G. D. (George Dromgold) Coleman (b. 1795, Drogheda, County Louth, Ireland–d. 27 March 1844, Singapore) was Singapore’s pioneer colonial architect. He became the first Government Superintendent of Public Works when he was appointed on 19 October 1833. Coleman planned, surveyed and built much of early Singapore, shaping the course of Singapore’s architectural development and early urbanisation. Coleman Street and Coleman Bridge in Singapore were named after him.1
Coleman was born in Drogheda, County Louth, in Ireland. His exact date of birth cannot be ascertained as the records are no longer available. His mother’s family, the Dromgolds, and his father, James Coleman, were well-known merchants in County Louth. Coleman’s middle name is rendered in various ways – Drumoole or Drumgolde. It was inaccurately transcribed as Doumgold on his memorial tablet at the Old Christian Cemetery at Fort Canning Hill, but the correct Anglicised version, which appears in the entry in the Register of Marriages dated 17 September 1842 at St George’s, Hanover square, London, is Dromgold.2
There are no records indicating where Coleman received his architectural education as his name was not found in the registers of the Dublin Society’s Drawing School or the Royal Academy School in London.3 In 1815, at the age of 19, he left Ireland, practising first as an architect in Calcutta, where he designed and built many private houses for merchants, then moving to Batavia (now Jakarta) in 1820. During his nearly two years in Java, Coleman surveyed large sugar plantations, designed private buildings and sugar mills, and erected machinery for the milling of sugar.4
In June 1822, Coleman left Batavia for Singapore, where he waited four months for Stamford Raffles to return from Bencoolen (now Bengkulu), Sumatra. In the meantime, he designed a Residency House, which impressed Raffles, who then asked him to design a garrison church. Coleman received payment for both designs, and Raffles built the Residency in November 1822 at the top of Bukit Larangan (Forbidden Hill), now Fort Canning Hill. Completed in January 1823, the building had plank walls, Venetian windows and an attap roof. It later became the Government House. The design of the garrison church, which was submitted on 7 November 1822, was approved shortly after, but it took more than 10 years before Coleman built this first church for the European community in Singapore.5
Coleman was appointed the first Government Superintendent of Public Works on 19 October 1833, a position that concurrently made him Superintendent of Convicts.6 In this new position, he constructed North Bridge Road and South Bridge Road.
Prior to his official appointment as Superintendent of Public Works, Coleman had employed convict labour to work on large public works such as the clearing of jungle, draining of mangrove swamps and construction of new streets and roads. As Government Superintendent of Public Works, Coleman extended his employment of convicts to the construction of public buildings. The number of convicts deployed to work on roads and buildings nearly tripled during Coleman’s career in Singapore, reaching over 1,200 by 1840.7
Coleman’s skills as an architect are reflected in the construction of a number of well-known buildings with a particular slant toward the Palladian and Neo-Classical architectural styles. His notable achievements include the construction of many iconic buildings. Some of these are still around today, such as the Old Parliament House (now called The Arts House); Armenian Church of St Gregory the Illuminator; Caldwell House, which was originally built in 1840 or early 1841 for H.C. Caldwell, Senior Sworn Clerk to the Magistrates of Singapore, and was purchased in 1852 for $4,000 Spanish dollars by Father Jean-Marie Beurel for the establishment of the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (today part of CHIJMES); as well as two remaining monuments at Fort Canning Cemetery. Coleman often entered into contracts with his clients to build his designs for an agreed sum but would in some cases invite Indian or Chinese contractors to bid for the construction of his designs. His ability to communicate with contractors, craftsmen and workmen was enhanced by his multilingual command of the Bengali, Hindustani, Tamil and Malay languages.8
In addition to his extensive duties and professional activities, Coleman took on responsibilities as a publisher with William Napier. Together with Napier, Edward Boustead, and Walter Scott Lorrain, he established The Singapore Free Press , a newspaper which was first published in October 1835. Due to competition, this led to the closure of the first newspaper in Singapore, The Singapore Chronicle, in 1837. Hence, The Singapore Free Press remained unrivalled until its successor, The Straits Times, emerged on 15 July 1845.9
Upon his doctor’s advice to return to a more temperate climate for the sake of his health, Coleman left for Europe on 25 July 1841. He visited his hometown in Ireland. He also went to London where he married Maria Frances Vernon, youngest daughter of the late George Vernon, of Clontarf Castle, near Dublin, on 17 September 1842. However, Coleman was no longer happy in Europe and returned with his wife to Singapore on 25 November 1843, with plans to remain a permanent resident on the island. A month later on 27 December, Mrs Coleman gave birth to their son. Soon after, Coleman fell prey to a fever brought on by exposure to the sun and passed away on 27 March 1844. He was interred in the Fort Canning cemetery.10 Coleman was probably one of the oldest residents in Singapore at the time of his death.11
On 5 October 1844, Coleman's widow married William Napier, the first Law Agent in Singapore and a successful conveyancing lawyer, and Napier adopted Coleman’s infant son.12
1815: Goes to Calcutta and practises as an architect at Fort William.
