Comments on article: InfopediaTalk
Ronald MacPherson (Colonel) (b. 14 July 1817, Isle of Skye, Scotland - d. 6 December 1869, Singapore) was a soldier, architect and colonial administrator. After military service in India and China MacPherson came to Malaya, where he designed various civic buildings, directed local administrations as Resident Councillor in Malacca, Penang and Singapore, and helped establish the new crown colony of the Straits Settlements as its first Colonial Secretary. He is best remembered in Singapore as the architect of St Andrew's Cathedral.
MacPherson enrolled at the East India Company's military college in Addiscombe, Croydon and joined the Madras Artillery on graduating in 1836. In India he learned Arabic and Hindustani, studied engineering and helped to prepare the Madras Gunnery Tables, which European artillery companies consulted for many years. His brigade was deployed to China for the Opium War of 1842 and participated in the capture of Shanghai, Chapoo, Wusong and Ching Kiang Fu. After hostilities ended, MacPherson received the campaign medal, and in 1843 he moved to Penang as staff officer to the artillery.
Engineer and Volunteer Corps Commandant
Six years later he became Penang's Executive Engineer and Superintendent of Convicts and designed buildings such as the police station and court of requests. In 1855 he was promoted to the same dual appointment in Singapore, where, like his predecessor Colonel Man and successor Major McNair, he took an enlightened approach to Singapore's more than two thousand convicts. MacPherson continued a system offering convicts a remarkable degree of freedom as well as industrial training, which facilitated upgrades to the colony's infrastructure and improved ex-convicts' prospects. Bengal's Inspector-General of Prisons, whose jurisdiction included Singapore, praised the convicts' skills and the calibre of the three superintendents as the equal or better of any in India.
MacPherson oversaw the start of work on Town Hall (now the Victoria Theatre) and a new Government House, though the 1857 Indian Mutiny prompted the latter's cancellation in favour of Fort Canning on the same site. His principal achievement was designing a replacement for St Andrew's Church, which was demolished after being twice damaged by lightning. Inspired by the ruins of Hampshire's Netley Abbey, which he had seen years earlier, MacPherson chose the English Gothic style but avoided complex ornamentation. Nonetheless, vowing to build a church using only convict labour demonstrated considerable confidence in himself and his workers. Work began in 1856, and the walls had not yet risen three feet when he left Singapore in 1857. MacPherson had designed both a square tower and an alternative light steeple which his successor chose due to the church's weak foundation. It opened in 1862 to acclaim as the finest English church in the east and was upgraded to cathedral status seven years later.
During this period he also presided over the Singapore municipal commission and renewed his connection with the military. The Singapore Volunteer Rifle Corps was founded in 1854 after the bloody Teochew-Hokkien riots demonstrated the shortcomings of Singapore's internal security. Although the corps was private and unofficial, Governor William Butterworth accepted the position of honorary colonel and MacPherson became its first commandant; his background in artillery may have influenced the corps' early interest in gunnery. After two years he stood down, but he was named honorary colonel in 1864.
Resident Councillor and Colonial Secretary
In 1858 he took office as Resident Councillor in Malacca, where his tact and gentle manner earned the local rulers' trust and helped to resolve their violent feuds. MacPherson advised the highly-regarded Raja Juma'at of Lukut and became his friend, acting as guardian to Juma'at's son, who attended Malacca's English school. He also moved lepers from the general population onto a newly-built hospital on Pulau Java. A few years later, as acting Resident Councillor for Prince of Wales's Island (Penang), he raised the $20,000 needed for another offshore hospital from the local Chinese community. Similar facilities were later built across Malaya. While his tenure in Malacca promoted peace and progress, he was forced into action against a petty chief collecting unauthorised tolls from British travellers on the River Lingie. Despite violent resistance the expedition destroyed the chief's stockades and restored free passage. MacPherson returned to Singapore in 1860 as Resident Councillor and served two more stints as president of the municipal commission.
He led another mission in 1862, this time to Terengganu, where the sultan was sheltering the troublesome Mahmud of Lingga. To the consternation of the British, Mahmud was interfering in the civil war of neighbouring Pahang and attracting Siamese support for the insurgent side. After the sultan rebuffed MacPherson's attempts to negotiate and ignored his deadline, the British bombarded the sultan's fort. Informed that Mahmud had fled, MacPherson returned home, but the incident sparked criticism in London, Bangkok and Singapore. Although Pahang's civil war did not conclude as the British had hoped, the Terengganu action discouraged further Siamese interference in Malaya.
