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Penang Free School Through the Years


from PFS magazine 1996


Most of the following account were extracted from the Penang Free School Magazine 1991, Looking Back- 175 Years.

A New Vision …

In 1815, a proposal for the establishment of a School in Prince of Wales Island, with suggestions for its management was submitted to the Governor of the day. The leading spirit in drawing up this document seems to have been Reverend Sparke Hutchings, the Chaplain of the station.

In reply to the proposal, the Governor appointed a committee to consider ways of carrying out what was desired. The committee consisted of the following: Rev. R. S. Hutchings, R. Ibbetson Esq., Capt. J. M. Coombs, J. MacInness Esq., J. Carnegy Esq., D. Brown Esq. and R. Caunter Esq. In response to an appeal, $10, 867 was subscribed between 1816 and 1824. In addition to this, the Governor promised, on be half of the hononary East India Company, a donation of $1,500, a monthly subscription of $200, and a piece of land, then known as Church Square, as a site for the erection of the school buildings.

According to the original scheme, there were to be two schools – one for boys, the other for girls, and there were to be boarders as well as day scholars in each. The
school was to be conducted on the plan adopted by Dr. Bell at Madras. It was laid down that great care should be taken that the sentiments of parents averse to the Chris
tian religion should not by any means be violated. Fees were to be paid by those who could afford it, but children who lived far away or whose parents were incapable of supporting them were to be supported and clothed at the expense of the school. It was intended that, if possible, the children of “Malayan, Chulia and Hindustani parents” who did not wish them to learn English should be taught their own languages.

A New Beginning

These plans have never been carried out in their entirety. A day school for boys was opened on October 2 1 st 1816 at a house in Love Lane and thus, Penang Free School was born. Lessons continued to be conducted on rented premises till buildings were opened in 1821 on the land granted by the East India Company in Church Square. There was a misunderstanding in the 19th Century about the term’Free’which was in the name’Free School’. Many generally thought that studies in the school were free; however it had nothing to do with payment or non-payment of fees, but rather, the freedom of enrolment for all.

In 1821, two schools for the instruction of Tamils and Malays respectively in their own languages were opened within the school premises. The Tamil School con tinued until 1823 and the Malay School until 1826. From 1821 to 1939, there was a branch Malay School at Glugor, where it remained until 1863.

The Free School which was organised on Dr. Bell’s system, or modifications thereof, until the middle of the 19th Century.- Under this system, it was considered that one adult teacher was sufficient for an indefinite number of students. The teaching and discipline were carried out under his direction by selected students called ‘Monitors’. It was invented by Dr. Bell while he was the Superintendent of the Madras Orphanage for the sons of soldiers and it had been the vogue in English Elementary Schools during the first half of the ninteenth century.

Till 1897, the school buildings comprised a number of isolated buildings covering practically all of the land in the posssession of the school. In that year, the half of the present buildings nearest St. George’s Church was opened and in 1907, the other half was added. On the completion of the present buildings, the old buildings were demolished, thus providing the school for the first time with a full-sized football pitch of its own.

A New Hope …

The Constitution of Free School is regulated by an ordinance passed by the Government of the Straits Settlements in 1905. The ordinance provides that the affairs of the school shall be managed by a committee consisting of ten to sixteen persons. Certain local officials held office ex-officio, including the Resident Councillor and President. The remaining members are nominated by the Governor, but, on vacancies occuring, the Committee have the privilege of submitting names to His Excellency for appointment.

The education provided by the school ranged from children of six or seven who had not been to school previously, to boys of 18 to 19, All the instruction was given in English and no native languages were taught. The distinct problem was to teach them English as quickly and thoroughly as possible. The fact that everything had to be studied in a foreign language had much bearing on the number of boys who were expected to take examinations, such as the Cambridge Locals, which were primarily set to test the progress of English speaking boys at home.

Undoubtedly, the most important event in the history of the school since 1916 has been its change of management. On I st January 1920, the Penang Free School was taken over by the Government. The school, however, retains all its endowments, and are administered by a Board of Trustees. Of this board, there are three ex-officio members- the Director of Education (Chairman), the Resident Councillor and the Assistant Treasurer. The last named is treasurer of the Board and in addition there are five nomnated unofficial members.

