Robert Carr Woods, Sr
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Robert Carr Woods, Sr (b. 30 June 1816, England – d. 16 March 1875, Singapore), known as Robin, was the first editor of The Straits Times and guided it through its difficult early years. He also laid out Bukit Timah cemetery, co-founded Singapore’s first law firm, served briefly as a judge and drove the campaign for transferring control of the Straits Settlements from India to London.
Life in England and India
Woods’s earliest known job was making meteorological instruments. He joined London’s Meteorological Society in 1838, soon became its registrar and secured an order for equipment. His enormous barometer (possibly the world’s largest, containing 56 pounds of mercury) proved unsatisfactory but he also devised the first thermometer with a white backing for easier reading at night.
In 1840 he went to Bombay (now Mumbai) and worked as a journalist. India fascinated Woods, and he travelled incognito to learn more about its people but was sometimes mistaken for a spy. For unknown reasons, he was required to leave in 1845 and moved to Singapore.
Editorship of The Straits Times
Soon after arriving in Singapore, he was hired by merchant Catchick Moses to head his new venture, The Straits Times and Singapore Journal of Commerce. For about eight years until then, the Singapore Free Press had been the only English-language newspaper in Singapore. Highly confident in himself and the project, Woods sought to distinguish it from the staid Singapore Free Press with short stories, jokes and, more importantly, wider business coverage. However he was mocked for the jocular tone and flowery prose of the early issues.
A year later, Moses gave him the unprofitable title after failing to sell it. Faced with a shortage of subscribers and interesting stories, Woods tried to generate income by using the printing press for other projects. These included Singapore’s first directory in 1846, which contained only a few pages of local listings but became an annual publication.
James Brooke controversy
In 1849, Woods drew the newspaper into its first big political campaign, a crusade against Sir James Brooke, the Raja of Sarawak, whom he resented over a perceived snub. Woods charged that Brooke’s bloody suppression of Dayak pirates earlier that year was really the massacre of peaceful traders, but the Singapore Free Press defended Brooke and the controversy boosted both papers’ circulations.
In 1851 Woods petitioned London for an inquest. A commission was eventually convened in 1854 and Woods led the attack against Brooke. However signatories of his petition demanding an enquiry insisted they had been misled and Brooke was exonerated but never fully recovered. The episode made Woods many enemies yet did not hurt The Straits Times. From 1858 it was printed daily and in 1860 Woods sold it, having succeeded in a difficult market.
As journalism paid little, Woods registered as a law agent in 1849. This position allowed him to perform legal work like debt collecting without requiring any specific qualifications, though his knowledge of local culture helped. In 1861 he established Singapore’s first law firm with Scottish advocate James Guthrie Davidson, with most of their early business coming from Boat Quay merchant houses. It prospered and expanded to become one of Singapore’s pre-eminent law firms, and survives today as Rodyk & Davidson.
In 1863 he finally obtained a professional qualification from Gray’s Inn, under a programme to elevate the status of Straits Settlements law agents but entitling them to practise only in the colony. Woods was temporarily attorney general in 1870 and was named senior puisne judge on the Supreme Court in December 1874. However he was ill for much of his short time on the bench and died three months later.
Woods was a Mason, a trustee of Raffles Institution and secretary of the Sailors’ Home, which he helped establish. As secretary of Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s management committee his effective appeals helped greatly to replenish its depleted funds, and he personally donated $50 annually for many years.
Woods became deputy sheriff in 1850 and was a municipal commissioner from 1860 to 1861 and from 1864 to 1873. A former member of the Royal Botanical Society and cultivator of one of Singapore’s finest gardens (Woodsville Close is named for his former estate), he promoted the planting of roadside trees and worked to beautify sites like the Esplanade and St Andrew’s churchyard. He was also responsible for transforming Bukit Timah cemetery, situated on a gloomy swampy plain and which commissioners had been criticised for purchasing. Much of his spare time was spent improving the drainage and brightening it with paths, trees and flowers. After leaving the council, he offered to continue maintaining it as nobody else volunteered to assume the responsibility.
Woods led numerous public campaigns, such as resisting the introduction of the rupee and legalising the dollar as Singapore’s currency. He had a series of complaints against the East India Company, which ruled the Straits Settlements, over issues like the proposed imposition of port dues and income tax, and the censoring of newspapers and transportation of convicts to Singapore after the 1857 Indian Mutiny.
From 1856, he was one of the earliest and most prominent advocates of transferring the Straits Settlements to direct rule by the Colonial Office. Woods and a few allies (including Abraham Logan, his former rival, the editor of the Singapore Free Press) lobbied parliament and agitated for the transfer through editorials and public meetings, which gave London officials an inflated impression of the proposal’s support. The campaigners realised their goal when the Straits Settlements became a crown colony in 1867.
Woods died in 1875 and was buried at Bukit Timah cemetery.
Woods married Elizabeth Charles Ismael Khan in 1841. One son died in infancy and two became lawyers. Woods has been confused with his son Robert Woods, Jr, who followed him at Gray’s Inn and later practised in Penang. In 1869 Woods, Jr published the first record of local court decisions, known as Woods’ Oriental Cases.
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Woods Sr, R. C. (1839). Directions for making meteorological observations on land or at sea, with some remarks on the subjects of meteorological research. Transactions of the Meteorological Society, I, 1-55. Retrieved August 2, 2011, from http://www.archive.org/stream/transactionsofme00lond
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The information in this article is valid as at 9 October 2012 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.