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John Edwin Tessensohn (b. 8 April 1855, Malacca – d. 26 September 1926, Singapore), better known as Edwin Tessensohn, was a prominent citizen in colonial Singapore who led the Singapore Recreation Club as president for 25 years and helped establish the Eurasian Association. His community service earned wide respect and led to his appointment as the first Eurasian legislative councillor in the Straits Settlements.
Early life and professional career
Tessensohn was born in Malacca and at age 15 moved to Singapore, where his widowed mother believed educational opportunities were better. He attended St Joseph’s Institution until 1872.
Entering the workforce, he served the British India Steam and Navigation Company for 49 years through their successive local agents, principally Boustead and Company. He worked in Boustead’s shipping department for 37 years and rose to the important position of comprador (a local who managed dealings with Asian clients for Western businesses in the East). Tessensohn helped to establish the Clerical Union in 1920 and was elected onto its first committee as vice-president. He retired from Boustead in 1921, and the following year he opened his own firm of land, estate, shipping and commission agents, Edw. Tessensohn & Co.
Singapore Recreation Club (SRC)
Tessensohn enjoyed cricket and tennis and had an early association with the SRC, becoming one of its auditors three years after it was formed by a group of Eurasians in 1883. He was later elected club president and served four non-consecutive terms totalling 25 years between 1894 and 1926. In 1904, he laid the foundation stone of its clubhouse on the Padang, built to accommodate growing audiences for matches.
A focal point for Eurasian men even in non-athletic matters, the SRC doubled in size during Tessensohn’s long tenure leading the club. His leadership of the SRC started a family tradition as a number of descendants followed him onto the committee, including a son and two great-grandsons who became president.
Besides his work at the SRC, he contributed to other Eurasian groups. He was secretary of the Mutual Improvement Society, which organised intellectually stimulating lectures, debates and classes, and later was patron of the Eurasian Literary Association, which staged similar events at his home on Sophia Road.
Around the late 1910s, communal divisions were hardening and many Eurasians felt a body to defend their interests and promote their advancement was needed. Therefore the Eurasian Association was founded in 1919 and Tessensohn became a member of its committee and its patron. Not long afterward, he encouraged the formation of the Portuguese Amateur Dramatic Company and also acted as patron.
Tessensohn had belonged to the Singapore Volunteer Corps from 1874 until 1875 but most Eurasian members eventually left, feeling underappreciated. During World War I they were keen to support the war effort and Tessensohn, among others, proposed forming a Eurasian Company. In 1915, he was invited to discuss the idea with a senior officer and helped organise a public meeting to consider the issue. The assembly rejected the government’s invitation to perform clerical and administrative tasks for the corps, but after securing an offer to enlist on equal terms as other volunteers the Eurasian Company was established in 1918 with 100 initial members. Tessensohn was later appointed to the corps’ advisory committee.
Religious, educational and youth organisations
Tessensohn was a devout Catholic and some of his activities reflected his faith. He was a warden of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd for a record 30 years and was elected to its management committee. He was also secretary of the Singapore chapter of the charitable St Vincent de Paul Society when it was established in 1884 and became a committee member of the Singapore Catholic Club, a gentlemen’s social club, in 1901.
As well as spiritual matters, he took an interest in youth and education. In the 1920s, Tessensohn was a vice-president of the Singapore and South Malaya Boy Scouts Association and a patron of the St Joseph’s Old Boys’ Association. He was associated with Malaya’s first two tertiary institutions, helping to organise fundraising for the new King Edward VII Medical School in 1911 and sitting on the executive committee of Raffles College between 1923 and 1926.
In 1915 his community contributions and abilities were officially recognised when he was appointed a municipal commissioner of Singapore. He eventually became the Municipal Council’s senior member and also sat on the Rent Assessment Board, chaired the Cemetery Committee and was a justice of the peace from 1920.
Municipal elections had been abolished in 1913, but to make government more reflective of society the colonial authorities later invited the Malay, Indian and Eurasian communities each to nominate a representative to the Straits Settlements Legislative Council. The Eurasian Association recommended Tessensohn, and Eurasians throughout Malaya felt great pride when he took office in January 1923. He was said to contribute to the council in a workmanlike, unostentatious manner.
Death and honours
In 1926 he died at Singapore General Hospital and was buried at Bidadari Cemetery. He had been named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire earlier that year but was never invested. The following year his eldest son, who had been appointed to his old seat on the Municipal Council, received the insignia from the governor. A road north of Little India was also named in Tessensohn’s memory, and in 2001 he was included in a set of four postage stamps honouring Singapore’s pioneers.
His parents were John and Elizabeth Tessensohn (née Koek, later Fernandez). Her grandfather was Adriaan Koek, president of Malacca’s Council of Justice and brother-in-law of Abraham Couperus, governor of Malacca before the British invasion.
He married his first wife Clementine da Silva in 1875 and they had a son. She died around 1900. In 1906 he married Emily Chopard, daughter of a president of the SRC, and the couple had one son and one daughter. Chopard passed away in 1922.
His great-grandchildren included George Edwin Bogaars, head of Singapore’s civil service from 1968 until 1975.
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(Call no.: RSING 305.80405957 SIN)
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S’pore pioneers to be featured on new stamps. (2001, February 22). The Straits Times, p.9. Retrieved June 15, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
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(Call no.: RSING 305.804205957 TES)
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List of images
Braga-Blake, M. (Ed.) (1992). Singapore Eurasians: Memories and hopes (p.81). Singapore: Times Editions. Retrieved July 10, 2011, from sgebooks.nl.sg/image.aspx?id=8874e265-d2dc-46c4-b27a-dd4836fd515f
Tessensohn, D. (2001). Elvis lives in Katong: Personal Singapore Eurasiana (p.39). Singapore: Dagmar Books.
(Call no.: RSING 305.80420595 TES)
The information in this article is valid as at 2011 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.
Tessensohn, John Edwin, 1855-1926
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