In 1867 the Colonial Office in London assumed control over the Straits Settlements, thitherto a dependency of the Indian government, and new governor Harry St. George Ord credited MacPherson with facilitating an efficient transition. The grateful governor lobbied for MacPherson to become the colony's first Colonial Secretary, a post similar to that of Secretary to the Government, which he had held before the changeover, and his appointment was widely welcomed. Citizens appreciated his accessibility and he fostered good relations with native chiefs, yet Ord frequently ignored advice from MacPherson and other Straits veterans. Their relationship was difficult and public opinion sided with the colonial secretary against the unpopular governor.
Death and memorials
MacPherson died suddenly of a local complaint on 6 December 1869. His funeral drew many mourners and sailors from HMS Galatea, on which Queen Victoria's son, the Duke of Edinburgh, was travelling. Buried in Bukit Timah Cemetery, MacPherson's life and work were commemorated by a cross of his own design in the grounds of St. Andrew's and a stained glass window over its west door.
MacPherson married at an early age and had several children.
Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore (pp.293-94, 298, 670, 692-93, 728, 782). Singapore: Oxford University Press (first published in 1902).
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC)
The Civil Service (1863, 5 October). The Times. Retrieved on July 29, 2009, from the Times Digital Archive..
Cowan, C. D. (1961). Nineteenth-century Malaya: The origins of British political control (pp.15-16). London: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RCLOS 959.503 COW [GBH])
He was S.V.C.'s first commandant [Microfilm: NL 3692]. (1954, 7 April). The Straits Times, p.10.
Jarman, R. L. (Ed.). (1998). Annual reports of the Straits Settlements 1855-1941 (Vol. 1, pp.27, 81, 89, 96, 269, 419-20, 343). Slough: Archive Editions.
(Call no.: RSING 959.51 STR-[AR])
Khoo, K. K. (1972). The western Malay states, 1850-1873: The effects of commercial development on Malay politics (p.73). Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.5103 KHO)
The late Colonel Ranald MacPherson (sic) [Microfilm: NL 5043]. (1870, 15 January). The Straits Times, p.1.
Liu, G. (1996). In granite and chunam: The national monuments of Singapore (pp. 45, 173-77). Singapore: Landmark Books and Preservation of Monuments Board.
(Call no.: RSING 725.94095957 LIU)
McNair, J. F. A., & Bayliss, W. D. (1899). Prisoners their own warders (pp.10, 71-2, 74, 78, 97-8) [Microfilm: NL 12115]. Westminster: A. Constable.
Makepeace, W., Brooke, G., & Braddell, R. St. J. (Eds.). (1991). One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. 1, pp. 284-86). Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE [HIS])
Parkinson, C. N. (1960). British intervention in Malaya, 1867-1877 (pp. 18n, 31). Singapore: University of Malaya Press.
(Call no.: RCLOS 959.5 PAR)
Seet, K. K. (2000) The Istana (pp. 23-25). Singapore: Times Editions.
(Call no.: RSING q725.17095957 IST)
Singapore Daily Times [Microfilm: NL 5217]. (1867, 13 March), p.2.
Sixty years ago [Microfilm: NL 559]. (1927, 8 October). The Straits Times, p.7.
Turnbull, C. M. (1972). The Straits Settlements, 1826-1867: Indian presidency to crown colony (pp. 79, 302). London: Athlone Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR [HIS])
Winsley, T. M. (1938). A history of the Singapore Volunteer Corps 1854-1937, being also an historical outline of volunteering in Malaya (p. 4). [Microfilm: NL 25997]. Singapore: Government Printing Office.
List of Images
Liu, G. (1996). In granite and chunam: The national monuments of Singapore (p.174). Singapore: Landmark Books and Preservation of Monuments Board.
(Call no.: RSING 725.94095957 LIU)
Winsley, T. M. (1938). A history of the Singapore Volunteer Corps 1854-1937, being also an historical outline of volunteering in Malaya (p. 10). [Microfilm: NL 25997]. Singapore: Government Printing Office.
The information in this article is valid as at 2009 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Ronald MacPherson, 1817-1869
Law and government>>Public administration