Horsburgh Lighthouse

Horsburgh Lighthouse, is located on Pedra Branca island, 54 km off the mainland of Singapore, 46 km east of Changi Point, at the eastern entrance to the Singapore Strait. It is the oldest of the four lighthouses in Singapore waters. It was named after eminent navigator and hydrographer, Captain James Horsburgh, F.R.S. Built on a solid solitary rock, during difficult monsoon conditions, the lighthouse foundation stone was laid on 24 May 1850, in the presence of Governor William J. Butterworth and other dignitaries. The tower and light was ready for operation by 1851. 

The Horsburgh Testimonial

A public meeting with British merchants, on 22 November 1836 in Canton, China, mooted the idea and collected donations to build a lighthouse as a tribute to the late navigator and hydrographer, Captain James Horsburgh (b. Elie, Scotland. 1762 - d. 14 May 1836). Horsburgh was well regarded as he had charted map-routes of the eastern seas which proved invaluable to British and other seafarers of the time.

Choice Location
The island of Pedra Branca a reef of huge boulder rocks, near to Singapore in the Straits was seen as the most appropriate location for a lighthouse, and it could alert ships of rock-reefs in the area. Many vessels had run aground in the area, since the earliest reported accidents of Portuguese mariners, from the early 1500s. As commerce and shipping increased in the region, so have accidents and losses become more numerous. Reported losses in Singapore journals, included five ship-wrecks and four accidents between 1824 to 1839; and an increase to 11 ship-wrecks and six ship accidents between 1841 to 1851. There must have been more unreported disasters and accidents, with property losses impossible to estimate.

Construction Development
In a letter dated 20 November 1844, John Turnbull Thomson, Government Surveyor and Chief Engineer (1841-53) recommended that the lighthouse be built on Peak Rock, off the Romania group of islands. However, the Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty considered the location too far within the Straits, and an insignificant marker for vessels. Pedra Branca's location in deep and dangerous waters proved a greater need for a lighthouse to alert and guide ships to pass by without running aground.

Final approval came on 21 June 1847, and J. T. Thomson as architect, began work on 1 November 1847. The project, turned out to be one of Thomson's most difficult and challenging, when strong and raging north-east monsoon winds swept away the first erected test pillars by 1 March 1848.

As an official project launch, the Horsburgh Lighthouse Foundation Stone was laid in the presence of Governor William J. Butterworth, several distinguished guests, and with a Masonic ceremony, took place at 1:00 pm on 24 May, 1850.

The Horsburgh Lighthouse Memorial Tablet was installed when work was complete. On Saturday, 27 September 1851, Governor William J. Butterworth accompanied by Sir William Jeffcott, the Recorder; Colonel Messiter, and a large party of officials, including many of the oldest residents proceeded to Pedra Branca, to witness the illumination and beam of the lantern for the first time. The lighthouse beamed regularly in the evenings and at night, from 15 October, 1851.

Political History
Constructed by the British Straits Settlement, the lighthouse has always been administered and maintained from Singapore although it is located some 18 nautical miles beyond Singapore's territorial water limit. It sits on Pedra Branca, 54 km from the mainland at the Eastern entrance to the Singapore Straits. Singapore has claimed jurisdiction over the island based on treaties between the East India Company, the Sultanate of Johor and an Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 which demarcated colonial dominion. Singapore's jurisdiction has been the subject of dispute by the government of Malaysia in recent times.

Located at Latitude 1,20' 15" N and Longitude 104,25' 00". Horsburgh Lighthouse, the first lighthouse to be constructed with 5,474 cubic feet of granite quarried from Pulau Ubin, 40 km away. The tower at its foundation is 22 ft in diameter, and the structure stands 109 ft tall from sea level, with seven levels of rooms, plus the upper light-room section. The copper dome lighthouse is now painted with black and white zebra stripes for better visibility. It is also known as. "First Pharos of the Eastern Seas" or "Lighthouse for All Nations".

Construction Team
Architect: John Turnbull Thomson.
Light Apparatus Construction and Design : Alan Stevenson, Engineer, Northern Lighthouse Board.
Foreman : John Bennet.
Main Contractor : Choa Ah Lam.
Additional Manpower : 46 Chinese and Malay assistants, plus Indian convict labourers.

Full plans, design and technical specifications, and development costs recorded by J. T. Thomson in 1851, can be seen in "The Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia"

20 Nov 1836 : In Canton-China, a public meeting with British merchants mooted the idea to build a lighthouse as a memorial tribute to Captain. James Horsburgh, Navigator and hydrographer who published excellent navigational maps of the eastern seas.
20 Nov 1844 : J. T. Thomson presented plans and the estimates for erecting a lighthouse on Peak Island.
21 Jun 1847 : Resident Councillor Thomas Church's letter expressed the Government's preference for a lighthouse on Pedra Branca.
1 Nov 1847 : Brick pillars were raised on the island during the north-east monsoon, to test the force of wind and waves.
1 Mar 1848 : Thomson returned to find the pillars on the north side swept away. He made the decision to build a more solid lighthouse in granite.
14 Dec 1849 : Plans for the Thomson's Lighthouse approved by East India Company.
24 May 1850 : Foundation Stone was laid in the presence of Governor and VIPs, with Masonic ceremonial honours.
8 Sep 1851 : The lantern and its machinery were installed.
27 Sep 1851 : Governor William J. Butterworth, officials and invited guests witnessed the first illumination of the lantern.
15 Oct  1851 : Daily operations began.
22 Aug 1887 : A new flashing light was used at the lighthouse.
1930 : Illumination increased to 154,500 candle power.
1950 : A VHF Radio-telephone communications was installed for contact with the Marine Department.
30 Apr 1966 : At 6:35 pm, the newly installed 449,000 candle power light was illuminated.

Vernon Cornelius-Takahama

Buckley, C. B. (1984) An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore (pp. 510-512). Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING q959.57 BUC)

Edwards, N., & Keys, P. (1996). Singapore: A guide to buildings, streets, places (p. 480). Singapore: Times Books International.
(Call no.: RSING 915.957 EDW) 

Leifer, M. (1995). Dictionary of modern politics of South-East Asia (p. 110). London: Routledge.
(Call no.: RSING 320.95903 LEI) 

Logan, J. R (Ed.). (1970). The Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia (pp. 376-498). Nendeln: Kraus Reprint.
(Call no.: RCLOS 950.05 JOU) 

Singapore: Portrait of a port:A pictorial history of the port and harbour of Singapore 1819-1984 (1984) (pp. 12-13). Singapore: MPH Magazines.
(Call no.: SING 779.93871095957 SIN) 

Further Readings
Hall-Jones, J. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841-1853 (pp. 1-50). Singapore: National Museum.
(Call no.: RSING 925 THO)

Hall-Jones, J. (1995). The Horsburgh Lighthouse (pp. 7-35). Invercargill, N.Z: John Hall-Jones.
( Call no: RSING 623.8942 HAL)

Pavitt, J. A. L. (1966). First pharos of the Eastern sea: Horsburgh Lighthouse: a chronicle (pp. 1-50). Singapore: D. Moore
(Call no.: RSING 623.894 PAV)

The information in this article is valid as at 2001 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.

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