J. F. A. McNair



John Frederick Adolphus McNair (Major) (b. 23 October, 1828, Bath, England–d. 17 May 1910, Brighton, England), known as Frederick, was arguably Singapore’s most important architect of the latter 19th century.1 He oversaw the construction of St Andrew’s Cathedral, designed the former Empress Place Building (Asian Civilisations Museum) and Government House (Istana), and made alterations to the Old Parliament House (The Arts House).2

Education and military/administrative career
McNair studied at King’s College London and the School of Mines.3 He entered the Madras Artillery in 1845, and was promoted to the rank of captain in 1858 and major (retired) in 1870.4 He served in Malacca, commanding the detachment of the Madras Native Artillery, and in Labuan from 1853.5 In 1856, McNair was called to Singapore to be the adjutant to the Straits Settlements Artillery.6 In December 1857, after serving as aide-de-camp and private secretary to then Governor E. A. Blundell, McNair became the executive engineer and superintendent of convicts.7 In the latter roles, McNair was responsible for supervising public works projects and prisons in Singapore.8 McNair was fluent in Hindustani and was said to have “acquired a remarkable personal influence” over the convicts.9 He returned to England from 1865 to 1867 to serve as deputy governor and head of public works at the Woking Prison. After that, McNair came back to Singapore and subsequently took up various appointments – colonial engineer, controller of convicts, Legislative Council member when the administration of the Straits Settlements was transferred from the Indian government to the Colonial Office in London, colonial secretary and surveyor-general.10

Engineering career and major works in Singapore
Former Empress Place Building and old Parliament House
McNair designed the centre wing of the former Empress Place Building, which was the oldest part of the building, built between 1864 and 1865. This wing functioned as a courthouse until 1875.11 The courts moved into the former Parliament House in 1875 when the extension, overseen by McNair, was completed.12

Government House (Istana)
When the Straits Settlements became a crown colony in 1867, there was an impetus to construct the governor’s official residence.13 When building the new Government House, McNair occupied a house-cum-workshop onsite.14 He was twice told to enlarge the design and as a result would require more than the $100,000 that had been allocated. Then-Governor Harry Ord urged him to delay the request for the additional funds; by the time the request was submitted in 1869, many additional labourers were needed to ensure the completion of the project for the upcoming royal visit by Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, the second son of Queen Victoria. While the Legislative Council approved the funding and the project was completed in time, there was criticism from the press and the British government.15

The house’s symmetrical front, with a central tower sitting between colonnaded wings, was a rich hybrid of 18th-century British architecture. The tropical design of a traditional Malay house was situated within a 100-acre estate at the time.16 The facade, which combines Ionic, Doric and Corinthian orders, showcases the building’s classical architectural style.17 Although the initial reaction to the Government House was mixed, appreciation of the building increased over time.18 Since 1959, the building has been known as the Istana and it houses Singapore’s heads of state.19 McNair also designed the nearby Sri Temasek, which was built in 1869 and originally served as the colonial secretary’s residence.20

St Andrew’s Cathedral and other structures
McNair inherited responsibility for St Andrew’s Cathedral, which his predecessor, Colonel Ronald MacPherson, had begun.21 The proposed tower had to be replaced with a lighter steeple due to the weak foundation, and McNair completed it in 1862.22 In addition, McNair built the new General Hospital, expanded Singapore’s fortifications23 and was responsible for the extension of the prison complex on Pearl’s Hill, which was completed in 1882.24

Other contributions, scholarship and regional activities

McNair learnt photography in England in 1861. When he returned to Singapore, he trained others, including convicts, to use the camera. He had originally photographed the prisoners in case of escapes, but outsiders later began to visit the jail to have their photographs taken.25 This was Singapore’s first official use of photography and McNair later introduced it in Penang.26

As superintendent of convicts, McNair led the inmates to make award-winning bricks and popular lounge chairs.27 When the convict labour system ended in 1873, the prisoners were either sent elsewhere or released.28

McNair’s also executed water works projects that had been planned but put off twice before his tenure.29 As surveyor-general, McNair produced maps of the Straits Settlements.30 He sat on the committee that established the Raffles Museum and Library,31 for which he was also the original architect.32

