Our Botanic Garden – Why 150 Years And Not 187 Years?

Recently there are many news articles about the Botanic Garden, like the one on Sunday Times. A man bought an old photo album in London and consists of a few very old photos of the Botanic Garden. He was even offered a 6 figures sum for the album and he refused to sell it!

But when you mention Botanic Garden to me, I will immediately think of a few things related to it : ‘the hawker center and small carpark opposite the main entrance, the bandstand, the pond’. Of course there are many changes now like the hawker center and small carpark may not be there anymore, and many facelift inside.

Whenever I read about the history of our Botanic Gardens, it was always mentioned that Sir Stamford Raffles established the first Botanic Gardens in Singapore in 1822 along the slopes of Fort Canning Hill. If this is the case, why are why celebrating 150 years now in 2009 and not 187 years?

So let us go thru the years and see why;

– 1819 :

Since 1819, Raffles had been toying with the idea of establishing a botanic garden in Singapore. He used his time to persuade Wallich to write a glowing report aimed at persuading the Colonial government into starting a botanic and experimental garden.

Indeed, in one letter to Raffles dated November 1822, Wallich had described Singapore as such, “It abounds in an endless variety of plants equally interesting to the botanist, the agriculturist and the gardener, with unrivalled facilities and opportunities of disseminating these treasures and exchanging them for others“.

Three years before, the construction of Raffles bungalow on Government Hill (which is today Fort Canning Hill) had already seen an experimental garden being laid out in the vicinity, with some 125 nutmeg trees, 1,000 seeds of nutmeg, and 450 clove plants planted.

– 1822 :

But do we know exactly where is the old Botanic and Experimental Garden? Let us take a look at the below maps before we proceed on.

Credit : Jackson Town Map, National Parks, Gardens of the Istana

Below shows the current location of the old Botanic and Experimental Garden;

1. The canal is very obvious but the roads name may have changed:

Credit : 1998 Singapore Street Directory, Ministry of Law

Credit : Google Map

Sir Stamford Raffles, a keen naturalist, built his own house on the Bukit Larangan, later known as Government Hill (now known as Fort Canning Hill). Raffles instructed Farquhar, the Resident, that a Botanic and Experimental Garden be set up on Government Hill; an area of 48 acres was allotted for this purpose.

An 1819 Map showing the Govt Hill;

Credit : Singapore University Press, The Singapore River

He aimed to introduce cultivation of economic crops such as cocoa and nutmeg, including those yielding fruits, vegetables, spices and other raw materials.

The Botanic and Experimental Garden was started on the north of the Hill and was extended to the North-East of the Hill and this covered the area now occupied by the Anglo-Chinese School, Coleman Street, the Armenian Church and the National Museum. The man Raffles appointed to supervise the Botanic and Experimental Garden was Dr Nathaniel Wallich, a Dane, born in Copenhagen.

The mature spice garden was the site of Singapore’s first botanical gardens, established primarily by Sir Stamford Raffles for experimental purposes.

See what the above said “To commemorate Singapore’s first botanical garden founded on Government Hill in 1822”. So why not 187 years from 1822 then?

– 1829 :

After 7 years, in 1829 the Botanic and Experimental Garden, was a failure. It was abandoned after Raffles death, due to lack of funds to maintain it. The main reason given was that it was not economical. It cost the settlement $60 per month (a large sum of money in early Singapore) to unkeep it.

So why the Botanic Gardens does not date back to 1822 then? Personally I think it’s because the first Gardens was officially named as “Botanical and Experimental Garden” instead of Botanic Garden.

Or is it because the location of the first garden and the current one is different? Frankly, I really don’t know the reason why, do you?

– 1859 :

30 years later, the present Botanic Garden began when the Ari Horticultural Society was granted 32 hectares of land in Tanglin (Napier Road) by the colonial government. The land was obtained from merchant Hoo Ah Kay or Whampoa, in exchange for the land at Boat Quay.

The Garden was only about 23 hectares in 1866 as shown in the following map;

Credit : Straits Times, SPH

The Garden was officially opened to the public in 1874 by the Governor Lieutenant General Sir Andrew Clarke who presented two horned rhinoceroses. Not many know that the garden also flourished as a zoo for 20 years when it was abandoned in 1905.

Not many photos of the Botanic Gardens were found in the net during the 19th century;

Credit : Gardens in the Istana, National Parks, GR Lambert & Co.

The Botanic Garden was planned as a leisure garden and ornamental park. The Society organised flower shows and horticultural fetes. Laurence Niven was hired as superintendent and landscape designer to turn what were essentially overgrown plantations and a tangle of virgin rainforest into a public park. The layout of the Botanic Gardens as it is today is largely based on Niven’s design.

The photo below shows some Javanese workers employed to maintain the garden in the 19th century;

Credit : Gardens in the Instana, National Parks, GR Lambert & Co.

