John Turnbull Thomson



John Turnbull Thomson (b. 10 August 1821, Glororum, England–d. 16 October 1884, Invercargill, New Zealand) was the Government Surveyor of the Straits Settlements from 1841 to 1853. He made a number of important contributions during his 12 years in Singapore, including the creation of maps of early Singapore, as well as the design and construction of several buildings and other public infrastructure on the island.1 His greatest achievement was probably the design and construction of the Horsburgh Lighthouse on Pedra Branca.2 A self-taught artist and prolific writer, Thomson’s collection of paintings, books and articles now serve as invaluable records of the architecture and life of early Singapore.3

Early life
Born in Glororum in the northeast of England, Thomson’s father died when he was still a boy. His mother wanted to ensure that he would receive a sound education, and thus sent him to the famous Duns Academy in Scotland. He subsequently studied at the Marischal College in Aberdeen, Scotland, during which he completed a course in mathematics that would later serve him well in his career as a surveyor.4


When Thomson was at the Duns Academy, he was in the company of peers whose families owned estates in Malaya. Curious to see the country, he set sail for Malaya in 1838 with an engagement to survey the large estates in Penang and Johor owned by British corporation, Brown, Scott and Company.5

Career
Malaya

From 1838 to 1841, Thomson led a rough and lonely life surveying the huge British estates in Malaya. His work involved expeditions into the jungle and he was often the only “white man” living in the local community as well as the first white man the natives had ever seen. Out of necessity and interest, Thomson familiarised himself with local culture and customs and also learnt to speak Malay and Hindustani.6

Singapore
The maps Thomson created in Malaya attracted the attention of the governor of Singapore.7 On 25 October 1841, he was appointed by the East India Company as the Government Surveyor for the Straits Settlements. In November the following month, the 20-year-old Thomson assumed the duties of this newly created position in Singapore.8

In 1843, Thomson’s first map of Singapore’s town area and its adjoining districts was published. This was followed by a map of Singapore island, the harbour and the Straits of Singapore in 1844. Thomson completed a huge part of the survey of Singapore island alone on horseback, which was a risky undertaking at the time due to the prevalence of wild animals and the high incidence of murder. Besides surveying the Singapore town and island, Thomson also carried out a marine survey of the Straits of Singapore, which was one of his most important contributions during his time in the British colony.9 However, the most dangerous survey that Thomson conducted was probably the marine survey of the east coasts of Johor and Pahang in 1849; the waters in these areas were infested with sharks and pirates.10

In addition to his work as surveyor, Thomson also served as an engineer in Singapore. He designed and supervised the construction of the Dalhousie Obelisk; 24 miles of carriage road, including Thomson Road which was named after him; several bridges, including Kallang Bridge and Singapore lower carriage bridge; as well as a number of buildings.11 Among the buildings he designed were the Seamen’s Hospital (present-day Singapore General Hospital) and Chinese Hospital (present-day Tan Tock Seng Hospital), both located at Pearl’s Hill; a tower and spire of St Andrew's Church (since replaced by the current St Andrew’s Cathedral); as well as the Horsburgh Lighthouse, which was probably his greatest work.12

In 1847, Thomson received instructions to design and build the Horsburgh Lighthouse on Pedra Branca.13 Construction of the granite lighthouse, the first of its kind in the Far East, was an uphill task.14 As the lighthouse was to be erected on the exposed Pedra Branca rock situated 54 kilometres off mainland Singapore, the stones for its construction had to be quarried from Pulau Ubin and transported 40 km by sea through pirate-infested waters.15 By April 1849, work at Pedra Branca had begun and among Thomson’s crew of 46 workmen were Chinese opium smokers and a number of Indian convicts.16 The construction took about two years during which Thomson had to quell a riot by the workmen against their dishonest contractor, as well as a strike by the crew of a gunboat responsible for escorting the transport of granite. Moreover, he had to contend with poor health and had fallen ill on a number of occasions while living on Pedra Branca.17

On 27 September 1851, the Horsburgh Lighthouse was lit up for the first time. The two years spent on the exposed Pedra Branca rock had, however, taken its toll on Thomson's health. Worn out and chronically ill, he left Singapore and returned to England in 1853 on long sick leave.18 Before Thomson’s departure, friends and members of the European community presented him with a testimonial and a silver epergne engraved with the Pedra Branca rock and the Horsburgh Lighthouse, in appreciation of his services and contributions to the British settlement.19

Upon his return to England, Thomson enrolled at the Edinburgh University for further studies before taking up engineering at Peter Nicholson's School of Engineering at Newcastle-on-Tyne (now known as Newcastle upon Tyne).20 Thomson’s recovery from illness was slow and he realised that he was unable to return to the same rigorous pace of life in the tropics again. Although he visited Singapore in 1855, the stay was a brief one during which he retired from his services with the Straits Settlements. In the same year, he left for New Zealand, with its temperate climate being more conducive to health, after seeing Singapore for the last time.21

