Suffolk House, Penang

Suffolk House, Penang

In Penang, Malaysia, the Suffolk House refers to two early residences located four miles west of George Town, Penang, on the banks of the Air Itam River. The earliest of the two buildings is notable for serving as the residence of Francis Light, the founder of Penang. Following Light's death in 1794, as Penang became the fourth presidency of India in 1805, a newer Suffolk House replaced the original house, assuming multiple roles and was later neglected before its current restoration.

The mansion and the estate it was built on, the Suffolk Estate, is allegedly named after Suffolk county, Light's home county in East Anglia.

History

As Light's residence

The original Suffolk House served as Francis Light's residence and has been described as a simple Mayan style building (alternately described as an Anglo-Indian Garden House style) of timber and attap construction, built within his pepper estate called Suffolk. Light settled in the estate until his death in 1794.

Service to colonial Britain

On the purchase of the land from Light's estate in 1805, William Edward Phillips began the works of a Georgian-styled mansion called Suffolk Park. He was not, at the time of the mansion's construction, governor to the island, but became so in later years. It was an ostentatious statement in a settlement with barely 120 European residence, many of whom were trades people and merchants.

The mansion subsequently served as the residence of several more early governors for less than a quarter century, including William Edward Phillips' father-in-law, Governor Bannerman, amongst other Governors of Penang and the Governors of the Straits Settlements. The mansion also served as a venue for social and official functions.

During the 1810s and 1820s, the mansion was a Government House that assumed the role as a meeting place for critical political discussions, including, most notably, discussions with Stamford Raffles regarding the founding of Singapore.

Service to the Methodist Boys' School

The mansion was later purchased by a planter, and eventually became part of a local Methodist Boys' School, when it was purchased by Reverend Peach for $20,000 in 1929. At one point, the school planned to build a new building over the grounds of the Suffolk House, but settled to simply renovate the existing mansion after the Great Depression put the project and hold and the school failed to raise sufficient funds for the new building. A school building was still built near the mansion.

During the mansion's service for the school, the building assumed various roles through its 46 years of service. In 1931, Standard Six students were transferred into the building, before the entire Primary School (Standards 1-6) eventually moved into it in 1945. World War II saw the building temporarily occupied by the Japanese administration. A dental clinic was later added into the building in 1953, and it also served as a canteen until 1975. The building's rapid deterioration was noted since the 1950s, and in 1975, the building was declared unsafe and was vacated. Between then and its restoration in the 2000s, the building's roof and upper floor had collapsed.

Restoration

Since 1961, campaigning has existed to restore the mansion. Through the years, various efforts to restore the house were hampered by complications, including problematic land transfers and waning interest. In 1993, the Penang Heritage Trust conducted structural studies and stabilisation works on the buildings with assistance from the SACON Heritage Unit, an organisation based in South Australia (Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, was surveyed and laid out by Francis Light's son, William Light). The Suffolk House Committee was also formed by Penang's state government.

In 2000, the Methodist Boys' School was given a neighboring plot of land from the state government in exchange for the property containing the Suffolk House. Restoration work began in November 2000, but funds by the state government were only sufficient to provide stabilisation steel work, repair the central jack roof timbers over the ball room and retile the pitched jack roof. From 2004 onwards, aided by further state funding and donations from HSBC (of RM 2.5 million) and various parties. An estimated RM 5 million was needed to restore and refit the mansion.

Restoration works are almost complete on the mansion, and the restored building is due to be unveiled in late-2007. The use of the mansion has yet to be determined.

Dispute of construction and ownership

The first owners of the Suffolk House remains disputed by two quarters, which either claimed that the house was constructed in the early 1790s for Light, or constructed in 1809 for the subsequent governor of Penang, William Edward Phillips, about 15 years after Light's death.

Historian F. G. Stevens, one of the main authorities on the early development of Penang, pointed out in a 1929 article "A Contribution to the Early History of Prince of Wales Island" that the road leading to the house from Air Itam Road was only "lined out but not made" in 1807, discounting the possibility that the house could have been built before then.

Meanwhile, Light's will indicates that he bequeathed his wife, Martina Rozells, "the pepper gardens with my garden house, plantations and all the land by me cleared in that part of this island called Suffolk...", referring to either the house or estate, indicating that either or both assets already existed when Light died.

Architecture

The original house was simply a humble timber-and-attap garden house, fashioned in a simple Mayan, or an Anglo-Indian Garden House style formerly common in British India. The current Suffolk House is a detached double-storey building of Euro-Indian Georgian styling.

The present building's first floor is primarily held up by pairs of colonnades, totaling 78 columns inside and out, spanning the verandah, and the front and rear of the interiors. The ground floor is surrounded by walls with a series of arched doors, and is primarily supported by the outer and inner walls of the building. Wooden beams support the first floor and roof.

References

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