Saturday, 26 May 2012

The Penang Free School's original crest?

Any Old Free worth his salt will tell you that the present premises of the Penang Free School in Green Lane was occupied only from 1928. Before then, the school was located at its old premises in Farquhar Street.

This old premises was built in two phases. The east wing which was nearer to the Church of St George the Martyr was built during the period when William Hargreaves was the headmaster and it was ready in 1897. The west wing was completed later in 1907 when Ralph Henry Pinhorn had already become the headmaster. After the Penang Free School relocated to Green Lane on 9 Jan 1928 during headmaster DR Swaine's stewardship, the old premises was taken over by its feeder school, the Hutchings School.

Today, the full structure of the magnificent old building can only be gleaned from sources like picture postcards of the early 20th century such as, for example, this one:

This is because the eastern half of the building was destroyed on 1 Feb 1945 during bombing raids. Ironically, it weren't the Japanese that bombed the building but the Allied forces. What's left of the  premises eventually became the Penang State Museum in April 1965.

All visible evidence of the building having been used as the Penang Free School have almost disappeared. However, there are still some marks on the building's exterior that give away its original use.

When I was visiting the museum just last week with Dr Alex Ooi, the president of The Old Frees' Association Singapore, we were staring up at the upper storey of the building and suddenly, it hit us that high above where we stood, decorated on a frieze above one of the arches, was an encircled mark:

The discovery excited us. Was this possibly the Penang Free School's very first crest? A very simple design, no doubt, but a very significant one. We then walked along the main road, still glancing upwards at the building from different angles, and there they were again: the unmistakable marks again at two different spots.

While we could still be wrong, we'd like to believe that yes, this was it: the original crest of the Penang Free School that dated back to at least 1907 when the west wing was completed.

Although it is now impossible to make any physical comparison with the destroyed east wing, the chances are very great that the newer west wing was a mirrored replica of the older east wing. As early architectural designs tend to adopt symmetry along a central dividing line, I am rather inclined to believe that the same PFS marks we saw would have also appeared on the corresponding block on the east wing and if so, that should date the crest even earlier to 1897.

But whatever the case, by the time the school's centenary celebrations had rolled by in 1916, a different crest design had already been adopted.


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