singapore Institution, Johnston was named a Trustee, and his company A. L. Johnston & Co. was appointed the honorary treasurer.8

The benefactor
Johnston was liberal and hospitable to the extreme, and in the earliest cash book when he commenced business here, the first entry to his personal debit was “A. L. Johnston, Paid subscription for the release of a female European slave, $10”. He was a liberal subscriber to the Singapore Institution. Long after he left the Settlement, his interest in welfare continued. This is evident in how, for instance, he continued to send liberal donations to its funds. Although Johnston was an Anglican Protestant, he donated towards the first Catholic chapel at Bras Basah Road.9

Singapore Chamber of Commerce
Johnston took an active part in setting up the Singapore Chamber of Commerce, and was its first elected chairman.10

Departure from Singapore
Johnston lived in a house on Battery Road.11 By the time he left Singapore for England in December 1841, he was one of the oldest residents, and was among the best known and most highly respected merchants in Singapore. At one of his many farewell gatherings, a great number of the most respectable Chinese merchants presented him with a plate valued at 1,000 dollars, and a gold snuff box that cost 500 dollars. Arab merchants presented him with items of equal value.12 Singapore Free Press notice dated 1 July 1853 stated that the interest and responsibility of the late Johnston, in the firm of A. L. Johnston, ceased on 31 August 1847.13

His property
On 8 June 1854 at mid-day, two properties belonging to the estate of Johnston were put up for sale by public auction. They were: a bungalow with a compound area of 31,600 sq ft on the banks of the Rochore River, and nine brick-built shops in Selegie Road with a ground area of 12,200 sq ft.14

Retirement and death
Johnston left Singapore in 1841 and retired in Brighthill, Kircudbright, Scotland. Following his death in February 1850, an elaborate and extensive obituary by the Singapore Free Press included these quotes:

“To the deep regret of all who knew him on this Island, the news of the death of Alexander Laurie Johnston, Esquire.” 
“To know him was to know an honest man and a warm friend.” 
“… he was one of the most sterling of the “worthies” of Singapore.” 15

Johnston’s Pier, an iron structure erected opposite Fullerton Square in 1854, was named after him. It was demolished in 1933 to be replaced by Clifford Pier, which was sited further along Collyer Quay.16

Vernon Cornelius-Takahama

1. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 62–63 (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); C. M. Turnbull, A History of Singapore, 1819–1988 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989), 15. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS]); Ray Tyers and Siow Jin Hua, Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & Now (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1993), 100 (Call no. RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS]); “Untitled,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 19 April 1850, 3; “Notice,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 1 July 1853, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 62–63; Untitled.”
3. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 62; Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 15; Donald Moore and Joanna Moore, The First 150 Years of Singapore (Singapore: Donald Moore Press Ltd, 1969), 176 (Call no. RSING 959.57 MOO-[HIS]); G. M. Reith, Handbook to Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1985), 6. (Call no. RSING 959.57 REI-[HIS])
4. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 63; Untitled.”
5. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 15; J. H. Drabble and P. J. Drake, “The British Agency Houses in Malaysia: Survival in a Changing World,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 12, no. 2 (September 1981): 302 (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website); Sjovald Cunyngham-Brown, The Traders: A Story of Britain’s Southeast Asian Commercial Adventure (London: Newman Neamie, 1971), 43 (Call no. RSING 382.0959 CUN); Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 91.
6. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 2 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 485 (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS]); Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 121; Marjorie Doggett, Characters of Light: A Guide to the Buildings of Singapore (Singapore: Donald Moore, 1957), 69, 71 (Call no. RCLOS 725.4095957 DOG-[RFL]; Survey Department, Singapore, Singapore Street Directory and Sectional Maps (Singapore: Survey Dept., 1957), 15–16. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 SIN-[RFL])
7. Reith, Handbook to Singapore, 6; Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 91; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 76; C. M. Turnbull, The Straits Settlements, 1826–67: Indian Presidency to Crown Colony (London: Athlone Press, 1972), 24 (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS]); Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 26; Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 416–17.
8. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 62–63, 97, 122; “Untitled.”
9. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 62–63, 245; Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 100; Untitled.”
10. “Untitled.”
11. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 154.
12. “Untitled,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 23 December 1841, 3; “Untitled.”
13. “Notice,”
14. “Advertisement,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 26 May 1854, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 62; Untitled.”
16. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 100; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 63.

Further resources
C. E. Wurtzburg, Raffles of the Eastern Isles (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 593, 610, 635, 704. (Call no. RSING 959.570210924 RAF.W-[HIS]) 

C. M. Turnbull, Dateline Singapore: 150 Years of the Straits Times (Singapore: Times Editions: Singapore Press Holdings, 1995), 22, 29. (Call no. RSING 079.5957 TUR)

Ernest C.T. Chew and Edwin Lee, eds., A History of Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 57. (Call no. RSING 959.57 HIS-[HIS])

G. M. Reith, Handbook to Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1985), 6, 39, 54, 86. (Call no. RSING 959.57 REI-HIS])

Gretchen Liu, Singapore: A Pictorial History 1819–2000 (Singapore: Archipelago Press: National Heritage Board, 1999), 40, 56–57, 94–95, 148, 196. (Call no. RSING 959.57 LIU-[HIS]) 

Jane Beamish and Jane Ferguson, A History of Singapore Architecture: The Making of a City (Singapore: G. Brash, 1985), 12. (Call no. RSING 722.4095957 BEA)

National Archives, Singapore, Singapore Historical Postcards from the National Archives Collection (Singapore: Times Eds., 1986), 10, 19. (Call no. RSING 769.4995957 SIN) 

Norman Edwards and Peter Keys, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 384, 453, 483. (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA])

Ray Tyers, Singapore, Then & Now (Singapore: University Education Press, 1976), 224–25. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 TYE)

Survey Department, Singapore, Singapore Guide & Street Directory (Singapore: Survey Dept., 1972), 31. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 SIN) 

The Free Press,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 23 December 1841, 3. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at July 2019 and correct as far as we can 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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