It was in 1923 when the Old Frees’Association was founded, and from then on, the Association proved to be a useful link between the school and the Old Boys. The Penang Free School is indebted to a succession of able and devoted Principals for the high position it holds in the domain of education. ‘Me services of Mr. R. H. Pinhom, who held office for a period of twenty years, were invaluable and there was a general satisfaction when these services received due recognition with the award of the Order of the British Empire in the 1923 New Year Honours.

This brief account would be incomplete without some reference to the staff of the Penang Free School. The loyal co-operation and unselfish devotion of the assistant-masters, both European and local, had contributed largely to the success of the school.

The heights by great men reached and kept,
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.

-The Ladder Of Saint Augustine, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

1919 – 1950s – The Past Glory

The Grand Old Lady ..

Penang Free School by 1919 was badly overcrowded and several additional buildings, such as science laboratories, workshops and a gymnasium were required. It was suggested then that the upper forms of the school be relocated to new buildings on the outskirts of the town, leaving the old buildings for the lower forms. For the new buildings, a magnificent site of 30 acres in Green Lane was chosen by the Government. Construction of the new building commenced in 1924 with quarters for the senior staff. Meanwhile, at the request of the Board of Trustees, the members of the Old Frees Association convened and decided to rename the old buildings of the school in Farquhar Street as Hutchings’ School and this was to serve as a feeder school. The new Free School buildings in Green Lane were officially declared open by the Resident Councillor of Penang, Mr. Ralph Scott, on 9 January 1925.

During the period when Mr. D. R. Swaine was Principal, radical changes took place in the organisation of extra‑curricular activities following the shifting of the school to its new buildings in Green Lane. A new experiment was launched where instead of the usual six divisions for games, the students were organised under the House System ‑ Cheeseman, Hamilton, Hargreaves, Pinhorn and Wu Lien Teh House. According to this new system, a student was attached to the House until he left the school. With this arrangement, it was hoped that the interest in games would become keener throughout the school. The Cadet Corps were reorganised into Platoons, each House being represented by a Platoon. Hitherto, scouting which had been an appendage of the Cadet Corps was now seperated to become an independent activity. Cubing was abolished when the Free School moved to Green Lane.

Between 1929 and 1934, there were no fewer‑than six changes of Principals. At the meeting of the Legislative Council, this problem was raised and it was pointed out that this was bound to affect the efficiency and standards of the school. Free School by virtue of its traditions and reputation should have Principals who can serve a considerable length of time as in the case of Mr. Hargreaves and Mr. Pinhorn. Despite these many changes, several developments took place during this period. In 1932, as a result of the reorganisation of Government English Schools in Penang, Free School started four classes of Standard Six. The intention was to lower the average age of students. The minimum period in which a boy would pass through the school was now four years as against three years previously, thus giving him a longer period to absorb the Free School esprit de corps.

The Science Block was added in May 1932. The first attempt to introduce Science into the school curriculum was made as early as 1923 when Mr. Eckersall, a Mathematics master, began a chemistry class. The class was unsuccessful because of the lack of apparatus and also due to the fact that the masters qualified to teach were fully occupied with other subjects. In the following year, the boys were allowed to commence on a two year course in Elementary Physics and Chemistry, with emphasis on practical work. At the end of the course, there was a selection and the students were allowed to continue their studies to Cambridge Senior Level. A special Science class was begun in 1936 for London Matriculation and Queen’s Scholarship candidates who had no opportunity to study the subject at lower levels. This was an intensive course for students at an advanced stage of general education. In addition, a class for boys who had already passed the Cambridge Senior Examinations was also organised. This was a preparatory class for students who had intentions of taking up medical studies in higher institutions of learning.

During this period, there was also an expansion of extra‑curricular activities. The activities of the physical and gymnastic classes were extended to include volleyball and basketball. Rugby football was introduced in 1933 under the guidance of Mr. J.N. Davies. The swimming section was formed in March 1936, under Mr. Tan Chong Bee. There were 56 boys divided into four teams ‑ Seals, Whales, Eels, and others ‑ each under a captain. The swimming section was affiliated to the Royal Life Saving Society of London. In this respect, a life saving class was formed and the Arts and Crafts Society also came into being. In spite of this expansion of physical and sport­ing activities, it was still felt that there were inadequate opportunities for the boys to play games. As a result, an ,extra games section’ was started to cater for those needs. Added to this was the implementation of the Additional Sports System. The idea behind this was to enable all boys to develop the feeling of loyalty to the House. A school rule was also established whereby every boy was to participate in some form of extra‑curricular activity.

