Alexander Laurie Johnston



Alexander Laurie Johnston (b. Dumfriesshire, South Scotland–d. 19 February 1850, Bluehill, Kircudbright, Scotland), a former ship’s owner/captain, merchant, businessman, magistrate and Justice of the Peace, arrived in Singapore between 1819 and 1820. One of the earliest and much-liked settlers, he was among the first magistrates appointed by Sir Stamford Raffles. The latter also made him one of the first Trustees of the Singapore Institution (later Raffles Institution). Johnston established A. L. Johnston & Co. in 1820, and was an active member of the mercantile community. He was a founding member of the Singapore Chamber of Commerce in 1837 and was elected its first chairman. A pioneer businessman in Singapore, he spent more than 20 years of his life here, made his mark and left Singapore in December 1841 for England before his retirement in Scotland. He died on 19 February 1850 in Scotland. Johnston’s Pier, now demolished, was named after him.1

Early life
Johnston was born to a respectable Scottish family in Dumfriesshire, a county in southern Scotland. He went to India with the merchant navy of the British East India Company, leaving the service upon reaching the rank of chief mate. He then took command of a “free trader vessel”, of which he was owner or at least part-owner, and in which he made several voyages.2


Johnston was among the earliest settlers in Singapore, and may have arrived before 1820, the year in which he set up his company, which was the first European enterprise formed in Singapore.3 A sociable, kind, generous and high-spirited gentleman, he was much liked by the Europeans as well as the local community.4  

A. L. Johnston & Co (1820–1892)
In 1820, Johnston established A. L. Johnston & Co, one of the earliest European agency houses in Singapore. Around 1823, he secured a piece of dry land on the western bank of the Singapore River, on which he built a new warehouse and home.

Until Collyer Quay was reclaimed and developed from 1858, the seafront of the Singapore skyline showed the rear of the buildings facing Commercial Square (today’s Raffles Place), and the out-houses and sheds also faced the seashore. Johnston’s office stood where the MayBank building stands today.6 His office building faced the beach, and being at the end of the block on Battery Road, had immediate access to the mouth of the Singapore River. This location was advantageous to the business for many years, as it was the first house as one entered the river on the west bank. In an area originally called Tanjong Singapura, the building was nicknamed Tanjong Tangkap (in Malay, tanjong, or tanjung means “cape, headland, promontory or high point of land jutting out into the sea”, while tangkap means “to catch”). Other merchants said that Johnston built his office there so as to be the first to catch captains of vessels as they came up the river. The building was demolished in 1848, and the firm subsequently moved to the site that is occupied today by the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank building, at the corner of Battery Road and Collyer Quay.7

Business partners
Johnston’s first partner, Christopher Rideout Read, arrived in 1822 from Bencoolen on the advice of Raffles. Read’s son, William Henry Macleod Read (b. 1819–d. 1909) arrived in Singapore in 1841, and took over his retiring father’s place in the company from 1 January 1842. Johnston retired two months after the young Read’s arrival. William Read carried on the business with other partners up to the late 1880s, retiring in 1887. The company went out of business in 1892.8

Friendship with Raffles
Johnston enjoyed the friendship and confidence of Raffles, who in February 1823 placed his name at the head of the list of magistrates who were appointed to administer the laws of the “new settlement”. Letters and notes addressed by Raffles to Johnston bear testimony to the frequency and benefit with which his advice and assistance was sought in all matters affecting the interests of the Settlement. He was highly respected by the business community and by other locals too, and in almost every public transaction connected with the affairs or interests of Singapore, Johnston ensured best results for the good of all. In 1823, when Raffles projected the Singapore Institution, Johnston was named a Trustee, and his company A. L. Johnston & Co. was appointed the honorary treasurer.9

The benefactor
Johnston was liberal and hospitable to the extreme, and in the earliest cash book when he commenced business here, the first entry to his personal debit was “A. L. Johnston, Paid subscription for the release of a female European slave, $10”. He was a liberal subscriber to the Singapore Institution, and even long after he left the Settlement, his interest in welfare continued, sending liberal donations to its funds. Although an Anglican Protestant, he donated towards the first Catholic chapel at Bras Basah Road. The building after that eventually became St Joseph’s Institution.10

Singapore Chamber of Commerce
Johnston took an active part in setting up the Singapore Chamber of Commerce, which was established on 8 February 1837. He was elected the first chairman.11

Home

In 1824, Johnston was officially listed as Merchant Resident. He lived in a house on Battery Road; its compound is where the Standard Chartered Bank building stands today.12

Departure from Singapore
By the time Johnston left Singapore for England in December 1841, he was one of the oldest residents and among the best known and most highly respected merchants in Singapore. At one of his many farewell gatherings, a great number of the most respectable Chinese merchants presented him with a plate valued at 1,000 dollars, and a gold snuff box costing 500 dollars. Arab merchants presented him with something of equal value.13 A Singapore Free Press notice dated 1 July 1853 stated that the interest and responsibility of the late Johnston, in the firm of A. L. Johnston, ceased on 31 August 1847.14

His property
On 8 June, 1854 at mid-day, two properties belonging to the estate of Johnston were put up for sale by public auction. They were: a bungalow with a compound area of 31,600 sq ft on the banks of the Rochore River, and nine brick-built shops in Selegie Road with a ground area of 12,200 sq ft.15

Retirement and death
Johnston retired in Scotland. He died in Bluehill, Kircudbright, in Scotland, on 19 February 1850. An elaborate and extensive obituary by the Singapore Free Press included these quotes:

“To the deep regret of all who knew him on this Island, the news of the death of Alexander Laurie Johnston, Esquire.”
“To know him was to know an honest man and a warm friend.”
“…he was one of the most sterling of the “worthies” of Singapore.”