– 1874 :

In 1874, the Society ran out of funds, handed over management and maintenance of the gardens to the Colonial government. The scientific mission of the Gardens evolved when the colonial government assumed management and deployed Kew-trained botanists and horticulturists to administer the Gardens.

– 1877 :

The first rubber seedlings came to the gardens from Kew in 1877. Henry Nicholas Ridley, or Mad Ridley as he was known, became director of the gardens in 1878 and spearheaded rubber cultivation.

The gardens in 1880;

Credit : Vis

Credit : Gardens in the Istana, National Parks.

Below postcard shows the Botanic Garden Entrance in 1900 at the Singapore Philatelic Museum;

Credit : Singapore Philatelic Museum

Note the postage stamp on the postcard was probably from 1912 to 1923 Straits Settlement period though. Many photos or postcard like to show the entrance of Botanic Garden, and it’s interesting to see the changes over time.

Another postcard showing the entrance to the Botanic Gardens in 1900;

Credit : Nation Best

Here is one postcard that I have 100 years ago in 1909;

One more postcard from 1909;

If you will to take note of all these postcards, the name of the garden was Singapore Botanical Garden instead of Singapore Botanic Garden. I remember this was the name I used to call in my younger days.

– 1925 :

Professor Eric Holttum, Director of the Gardens from 1925 -1949, set up laboratories and conducted the first experiments in orchid breeding and hybridisation. His techniques led to Singapore being one of the world’s top centres of commercial orchid growing.

– 1942 to 1945 :

During the Japanese Occupation, Hidezo Tanakadate, a professor of Geology from the Tohoku Imperial University took over control of the Singapore the Singapore Botanic Gardens. He ensured no looting occured during his tenure in the Gardens. The Gardens was also renamed as Shōnan Botanic Gardens (昭南植物園).

Holttum and Edred John Henry Corner were interned in the Gardens and instructed to continue their horticultural work. Dr Kwan Koriba, a retired professor of botany from the Imperial University of Tokyo, arrived as Director of the Gardens, a post he held until the end of the war.

After the war, the Gardens was handed back to the British. Eventually it played an important role during the “greening Singapore” campaign and Garden City campaign during the early independence years.

– Mid 1960s :

The Gradens was taking a leading role in the greening of Singapore. I had my first visit to the Botanic Gardens with my godsisters in 1968;

– 1973 :

In 1973, it merged with the Parks and Trees branch of the Public Works Department, which became the Parks and Recreation Department.

– 1990 :

In June 1990, the Singapore Botanic Garden came under the management of the newly formed National Parks Board.

New attractions, such as the Ginger Garden, Evolution Garden, Coolhouse and the Children’s Garden are being added to keep the Gardens relevant as a key tourist destination.

Stamps of the Singapore Botanic Gardens;

1978 :

In my memory the first stamp of the Singapore Botanic Garden was issued in 1978;

The above stamps did not really show the Botanic Garden well. It’s just some graphic representation of the garden. But at least the 75cents stamp showed part of the gardens’ Bandstand.

1979 :

In 1979, a set of 3 stamps were issued to celebrate the 120 years of Singapore Botanic Garden;

These are very nice set as the garden were properly shown on the stamps;

2003 :

In 2003, again the Bandstand was featured in one of the set of 4 stamps ‘Garden City’ ;

2009 :

For those that have missed the above stamps issues, never mind. In June 2009 there will be a set of 4 stamps commemorating the 150 years of Singapore Botanic Gardens;

Entrance to the Gardens :

The new look of the Entrance to the Gardens now;

The above is the main entrance gate known as the Tanglin Gate of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Do you notice the changes compared to those old postcards? Do you think the 4 pillars are the same as the 4 pillars of the past entrance?

The Bandstand :

This is another main icon of the Singapore Botanic Gardens besides the Tanglin Gate;

This octagonal shaped Bandstand was erected in 1930, almost 80 years old. The original bandstand was erected in the early 1860s as a focal point of the original landscape design of the Gardens. So far, most photos only showed the current Bandstand but not the original one. Wonder how the original one looks like? The Bandstand now no longer hosts any music performance, though it was used for military band performance in the past.

That Tembusu Tree :

Ok I’m not a botanist so even if I’m in front of this Tembusu Tree, I may not be able to identify it hehe. This Tembusu Tree got popular probably because it was featured in our $5 note. This tree was also featured in one of those TV8 Mediacorps Chinese dramas.

And comparing it with our $5 note;

This Tembusu Tree is now a heritage tree, meaning it cannot be ‘chop off’.

Credit : Above 3 photos from Alice.

The Old Taman Serasi Hawker Centre :

Before I end the post, do you still remember

My last visit with my family to the Botanical Garden or Botanic Gardens was a few years back but all my photos were wiped off from my harddisk corruption… Yes in my last visit, think we need to pay an entrance fee and no longer free like in the past.

So when was your last visit to the Botanic Gardens?