After the War..

By 1941, Free School had passed through a period of changes and adjustments of getting used to new buildings, new equipment as well as new ideas and the school had aquainted itself very creditably. However, hardly had the process of adjustment been completed when the organisation of the school was disrupted by the Second World War and the Japanese Occupation (1941‑1945). During the Occupation, the school was used as the Headquarters for the Indian National Liberation Army. Like many other learning institutions, the school suffered the loss of furniture, books, science apparatus, sports equipment and school trophies. A more serious blow was the loss of school records, the most treasured books and leaving certificates of Old Frees. When the school reopened on the 4 October 1945, it was an empty shell although the school buildings remained intact.

One of the major tasks of the school after the war was rehabilitation. 603 boys reported to the acting Principal, Mr. Koay Kye Teong, who started the work of rehabilitation. The school was handed over to Major N.R. Miller and later to Mr. J.N. Davies. They set in motion the difficult task of recovery, reconstruction in progress. Major Miller pointed out that the goal was to bring Free School back to the standard it enjoyed in 1941 as nearly as was humanly possible. Under his guidance, most of the normal features of the school were resumed. The pre‑war school societies were resuscitated. Scouting was revived and on November I Oth 1945, the First Penang Troop was reorganised. The Cadet Corps were also revived and much of its energies were devoted to assisting the school in the “Grow‑More‑Good” Campaign. When Mr. D. Roper became Principal in 1947, the school was well on the way towards recovery. The degree to which the school had been restored to its pre‑war efficiency was strikingly illustrated by the Carfififidge results of 1946 when the school secured 78.5 % passes.

It was on 19 October 1955 that the Pinhorn Memorial Library for Sixth Formers was officially declared open. As a result of the growing needs of Sixth Form education and the lack of laboratory facilities for the study of science, a new extension was proposed to be built in 1957 providing three Sixth Form laboratoies and also facilities for the study of Arts subjects. The extension was also to include a residential hostel catering for deserving students from states where there were no Sixth Forms. This Sixth Form block was officially declared open on 21 October 1958 by the Honorary Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al‑Haj, an Old Free himself. Since then, The Penang Free School has become the centre of Sixth Form education in Northern Malaya.

A principle of Mr. J.E. Tod, the Free School Pri ncipal in 1951, was the expansion of School games and the development of clubs and societies so that every student would play his part in the corporate life of the school. The aim behind this was to inculcate in the students, ideals of leadership and responsibility. Compulsory school activities were revived on Monday and Thursdays.

The future of the school depends on the pursuance of the above objectives but it is safe to predict that with sustained initiative and drive, the school will progress from strength to strength and will continue to play a prominent role in the field of education.

Education is a companion which no misfortune can depress, no crime can destroy, no enemy can alienate, no depotism can enslave. At home afriend, aboard an introduction, in solitude a solace, and in society an ornament.

‑ Joseph Addison


Following the birth of our new nation on the 31 st of August 1957, Penang Free School had to conform to the new Education Ordinance of 1957 and the require­ments of the National Education Policy. The school be­came a National‑type fully assisted secondary school no longer run by the Government but by a newly constituted Board of Governors. The buildings still remained the prop­erty of the Government.

Since the loss of government status, the provi­sion of more facilities for the school has been greatly af­fected. It is to solve this problem that the Free School Development Fund was launched in early 1,963. The ob­jective of this fund was to raise money for a number of building projects, one of which was the construction of a swimming pool. A Food and Fun Fair was held in April 1963 and a net sum of $18,622 was collected. It was hoped that these building projects will be realised in the near future.

The system of automatic promotions was intro­duced in 1959. Prior to this promotion, examinations were held annually and failures were retained for an extra year. Students enrolled for the Lower Certificate of Education in 1956 and the Malayan Certificate of Education in 1959. In conforming to these public examinations, efforts were made in 1957 to implement the study of the national lan­guage, Bahase Malaysia, in the school. Every effort was made to bring the national language into its proper per­spective. Measures were taken to teach the national language from Form One onwards and students sat for the national language in the Lower Certificate of Education and the Federation of Malaya Certificate. To foster inter­est in the study of the language, the National Language Society was formed.

