Bras Basah convict jail

The convict jail at Bras Basah was established in response to the increasing number of convicts who were transported to Singapore from other places such as India and Hong Kong when Singapore was a penal colony in the early 19th century.1

Early plans
On 18 April 1825, Singapore received the first shipment of Indian convicts. Numbering 80 in total, these convicts, originally from Madras (present-day Chennai), had been housed at the penal settlement of Bencoolen (Bengkulu) before being transported to Singapore.2 Subsequently, increasing number of convicts began arriving, mainly from India, although a number were from Hong Kong; by the 1830s, Singapore had become the main penal destination in the Straits Settlements.3 Initially, the convicts were housed in sheds by the mouth of the Singapore River on open land. However, with the growth in the convict population, temporary housing in the form of sheds were erected to contain as many as 2,000 convicts in the marshy land near the Bras Basah Canal.4

G. D. Coleman, the first superintendent of public works and of convicts, submitted the earliest plans for the convict jail in 1828.5 Coleman’s design included a dormitory to lodge 600 men, and a separate house of correction for 164 men. Both these buildings would be walled up, but linked by a bridge. Within the compound there would also be a guard house, two overseers’ lodgings, buffalo holdings for as many as 50 buffalos and accommodation for 100 men tending the animals, among other facilities. Additionally, Coleman envisaged a hospital to be constructed behind the prison. Unfortunately, the high cost of Coleman’s plans led to the abandonment of the project.6

In 1841, a decision was made to construct a jail for the convicts at the site by Bras Basah Canal, at the foot of Fort Canning Hill (then known as Government Hill).7 The prison extended from Victoria Street to Bencoolen Street and was bounded by Stamford Road and Bras Basah Road, except the site of Cathedral of the Good Shepherd.8

Work began in the 1840s but took some 20 years to complete.9 At the beginning of the construction, walls were built surrounding the felons’ huts that had existed at the site then; a brick building that would become the convict hospital was also erected,10 following closely some of Coleman’s original plans.11 

This was soon followed by the development of the lodgings for the chief warders, the guardroom and gateways. The wards for each class of convicts were subsequently built – each capable of containing 400 convicts – along with offices, the refractory ward, punishment cells, store rooms, filter rooms, chain rooms and even a room for receiving new convicts.12

Convict labour was used to build the prison. The convicts were trained in a wide range of skills, including masonry, carpentry, blacksmith work and painting – all of which contributed towards the construction of the prison complex.13

Nearing the completion of the prison complex in 1860, the prisoners were engaged in so many diverse building projects that the interior of the complex resembled a factory more than a place of incarceration. The rooms became workshops for constructing interior building materials, manned by carpenters, blacksmiths, coopers, wheelwrights and stone cutters. There were also machine shops that had a wide range of construction tools such as a bolt and nut machine, stone crusher, bandsaw, shearing machines, as well as a steam-powered sawmill and pugmill. Within the compound, there were shops for rattan weavers, rope makers, flag makers, tailors and other weavers, as the convicts learnt to produce finer materials used in the buildings’ interiors. The jail also ran a printing press that published government materials such as the government gazette.14 The superintendent of convicts then, J. F. A. McNair, had learnt photography and set up a studio in the prison in 1861, initially to make a visual record of each of his prisoners but later served the European public who were keen to have their photographs taken.15

When the prison was finally completed in 1860, the convicts began to realise the implication of the building and noted that “an open campong, or village, had become a closed cage”.16

One of the last additions was the erection of a monopteron – an open structure made of “columns arranged in a circle, and supporting a covered cupola”. The structure was built to house the prison bell, which rang during the general muster.17


Transportation of convicts from India to Singapore officially ended in 1867; by May 1873, all the convicts had either been transferred out of Singapore to another penal settlement or given ticket of leave, which allowed them to remain in Singapore as free men or to return home. The Bras Basah jail then began holding local criminals.18

On 13 February 1875, a prison riot and breakout occurred there, which resulted in 27 deaths, including that of the prison superintendent.19 Several years later, in 1878 and 1879, there were outbreaks of beriberi, which led to condemnation of the jail as unsafe and unhealthy. The authorities thus decided to move the inmates to the Pearl’s Hill site, where the civil jail was located.20

The repurposed jail
By 1882, the jail was abandoned, as all existing prisoners were transferred to the new Pearl's Hill prison when extensions to the civil jail were completed. The large tract of land on which the abandoned premises sat was often suggested for building significant landmarks. For a while between 1897 and 1899, the Bras Basah jail site was considered as an alternative location for a new town hall, but the space was deemed too small and too difficult for a foundation to be built for this purpose.21

To provide an open space for recreation in the area, the site, which came to be known as the “Old Gaol Site”, became a venue for sports such as football and cricket, and band performances. The open grounds also often had animals such as ponies grazing there.22 By 1915, it was recorded in the Singapore municipal blue book that the Old Gaol Site was to be used as an open space for recreation.23