1820: Spends nearly two years in Batavia (capital of Dutch Indies in Java) as a surveyor of large sugar plantations in the interior. Also designs private buildings and sugar mills, and erects machinery for sugar milling.
1822: Arrives in Singapore in June and designs a Residency House, which Raffles builds in November 1822, completing it in January 1823.
1823: Raffles departs from Singapore for the last time in June, and Coleman goes back to Java around the same time. He stays there for nearly two-and-a-half years, where he constructs large embankments and reservoirs for the irrigation of rice land, surveys sugar plantations and develops schemes for buildings on sugar estates.
1825: Returns to Singapore because of trouble between the Dutch and Javanese.
1826: Given his first important commission in January to design a large Palladian house for David Skene Napier. He also designs and builds a palatial brick residence for John Argyle Maxwell, a Scottish merchant.
1827: Gains employment as a Revenue Surveyor in June.
1828: Designs and builds his own residence, Coleman House, at 3 Coleman Street. Demolished in December 1965, the site is now occupied by the Peninsula Shopping Centre.
1829: Conducts the first topographical survey of Singapore, including the islands forming the new harbour, and the shoals, slopes and heights of the hills along the coast. The survey was drawn and printed by J. B. Tassin in 1836 as the first comprehensive map of the town and environs of Singapore.
1833: Takes up appointment as the first Government Superintendent of Public Works on 19 October.
1834: Designs the Armenian Church of St Gregory the Illuminator.
1835: Designs and builds the first St Andrew’s Church. Demolished in 1852, the church was replaced by St Andrew’s Cathedral, which was constructed from 1856–1864.
1836: Presents plans and cost estimates in May to complete the central building of the Singapore Institution, first built by Philip Jackson in 1823.
1840: Designs a bridge with nine arches (later called Coleman Bridge) spanning the Singapore River. Also designs and builds a house for H. C. Caldwell, Senior Sworn Clerk to the Magistrates of Singapore, that becomes part of the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in 1852.
1841: Leaves Singapore on 25 July for Europe and then London, after 15 years of continuous work on the island.
1842: Marries Maria Frances Vernon in London on 17 September.
1843: Returns to Singapore via Calcutta, arriving on 25 November. Mrs Coleman gives birth to their son on 27 December.
1844: Dies on 27 March and is buried at Fort Canning cemetery.
Wife: Maria Frances Vernon, whom he married on 17 September 1842.
Daughter: Meda Elizabeth Coleman, born to Tayoke Manuk, a Dutch-Javanese Eurasian, on 10 March 1829.
Son: George Vernon Coleman Napier, born to his wife Maria Frances Vernon on 27 December 1843.
Grandson: Vernon Munro Colquhoun Napier.
1. T. H. H. Hancock, Coleman’s Singapore (Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications, 31986), 1, 66, 88–89 (Call no. RSING 720.924 COL.H); Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 227. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
2. Hancock, Coleman’s Singapore, 2, 53.
3. Norman Edwards and Peter Keys, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 366 (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA]); Hancock, Coleman’s Singapore, 2.
4. Hancock, Coleman’s Singapore, 8–11.
5. Hancock, Coleman’s Singapore, 12–14.
6. Hancock, Coleman’s Singapore, 66; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 227.
7. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 227; Ashley Jackson, Buildings of Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) (Call no. 720.941 JAC); Hancock, Coleman’s Singapore, 21, 66.
8. Hancock, Coleman’s Singapore, 12–31, 54, 57, 66–79.
9. “Congratulations for the Free Press,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 8 October 1935, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Hancock, Coleman’s Singapore, 69.
10. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 227; Hancock, Coleman’s Singapore, 86–87.
11. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 227.
12. Hancock, Coleman’s Singapore, 91.
13. Hancock, Coleman’s Singapore, 8, 11–12, 21–22, 25, 40, 42, 54–58, 66, 69–70, 80, 86–87; “3, Coleman Street Link with Conrad,” Straits Times, 1 April 1954, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Hancock, Coleman’s Singapore, 47, 86–87, 91.
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