Sunday, 21 November 2010

The grounds of Suffolk House

This is a heritage building which was almost lost. It once stood on land belonging to the Methodist Church and had been earmarked for new school buildings. In 1956, the Church submitted demolition plans to the George Town Municipal Council but was asked by the Council's president, John Sjovald Hoseasom Cunnyngham-Brown, to preserve the building and instead, build the school on the rest of their land.

For many years after that, the building descended into a bad state of neglect. The Methodist Boys' School used the place as their canteen but in 1975, the authorities decided to cordon off the building and declared it unsafe. Below is a reproduction of a painting by Captain Robert Smith in 1818, that showed the building and the grounds it stood on. A river flowed lazily beside it. In the distance, a bridge.

Yes, that same familiar bridge which I wrote about recently. Okay, maybe it's not the original bridge but the reconstructed structure is mightily similar to the old one. Plus, the bridge still spans the Ayer Itam River and connects the grounds of the Suffolk House to the other side where there is now a condominium.

Many people believe that this same building was built by Francis Light, who founded the British settlement here in 1786, but it is now widely accepted that there were two separate constructions on Suffolk Estate, though not necessarily on the same spot (I don't know). The first was Light's original abode of timber and attap. He stayed here with his common law companion, Martina Rozells, until his death in 1794. Light's executors then sold the estate to William Edward Phillips in 1805. It was Phillips who built the present Georgian-styled Suffolk House. In the early 19th Century, Suffolk House was the official residence for several early governors of the Prince Of Wales Island (as Penang Island was called then). It wouldn't be too far-fetched to say that many historical and political decisions were made here. In fact, it is understood that Stamford Raffles was here for discussions that led eventually to the founding of Singapore.

Suffolk House's role as the centre of governance ended when the mansion and grounds were sold to a Lim Cheng Teik who in turn sold off the estate to the Methodist Church of Malaya in 1928. The Penang state government acquired Suffolk House in 2000 and conservation work commenced on the building. Today, Suffolk House is managed by Badan Warisan and open for public viewing. A fine dining restaurant occupies the ground floor of the double-storey building.

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