New Zealand
Thomson’s reputation preceded him on account of his achievements in Singapore and he was offered the position of Chief Surveyor of Otago Province after arriving in New Zealand in 1856. On 1 May 1876, he took office in Wellington, New Zealand, as the country’s first Surveyor-General. He retired from this position in 1879 at the age of 58.22


Public infrastructure designed by Thomson
The public infrastructure designed and executed by Thomson during his 12 years in Singapore include:23

Buildings: Horsburgh Lighhouse, the Ellenborough buildings, Powder Magazine, tower and spire of St Andrew’s Church, Chinese Hospital, Seamen’s Hospital.
Bridges: Kallang Bridge, Kundang Kurban Bridge, Singapore lower carriage bridge.
Road: 24 miles of carriage road.
Others: Dalhousie Obelisk.

In addition, Thomson designed a number of works that were not carried out, which include:24

Buildings: Lighthouses on Barn Island, Peak Rock and Coney Island; Her Majestry’s jail in Outram Road; convict jail; and alterations to St Andrew’s Church, China Market and other buildings.
Others: Water works for the town supply.

Artist and writer
Thomson painted a series of watercolours during his leisure time. These paintings serve as a visual documentation of the buildings in Singapore, as well as the people with whom he had interacted and worked with during his time on the island. The paintings by this self-taught artist are now priceless records of the architecture and life of early Singapore before the advent of photography.25


Thomson also wrote a number of books and articles on the region.26 In 1864, he published his first book, Some Glimpses into Life in the Far East.27 The book was written in a humorous manner, comprising short chapters and anecdotes on the ways and inhabitants of early Singapore.28 The experience and dangers of his expeditions into the jungle as a surveyor are also recounted in the book.29 A sequel to the book, which was written in a more serious tone, was published the following year.

In 1874, Thomson translated the text of the Hakayit Abdulla (also known as Hikayat Abdullah), which was written by his Malay language teacher, Munshi Abdullah, a clerk of Sir Stamford Raffles.30 The Hakayit Abdulla is an important record of the founding and early days of Singapore.31

Books authored by Thomson
The books written by Thomson include.32

1864: Some Glimpses into Life in the Far East.
1865: Sequel to Some Glimpses into Life in the Far East.
1867: Rambles with a Philosopher.
1874: Translations from Hakayit Abdulla (bin Abdulkadar), Munshi.
1878: Social Problems: An Inquiry into the Law of Influences.

Family
Thomson married Jane Williamson in New Zealand on 7 October 1858. They had nine daughters. Upon his retirement, Thomson and his family moved to Invercargill in South Island, New Zealand, where they lived in a house he designed called Lennel. The house is currently preserved under covenant by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. Thomson died in the house on 16 October 1884 at age 63.33