McNair was officially employed on important missions to Siam in 1868, 1874, 1875 and 1878.33 Having studied geology in England, he sent mineral, wood and resin samples to India during his early posting to Malacca.34 His travels included helping to organise the signing of the Treaty of Pangkor in 1874, establishing the Residency system of which he was an advocate.35 He was officiating chief commissioner (government liaison) to the troops during the Perak War (1875–76).36 McNair received a medal and published a detailed book describing the state and defending the campaign.37 During the 1870s, he was the governors’ adviser on Malaya.38

Final posting and retirement
In 1881, McNair was posted to Penang as acting lieutenant-governor and resident councillor.39 He appeared to have been popular there, and improved Penang’s sanitation and drainage facilities before exhaustion compelled his retirement in 1884.40 McNair returned to England and frequently contributed to the publication Asiatic Quarterly before his death in 1910.41

Family
Father: Major Robert McNair.42
Wife: Sarah des Granges (daughter of Reverend J. Paine; m. 1849–d. 1903); and Madalena (daughter of E. Vallence of Brighton; m. 1903).43
Children: Two sons and three daughters.44

Publications
1878:
Perak and the Malays: Sarong and Kris45

1899: Prisoners Their Own Warders (assisted by W. D. Bayliss)46

Honours
McNair received the Order of the White Elephant (Siam), and was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1879.47



Authors

Duncan Sutherland & Neo Tiong Seng



References
1. Stephen, L. (Ed.). (1912). Dictionary of national biography, second supplement (Vol. 2) [eBook]. London: Smith, Elder, pp. 544–545. Retrieved from World eBook Library via National Library Board’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/; Grace’s Guide. (2015, June 19). John Frederick Adolphus McNair. Retrieved 2016, August 16 from Grace’s Guide website: http://www.gracesguide.co.uk/John_Frederick_Adolphus_McNair
2. Koh, T., et. al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, p. 343. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); Urban Redevelopment Authority (2016, July 28). 1 Old Parliament Lane (Old Parliament House). Retrieved 2016, August 19 from Urban Redevelopment Authority website: https://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/publications/corporate/aha/2004/1-old-parliament-lane.aspx
3. Stephen, L. (Ed.). (1912). Dictionary of national biography, second supplement (Vol. 2) [eBook]. London: Smith, Elder, pp. 544–545. Retrieved from World eBook Library via National Library Board’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
4. Stephen, L. (Ed.). (1912). Dictionary of national biography, second supplement (Vol. 2) [eBook]. London: Smith, Elder, pp. 544–545. Retrieved from World eBook Library via National Library Board’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/

