Mission Press

Singapore Infopedia

by Lim, Irene


Established by Christian missionaries in 1823, Mission Press was the first printing press in Singapore. It published Christian literature in various languages, textbooks and children’s books. In addition, it accepted printing jobs from the government and the rest of the community, publishing materials such as official documents and newspapers.1

In 1822, Claudius Henry Thomsen, a missionary to the Malays from the London Missionary Society (LMS), arrived in Singapore from the Malacca mission. He brought along a small press and two workmen who composed in English and Malay and did press work, typecutting and bookbinding. Together with Samuel Milton, a missionary to the Chinese who had come to Singapore in 1819, the two sought to establish a printing press in Singapore. Thomsen requested permission from the government in 1823, and Stamford Raffles granted it as the government needed printing services.2

Thomsen’s press at the time consisted only of a small quantity of worn-out Malay types and old English types that could produce a four-page print. It was not able to handle regular book printing. Thus Thomsen wrote to the LMS to request for printing equipment but did not receive a reply. Milton, on the other hand, wanted to buy the equipment himself and donate it to the LMS. Hence he set off for Calcutta, India, in December 1822 for this purpose, prior to Thomsen’s formal request for permission. In Calcutta, Milton bought three printing presses and their furniture, one fount of English types, one fount of Siamese types (the first fount of these types that was ever cast), one fount of Malay types, English printing paper, printing ink, English compositor, type metal, metal furnace and ladles, one set of Siamese, one set of Malay and one set of Arabic matrices, and the necessary equipment for casting types in the aforementioned languages. These acquisitions would enable him to print in five languages: English, Siamese, Malay, Arabic and Chinese. However, Milton was apparently unable to pay for all his purchases, and the LMS was dismayed that he had taken things into his own hands. According to Robert Morrison – an early LMS missionary to Southeast Asia and a co-founder of the Singapore Institution (later known as Raffles Institution) – he had to step in to resolve the issue with help from Stamford Raffles. The Singapore Institution then assumed ownership of the presses, paying for them with money from public subscriptions that had been raised for the school. Milton was put in charge of the press at the Singapore Institution until 1825 when Thomsen took over.3 Milton left the LMS in 1825, but remained in Singapore until his death in 1849.4

In 1834, Thomsen returned to England. Before that, he sold the press and some land to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) for 1,500 Spanish dollars. He did this despite the questionable ownership of Mission Press. For years thereafter, the ownership of the press was an issue of negotiation between the LMS and the ABCFM. During the time that Mission Press was with the ABCFM missionaries such as Alfred North, it was used to print Christian literature in Chinese, Bugis, Malay, and Japanese for distribution throughout Southeast Asia. With the opening up of China, the ABCFM closed their Singapore station in 1843. The press, land and buildings were handed over to the LMS.5

After Thomsen’s departure in 1834, the LMS’s printing activities in Singapore laid dormant until the arrival of John and Alexander Stronach in 1838, Benjamin Keasberry in 1839 and Samuel Dyer in 1842. The four revived the LMS’s printing activities, with the Stronach brothers and Dyer focused on Chinese printing and Keasberry on Malay printing.6

When the LMS also closed its station in Singapore in 1846, Mission Press moved to China. Keasberry remained in Singapore, carrying on with his ministry. The LMS gave him the press and types of the Penang Mission, a small lithographic press and some printing equipment from the Malacca Mission, and an annual allowance of 50 pounds. Keasberry then converted the old chapel into a printing and bookbinding establishment. He ran the press as a commercial enterprise, using the proceeds to support his family and the school for Malay boys, which was located in the same premises as the press. Keasberry continued to print Christian literature. The tract and bible societies also supported Keasberry with funds and printing paper throughout his ministry.7

After Keasberry's death in 1875, the printing press was sold to Charles Westlake, one of the former proprietors of The Singapore Free Press newspaper.In 1877, the press was resold by auction to John Fraser of Fraser and Neave.9 The press had been operating under the name Mission Press until 1881 when it was renamed Singapore and Straits Printing Office.10 In 1930, Fraser and Neave established a private-limited company, Printers Limited, for its printing business.11

Printed literature
Mission Press operated from the Singapore Institution for a few years, and publications produced in 1825 and 1826 bore the imprint “Institution Press” or “Mission Press”. Being the earliest printing press and the only such facility in Singapore for some time, Mission Press took on commercial jobs and printing for the government as well as printing its own evangelical materials such as scriptures, tracts, hymnbooks and textbooks.12

During the period when Mission Press was under Milton and then Thomsen, it was printing Malay books and tracts actively. Thomsen had translated the New Testament into Malay and printed it in 1830. When the American missionaries managed it, Mission Press printed over two million pages of tracts and scriptures in Chinese, Malay and Bugis.13

Keasberry translated many English works into Malay. These range from books of the Bible such as Genesis and Psalms, Christian literature on the life of Moses and Jesus, to books and pamphlets on natural history. He also published Malay textbooks, some of which were translated into Malay by Abdullah Abdul Kadir (also known as Munshi Abdullah), a Malay teacher to the missionaries of the LMS and the ABCFM. A talented artist, Keasberry also drew and did lithographic work. Abdullah’s literary text, the Hikayat Abdullah, was lithographed by Keasberry and published in 1849. Keasberry also printed works for the Straits government and took on commercial jobs, such as the printing of letterheads and bills of lading.14

