City Hall, Penang
Originally built in 1903 as the Municipal Office, Penang, the building was erected at a cost of $100,000 to relieve demand for office space at the adjacent Town Hall, which then took on a more social function. Both buildings stand in front of the Padang on Esplanade Road.
The name "City Hall" dates from the grant of city status to George Town in 1957. Since local government reorganisation in 1976, the building has housed the Municipal Council of Penang Island, then the Penang Island City Council after its status was upgraded on 1 January 2015.
Built in 1903 in the Edwardian Baroque style, the two-storey building has been listed as a national monument since 1982 under the Antiquities Act 1976. The building was renovated in 2004-5. Although City Hall retains much of its original form, by comparison with old photographs it can be seen that the original arcades or loggias on the ground and first floors have been enclosed with windows.
The history of George Town's Town Hall goes back to the 1873. At a Legislative Council session on 23 February 1876, Penang's representative David Brown brought forward a motion with reference to the Town Hall. He said,
- "Sir, I think it is hardly necessary that I should go into any details as to the history of the Town Hall Scheme. That scheme, although originated by the public of Pinang, was immediately taken up and carried on by Government, as the papers which have been laid on the table will amply show and I shall therefore proceed at once to state my reasons for bringing forward the motion in its present form. It has been mentioned to me that there is a technical error in it, arising from the fact that, as a non-official member, I do not possess the privilege of bringing forward a vote for the appropriation of public funds. It is certainly true that my motion is that a certain sum of money should be voted for a certain purpose, and in so far as it is liable to that technical objection; but this money I maintain, had already been promised by Government more than two years ago. On reference to the correspondence it will be seen that the Assistant Colonial Secretary, in a letter dated Singapore 1st August 1873, wrote as follows:—
- 'In reply to your letter No. 691, of the 17th July, I am directed by the Governor to transmit to you, for your information, the enclosed copy of a minute by His Excellency relative to the improvements in the town of Pinang, and to request that you will instruct Captain Innes to report in what way he considers His Excellency's views can be carried out. On coming to a decision as to the nature and site of the Town Hall, an item for its cost, and that of the Chinese building, will be put on the Annual Estimates, and plans prepared for approval of the Legislative Council without delay.'
- That means, Sir, I take it, as soon as the nature and site had been fixed upon, the cost would be placed on the Annual Estimates. Now, there can be no doubt that the nature and site of the Town Hall have been fixed upon. Just read the Colonial Secretary's letter which he addressed to the Municipal Commissioners, dated the 28th December 1874.
- 'With reference to the proposed new Town Hall at Pinang, I am directed by the Governor to enquire if the site selected by Government, between Koh Sin Tat's house and the Esplanade, as most desirable for this work, is approved by the Municipal Commissioners. I am also to forward, for your information, the enclosed block-plan of the buildings and to point out that it is a design purposely intended for extension — or rather for being built from time to time, as means are available and circumstances necessitate. The central block, which will be commenced first, will probably cost $43,000, of which $23,000 are at present available.'
- The Colonial Secretary then winds up with —
- 'I am to add that should the Municipal Commissioners concur and approve the site and design, you may at once instruct Captain Innes to prepare the working drawings, and arrange for putting the building under contract; and whilst doing so, he should prepare the ground, remove the fences, make approaches, &c.'
- To this the Municipal Commissioners replied on the 9th January 1875, that they had formed a very high opinion of the plan for a Town Hall, and they believed that the site selected for the building was as good as any that could be obtained on the island.
- There can therefore be no doubt that the nature and site have been determined upon by the Government and I therefore consider that they are bound, according to their promise, to place the item for the cost on the Annual Estimates. And Sir, if any further proof is needed, that the Government stand committed to carrying out of this scheme, I think that it may be found in the fact that the approach to the building has already been made and the site been marked out by the late Captain Innes more than a year ago. My motion therefore, is brought forward rather to remind the Government of their former promise; and in bringing the matter to the attention of this Council, I consider that I am but doing justice to the interests of the public of Pinang, who have unquestionably just cause for complaint, and dissatisfaction, in regard to the way in which this scheme has been treated. I do not say this with any intention of directly blaming Government, as I am well aware that unavoidable circumstances have arisen which have retarded the carrying out of the scheme, but with the view that, now these are removed, the work should be proceeded with at once.
- To show that the Pinang public have just grounds of complaint, I would call your attention, Sir, to the original agreement, made between the Hon'ble Mr. Braddell, on behalf of His Excellency, and the late Mr. James Richardson Logan, on behalf of the proprietors of the lands, under which the sum of $35,535.90, subsequently voted for improvements in the town of Pinang, was raised. It is what was called the Beach-Street Fund — that is, money not collected as general revenue, but a special receipt by Government of money for lands that had been reclaimed by proprietors on the east side of Beach Street.
- The 9th Section of that agreement provides that 'all sums payable to Government under this arrangement shall be applied to a purpose of public utility in Pinang.' Now, Sir, that agreement was dated 8th May 1869; the collection of the money in connection therewith had been completed early in 1872; a vote was passed under Ordinance No. XII of 1872 (dated 4th November 1872), devoting the money so raised to 'Improvements in the Town of Pinang;' and altho' it was ultimately decided, early in 1873, that $23,000 of it should be devoted to the erection of a Town Hall, nothing has really been done except the site for the building marked out and an approach made — which, on the other hand, all the Singapore works which were provided for under the same Ordinance have been completed. I would therefore urge Your Excellency the necessity of having this scheme carried out at once — that the $10,000 required should be granted from the general revenue, and that instructions should be at once given for the resumption of the work.