On 21 October 1966, The Father of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al‑HaJ attended the School Speech Day and praised the Principal, Mr. Tan Boon Lin, for being ” a man of wide vision and understanding, full of vim and vigour.” Mr. Tan suggested the setting up of a Records Room to store and display the impressive and glorious history of the school. This was done in 1966, the Sesquicentenary year of the school, by Mr. Yeoh Oon Huat. The Records Room was next to the Principal’s room. The Principal also announced that a new sports House would be created and named after Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al‑Haj to honour the most distinguished son of the alma mater. It would be known as Tunku Putra, the name by which he was addressed in school. The School Rally, com­posed by Mr. G.S. Reutens, the senior Art teacher, was adopted and students to this day hold the tune true to their hearts.

A splendid arch was constructed over the entrance at Green Lane in the week preceding Speech Day. At night, this and the majestic Old Lady were brilliantly illuminated in resplendent hues. She seemed like the Queen of Fairy­land…

The Reshaping of a Legend…

The Principal, Mr. Tan Boon Lin, launched the library building project in 1967 and the acting Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, actively supported him. On 17 November 1967, the Prime Minister came to discuss the site of the proposed library and on 5 February 1968, he handed over a cheque of $ 100,000. Mr. Poon Poh Kong, a capable and enthusiastic man, became the Principal in 1969. It was under him that the library was completed. On 20 March 1969, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al‑HaJ came to see the progress of the construction. The Principal realised that more funds were necessary and on the 22nd and 23rd of March, the school held a Fun Fair which netted appoximately $30,000. Finally, on Monday morning, 29 December 1969, ‘Kutub Khanah Tunku’was officially declared open by Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra AlHaJ.

A five year plan for the physical development of the school was drawn up. Its aims were to renovate the school hall, to construct a new science block, to build a new hostel, to change the pavillion into a grandstand and to construct a swimming pool. In 1970, the school held a raffle which brought in the handsome amount of $53,000. This money was used in 1971 to enlarge the stage and improve the acoustics of the hall.

In 1973, following the construction of a new hos’tel, the old hostel was converted into a Sixth Form block. Moreover, in 1974, a new science block consisting of two laboratories and two industrial arts workshops were added. Each laboratory and workshop recieved equipment worth $25,000 from the Ministry of Education. Also, a new tennis court was built to replace the court torn down for the construction of the new science block. At the same time, a plan for a PFS swimming pool was drawn up. It was to be of Olympic size and standard and shaped like a capital ‘L. Furthermore, a Walkathon was held and it managed to raise $14,000. This money was used to improve the school hall and the public announcement system

In 1977, a raffle was organised specifically for the purpose of raising funds for the clubs and societies. The amount of $60,000 collected showed the degree of cooperation that existed within and outside the school.

The construction of the Main Gate, the gate near the Principal’s house and the school pond was began in 1977 thanks to well wishers, namely the the Choong family (of badminton fame), Mr. Teh Choon Beng and Mr. Lim Hock Seng respectively. There was also the construction of a new motorcycle shed. Next, some Old Frees donated a small gate and a piano. Lastly, the school implemented a new traffic system complete with relevant traffic signs. The Main Gate was officially declared open on 29 September 1979.

In 1980, Block B of the hostel was completed and the number of hostelites rose to three hundred and thirty‑four boys. In 1986, the Penang Free School building was completely rewired at a cost of $92,000 and in 1987, the junior washroom was renovated.

Back to the Present ..

The past of Penang Free School has been both joyful and glorious. These few pages have reflected on memories of the past and also set the stage for visions of the present and future. We, the sons of Free School, must always strive to uphold the legacy and heritage of this honourable institution.

Be strong and faithful, always…

” This is my farewell message. Keep the light of progress in your eyes and then this school will continue to fulfil its purpose in preparing you and succeeding generations of boys, for the swiftly moving world of today and the even more swiftly moving world of tommorrow… ”

– H.R. Cheeseman.

