Robertson Quay

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Named after Dr J. Murray Robertson, a prominent Municipal Councillor, Robertson Quay is the largest and most upstream of the three main historical quays on the Singapore River, the other 2 quays being Boat Quay and Clarke Quay.


In the 1890s, the land up-stream of today’s Clarke Quay was still relatively undeveloped. This area was originally swampy tidal land. As a result of rapid growth in trade and population of the settlement of Singapore, development spread upstream along the Singapore River.

The tidal swamps was reclaimed in the 19th century to cater to demand for the warehousing of goods that came through Singapore. By the beginning of the 20th century, buildings catering to our entrepot trade were built at Robertson Quay, Havelock Road and as far up stream as Jiak Kim Street. By early 1930s, these areas were fully developed with warehouses – commonly known as ‘godowns’, while the river itself was filled with bumboats that brought goods in and out of Singapore via the river and the harbour.

These places and streets bear names of prominent figures who played key roles in the social, economic and political life of the colony, or were key figures of the then British Empire. Robertson Quay is named after Dr. J Murray Robertson, a prominent Municipal Councillor. Havelock Road is named after Major-General Sir Henry Havelock (who distinguished himself in the suppression of the India Rebellion of 1857) while Jiak Kim Street is named after Tan Jiak Kim, the grandson of Tan Kim Seng (the adjacent main road is named after him). Tan Jiak Kim was a Municipal Commissioner and member of the Legislative Councillor. Tan Kim Seng was a well-known philanthropist who donated generously to the building and maintenance of the first school in Singapore, the Chinese Free School or Chui Eng Institution (the gateway which is conserved at Amoy Street). However, he is best known for his donation in 1857 towards building Singapore’s first public waterworks to ensure a better supply of water to the town. For this, Kim Seng is commemorated by a cast-iron fountain (now a National Monument) that can be seen today at the Esplanade.


These early industrial buildings along Singapore River played an important role in the early stages of Singapore’s development. Raffles specifically Singapore to serve as a centre for the entrepot trade between India and China, and the Singapore River was the natural location for trade to be carried out due to its sheltered waters.

Shophouses and godowns were a necessary part of this trading infrastructure as goods that were taken from ships in Singapore Harbour had to be stored until the trade winds were blowing in the right direction for other ships to take them to their ultimate destination. These buildings were also where goods were stored for redistribution up into, or collected from peninsular Malaya.

The increasingly lucrative trade drove the building and rebuilding of godowns along the River from the mid 1800s until the late 1970s when trade and warehousing was phased out along the River as urban renewal took place.

Nos. 19 & 20 Merbau Road
These are a pair of 2-storey buildings, each measuring about 12m wide and 26m deep. They have clay tiled gable roofs with jackroofs, and substantial window openings on the upper floors to give adequate natural lighting and ventilation to the interior.

A characteristic architectural feature of these buildings is the repetitive bays of arched openings, framed by decorative moulded plaster architraves, in both the 1st and 2nd storey façades. The 2nd storey façade have large timber panelled French windows which match the arched openings of the five-foot ways below.

Each building is clearly defined by the columns treated in rusticated plasterwork. Each building façade is further subdivided into 3 bays by smaller pilasters of the Tuscan style. A strong cornice line clearly defines the separation between the 1st and 2nd storey. 

Nos. 72-13 Mohammed Sultan Road
This is a 2-storey building measuring about 30m wide and 20m deep. This was well known for many years as the landmark ‘Bank Of China No. 3 Warehouse’ to those in the import-export trade along the Singapore River.

Like the building at Merbau Road, the building has repetitive bays of arched openings at the 1st storey. However, the upper floor timber windows showcase rare remaining example of cross-work timber lattice panels. This used to be a common design in the rough and ready early days of Singapore where glass was a luxury and electric fans non-existent. The lattice work allows for air-flow, lighting and security.

A significant architectural feature of the building is the corner façade treatment which has a roof pediment with decorative moulded plaster festoons. It is unlike the other facades of the building where the roof overhangs and projects beyond the building line.

At the ground level, look out for the original large timber framed  windows that still retain the original iron security bars. These bars were common in the early years to provide protection for the valuable goods stored within such warehouses.

Also retained in this warehouse are the original floor timbers, structural bracing and granite corbels that supported  the upper floor. Take note of the ‘grand staircase’ – this is one of the two original timber staircases which would have seen countless coolies toiling up and down carrying heavy loads on their back. These nameless coolies contributed to the wealth of today’s Singapore with their sweat and blood. The timber ‘slide’ at one side of the stairs helped to ease part of their heavy work by allowing for an ‘easier’ way to bring goods down.

Nos 41, 42 Robertson Quay, 63 Caseen Street

Nos 41 and 42 Robertson Quay are 2-storey buildings measuring about 15m wide and 46m deep.

The façades have repetitive bays of arched openings that reminds one of the ‘Georgian’ styled facades that can be seen in the shophouse areas of the main city centre. The overall composition of a single arched opening on the ground floor, with two arched window openings of the upper floors result in a pleasant and elegant expression along the road . The upper openings are filled with glazed fanlights and timber window shutters that create the impression of a row of domestic buildings instead of ‘warehouses’.

The building at No. 63 Caseen Road has the most decorated façade in the area. It has fanciful moulded plaster festoons that appear to be European at first glance, but closer inspection reveals that the festoons are made up of various Asian fruits (one can spot the Jambu Ayer and a Chinese Peach) and flowers. This demonstrates how Asian builders and craftsmen reinterpreted European motifs in their own way, drawing references from their immediate physical and cultural surroundings.The year (1921) of construction is also clearly embossed on its façade.

The arch at the 1st storey is less rounded and at the 2nd storey the window openings are rectangular in contrast with the rest of the ensemble.

Nos. 17, 19 and 21 Jiak Kim Street
These three single storey buildings were built in 1919. Each building is about 15m wide by 34m deep.

Unlike the other warehouses, they have galvanised iron sheet roofs and jackroofs supported by timber trusses. To reduce the load to be carried by the timber trusses spanning 15m of the width of the building, an intermediate row of internal reinforced concrete columns is added at mid-span for further support. This composite roof structure and use of metal sheet roofing reveals the influence of the Industrial Revolution in Europe that then lead to a change in building technology and technique around the world, including Singapore, that was located at a meeting point of the East and the West.

Of the 3 buildings, number 17 has a unique curved roof pediment compared to the usual triangular pediment of the other buildings. This profile for the pediment could either be related to an attempt to create a more ‘European’ appearance, or possibly an influence o f Chinese ‘feng-shui’ belief where roof profiles are derived from the ‘Five-Elements’ of the Chinese world view. This profile resembles that of the ‘Water-element’. The choice of which of the Five-elements to use as a gable profile is often dictated by the characteristics of the site, its builder and the intended occupant.

Other significant architectural features of these buildings are the solid timber doors and windows that are constructed using the herring-bone pattern.


These former industrial buildings illustrate the role and importance of trade in the development of our city. Their construction styles and techniques are evidence of how building in Singapore has been influenced by cultures and change from around the world. Their continued presence, together with the other buildings already conserved at Boat Quay, Clarke Quay and Riverside Village, provides a window into the  style and taste of the past . Integrated into newer developments, they provide a historic layer to an ever evolving Singapore River. As part of the whole river, they form an important link to our history and showcase how Singapore has been built up into a port of international standing over a span of 2 centuries.

Gazetted for conservation on 6 June 2014.

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