Bencoolen Street

Singapore Infopedia

by Cornelius, Vernon


Bengkulu, on the coast of West Sumatra, was renamed Bencoolen by the British in 1685.1

When Sir Stamford Raffles came to Singapore in 1819, a number of Bencoolen Malays accompanied him and settled in the vicinity of what is now Bencoolen Street.2 Bencoolen Street was named in remembrance of Raffles’s sojourn in Bencoolen (of Sumatra) as Lieutenant-General. The street also took its name from Kampong Bencoolen (also spelled as Campong Bencoolen), in which it was located. The old kampong spanned Bencoolen Street, Waterloo Street, Prinsep Street, Middle Road and Albert Street.3

When the British and Dutch Treaty of 1824 gave Bencoolen to Holland, more Bencoolen Malays arrived in Singapore. Most of the oldest Malays in Singapore, and some Eurasian families had descended from these Bencoolen settlers.4 In 1825, more than 900 Indian convicts were transferred to Singapore from Bencoolen, and were housed in temporary wooden attap huts in Kampong Bencoolen where the Temenggong and his followers resided, off what is now Empress Place.

Historic landmarks around Bencoolen Street

Bengkali Mosque or Masjid Bencoolen
The Bencoolen Muslims built the original attap Bengkali Mosque, or Masjid Bencoolen, between 1825 and 1828. This mosque was replaced in 1845 by a permanent version built by an Arab merchant, Syed Omar bin Aljunied. This version stands to this day.6

Bencoolen Street Bridge
The Bencoolen Street Bridge was completed in 1885. It spans Rochor Canal and joins Bencoolen Street and Jalan Besar. The bridge was designed by James MacRitchie, the municipal engineer who also supervised its construction.7 It was believed to be the first bridge in Singapore to have iron cylinder foundations.8 The cost of building of this bridge was borne by Syed Ali, father of Syed Alwee bin Ali Aljunid. Syed Alwee’s grandfather (Syed Omar) was the one who built the Masjid Bencoolen.9

Variant names
Chinese names:
In Hokkien, Chhai-tng au and in Cantonese, Chai-thong hau means “behind the vegetarians’ hall”, as there was a Chinese vegetarian guild meeting house located along the street.10

In Hokkien, Mang-ku-lu toa lo means “Bencoolen big street”.

In Cantonese, Mong-kwo-lo means “Bencoolen”.11


Vernon Cornelius

1. Iem Brown, ed., The Territories of Indonesia (London: Routledge, 2009), 260. (Not available in NLB’s holdings); “Traces of British Colonization in Bengkulu,” Jakarta Post, 4 July 2014.  
2. Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 36. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
3. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 36.
4. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 36.
5. Ray Tyers and Siow Jin Hua, Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & Now (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1993), 74 (Call no. RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS]); Norman Edwards and Keys Peter, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 283. (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA])
6. Edwards and Keys, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 270; Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 36.
7. “The MacRitchie Memorial Panel,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 1 April 1896, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “Bencoolen Street Bridge,” Straits Times, 23 June 1885, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “The Late Syed Alwee,” Singapore Free Press, 10 April 1926, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
10. H. W. Firmstone, “Chinese Names of Streets and Places in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula,” Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 42 (February 1905): 64 (Call no. RQUIK 959.5 JMBRAS); Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 36.
11. Firmstone, “Chinese Names of Streets and Places,” 64.

The information in this article is valid as at 2016 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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