Penang's History, My Story | By Wong Chun Wai

Colonial law stalwarts

A GERMAN Jewish lawyer who founded the Free-masons lodge, a colonial lawyer and activist fighting for the rights of the locals and a British magistrate who arrived in Penang only to find that he had lost his job, were among those whose legacies live on.

There are at least five roads in Penang that honour colonial lawyers. The most famous has to be the busy Gottlieb Road.

The road is named after Felix Henri Gottlieb, a lawyer in the Straits Settlement between 1846 and 1882.

But his name would probably remain unknown and even inconsequential to most Penangites, who ply the road daily.

Gottlieb Road is the site for Penang Chinese Girls’ High School, the biggest girls’ school in Penang.

The road used to be congested at all times of the day especially during after school hours, when it is packed with school buses.

But Henri is more important than we think. He was one of the most colourful characters of the Straits Settlement.

He was also a true Penangite as he was born on the island. His father was the island’s first harbour master George Felix Gottlieb in the 1830s.

Both father and son were active Freemasons in Penang.

According to local historian and publisher Khoo Salma Nasution in her book, More Than Merchants: A History of German Speaking Community in Penang, Henri set up Freemason lodges in Penang and Taiping, Perak.

The Freemason movement has regarded itself as a global secular fraternity that carries out social and charity work where its members are taught these precepts in ancient forms.

Frowned upon by Muslim and Christian groups, the Freemasons including those in Malaysia, have openly conducted their activities by setting up websites with pictures of their members.

It is to show that the Freemasons are not a shadow group, as portrayed in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

In fact, those interested in their activities can apply to be members while the press has been invited to observe their work.

In Penang, the Penang Masonic Temple is a historic building that stands out at the Brown Road and Jalan Utama (formerly Western Road) junction.

According to a report, the land to build the Temple was acquired in 1926 and the foundation was laid on Dec 17, 1927.

Designed by architect Howard Leicester, the building was built by contractor Lee Ghee Sok.

Another well-known lawyer of old Penang was James Richardson Logan, who was honoured with the Logan Memorial at the Supreme Court Building in Leith Street.

Logan Road, which runs from Perak Road to Anson Road, is also named after him.

Logan was regarded as a champion of the rights of the non-Europeans in Penang, as he dared to represent the natives.

He came to Penang with his elder brother Abraham and began a law practice.

In an age where the rights of the natives were often suppressed, he skilfully fought in a case of an Indian sireh planter against the East India Company, according to a posting.

Today, the famous landmarks are the Loh Clan Association, the LohGuanLye Specialists Centre, the Penang Specialist Maternity Centre and the Methodists Girls’ School.

Edward William Presgrave was another big name of the legal fraternity during the colonial days of Penang.

Presgrave Street is known in Hokkein as sah tiau lor or third street, and is today part of the city area known as the Seven Streets Precinct.

Presgrave Street is regarded as a working class neighbourhood.

Presgrave & Matthews is one of the oldest legal firms in the Straits Settlement. It was founded on Jan 1, 1879.

The original partners being Arthur Edward Clark, barrister-at-law, and Presgrave, who was a member of the Legislative Council.

Then, there is Dickens Street, which a short one-way street linking Penang Road with Transfer Road.

A plaque in the road has wrongly attributed the name of the street to novelist Charles Dickens (1812-1870) whose works included Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations.

In reality, Dickens Street was named after John Dickens, a British magistrate who arrived in George Town in 1801.

According to a report, upon arrival, he found that his services were no longer required as the Straits Settlement had set up a Recorder’s Court instead.

RAD Hogan was another lawyer who has a road named after him.

Hogan Road is a small road off Vermont Road, a minor road off Jalan Residensi.

Vermont Road is named after one of the military officers during the late 19th century.

Both Vermont and Hogan roads house quiet, leafy neighbourhoods.

The legal fraternity in Penang has a long history and its colonial style court complex is surely one of the most beautiful heritage buildings in this country.