Mission Press printed Singapore’s first newspaper, Singapore Chronicle, from its first issue in January 1824 to September 1830. It also printed two Chinese weeklies – Tifang Jih Pao (地方日报; Local News) in 1845 and Jit Sheng (日升; Rising Sun) in 1858.15 Other publications by the press included Chermin Mata, a Malay (Jawi) quarterly journal (from 1858), and the first and second volumes of The Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia (1847–48).16

Irene Lim

1. Cecil K. Byrd, Early Printing in the Straits Settlements, 1806–1858 (Singapore: National Library, 1970), 13–15, 16–17 (Call no. RSING 686.2095957 BYR); Leona O’Sullivan, “The London Missionary Society: A Written Record of Missionaries and Printing Presses in the Straits Settlements, 1815–1847,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 57, no. 2 (1984): 73. (Call no. RSING 959.5 JMBRAS)
2. Byrd, Early Printing in the Straits Settlements, 13; O’Sullivan, “London Missionary Society,” 73; John Sturgus Bastin, Raffles and Hastings: Private Exchanges behind the Founding of Singapore (Singapore: National Library Board Singapore; Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2014), 216–17. (Call no. RSING 959.5703 BAS)
3. Byrd, Early Printing in the Straits Settlements, 13–14; O’Sullivan, “London Missionary Society,” 73–79; Ching Su, “The Printing Presses of the London Missionary Society among the Chinese” (PhD diss., University of London, 1996), 31–35; Ismail Ibrahim, Early Malay Printing in the Straits Settlements by Missionaries of the London Missionary Society (n.p., 1980), 73–79. (Call no. RSING 686.209595 IBR)
4. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 214–15 (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); Alan Harfield, Early Cemeteries in Singapore (London: British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia, 1988), 46, 260. (Call no. RSING 929.5095957 HAR)
5. Byrd, Early Printing in the Straits Settlements, 14–16; O’Sullivan, “London Missionary Society,” 79–80; Ching, “Printing Presses of the London Missionary Society,” 161–64.
6. O’Sullivan, “London Missionary Society,” 84–86; Ching, “Printing Presses of the London Missionary Society,” 168–75.
7. Byrd, Early Printing in the Straits Settlements, 16; O’Sullivan, “London Missionary Society,” 85, 96; Ibrahim, Early Malay Printing in the Straits Settlements, 85; Teo Eng Liang, Malay Encounter during Benjamin Peach Keasberry’s Time in Singapore, 1835–1875 (Singapore: Trinity Theological College, 2009), 241, 245, 249, 256, 259, 267–68, 273–74, 277–78, 282–84, 290–91, 302–3 (Call no. RSING 266.02342095957 TEO); I. Proudfoot, Early Malay Printed Books (Kuala Lumpur: Academy of Malay Studies and the Library, University of Malaya, 1993), 10. (Call no. RSING 015.5957 PRO-[LIB])
8. “Wednesday, 16th February,” Straits Times, 19 February 1876, 2 (From NewspaperSG); “Malacca Straits: Singapore,” London and China Telegraph 9 no. 235 (4 February 1867): 70.
9. “Untitled,” Straits Times, 21 July 1877, 3 (From NewspaperSG); Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 2 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 194–95. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
10. The Singapore and Straits Directory for 1881 (Singapore: Mission Press, 1881), 71 (From BookSG); The Singapore and Straits Directory for 1882 (Singapore: Singapore and Straits Printing Office, 1882), 90. (Call no. RRARE 382.09595 STR; microfilm NL1176)
11. “Page 4 Advertisements Column 4,” Straits Times, 6 January 1930, 4; “Printers Limited,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 6 January 1930, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Byrd, Early Printing in the Straits Settlements, 13–15.
13. Byrd, Early Printing in the Straits Settlements, 14–16; Ibrahim, Early Malay Printing in the Straits Settlements, 80–81.
14. Byrd, Early Printing in the Straits Settlements, 16–17; Proudfoot, Early Malay Printed Books, 14–17.
15. Byrd, Early Printing in the Straits Settlements, 13, 17.
16. P. Lim Pui Huen, Marion Southerwood and Katherine Hui, Singapore, Malaysian and Brunei Newspapers: An International Union List (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1992), 30, 41 (Call no. RSING 016.0795957 LIM-[LIB]); D. K. Y. Chng, “The Rising Sun (1858): A Missing Page of Singapore Publishing History,” Singapore Book World (Singapore: National Book Development Council of Singapore, 1992), 4, 11–15. (Call no. RSING 070.5095957 SBW)

Further resources
Bonny Tan, “Claudius Henry Thomsen: A Pioneer in Malay Printing,” BiblioAsia 12, no. 4 (Jan–Mar 2017).

Mohd. Sarim Hj. Mustajab, “Religious Periodicals Published in the Straits Settlements and Malaya: 1821–1940” (paper presented at UNESCO China Conference, May 1994). 

The information in this article is valid as of June 2021 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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