Author
Cheryl Sim




References
1. Hall-Jones, J. (1971). Mr Surveyor Thomson: Early days in Otago and Southland. Wellington: Reed, pp. 129–130. (Call no.: RDLKL 526.9092 THO.H)
2. Hall-Jones, J., & Hooi, C. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, p. 8. (Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO)
3. Priceless record of early S'pore. (1980, October 31). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Hall-Jones, J., & Hooi, C. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, pp. 1–2. (Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO)
5. Hall-Jones, J., & Hooi, C. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, pp. 1–2. (Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO); Davies, D. (1955, January 9). The man who went to dinner. The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Hall-Jones, J., & Hooi, C. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, p. 3. (Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO); Hall-Jones, J. (1971). Mr Surveyor Thomson: Early days in Otago and Southland. Wellington: Reed, pp. 23, 105. (Call no.: RDLKL 526.9092 THO.H)
7. Hall-Jones, J., & Hooi, C. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, p. 4. (Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO)
8. Hall-Jones, J., & Hooi, C. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, p. 4. (Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO); Hall-Jones, J. (1971). Mr Surveyor Thomson: Early days in Otago and Southland. Wellington: Reed, p. 129. (Call no.: RDLKL 526.9092 THO.H)
9. Hall-Jones, J., & Hooi, C. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, pp. 6–8. (Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO)
10. Hall-Jones, J., & Hooi, C. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, pp. 9–10. (Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO); Hall-Jones, J. (1971). Mr Surveyor Thomson: Early days in Otago and Southland. Wellington: Reed, p. 129. (Call no.: RDLKL 526.9092 THO.H)
11. Hall-Jones, J., & Hooi, C. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, p. 8. (Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO)
12. Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore 1819–1867. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 353. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); Hall-Jones, J., & Hooi, C. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, p. 8. (Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO)
13. Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore 1819–1867. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 512. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC -[HIS]); Hall-Jones, J. (1971). Mr Surveyor Thomson: Early days in Otago and Southland. Wellington: Reed, p. 106. (Call no.: RDLKL 526.9092 THO.H)
14. Hall-Jones, J. (1971). Mr Surveyor Thomson: Early days in Otago and Southland. Wellington: Reed, p. 106. (Call no.: RDLKL 526.9092 THO.H)
15. Hall-Jones, J., & Hooi, C. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, p. 11. (Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO)
16. Hall-Jones, J., & Hooi, C. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, p. 14. (Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO)
17. Hall-Jones, J., & Hooi, C. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, pp. 11, 15. (Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO)
18. Hall-Jones, J., & Hooi, C. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, pp. 17, 21. (Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO)
19. Hall-Jones, J., & Hooi, C. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, p. 21. (Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO); Untitled. (1853, August 23). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Hall-Jones, J., & Hooi, C. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, p. 120. (Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO); Strathern, G. M. (1966). Thomson, John Turnbull. In An Encyclopedia of New Zealand 1966. Retrieved from http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/1966/thomson-john-turnbull
21. Hall-Jones, J., & Hooi, C. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, p. 21. (Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO)
22. Hall-Jones, J., & Hooi, C. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, pp. 21–24. (Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO)
23. Hall-Jones, J. (1971). Mr Surveyor Thomson: Early days in Otago and Southland. Wellington: Reed, pp. 129–130. (Call no.: RDLKL 526.9092 THO.H)
24. Hall-Jones, J. (1971). Mr Surveyor Thomson: Early days in Otago and Southland. Wellington: Reed, p. 130. (Call no.: RDLKL 526.9092 THO.H)
25. Priceless record of early S'pore. (1980, October 31). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Hall-Jones, J. (1971). Mr Surveyor Thomson: Early days in Otago and Southland. Wellington: Reed, pp. 106, 138. (Call no.: RDLKL 526.9092 THO.H)
26. Hall-Jones, J., & Hooi, C. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, p. 1. (Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO)
27. Hall-Jones, J., & Hooi, C. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, p. 22. (Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO); Hall-Jones, J. (1971). Mr Surveyor Thomson: Early days in Otago and Southland. Wellington: Reed, p. 140. (Call no.: RDLKL 526.9092 THO.H)
28. Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore 1819–1867. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 354. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC -[HIS]); Priceless record of early S'pore. (1980, October 31). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Hall-Jones, J., & Hooi, C. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, p. 3. (Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO)
30. Hall-Jones, J., & Hooi, C. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, p. 22. (Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO); Hall-Jones, J. (2014, March 11). Thomson, John Turnbull: Biography. In Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved from http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/1t97/thomson-john-turnbull
31. Hall-Jones, J., & Hooi, C. (1979). An early surveyor in Singapore: John Turnbull Thomson in Singapore, 1841–1853. Singapore: National Museum, p. 22. (Call no.: RSING 526.90924 THO); Hall-Jones, J. (1971). Mr Surveyor Thomson: Early days in Otago and Southland. Wellington: Reed, p. 140. (Call no.: RDLKL 526.9092 THO.H)
32. Hall-Jones, J. (1971). Mr Surveyor Thomson: Early days in Otago and Southland. Wellington: Reed, p. 140. (Call no.: RDLKL 526.9092 THO.H)
33. Hall-Jones, J. (2014, March 11). Thomson, John Turnbull: Biography. In Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved from http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/1t97/thomson-john-turnbull



Further resources
Hall-Jones, F. G. (1963). John Turnbull Thomson, Surveyor General. Invercargill: Southland Historical Committee.

(Not available in NLB holdings)

Hall-Jones, J. (1983). The Thomson paintings: Mid-nineteenth century paintings of the Straits Settlements and Malaya. Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 759.2 THO)

Thomson, J. T. (1865). Some glimpses into life in the Far East [Microfilm nos.: NL 8371, NL 25422]. London: Richardson & Co.

Thomson, J. T. (1865). Sequel to some glimpses into life in the Far East [Microfilm no.: NL 8371]. London: Richardson.

Thomson, J. T. (1867). Rambles with a philosopher. Dunedin: Mills, Dicks & Co.
(Not available in NLB holdings)

Thomson, J. T. (1874). Translations from Hakayit Abdulla (bin Abdulkadar), Munshi [Microfilm nos.: NL 2905, NL 9904, NL 25434]. London: Henry S. King & Co.

Thomson, J. T. (1878). Social problems: An inquiry into the law of influences. London: C. Kegan Paul & Co. Retrieved from Internet Archive website: https://archive.org/details/socialproblemsin00thom

Thomson, J. T. (1984). Glimpses into life in Malayan lands. Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.5 THO)



The information in this article is valid as at 7 August 2014 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
Arts
Law and government>>Public administration
Surveying--Singapore--Biography
John Turnbull Thomson, 1821-1884
Personalities>>Biographies>>Colonial Administrators
Arts personalities
Colonial administrators
People and communities>>Social groups and communities
Colonial administrators--Singapore--Biography