Eyes On The Present…PFS in the 90’s and the new millennium

Now, 180 years later from its humble beginnings, this institution known as Penang Free School still stands proud, rising above many others in all fields and undertakings. Penang Free School is ever associated with its rich traditions and fine excellence, obtaining achievements of greater heights year after year.

Since our advancement into the 90’s, Penang Free School has recorded more achievements to add into the ever growing list, both academically and in extra‑curricular activities. Students of the school are excelling in public examinations, debates, elocution contests, inter‑school competitions as well as making waves in the field of sports; all these for the purpose of meeting the demands of the tough and competitive modem reality we live in. Even the school building and grounds were given a facelift recently. The repainting of the school building and the beautification jobs done on the school grounds in recent years have provided a better environment for the students to receive their education. An expansion way back in 1990 and 1991 added two blocks of classrooms, laboratories and an art room. This paved the way towards a single session school which came into existence in 199 1.


The school’s proud traditions continue to live on to this very day. One might say that old habits are hard to break. The school continues to hold its Speech Day on the 21st of October every year. Members of the school administration and selected student leaders also visit the gravesite of Rev. R.S. Hutchings, the founder of Penang Free School, faithfully every year on the morning of the Speech Day to pay their respects on behalf of the school. The school assembly, held on the first day of school every week, is also part of the school’s tradition. Students assemble in the school hall smartly attired with the school tie neatly tucked in place, waiting for the tolling of the school bells signalling the entrance of the Principal accompanied by the Head Boy. During the assembly, students listen to the usual run‑through of the week’s events and announcements.

Students of Penang Free School enjoy a wide Traditions. The school’s proud traditions con‑ variety of facilities throughout their schooling. The big, tinue to live on to this very day. One might say that old green school field Which is grandly bordered by tall, mahabits are hard to break! The school continues to hold its jestic ‘angsana’ trees is well utilised by everybody ‑ students, teachers, as well as the community. Recently, the school has upgraded its facilities. With the addition of a Computer Lab and Internet Access, students of the school are given the chance to learn about computers and receive access to the wide range of knowledge available through the Internet, The Computer Lab is also used to conduct computer literacy classes for the students. Besides this, other additions such as the new tennis/volleyball courts and a gymnasium are also available for the students to utilise. The school’s Editorial Board has also stepped into the world of technology by upgrading to Macintosh computers in the production of the school magazine since 1990, a sure sign of our progress with the times. In the past few years, many new clubs came into existence whilst old ones were given a new lease of life. These included clubs such as Squash, Karate, Malay Martial Arts, Radio Frees, the Young Frees’ Enterprise and the Friends Of Environment to name a few. Students are encouraged to join various clubs and extracurricular activities so as to benefit from them. The purpose is to mould students into all-rounders, capable of tackling the challenges that they will face when they take their place in society.

The school administration has been modernised to give better and more efficient services to the students and the public. The school office has been equipped with a fax machine and computers to record the particulars of its students and other information on computer databases for easier retrieval and storage. The Pricipal’s room and Senior Assistants’ room were redecorated to present a more pleasant atmosphere for meeting with students, teachers, parents as well as the public in general. There is the school’s client charter known as the Piagam Sekolah located just outside the school office which serves as a pledge to the public regarding the responsibilities of the school in providing the best services possible for the students to achieve their greatest potential.

What actually makes a school is its students. And the students of Penang Free School have always proven themselves in the academic field and extra-curricular activities, but they do not stop there. Students of this school have the opportunity to showcase their various talents and showmanship skills with the staging of numerous plays and concerts, co-produced and participated by the students themselves. Plays such as The King And I ( 1990 ), Cinderella ( 1991 ) and My Fair Lady ( 1992 ) were staged with success, demonstrating the different individual prowess of the participating students. More recent school productions include the staging of Beauty And The Beast in 1995 and the Shades Of PFS concert this year. These received rare reviews from the press and audience alike.

We have seen the glory of the past and the impressive progress of the present, but what does the future hold for us Frees? Whatever it is I am sure that the light that shines on Penang Free School will forever continue to do so and the competitive Spirit of the Frees which is very much present in the everyday lives of the students will be kept alive in every one of us. The next century will see a new generation of students and leaders who will shape the nation if not the world.