Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Robert Sparke Hutchings, a jolly good fellow

I made an unscheduled stop at the Protestant cemetery in Northam Road yesterday. Well, maybe it was not an unscheduled stop, because I had been planning to drop by the place for quite some time but never made it. The last time that I had visited this heritage site was on 21 October last year.

The rain had just stopped when I walked in through the gate. As I had expected, there was nobody there. Not a soul. Nothing stirred. The old cemetery was well and truly dead and forlorn. What would you expect? I had heard that plans were underway by one of the state authorities to spruce up the place, perhaps even give them a fresh coat of paint. Someone told me only earlier this week that the work had been completed but I can assure you that nothing of the sort had happened.

I walked in and headed straight for the grave of the Revd Robert Sparke Hutchings. My fellow Old Frees will recognise that Hutchings had established the Penang Free School in 1816. He and his Original Plan had laid the groundwork for the establishment of the Prince of Wales' Island Free School. Hutchings died in 1827 after contracting malaria at his home in Mount Elvira, which he had named after his wife, and was buried at the Protestant cemetery.

Inexplicably, I lost my way and found myself staring at the grave of Francis Light instead. Captain Light was the founder of Penang as a British settlement on 17 August 1786 and he had called it the Prince of Wales' Island. For eight years, he was the Superintendent of the settlement until his death on 21 October 1794. Was it planned or a mere coincidence that the Free School opened on the anniversary date of Light's death? I think it was more coincidental than planned. It was logical to open a school at the beginning of a week, and 21 October 1816 was a Monday after all.

Eventually, I did locate Hutchings' grave a short distance away. Although it looked about the same as last year, minus all the wreaths and flowers, I was surprised to see the grave getting discoloured. Patches of yellow were beginning to show on its top. So here I'm wondering whether the Penang Free School Bicentenary Committee is doing anything to spruce up Hutchings' grave ahead of the Bicentenary celebrations which are less than three months away.

The tradition of visiting Hutchings' grave on the anniversary of the school's founding, that is, on the 21st of October every year, began in 1948 during Dennis Roper's spell as the Headmaster. He started this tradition which continues till today.

I would have thought that during the Centenary celebration in 1916, Ralph Pinhorn would have led his staff and prefects to Hutchings' grave on 21 October 1916 to commemorate the occasion but there is no evidence of this having occurred. The May 1917 issue of the Free School Magazine (Vol IV No V) was devoted extensively to the celebrations but as not a word was written about a visit to the Protestant cemetery, I would conclude that none was made.

The annual visits to the cemetery continued through the decades. The most celebrated one was in 1966 during the school's Sesquicentenary. The Board of Governors, Headmaster, teachers, prefects, scouts and representatives of The Old Frees' Association assembled at Hutchings' grave for a special commemorative service which was then followed by the unveiling of a special plaque to mark the occasion. That particular honour belonged to Tan Ah Fee who in 1964 had retired from teaching in the Free School. Tan Ah Fee was the brother of Tan Ah Tah, one of the school's Queen's Scholars who made a name for himself later as a Supreme Court Judge in Singapore.

In 2012, I decided to join the school representatives at Hutchings' grave at seven o'clock in the morning of 21 October. I had no other reason to go except wanting to have a feel of the old tradition. Since that visit to the Protestant cemetery, it has become quite a routine for me to turn up again in the following years. Last year's ceremony was the biggest yet, with many Old Frees also joining in. I would dare say that in this Bicentenary year, a bigger crowd of people can be encouraged to turn up. I hope The Old Frees' Association can lead to organise their members for this annual visit. One need not be of the Christian faith to be present there. I am not, and there's nothing that will discourage me from attending.

But in all past years, the short service at Hutchings' grave have been nothing but solemnity itself. It puzzles me why this must continue to be so. Is there no other way to celebrate the life of Robert Sparke Hutchings? Sure, the service must be there: the readings, the prayers, the laying of the wreaths and the singing of the School Rally. But how about re-introducing the bugle call? Or even, at the end of it all, a bout of boisterous singing? After all, he was a jolly good fellow to have founded the Penang Free School. Wasn't he?

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