Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall
by Tan, Bonny
The Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall (VTCH) along Empress Place is Singapore’s oldest performing arts venue. Gazetted as a national monument on 14 February 1992, the VTCH comprises two blocks of building constructed more than 43 years apart, in 1862 and 1905, and joined by a clock tower. The present theatre and concert hall were originally known as the Town Hall and Victoria Memorial Hall respectively. Historically, both were used for functions ranging from public events and political meetings to musical and stage performances. The space has undergone a series of renovations over the years, the most recent being a four-year restoration, following which the VTCH was reopened to the public in July 2014.1
The foundation stone for the Town Hall was laid in 1855, after the Assembly Rooms – a popular venue for local dramas and operas, located at the site of the Old Hill Street Police Station from 1845 to 1856 – fell into disrepair.2 Designed by John Bennett, the municipal engineer, the Town Hall was completed in 1862.3 In addition to various government agencies, the space housed the Singapore Library from 1862 to 1876. The Town Hall originally served a dual function with a theatre on its ground floor and offices and meeting rooms on the second floor. However, with a growing administration and an increasing population requiring entertainment, the Town Hall eventually proved too small for both functions. By 1893, the offices moved out.4
At a public meeting held in the Town Hall on 13 December 1901, a resolution was passed to build a memorial hall for Queen Victoria, who had passed away on 22 January 1901. The following year, after deliberation by a select committee, it was decided that the memorial hall would be built on the land adjacent to the Town Hall.5 The original design was drawn up by the colonial engineer Alexander Murray, with R. A. J. Bidwell of architectural firm Swan & Maclaren expanding on it and executing the final plans. The memorial hall was designed in the Palladian style, which was popular in 19th-century Singapore, and would be joined to the Town Hall by a clock tower. The colonial government led a fund-raising scheme for the construction work, raising $368,000. The Victoria Memorial Hall, which cost $340,000, was opened on 18 October 1905 by then Governor John Anderson.6
The 54-metre clock tower joining the two blocks was not completed until 1906. This was partly because the sponsoring company, The Straits Trading Company, was delayed in its donation of the clock and chimes. The clock has a diameter of 4 m, weighs a tonne and cost $6,000.7
The extra cash from the construction fund for the Memorial Hall was used to convert the Town Hall into a new municipal theatre and renovate its facade so as to maintain a look consistent with the new Memorial Hall. Swan & Maclaren produced the design, and renovation works began in July 1906. By May 1908, construction was nearly completed. Renamed Victoria Theatre, its opening performance was a staging of The Pirates of Penzance on 11 February 1909.8
For the centennial celebrations in 1919 to commemorate 100 years since the founding of Singapore, the statue of Stamford Raffles was moved from the Padang to the front of Victoria Memorial Hall. A special colonnade with a pool was raised to house the statue.
Victoria Memorial Hall played a critical role in Singapore’s political landscape. During the early stages of World War II, it served as a hospital; at the war's conclusion, it was the location for the trial of Japanese war criminals after their surrender. From 1948, the Hall was also the centre for the briefing of election officials and the counting of ballot papers. On 21 November 1954, the newly formed People’s Action Party used the venue for their inaugural meeting. Many high-key meetings were also held at the Hall, including two public meetings of the Rendel Commission in 1953 and 1955, which reviewed the Constitution of the Colony of Singapore in preparation for its independence.9
Between 1952 and 1958, the buildings underwent major renovations with its interiors restructured so that air-conditioning and soundproofing could be added. Singapore’s pilot television broadcasting service, Television Singapura, was launched at Victoria Theatre and Victoria Memorial Hall on 15 February 1963. In 1979, the Victoria Memorial Hall was renovated again, with a gallery added to bring its total seating capacity to 937. With this extensive renovation, the Victoria Memorial Hall was renamed Victoria Concert Hall. It has since been the home of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO).10
In June 2010, the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall was closed for major renovations costing S$158 million and undertaken by local firm W Architects. The VTCH, whose facade was retained, reopened on 15 July 2014 with a performance by the SSO to mark the occasion.11
1. Adeline Chia, “Evergreen Emily,” Straits Times, 20 May 2010, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “Old Hill Street Police Station,” Ministry of Communications and Information, accessed 10 August 2014; Pugalenthi Sr, A Stroll Through Old Singapore (Singapore: VJ Times, 1993), 51 (Call no. RSING 959.57 PUG-[HIS]); Dhoraisingam S. Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage: Through Places of Historical Interest (Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, 1991), 339. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SAM-[HIS])
3. Pugalenthi, Stroll Through Old Singapore, 51.
4. Chia, “Evergreen Emily”; “Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall,” National Heritage Board, accessed 10 August 2016.
5. Pugalenthi, Stroll Through Old Singapore, 51; Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage, 339.
6. Chia, “Evergreen Emily”; “'Our Own' Theatre,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 11 February 1909, 5; “Victoria Theatre,” Straits Times, 1 February 1909, 8 (From NewspaperSG); Pugalenthi, Stroll Through Old Singapore, 51; Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage, 339.
7. National Heritage Board, “Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall”; Singapore Post, “National Day Stamp Release: National Monuments,” press release 2005; Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage, 339.
8. National Heritage Board, “Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall.”
9. Chia, “Evergreen Emily”; National Heritage Board, “Launch of New Heritage Gallery at Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall,” media release, 27 January 2015; National Heritage Board, “Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall”; Pugalenthi, Stroll Through Old Singapore, 53; Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage, 340.
10. Chia, “Evergreen Emily”; National Heritage Board, “Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall”; Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage, 340.
11. Felda Chay, “Two Performing Venues to Get Facelifts,” Business Times, 17 November 2009, 38 (From NewspaperSG); Chia, “Evergreen Emily”; National Heritage Board, “Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall”; Deepika Shetty, “Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall Opens Tomorrow after S$158-Million Refurbishment,” Straits Times, 15 July 2014. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
G Uma Devi, Resonance: Songs of Our Forefathers (Singapore: Preservation of Monuments Board, 2009), 160–5. (Call no. RSING 725.94095957 RES)
Gretchen Liu, In Granite and Chunam: The National Monuments of Singapore (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1996), 45–55. (Call no. RSING 725.94095957 LIU)
Wan Meng Hao and Jacqueline Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2009), 115–7. (Call no. RSING 959.57 WAN-[HIS])
The information in this article is valid as of 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.
Heritage and Culture