23 Responses to “Our Botanic Garden – Why 150 Years And Not 187 Years?”

  1. 1 Jungwon Tuesday, May 12, 2009 at 11:04 am

    Thanks for sharing those old pictures 🙂

    Theres something I wanted to say…

    I did study a bit of bukit larangan (government hill, or fort canning hill) for my school project. There’s possibility that during pre-colonial times, there was a royal garden on the hill. And after Raffles came, the trees on the hill were cleared for path to the top of the hill, where a house was built. Then nothing to prove this saying of the royal garden, as no record or old picture to substantiate my saying. So, Raffles’ Botanic and Experimental Garden could be the first botanic garden as recorded.

  2. 2 Victor Wednesday, May 13, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    Thanks for another fascinating account of one of Singapore’s earliest icons and places of attraction.

    There were many details which I didn’t know about until I read your article.

  3. 3 kelvin Wednesday, May 13, 2009 at 9:29 pm

    taman serasi! the roti john has since moved to serangoon garden hawker center.

  4. 4 yg Monday, May 18, 2009 at 7:06 am

    wow! you really did a thorough job digging into the beginning of the botanic gardens.
    when i was younger i often wondered why the ‘ang mohs’ like to walk about in that humid place looking at trees and other plants. now, i appreciate the place a lot. it’s a wonder to look, see and learn at our botanic gardens.

  5. 5 laokokok Monday, May 18, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    Seems like no one can tell me why not 187 years yet?

  6. 6 Jungwon Wednesday, May 20, 2009 at 11:07 am

    I thought u already got ur answer…

    Quoted from ur blog,

    First Answer
    “So why the Botanic Gardens does not date back to 1822 then? Personally I think it’s because the first Gardens was officially named as “Botanical and Experimental Garden” instead of Botanic Garden.”

    Second Answer
    “Or is it because the location of the first garden and the current one is different? Frankly, I really don’t know the reason why, do you?”

    Put it Simply, they don’t recognize Raffles’s Botanical and Experimental Garden as the first one, which doesn’t have much picture of it, only some old map to indicate its location.
    Its not their baby to begin with, but rather Raffles’…

  7. 7 dancerene Wednesday, May 20, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    I happened to stumble across this blog. I think you are doing an awesome job! Thank you for sharing with us your knowledge.

  8. 8 laokokok Thursday, May 21, 2009 at 7:05 am

    Frankly I’m not too sure my answers are true hehe.

  9. 10 Jacq Thursday, May 28, 2009 at 10:37 pm

    I love your post about Botanical Garden.

    It is one of the things I remembered the most when I was studying in Singapore for secondary school (1994 – 1997).

    I lived in an apartment right next to it. And I ate at that hawker center every morning before I head to the bus stop for school. Lots of memories there.

    I also remembered it as the “Singapore Botanical Garden” during my stay in Singapore.

    I would go there from the side entrance close to the apartment and sit by the water lily pots and watch them bloom right around sunset. It was free back then too, so I take lots of walks there and saw monkey and little green snakes.

    Thank you for this great post!

  10. 11 Jacq Thursday, May 28, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    Oh, now I remembered. The apartment/condo I lived in was the Botanic Gardens View…

  11. 12 laokokok Friday, May 29, 2009 at 7:33 am

    Thanks Jacq, glad it brings back good memories to you.

  12. 13 Chuang Shyue Chou Friday, June 5, 2009 at 10:24 am

    Thanks for this piece. It’s greatly appreciated.

    I visited the place daily when I was a child. Now, I go there once a week.

  13. 14 startears Saturday, June 20, 2009 at 8:45 am

    Awesome post!

    Just to clarify that you do not need an entrance fee to go into SBG itself. An entrance fee is required only if you enter National Orchids Garden.

  14. 15 Phil Wong Friday, June 26, 2009 at 8:50 am

    Greetings from Sydney. I just came across your interesting blog this morning. You bring back beautiful memories for an old uncle who has been away for the last 36 years. Thanks again.

  15. 16 Batman Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    Why your fomily all batman/catwoman? Hahahahahahaha!

  16. 17 Eileen Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 10:49 am

    Great post, I came upon your blog while doing some research on tok-tok mee. Thanks for the memories.

  17. 18 laokokok Wednesday, August 26, 2009 at 8:05 am

    You are most welcome Eileen, and happy to know you like my post.

  18. 19 Peter Holttum Tuesday, November 30, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    Your history of the gardens is very interesting.
    Richard Eric Holttum, the director from 1925 to 1949, who is referred to in your history was my cousin (my grandfather’s 1st cousin actually).
    Eric holttum lived to a ripe old age (1895 to 1990). He was the kindest of men. I knew him quite well when he was an old man – I was born 1942. He was a man of great integrity He continued working on research on botany at Kew Gradens near to his London home until his death. I remember him at Kew Gardens showing me and my son the pressed plant specimens he had collected in Malaya in the 1920’s.
    I have visited the Singpore gardens on two occasions and found them a most beautiful place.
    Peter Holttum
    Dorset, UK

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