- I find, Sir I have omitted to explain how this $10,000 is arrived at. The cost of the building approved of by Government, according to the plans drawn up by the Colonial Engineer — in which it must be borne in mind the Public of Pinang had no voice, is $43,000; of this $23,000 has already been voted, and $10,000 is to be contributed by the Municipal Commissioners, under certain conditions which have been already approved by His Excellency; thus leaving a small balance of $10,000 to be placed upon the Annual Estimates, and which I trust Your Excellency will take under the peculiar circumstances of the case into favorable consideration."
Thomas Scott seconded the motion, presenting additional arguments.
The Colonial Secretary, the Colonial Engineer and the Governor objected to the application for funds and the motion was withdrawn. And while this entry in the minutes of the Legislative Council demonstrates the triumph of the Official over the Unofficial voices in Council, it also helps provide light as to the time of origin of the Town Hall scheme, as it has been described.
Three years later, by the beginning of October 1879, the Town Hall had been erected, and an entry in the Penang papers noted, "Couldn't the Municipal Authorities find a more suitable spot to deposit the rubbish and sweepings of the streets in, than alongside the Esplanade road alongside the new Town Hall. Their object, we can easily see is to fill up the space between the road and the wall of the compound running along there, and improvement when finished will be great, but in the meantime it is a source of great annoyance to the inhabitants on that part of the town."
At the beginning of April 1880 we read that the new Town Hall is still "in course of construction," and that Acting Lieutenant-Governor of Penang, C. J. Irving, who was also the President of the Municipal Commission, was looking into moving the officies of that body to the new Town Hall.
By end April, the new Town Hall was nearly ready for use. The penang papers reported that the first act of General Anson when he returned as Lieutenant-Governor in May, would be to declare open the new Town Hall building. The writer went on, "Opinions probably differm but I cannot say I particularly admire the outside of the structure. It reminds me of Pugin's rhyme:— It looks very like Westminster Abbey. The front part grand and the back part shabby." The inside, it was said, created an altogether different impression — the staircase was second to none in the Colony and the Hall itself large and commodious enough for any purpose to which it might be applied. The stage, still at that point in construction at one end of the room, conjured visions and raised hopes of future concerts and theatrical performances. The entry ended, "There is no doubt plenty of latent talent in Penang that has been slumbering for years, which only requires a slight incentive to call it forth to life and action. Perhaps the completion and opening of the new Town Hall will have this effect. Let us hope so; we sadly stand in need of something to vary the dull monotony of life in this out-of-the-way corner of the globe."
But it was the Governor of the Straits Settlements and not Penang's Lieutenant-Governor, who eventually officiated at the opening of George Town's new Town Hall.
At the end of May 1880, The Straits Times' Penang correspondent wrote, "I hear a movement is on foot to do honor to such an important occasion as the openingof our new Town Hall. It is hoped that His Excellency the Governor will consent to perform the opening ceremony. Should he do so, he will be sure of a most hearty welcome to the 'Island of Betel Buts.' A Ball will probably take place in the Hall as a 'wind-up' to the proceedings. He goes on to note that the London and China Express had been hard on the people of Penang for not giving more encouragement to theatre companies and entertainers who occasionally visit Penang, but, at that time, the Hall of the Court of Requests, 'a wretchedly uncomfortable place in which to sit out a performance of two or three hours,' was the only building available for public entertainment, and its use entailed heavy expense. The writer ended by saying that the opening of the new Town Hall ought to remove those drawbacks.
In June 1880 a newspaper noted the excitement building in Penang, "We are all eagerly anticipating the arrival of Sir Frederick Weld here, though, as he is going first to Malacca and the Native States he can scarcely make his appearance in Penang until towards the end of July. There can be no doubt that he will meet with a most hearty welcome, as everything we have heard and read of him has tended to create a most favourable impression in the minds of most people in this settlement. One of his first acts will be to open our new Town Hall with becoming ceremony." Hearing their lack of a Military Band, the Maharajah of Johore placed the services of his band at the disposal of the committee apponted for the purpose of completing arrangements for the ball to be given at the opening of the new Town Hall. The papers in Singapore then received notice by telegram from Penang that the Governor had consented to open their new Town Hall.
Media related to Penang City Hall at Wikimedia Commons
- Preserving City Hall’s colonial charm, The Star, 22 November 2006
- Old photograph of City Hall, with open loggias
In Text Citations
- "LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL. 23rd February, 1876." The Straits Times [Singapore] 26 February 1876: 2. Print.
- "Penang News. From the Daily Times, October 7th. We take the following items from the Penang Gazette of the 1st instant:—" Straits Times Overland Journal [Singapore] 18 October 1879: 6. Print.
- "From the Daily Times, 9th April. PENANG NEWS." The Straits Times [Singapore] 10 April 1880: 2. Print.
- "From the Daily Times, 4th May. Penang." Penang 29 April." Straits Times Overland Journal [Singapore] 8 May 1880: 7. Print.
- "Penang. (From our own Correspondent.) Penang 27 May 1880." Straits Times Overland Journal[Singapore] 7 June 1880: 7. Print.
- "From the Daily Times, 28th June. Penang 26th June 1880."The Straits Times [Singapore] 3 July 1880: 3. Print.
- "From the Daily Times, 26th July. Penang." The Straits Times [Singapore] 31 July 1880: 3. Print.
- "Summary of the Week." Straits Times Overland Journal [Singapore] 19 July 1880: 1. Print
- The Straits Times [Singapore] 31 July 1880: 6. Print.
- "From the Daily Times,17th August. (From our own Correspondent.) Penang, 12th August 1880." The Straits Times [Singapore] 21 August 1880: 2. Print
- The Straits Times [Singapore] 21 August 1880: 5. Print.