Johnston’s Pier was named after him.16



Author

Vernon Cornelius-Takahama



References

1. Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore: 1819–1867. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 62–63. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A history of Singapore, 1819–1988. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 15. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS]); Tyers, R. K. (1993). Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & now. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 100. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS]); Untitled. (1850, April 19). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), p. 3; Notice. (1853, July 1). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), p. 2; Correspondence. (1834, September 11). Singapore Chronicle and Commercial Register, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore: 1819–1867. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 62–63. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); Untitled. (1850, April 19). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore: 1819–1867. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 62. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A history of Singapore, 1819–1988. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 15. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS]); Moore, D., & Moore, J. (1969). The first 150 years of Singapore. Singapore: Donald Moore Press Ltd, p. 176. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 MOO-[HIS]); Reith, G. M. (1985). Handbook to Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 6, 39, 54, 86. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 REI-[HIS])
4. Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore: 1819–1867. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 63. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); Untitled. (1850, April 19). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A history of Singapore, 1819–1988. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 15. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS]); Drabble, J. H., & Drake, P. J. (1981, September). The British agency houses in Malaysia: Survival in a changing world. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 12(2), 298–303. Retrieved from JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/; Cunyingham-Brown, S. (1971). The traders: A story of Britain’s Southeast Asian commercial adventure. London: Newman Neamie, p. 43. (Call no.: RSING 382.0959 CUN)
6. Abdullah Abdul Kadir. (1969). The Hikayat Abdullah: The autobiography of Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, 1797–1854 (A. H. Hill, Trans.). Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 158. (Call no.: RSING 959.51032 ABD)
7. Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddell, R. S. J. (Eds.). (1991). One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. 2). Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 201, 485. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS]); Tyers, R. K. (1993). Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & now. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 121. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS]); Doggett, M. (1957). Characters of light: A guide to the buildings of Singapore. Singapore: Donald Moore, p. 118. (Call no.: RCLOS 725.4095957 DOG-[RFL]; Singapore street directory and sectional maps. (1957). Singapore: Survey Dept., pp. 15–16. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.57 SIN-[RFL])
8. Reith, G. M. (1985). Handbook to Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 6. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 REI-[HIS]): Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A History of Singapore, 1819–1988. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 91. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS]): Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore: 1819–1867. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 76. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); Turnbull, C. M. (1972). The Straits Settlements, 1826–67: Indian presidency to crown colony. London: Athlone Press, p. 24. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS]); Tyers, R. K. (1993). Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & now. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 26. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS]); Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddell, R. S. J. (Eds.). (1991). One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. 2). Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 416–417. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
9. Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore: 1819–1867. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 62–63, 97, 122. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); Untitled. (1850, April 19). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore: 1819–1867. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 62–63, 245. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); Tyers, R. K. (1993). Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & now. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 100. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS]); Untitled. (1850, April 19). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Abdullah Abdul Kadir. (1969). The Hikayat Abdullah: The autobiography of Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, 1797–1854 (A. H. Hill, Trans.). Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 281. (Call no.: RSING 959.51032 ABD); Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore: 1819–1867. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 62–63. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
12. Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore: 1819–1867. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 154. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
13. Untitled. (1841, December 23). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), p. 3; Untitled. (1850, April 19). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Notice. (1853, July 1). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Advertisement. (1854, May 26). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Untitled. (1850, April 19). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tyers, R. K. (1993). Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & now. Singapore: Landmark Books, pp. 26, 100, 121. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS]) 



Further resources
Beamish, J. (1985). A history of Singapore architecture: The making of a city. Singapore: G. Brash, p. 12.
(Call no.: RSING 722.4095957 BEA)

Chew, C. T. E., & Lee, E. (Eds.). (1991). A history of Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 57.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 HIS-[HIS])

Edwards, N., & Keys, P. (1988). Singapore: A guide to buildings, streets, places. Singapore: Times Books International, pp. 384, 453, 483.
(Call no.: RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA])

Liu, G. (1999). Singapore: A pictorial history 1819–2000. Singapore: Archipelago Press: National Heritage Board, pp. 40, 56–57, 94–95, 148, 196.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 LIU-[HIS]) 

National Archives Singapore. (1986). Singapore historical postcards from the National Archives collection. Singapore: Times Eds., pp. 10, 19.
(Call no.: RSING 769.4995957 SIN) 

Reith, G. M. (1985). Handbook to Singapore. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 6, 39, 54, 86.

(Call no.: RSING 959.57 REI-HIS])

Singapore guide & street directory. (1972, July). Singapore: Survey Dept., p. 31.
(Call no.: RCLOS 959.57 SIN) 

The free press. (1841, December 23). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Turnbull, C. M. (1995). Dateline Singapore: 150 years of the Straits Times. Singapore: Times Editions: Singapore Press Holdings, pp. 22, 29.

(Call no.: RSING 079.5957 TUR)

Tyers, R. K. (1976). Singapore, then & now. Singapore: University Education Press, pp. 224–225.
(Call no.: RCLOS 959.57 TYE)

Wurtzburg, C. E. (1984). Raffles of the Eastern Isles. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 593, 610, 635, 704.
(Call no.: RSING 959.570210924 RAF.W-[HIS]) 



The information in this article is valid as at 2001 and correct as far as we can 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
Businessmen--Singapore--Biography
Colonial companies--Singapore
Johnston, Alexander Laurie, d. 1850
Pioneers
Community leaders
History>>Asia>>Southeast Asia>>Singapore
Personalities>>Biographies>>Pioneers
Personalities>>Biographies>> Community leaders