5. Stephen, L. (Ed.). (1912). Dictionary of national biography, second supplement (Vol. 2) [eBook]. London: Smith, Elder, pp. 544–545. Retrieved from World eBook Library via National Library Board’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/; Major J. F. A. McNair, C. M. G. (1884, October 4). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Stephen, L. (Ed.). (1912). Dictionary of national biography, second supplement (Vol. 2) [eBook]. London: Smith, Elder, pp. 544–545. Retrieved from World eBook Library via National Library Board’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/; Major J. F. A. McNair, C. M. G. (1884, October 4). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Page 1 advertisements column 4. (1857, December 3). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), p. 1; Death of Major McNair. (1910, June 10). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Major J. F. A. McNair, C. M. G. (1884, October 4). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Major J. F. A. McNair, C. M. G. (1884, October 4). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Stephen, L. (Ed.). (1912). Dictionary of national biography, second supplement (Vol. 2) [eBook]. London: Smith, Elder, pp. 544–545. Retrieved from World eBook Library via National Library Board’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
11. Liu, G. (1996). In granite and chunam: The national monuments of Singapore. Singapore: Landmark Books; Preservation of Monuments Board, pp. 13–14. (Call no.: RSING 725.94095957 LIU); Supreme Court. (2016, June 10). Courthouse architecture. Retrieved 2016, August 25 from Supreme Court website: http://www.supremecourt.gov.sg/services/visitor-services/courthouse-architecture
12. Supreme Court. (2016, June 10). Courthouse architecture. Retrieved 2016, August 25 from Supreme Court website: http://www.supremecourt.gov.sg/services/visitor-services/courthouse-architecture
13. Seet, K. K. (2000). The Istana. Singapore: Times Editions, pp. 28–32. (Call no.: RSING q725.17095957 IST)
14. Major J. F. A. McNair, C.M.G. (1884, October 4). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Seet, K. K. (2000). The Istana. Singapore: Times Editions, pp. 28–32. (Call no.: RSING q725.17095957 IST)
16. Leong, C. (2011). The Istana. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, pp. 22, 38–40. (Call no.: RSING 725.17095957 IST); President's Office. (2016). History. Retrieved 2016, August 25 from Istana website: http://www.istana.gov.sg/the-istana/history
17. Leong, C. (2011). The Istana. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, pp. 22, 38–40. (Call no.: RSING 725.17095957 IST)
18. Seet, K. K. (2000). The Istana. Singapore: Times Editions, pp. 33–35. (Call no.: RSING q725.17095957 IST)
19. Koh, T., et. al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, p. 259. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
20. Urban Redevelopment Authority. (2016, July 28). Sri Temasek, Istana. Retrieved 2016, August 19 from Urban Redevelopment Authority website: https://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/publications/corporate/aha/2008/Sri-Temasek-Istana.aspx
21. McNair, J. F. A., & Bayliss, W. D. (2013). Prisoners their own warders: A record of the convict prison at Singapore in the Straits Settlements, established 1825, discontinued 1873, together with a cursory history of the convict establishments at Bencoolen, Penang and Malacca from the year... Westminster: A. Constable, pp. 10-11. (Call no.: RSING 365.95957 MAC)
22. McNair, J. F. A., & Bayliss, W. D. (2013). Prisoners their own warders: A record of the convict prison at Singapore in the Straits Settlements, established 1825, discontinued 1873, together with a cursory history of the convict establishments at Bencoolen, Penang and Malacca from the year... Westminster: A. Constable, p. 74. (Call no.: RSING 365.95957 MAC)
23. Edwards, N., & Keys, P. (1988). Singapore: A guide to buildings, streets places. Singapore: Times Editions, p. 340. (Call no.: RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA]); McNair, J. F. A., & Bayliss, W. D. (2013). Prisoners their own warders: A record of the convict prison at Singapore in the Straits Settlements, established 1825, discontinued 1873, together with a cursory history of the convict establishments at Bencoolen, Penang and Malacca from the year... Westminster: A. Constable, p. 76. (Call no.: RSING 365.95957 MAC)
24. McNair, J. F. A., & Bayliss, W. D. (2013). Prisoners their own warders: A record of the convict prison at Singapore in the Straits Settlements, established 1825, discontinued 1873, together with a cursory history of the convict establishments at Bencoolen, Penang and Malacca from the year... Westminster: A. Constable, p. 150. (Call no.: RSING 365.95957 MAC); Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddell, R. S. J. (Eds.). (1991). One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. 1). Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 282. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
25. Koh, T., et. al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, p. 399. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); Major J. F. A. McNair, C. M. G.. (1884, October 4). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Major J. F. A. McNair, C. M. G. (1884, October 4). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Major J. F. A. McNair, C. M. G. (1884, October 4). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; McNair, J. F. A., & Bayliss, W. D. (2013). Prisoners their own warders: A record of the convict prison at Singapore in the Straits Settlements, established 1825, discontinued 1873, together with a cursory history of the convict establishments at Bencoolen, Penang and Malacca from the year .... Westminster: A. Constable, p. 110. (Call no.: RSING 365.95957 MAC)
