Singapore Criminal Prison breakout

Singapore Infopedia


On 13 February 1875, the Singapore Criminal Prison located between Stamford Road and Bras Basah Road was the site of a serious breakout led by about 60 prisoners trying to escape from the prison.1 In the violence that ensued, 16 warders and numerous prisoners were injured.2 There were 27 causalities in all, including the prison superintendent, Digby Henry Dent, who died from his injuries on 19 February.3 A total of 19 Chinese prisoners were killed, while nine were executed.4 Within a week of the incident, all but three of the prisoners who escaped were caught.5 The incident raised doubts about the adequacy of the Criminal Prison and contributed to calls for the government to establish a new prison.6

What happened
The drama began unfolding at 5 pm while the prisoners were having their dinner. The first violent act occurred when one prisoner stabbed a warder, William B. Stanford, from behind with a pointed instrument. Another prisoner aimed for Stanford’s head with a hatchet but missed and only bruised his nose. Upon seeing this, the superintendent, Digby Henry Dent, rushed in to try to rescue Stanford but was in turn stabbed repeatedly by one of prisoners as well as suffering a flesh wound from a chopper attack by another.7

At this juncture, the two prisoners shouted a signal to the rest whereupon about 60 prisoners rushed to attack the other warders with concealed weapons. They were mostly hardened criminals such as murderers, robbers and pirates.8 The European and non-Chinese prison warders were armed only with “umbrellas and walking sticks”.9 Thus,  they were  virtually  defenceless as  the armed prisoners  escaped from the central enclosure  into the work yard.10

The prisoners climbed the wall between the prison yard and work yard to escape through the main gate located there by climbing a ladder. They then ran through the grounds of the adjacent Church of the Good Shepherd.11 Realising that  they were  outnumbered,  the prison  warders  equipped the  European  prisoners  who were  mainly former “soldiers and sailors”12 with  rifles  from  the guard  room. They were  ordered to  open fire on the escaping prisoners.13

Meanwhile, the wife of one of the prison warders secured one of the gates of the prison from the outside and defended it by using a long sword to slash at the legs of those attempting to escape.14 Upon hearing the news about the mutiny, the military officer at Fort Canning dispatched an infantry unit to find the escaped prisoners.15 The involvement of people other than the warders helped to prevent the escape of more prisoners and enabled order to be restored to the prison.16

Factors that aided the mutiny
The prison warders attributed the mutiny to the fact that the mostly “Chinese and Malay prisoners”, totaling approximately 700, lived in close quarters.17 Instead of being placed in separate cells, about 100 prisoners were crammed into long, overcrowded rooms at any given time.18 The housing arrangement facilitated planning for the escape.19

The prisoners were also able to converse in Chinese, a language that the European and Indian prison warders could not understand.20 However, others pinned responsibility for the breakout on human error rather than the failings of the prison’s design. For instance, the prison warders were unarmed when the incident occurred. Prisoners were not thoroughly searched and supervised and thus able to get their hands on weapons.21 Furthermore, rifles and other arms were not readily available to the warders and were kept “only for protection”, while the “ammunition was kept under lock and key”.22

The fate of the prisoners
By 15 May 1875, the murder trial for the death of the prison superintendent was concluded. A total of 42 prisoners were charged with Dent’s murder.23 Out of the 42, 18 were sentenced to death. Nine were executed in June 1875 at the Sepoy Lines, and the remaining 24 prisoners had their death sentence reduced to that of life imprisonment.24 The European prisoners who had assisted the warders were lauded for their valour and loyalty in saving the lives of the prison warders and preventing the escape of other prisoners.25 To reward them, then Governor of the Straits Settlements Sir Andrew Clarke suggested a mitigation of their sentences.26

The fate of the Criminal Prison
On the orders of Governor Clarke, an inquiry committee was set up to look into the prison escape and fighting.27 In 1877, as part of a recommendation to improve prison discipline, trained prison warders from English convict prisons were brought in to help out at the Criminal Prison in Singapore.28 The committee also recommended the construction of a new prison, a plan that was already underway before the mutiny.29 Serangoon Road and Pulau Ubin were among the locations suggested for the building of the new prison.30 The authorities finally decided to build the new prison next to the Civil Prison at Pearl’s Hill.31

In January 1879, the foundation stone for the new prison was laid and construction completed in 1882. The prisoners in the Criminal Prison were relocated to the new Pearl’s Hill prison and the former prison site was abandoned.32

1. Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 183. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS]); Anoma Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes: A Penal History of Singapore’s Plural Society (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009), 200. (Call no. RSING 365.95957 PIE)
2. Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes, 201.
3. Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes, 201.
4. “The Police Report,” Straits Times Overland Journal, 30 September 1876, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “Tuesday, 16th February,” Straits Times, 20 February 1875, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
6.  Roland St. J. Braddell, “Crime: Its Punishment and Prevention,” in One Hundred Years of Singapore, ed. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 289. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
7. “Mutiny in the Gaol,” Straits Times, 20 February 1875, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “Mutiny in the Gaol.”
9. Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes, 200.
10. Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes, 200–1.
11. Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes, 200–1; “Mutiny in the Gaol.”
12. “Mutiny in the Gaol.”
13. Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes, 201.
14. Song, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese, 183; “Mutiny in the Gaol.”
15. “Mutiny in the Gaol.”
16. “Mutiny in the Gaol.”
17. Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes, 201.
18. Song, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese, 183; “Mutiny in the Gaol.”
19. “The Gaol Mutiny,” Straits Times, 20 February 1875, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes, 201.
21. “Echo of the Past,” Straits Times, 12 February 1909, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “Mutiny in the Gaol.”
23. “Fortnight’s Summary,” Straits Times, 15 May 1875, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
24. “Echo of the Past.”
25. “Mutiny in the Gaol.”
26. “Mutiny in the Gaol”; “Echo of the Past.”
27. “Fortnight’s Summary,” Straits Times, 27 March 1875, 1; “Variorum,” Straits Times, 14 October 1876, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Braddell, “Its Punishment and Prevention,” 289; S. S. Krishnasamy and K. K.  Goh, “Early History of Local Penal Settlements: An Outline,” in Prisons Department, Singapore, Corrections 82 (Singapore: Prisons Department, 1982), 18. (Call no. RSING 364.6095957 COR)
29. Braddell, “Its Punishment and Prevention,” 289.
30. “Untitled,” Straits Observer (Singapore), 1 November 1876, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Braddell, “Its Punishment and Prevention,” 289.
32. Braddell, “Its Punishment and Prevention,” 289.

The information in this article is valid as of 10 June 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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