Over time, parts of the large compound was carved out, demolished or reused for different purposes. In 1901, the Municipal Commission approved plans to cut a road through the Old Gaol Site and across the land that was part of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, so as to relieve traffic by creating a new thoroughfare from Queen Street into town.24 In 1910, plans were made to demolish one of the buildings at the site which was being used as an armoury for the Singapore Volunteer Corps’ rifles.25

The hospital building of the former prison complex was used by the newly formed Malay Company of the Singapore Volunteer Corps from 1910 until they moved to their new headquarters on Beach Road in May 1939.26 In 1925, the entrance to the old prison, facing Victoria Street, was demolished.27

Until the 1960s, one of its buildings, formerly the prison apothecary, was still standing, occupied by the Catholic Young Men’s Association School.28 As late as 1979, parts of the prison walls, albeit in a dilapidated state, and an archway with heavy swing doors and an inset door with a peephole, all still stood at the junction of Bras Basah Road and Waterloo Street.29

Today, remains of the old prison are buried in the grounds of Bras Basah. Prior to the construction of the Singapore Management University, which sits on the site of the old prison complex, archaeologists uncovered the brick foundations of the prison instead of the 14th-century artefacts that they had initially hoped to find.30 A Bodhi tree that is believed to have been planted from seed by a prisoner in the 19th century was uprooted in 2005 and replanted within the premises of the Singapore Management University.31

Variant names
Bras Basah Road Gaol
Convict jail
Convict prison
Old Gaol Site
Bengal Penal Prison32

Until recently, Bras Basah Road was known colloquially among the Chinese as Lau Kha Khen Khau or Lau Kah Ku Keng Khau (Hokkien), meaning “mouth of the old gaol”; khen khau,  kha ku or kha khau (Hokkien) refers to “ankle chains”.33

Bonny Tan

1. Anoma Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes: A Penal History of Singapore’s Plural Society (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009), 66, 86. (Call no. RSING 365.95957 PIE)
2. John Frederick Adolphus McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders (Westminster: A. Constable, 1899), 38–39 (Call no.: RRARE 365.95957 MAC; microfilm NL12115); Rajesh Rai, Indians in Singapore, 1819–1945: Diaspora in the Colonial Port City (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014), 13. (Call no. RSING 909.049141105957 RAI)
3. Anand A. Yang, “Indian Convict Workers in Southeast Asia in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries,” Journal of World History 14, no. 2 (June 2003): 198 (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website); McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 78.
4. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 39; Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes, 86.
5. Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes, 86.
6. Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes, 86–87.
7. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 54; “This Building was Condemned 60 Years Ago,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 17 June 1940, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Donald Davies, “The Prisoners Built Themselves In,” Straits Times, 10 April 1955, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes, 87–88.
10. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 54, 77.
11. Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes, 87.
12. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 77, 79.
13. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 77.
14. Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes, 113–14.
15. Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes, 114.
16. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 78.
17. McNair, Prisoners Their Own Warders, 83.
18. Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes, 192.
19. Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes, 200–01.
20. “This Building was Condemned 60 Years Ago”; Pieris, Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes, 200–04.
21. “The Permanent Memorial,” Straits Times, 2 July 1897, 3; J. Lowell, “The Memorial Site,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 12 July 1897, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “Untitled,” Straits Times, 12 March 1902, 4; “Untitled,” Straits Times, 16 May 1903, 4; “The Old Gaol Site,” Straits Times, 30 July 1902, 2; “Legislative Council,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 26 July 1899, 3; “On the Verandah,” Straits Times, 10 July 1897, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
23. “The Land We Live In,” Straits Times, 8 October 1915, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
24. “Municipal Commission,” Straits Times, 12 September 1901, 3. (From NewspaperSG.
25. “Untitled,” Straits Times, 4 October 1909, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
26. S. Ramachandra, “The Old, Old Jail,” Straits Times, 16 February 1969, 10 (From NewspaperSG); “This Building was Condemned 60 Years Ago”; R. H. Onraet, “Rickshas, Moneylenders and Five-Foot Ways ‘Malaya’s Major Disasters’,” Straits Times, 19 June 1938, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
27. “Untitled,” Straits Times, 19 June 1925, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Ramachandra, “The Old, Old Jail”; “Prisoners Built Themselves In.” 
29. “T. F. Hwang Takes You Down Memory Lane,” Straits Times, 7 April 1979, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Neo Hui Min, “Prison Underground,” Straits Times, 19 August 2001, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
31. “Old Men of Gen Y Campus,” New Paper, 14 May 2005, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Alison Mayhew, “Hangman’s House,” Straits Times, 10 June 1948, 8; “1915 Mass Execution,” Straits Times, 15 June 1948, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
33. “Singapore Street Names,” Straits Times, 9 July 1933, 13 (From NewspaperSG); Tan Kee Soon, (1906, December). An Index [in romanised Hokkien and Cantonese to] ‘The Chinese Names of Streets and Places in Singapore’ (concluded), Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society no. 46 (December 1906): 200. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)

Further resources
Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 641–43. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])

Jackie Sam, “Bras Basah: Convicts, Converts,” Singapore Monitor, 19 August 1984, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 182–83. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])

Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brook and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 282–90. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])

The information in this article is valid as at 20 April 2015 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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