The Evolution of Gurney Drive and Its Name


With Gurney Drive undergoing a major transformation, it is a good time to consider its history.

The idea of a promenade along the north beach had long been in the minds of the people of George Town. In 1930 plans were completed for what was described as the “new coast road” between North Beach and Cantonment Road Ghaut. The Commissioners of the Municipality gave considerable time to persuade land owners to give up land for the construction of the road and by 1934 it was possible to construct 510 yards of it.

The first section was opened on October 19 that year, and it proved extremely popular – and the new “Osira” lamps with which the streets were lit marked the first step for improved street lighting in Penang. By the end of 1935, the length open for public use was 1,970ft and in February 1936 the construction of North Beach to form a connection to Northam Road was completed.

In 1940 the Commissioners decided to extend the North Beach sea wall from Birch Road to Bagan Jermal but in view of war conditions, did not proceed with the construction of the coast road, which at that time had a length of 2,380ft stretching between the end opposite Pangkor Road and Birch Road. After considerable difficulty due to the shortage of steel, which necessitated amendments in the design, contracts were arranged for the construction of 3,918ft of reinforced concrete walls with main drain outlets, and 1,785ft of open concrete drain on the compound side of the future road.

Progress was slow due to the war and the shortage of skilled labour. As erosion of the foreshore was still taking place at the Bagan Jermal end, groynes had been constructed and other protective works carried out by direct labour.

In 1952 it was suggested that Burma Road be renamed Gurney Road in memory of the late Sir Henry Lovell Goldsworthy Gurney, K.C.M.G., the High Commissioner for the Federation of Malaya, 1948 to 1951, who was murdered in Fraser’s Hill on October 6, 1951. Some Commissioners were against the idea and suggested instead the new coast road be named Gurney Drive instead.

And so, on August 29, 1952, the new coast road was named Gurney Drive. As a matter of interest, there was some talk as to why the road should be called a drive (which meant – “a road for driving in, especially a private carriageway to a house”) and that it should instead be called a Parade, a Promenade or Esplanade. However, no change was made.

The rise of nationalism in the country and the political changes of the 1950s saw one Municipal Commissioner suggesting that Gurney Drive be named Pantai Merdeka. This matter was taken up in Council and it was decided on August 21, 1956 that, with effect from August 31, 1957, Merdeka Day, the road would be known as Merdeka Drive and that the circus at the end of Pangkor Road would be called Gurney Circus. A bust or statue of Sir Henry was also to be constructed.

However, the then-Settlement Secretary refused to write to Lady Gurney regarding this, and so, the municipal commissioners had to do it themselves. She took the change bravely and even offered to help with regard to the statue or bust. There were negotiations with a sculptor in London, David McFall, A.R.A. who agreed to do the job for 500 guineas or $4,500.

However, when the recommendation for the provision of $6,000 for the bust came up before the Finance Committee, it was decided not only to defer the provision for a bust but also that the road should continue to be called Gurney Drive. The matter was to be reconsidered after Merdeka Day.

The name problem reared its head again indirectly when in 1962 a councillor suggested, while on the topic of beautifying Penang through tree planting, that double rows of casuarina trees be planted at Gurney Drive and that the Council could consider at some future date the renaming of Gurney Drive. A suggestion was made that the name “Casuarina Drive” and “Casuarina Beach” be kept in view. And so, in February 1963 the Public Works Committee decided to name Gurney Drive “Casuarina Drive” and that the name “Gurney” be used for a shorter road.

When the decision came up for confirmation, there was a great deal of discussion. Some councillors strongly opposed the change, while others cynically suggested that the road be called “Avenue of the Unknown Soldiers”, “Half Casuarina Drive” (because casuarina trees were only planted halfway to the road) and “Durian Drive”. The matter was then referred back to the Committee and was never brought up again.

Meanwhile, the important task of planning for the extension of the Gurney Drive from Cantonment Road to the present roundabout in Bagan Jermal began. And in December 1966, that stretch was opened by the then- Governor of Penang, Tun Raja Uda.

I personally arranged for the Band of the 2nd Green Jackets, the King’s Royal Rifle Corp, then based in Minden Barracks, to march down the new section of the Gurney Drive, followed by the VIPs. The British Contingent was headed by Lt Colonel E.N.W. Brammal, O.B.E.

A plan to take the Drive straight to the Esplanade was abandoned. On the horizon is a mega development called Gurney Wharf, which is seen today by some as only another step in the journey of making the north coast more beautiful and to serve as a popular resort for visitors and the people of Penang. There are many challenges ahead, ecological ones included.

That Gurney Drive is already one of the most popular resorts in Penang is a tribute to the foresight of those who planned for Penang to remain what the great travel writer Isabella Bird said about the island in her book, The Golden Chersonese, published in 1883:

“A truly brilliant place Under a brilliant sky.”

Let’s keep it that way.

The author, Anwar Fazal, then Asst. City Secretary, City Council of George Town, compiled this article originally from the records of the City Council for the official programme of the opening ceremony of the northern stretch of Gurney Drive from Cantonment Road to Bagan Jermal. That ceremony was held on December 1, 1966. Anwar is currently the Chairperson of Think City. He worked as Private Secretary to Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu from 1967 to 1973 and was leading the United Nations Urban Governance Initiative from 1991 to 2002. He is a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award popularly known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize”.

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