28. McNair, J. F. A., & Bayliss, W. D. (2013). Prisoners their own warders: A record of the convict prison at Singapore in the Straits Settlements, established 1825, discontinued 1873, together with a cursory history of the convict establishments at Bencoolen, Penang and Malacca from the year .... Westminster: A. Constable, p. 145. (Call no.: RSING 365.95957 MAC)
29. Major J. F. A. McNair, C. M. G. (1884, October 4). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Major J. F. A. McNair, C. M. G. (1884, October 4). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; The National Archives, United Kingdom. (1873). Map of the island of Singapore and its dependencies [Map accession no. D2016_000249]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
31. Makepeace, W., Brooke, G., & Braddell, R. St J. (Eds.). (1991). One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. 1). Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 543. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE [HIS])
32. National Museum Preservation Guidelines. (1993). Singapore: Urban Renewal Authority for the Preservation of Monuments Board, p. 4. (Call no.: RSING 363.69095957 NAT)
33. Stephen, L. (Ed.). (1912). Dictionary of national biography, second supplement (Vol. 2) [eBook]. London: Smith, Elder, pp. 544–545. Retrieved from World eBook Library via National Library Board’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
34. Major J. F. A. McNair, C. M. G. (1884, October 4). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
35. Cowan, C. D. (1961). Nineteenth-century Malaya: The origins of British political control. London: Oxford University Press, pp. 182–184. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.503 COW [GBH]); Gullick, J. M. (1992). Rulers and residents: Influence and power in the Malay states, 1870–1920. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 367. (Call no.: RSING 959.5103 GUL)
36. Gullick, J. M. (1992). Rulers and residents: Influence and power in the Malay states, 1870–1920. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 367. (Call no.: RSING 959.5103 GUL); Stephen, L. (Ed.). (1912). Dictionary of national biography, second supplement (Vol. 2) [Ebook]. London: Smith, Elder, pp. 544–545. Retrieved from World eBook Library via National Library Board’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
37. Stephen, L. (Ed.). (1912). Dictionary of national biography, second supplement (Vol. 2) [eBook]. London: Smith, Elder, pp. 544–545. Retrieved from World eBook Library via National Library Board’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/; Gullick, J. M. (1992). Rulers and residents: Influence and power in the Malay states, 1870–1920. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 367. (Call no: RSING: RSING 959.5103 GUL)
38. Gullick, J. M. (1992). Rulers and residents: Influence and power in the Malay states, 1870–1920. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 367. (Call no: RSING: RSING 959.5103 GUL)
39. Stephen, L. (Ed.). (1912). Dictionary of national biography, second supplement (Vol. 2) [eBook]. London: Smith, Elder, pp. 544–545. Retrieved from World eBook Library via National Library Board’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
40. Major J. F. A. McNair, C. M. G. (1884, October 4). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Stephen, L. (Ed.). (1912). Dictionary of national biography, second supplement (Vol. 2) [eBook]. London: Smith, Elder, pp. 544–545. Retrieved from World eBook Library via National Library Board’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
41. Death of Major McNair. (1910, June 13). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
42. Stephen, L. (Ed.). (1912). Dictionary of national biography, second supplement (Vol. 2) [eBook]. London: Smith, Elder, pp. 544–545. Retrieved from World eBook Library via National Library Board’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
43. Late Major McNair, C. M. G. (1910, June, 15). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Stephen, L. (Ed.). (1912). Dictionary of national biography, second supplement (Vol. 2) [eBook]. London: Smith, Elder, pp. 544–545. Retrieved from World eBook Library via National Library Board’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/; Death. (1911, February 11). The Straits Times, p.8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
44. Stephen, L. (Ed.). (1912). Dictionary of national biography, second supplement (Vol. 2) [eBook]. London: Smith, Elder, pp. 544–545. Retrieved from World eBook Library via National Library Board’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/; Death. (1911, February 11). The Straits Times, p.8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
45. McNair, J. F. A. (1878). Perak and the Malays: Sarong and kris [eBook]. Retrieved from World eBook Library via National Library Board’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
46. McNair, J. F. A., & Bayliss, W. D. (2013). Prisoners their own warders: A record of the convict prison at Singapore in the Straits Settlements, established 1825, discontinued 1873, together with a cursory history of the convict establishments at Bencoolen, Penang and Malacca from the year... Westminster: A. Constable, p. ii. (Call no.: RSING 365.95957 MAC)
47. Major J. F. A. McNair, C. M. G. (1884, October 4). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 2016 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. 

Subject
Colonial administrators
Architects--Singapore--Biography
Arts>>Architecture>>Public and commercial buildings
Straits Settlements--Government employees--Biography
McNair, John Frederick Adolphus, 1828-1910
Arts>>Architecture>>Religious buildings
Personalities>>Biographies>>Colonial Administrators