Saturday, 5 October 2013


I felt more than a little surprised with the number of responses that had met my original post in The Old Frees' Association's facebook group. 

As the number climbed slowly, it became quite clear to me that the Penang Free School house colours remained a matter of  pride with a lot of Old Frees.

The house system could be considered the biggest of DR Swaine's legacies after he took over the headmaster's role in 1927. [And incidentally, it was the very first time that any school in Malaya had a house system. Ground-breaking stuff, this!]

With the sport houses in place, he instilled not only a sense of belonging to a club-within-a-club but also moved the competitive spirit to excel in each and every one of the Free School students of his time. Of course, this legacy holds true until today.

When he introduced the house system in the Penang Free School, Swaine was only the fourth headmaster in the school with a university degree. From the early days of the school's founding in 1816 until William Hargreaves' appointment as the headmaster in 1891, all the others who ran the school were not exactly academically qualified school superintendents or headmasters. I've read somewhere that one actually held a second job at the same time when he was supposed to be running the school.

From its inception, the school had adapted an existing education system known as the Madras System of Education that had been pioneered by a Dr Andrew Bell while he was the Superintendent of the Madras Orphanage for the sons of soldiers, and it had been the vogue in English Elementary Schools during the first half of the 19th century.

The Madras System was a monitorial system where a schoolmaster would teach basic lessons to a small, select group of brighter or older pupils, called Monitors, and each of them would then relate the lessons to another group of children. Thus, it was considered that one adult teacher was sufficient for an indefinite number of students. The Monitors taught and meted discipline under the teacher's direction.

In line with the rest of the British Empire, this system began falling out of favour with the Free School Committee from sometime in the middle of the 19th century and the Committee then looked to engage elementary schoolmasters from England as the headmasters. Eventually, with an eye towards raising the standard of education further, the Committee decided on appointing University graduates as headmasters.  

And that was how William Hargreaves, with a Master of Arts degree to his name, became the first academically qualified headmaster for the Free School in 1891. Under his term of office as Headmaster, the Penang Free School became the foremost educational institution in the Straits Settlements, reaping a lot of academic rewards.

Ralph Henry Pinhorn succeeded Hargreaves in 1904 and he brought the school to even greater heights during his time as the headmaster. When Pinhorn retired owing to ill health in 1925, William Hamilton was the next headmaster. Although his tenure was short, until the end of 1926, Hamilton had actually been long associated with the school since 1895 or even earlier! (His marriage in that year was registered in the Church of St George the Martyr.) Headmaster DR Swaine took over from Hamilton in 1927.

When Swaine introduced the house system, he did not need to look beyond naming three of the five houses after his three illustrious predecessors: Hargreaves, Pinhorn and Hamilton. There were also two vacant house names but there was no question either about naming them after a school master, Harold Ambrose Robinson Cheeseman, and a medical doctor, Gnoh Lean Tuck.

Contrary to what many people assumed, Cheeseman was never a headmaster at the Penang Free School. He joined the teaching staff in 1907 and remained at the school for 15 years. In 1922, he was promoted to become a headmaster of the Government English School in Penang but very soon afterwards, he was appointed as Penang's Inspector of Schools. By the time he retired from the Malayan Government Service in 1948, his rank had risen to that of Director-General of Education, Malaya.

Dr Gnoh Lean Tuck should also require no introduction. More famously respected as Wu Lien-Teh throughout the world, he was one of the Free School's greatest scholars, the first Chinese to study medicine at the University of Cambridge, the man who beat the dreaded plague in China, a nominee for the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1935... What more can I say about him and his achievements?

Tunku Putra came into existence very much later during the Free School's sesquicentenary celebrations. Tan Boon Lin, who was then the headmaster during the school's 150th anniversary, announced the formation of this new House effective from 1967 and it would take in pupils from the other five houses. This house was named after Tengku Abdul Rahman, the Free School's Grand Old Free who was Malaya's Chief Minister from 1955 to 1957 and then the Prime Minister of the country from 1957 to 1970.

It was not until 2009 that a further two new houses, Sirajuddin and P Ramlee, were added to the Free School family. Like his father before him, Tuanku Sirajuddin Jamalullail is an Old Free. Since 2000, he is the Raja of Perlis and for five years from 2001 to 2006, was also the 12th Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, or King. The other Old Free honoured under the house system, P Ramlee, was one of the country's most well known entertainers.

As an after-thought, it just struck me that of the five original personalities, roads around the Penang Free School have also been named after them. Pinhorn Road, Hargreaves Road, Hargreaves Circle and Hamilton Road are further down from the Free School while on the opposite side from the school are Cheeseman Road and Wu Lien-Teh Gardens. There is also Tengku Abdul Rahman Road which was renamed from Ayer Rajah Road, while the name of Caunter Hall was changed to P Ramlee Road.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

William Hamilton arrived in Penang in 1892. He taught at Penang Free School for 34 years, retiring in 1926.