Mary Turnbull

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Constance Mary Turnbull
Born Constance Mary Turnbull
(1927-02-09)9 February 1927
West Lyham, nr Wooler, Northumberland
Died 5 September 2008(2008-09-05) (aged 81)
Oxford, UK
Occupation Historian, author
Nationality British
Ethnicity Caucasian
Citizenship British
Education Stoke Park Grammar School, Coventry
Alma mater Bedford College, University of London
Period 1971–2008
Subject Singaporean History
Notable works The Straits Settlements 1826–67: Indian presidency to crown colony (1972)
A History of Singapore (1977)
Dateline Singapore: 150 Years Of The Straits Times (1995)
Spouse Leonard Adrian Rayner 1962-1995
Children 2 daughters

Constance Mary Turnbull (February 9, 1927 – September 5, 2008) was a historian lauded for her lifetime of literary research writing contributing to the documentation of Asian history, and for her documentary work on The History of Singapore. Her expertise on Singapore history and citations from her book The Straits Settlements was instrumental to the case presented by the Singapore legal team to the International Court of Justice, in claiming sovereignty over Pedra Branca in 2008.[1] (See Sovereignty over Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh, Middle Rocks and South Ledge (Malaysia v. Singapore)).

Mary was born the only child to a native farm-owner father and a schoolteacher mother from the Isle of Man, in a farm not far from Wooler, Northumberland. In the 1920s Coventry grew to be the centre of UK motor industry, and her family moved to the thriving city when her father decided to give up farming for a more lucrative career in motorcar engineering. Throughout her childhood Mary led a happy but simple life despite having to live with different relatives during the Great Depression and during the German air raids in World War II.[2]

On leaving University, she worked for ICI in what would now be termed the Human Resources department but, looking for a more adventurous life, she joined the Malayan Civil Service, the first female administrative officer to be recruited to the Service, and one of only two women who would ever work in that capacity for the colonial authorities. She later joined the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, but on her marriage to Leonard Rayner in 1962, moved to Singapore. Here she was a member of the History Department until 1971 when she moved to Hong Kong to take up a post as Lecturer at the University's History Department.

In 1988 Mary retired from her position as Head of the History Department at Hong Kong University. She continued to write, and travel around Britain and New Zealand and on occasions, to Singapore and Malaysia for visits. In the 1990s she was commissioned by The Straits Times to compile the history of the Singapore newspaper company and in 1995, Dateline Singapore: 150 Years Of The Straits Times that resulted from nearly 3 years' of work, was launched to inaugurate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the newspaper title.[1]

Mary died on the afternoon of September 5, 2008 of a ruptured aorta, just 5 hours after discovering the condition in a routine check-up. She had also been working on writing the third edition of A History of Singapore just before her death.[1]


  • Mills, L. A. (1961) British Malaya, 1824-67. Singapore: Malayan Branch Royal Asiatic Society.
  • Turnbull, C. M. (1969) Modern Singapore a commemorative for Singapore's 150th anniversary
  • Turnbull, C. M. (1972) The Straits Settlements, 1826 - 67: Indian Presidency to Crown Colony. London: Athlone Press.
  • Turnbull, C. M. (1977) A History of Singapore, 1819 - 1975. Singapore: Oxford University Press.
  • Turnbull, C. M. (1989) A History of Singapore, 1819 - 1988. Singapore: Oxford University Press.
  • Turnbull, C. M. (1980, 1981, 1989) A History of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
  • Turnbull, C. M. (1995) Dateline Singapore: 150 years of the Straits Times. Singapore: Times Editions
  • Turnbull, C. M. (2009) A History of Modern Singapore 1819 - 2005 (published posthumously). Singapore: NUS Press.


  1. ^ a b c Liaw, Wy-Cin (2008-09-11). "Expert on S'pore history dies at 81". Straits Times. p. B7. 
  2. ^ Revathy, C. (2006). Jayakumar, Shashi, ed. Prof Mary Turnbull. accession no. 003025 (reel 1). Singapore: National Archives. Retrieved 2008-12-24.