Date of Construction: 1937-1939
Date of Gazette: 14 February 1992
Address: 1 St.Andrew’s Road Singapore 178957
Architect: Frank Dorrington Ward, Chief Architect, Public Works Department
The three British territories in the Straits of Malacca, namely, Penang, Malacca and Singapore, were formed into one administrative unit, the Straits Settlements in 1826. The three territories shared one professional judge, styled the Recorder, who stayed at Penang but travelled on circuit to hear cases. In 1856, a second Recorder was appointed to reside in Singapore. The Straits Settlements was a dependency of the British Raj in India until 1867, when it was transferred to come under the Colonial Office in London becoming, thereby becoming a Crown Colony. With this transfer, the Supreme Court in Singapore, and the High Court in Penang came into being.
The history of the Supreme Court building should begin with the house that G.D. Coleman built for the merchant John Argyle Maxwell, on the north bank of the Singapore River near the river-mouth, in what has been called the “Mayfair” district. The government rented this house, and the then Court of Justice was held in a central room upstairs, the other rooms being used as government offices. In 1839, a one-storey building was added at the side of the Maxwell house, and the Court was held in the annexe, the Maxwell house being turned entirely into government offices. Here, it was disturbed by noises from the adjoining Hallpike’s Boatyard, but it had to bear with the problem until 1865, when a new Court House was built.
The new Court House is the central building in what later developed as the Government Offices at Empress Place. The new Court House was used for only a few years when another (court) house removal was made. The Court moved back to the Maxwell house which was extended by a wing to accommodate it in 1875: “this explains the date on the Royal Arms over the Chief Justice’s Chair”. You may still see this Royal Coat-of-Arms in the Court of Appeal in the present Supreme Court. As to the annexe building at the Maxwell house, it had been given over to the Post Office. The new Court House, which the Court vacated, was used for the meetings of the Legislative Council, formed since the Straits Settlements became a Crown Colony in 1867.
The government had initially rented the Maxwell house but in 1841 it bought the site and the house. Hence, it was able to add a new wing in 1875, to accommodate the return of the Court (since 1867, the Supreme Court). Here, the Court sat for the next 70 years, until a new building was erected in 1937-39 facing the Padang. On the site of this new building, there was once a house built by Coleman, one of the three houses he built on the Esplanade. The other two houses had earlier been knocked down to make way for the Municipal Building/City Hall.
The Corinthian and Ionic columns, cast in terrazzo, and the tympanum sculpture of the Supreme Court building are the work of an Italian master, Cavalori Rudolfo Nolli. The years of the Supreme Court’s construction between 1937-39 were a time of war between Japan and China, and among the refugees from this war who came to Singapore were Chinese plasterers from Shanghai who had mastered European methods of working with gypsum plaster. The composition of the tympanum sculpture by Nolli depicts the following; the central figure is Justice; to the left is a person begging for mercy, and next are the legislators of the law. On the other side of Justice is a figure showing gratitude, then a man and a bull, and two children holding a stack of wheat, all representing prosperity and abundance where there is law and justice.
Adapted from Edwin Lee’s Historic Buildings of Singapore (1990)
More information on this monument can be found in Singapore Infopedia, National Library Board.