SEAARC Symposium Abstract 13: “Global Transfusion and Local Hybridity: A Study of Historic Ironmongery in Singapore”

by TAN Yuk Hong Ian,  University of Leicester 

The appearance of iron structures and use of ironmongery in buildings occurred around the same period when Singapore was elevated from a principality under Bengal rule into a Crown Colony directly under British’s Colonial Office in 1868. The elevation in Singapore’s status bought about a significant increase in the funding for infrastructural development and construction of buildings for government use. Cast and wrought iron were introduced as superior alternatives to vernacular building materials, such as timber and brick, in terms of strength and spanning ability. Notable structures constructed during this period include the Cavenagh and Anderson Bridge.

Despite the higher prices of iron products and the need to import them from UK, iron structures and ornamental ironmongery gained popularity in the colony. The proliferation of iron elements ranging from gates, staircases to gazebos and even large scale prefabricated structures like Telok Ayer Market demonstrated the constant flow of ironmongery from Europe into Singapore. Most of these products were shipped from Britain, primarily from foundries in Glasgow, Lancashire and Birmingham, where colonial agents acting on behalf of the Singapore colonial government had established a procurement network favouring goods and services from a niche group of manufacturers and consultants. European ironmongery, such as those from France, was also imported via a network established by the Paris Foreign Mission Society Catholic churches. The cast iron frame structure of Church of Our Lady of Lourdes is an example.

Apart from ironmongery and iron structures imported from Europe, local companies started producing iron products since the early 20th century to supplement the variety of imported iron goods. Pioneering construction companies such as Riley Hargreaves & Co as well as Howarth Erskine & Co, predecessors to United Engineers Limited, started off as contractors supervising the foundational and erection works for imported structures such as Anderson Bridge before acquiring the expertise and raw materials required to establish a foundry and warehouse on River Valley Road. While the histories of western companies were relatively well documented, records of local Chinese ironmongers were far and few. A directory of tradesmen listed in a 1928 business directory recorded more than 60 foundries operated by Chinese migrants. Most of them congregated along North Bridge Road and River Valley. However written documents on the types of products these local companies produced could not be located easily.

Using a mixture of available documents as well as a survey of existing wrought and cast iron structures in Singapore, this working paper will provide an understanding to the global transmission of ironmongery and structures as well as elucidates how the transfusion of iron smelting and casting technologies were adopted by local firms established by both Europeans and Asians and how the technologies were localised and hybridised in terms of motifs and functions of these products.


Ian Tan is an architecture graduate from NUS. He completed his PGDip (Bldg Cons) at West Dean College in Sussex and his MSc (Arch Cons) at the University of Edinburgh. He is a member of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) in UK and a ICOMOS Expert Member in the International Cultural Tourism Committee (ICTC). He is currently working as an Assistant Manager in the Impact Assessment and Mitigation Division in National Heritage Board, Singapore.

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