Penang Monthly

Brought to you by



Men Who Ran PFS and Inspired Generations

Throughout its 200-year history, Penang Free School has seen many illustrious headmasters come and go – but among the best known (and loved) were three visionaries.


Penang Free School (PFS) celebrates its bicentennial on October 21. This venerable institution has churned out generations of leading Malaysians: “Old Frees” include Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister of Malaysia; Dr Wu Lien-Teh, founder of the Anti-Opium Association in Penang and fighter against the bubonic plague; and Datuk Eddy Choong, four-time winner of the All-England Open Badminton Championships.

The history of the oldest English-language medium school in South-East Asia has been well-researched and documented – perhaps most comprehensively in volume two of Marcus Langdon’s encyclopaedic Penang, The Fourth Presidency of India, 1805-1830. Less has been said thus far about the dedicated men who made the school so successful.

The Founder

Perhaps the most significant of them all was Reverend Robert Sparke Hutchings, the school’s founder. Born in the late eighteenth century, he served as rector of a parish church in Devon, England after ordination. Later, he joined the East India Company and was appointed Resident Chaplain to the Prince of Wales Island (Penang) in 1814, at the age of 32.

It was Hutchings who proposed in January 1816 that a “Native School of Prince of Wales Island” should be opened, that it should be open to all children regardless of class or race, and that if parents could not afford the fees, the school would waive them. His proposal was approved by the administration, and Hutchings went on to chair the committee charged with setting it up.

Support for the school was widespread: many approved of it for moral reasons, believing education would lift children out of poverty; others approved for practical reasons, as the school would produce educated,
English-speaking staff for the rapidly growing trading and commercial enterprises of the island.

Nevertheless, it was no easy undertaking soliciting sufficient funds to get it up and running, to establish the management rules and regulations that would govern it, and to find a qualified master to run it. Donations were received from British, Chinese, Armenian, Malay and Indian families, as well as from the East India Company, and the school opened on October 21 in a house on Lebuh Love with 25 boys enrolled. Girls were first enrolled in 1817, although the girls’ school closed again in 1820 due to the lack of a suitable schoolmistress.

Life in the tropics was hard, and like many of his compatriots Hutchings suffered from frequent bouts of illness: he left on sick leave to Bengal soon after the school opened its doors. In 1817 he was seconded to India, where his duty as an accomplished Malay scholar was to see through the press a Malay version of the Old Testament in Jawi script. Here, he met and married his wife, Elvira, in 1818.

He returned to Penang in March 1820 with his wife and baby daughter, and that year the dedicated school building next door to St George’s Church he had always envisaged was opened. He continued as the leading voice in calling for donations to keep the school afloat. He also purchased an estate in the hills between Air Itam and Balik Pulau and built a bungalow, which he named Mount Elvira after his wife, hoping to avoid contracting malaria by living in an elevated spot.

It was Hutchings who proposed in January 1816 that a “Native School of Prince of Wales Island” should be opened, that it should be open to all children regardless of class or race, and that if parents could not afford the fees, the school would waive them.

After many further illnesses and absences of many months to recover, Hutchings did indeed die of malaria in Penang in April 1827. He had lived to see his dream fulfilled of a boarding section opening earlier that year, and of the school roster having expanded to around 100 pupils. But he had not yet achieved his objective of extending education to the girls of Penang. His tomb in the old Protestant Cemetery is visited annually by the pupils and teachers of PFS to commemorate his role as founder.

The Reformer

By the early twentieth century, despite ups-and-downs in the interim, PFS was going strong, and the original school buildings had been replaced by a grand “Eastern Wing” completed in 1896. In 1904 Ralph
Pinhorn arrived in Penang as the newly appointed headmaster of the school, and remained in that position for over 20 years, presiding over the centenary celebrations in 1916. According to the Penang Free School Magazine of May 1938 “it may confidently be said that he was the most eminent Head this School has possessed in the course of its existence of over 120 years”.

Hilda Mary Pinhorn with daughter Barbara.

Pinhorn had turn-of-the-century lofty ideals regarding character, discipline, duty and justice, and single-mindedly ensured their pursuit at school. The school benefited academically, with many Queen’s Scholarships awarded to pupils and a number of Old Frees becoming teachers at the school.

Not only did Pinhorn encourage the boys to read and to join the Penang Library, he also fostered in them an interest in sport. He was responsible for the implementation of regular games and extra-curricular activities, and expected good manners both on and off the playing fields.

Pinhorn oversaw the construction and opening of the school’s “Western Wing” (now the Penang State Library building on Lebuh Farquhar; the Eastern Wing was destroyed by Allied bombing at the close of World War II). He also masterminded plans to move the secondary school to its current premises in Green Lane in 1928, leaving the primary school, re-named Hutchings School, in the building on Lebuh Farquhar.

Pinhorn had turn-of-the-century lofty ideals regarding character, discipline, duty and justice, and single-mindedly ensured their pursuit at school.

Later generations of pupils believed that the stern disciplinarian haunted the school to make sure they were studying hard. Perhaps none of them, or their predecessors, ever knew that one of his legs was an artificial one, replacing an amputated weak leg resulting from polio at the age of two. They would likewise have been surprised by the real character of their headmaster, who is revealed as humble and down-to- earth in the charming letters he wrote to his fiancée during his first months in Penang, before her arrival and their marriage. Like Hutchings before him, he constantly struggled with the school’s finances. He complained to his fiancée that “An aggrieved parent has just written to the Echo, one of the daily papers, to complain of my insisting on fees being paid by a certain date.”

He battled constantly to improve the quality of the teaching, firing long-serving masters whom he deemed incompetent (one was an opium addict). He prepared for and attended committee meetings, managed the new building plans, invigilated exams, marked papers and took some classes himself. As he said, “There is a lot to do here. I don’t mean that my work is hard. I take things fairly easily, e.g. I don’t work in the evenings. But in any and every part of the school, there’s abundant room for reforms, often of the most obvious description.”

In recognition of his services to Penang, Pinhorn was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1923. He died aged 68 from pneumonia – just before the introduction of antibiotics.

The Transitioner

In 1957 PFS was preparing itself for a new era within an independent Malaya. This was also the year that J.M.B Hughes, fondly remembered by many of today’s Old Frees, became headmaster. It was his second stint at the school; he had served first as a geography teacher from 1949 onwards.

Hughes had developed an affinity for Asia and its people during World War II in India and Burma and had consequently leapt at the opportunity to work in Malaya as a teacher. He developed lifelong friendships with Malayans of every race and religion without bias or prejudice. These bonds were often fostered through participation in geography trips with the staff and students, including expeditions to Langkawi, rowing a sampan around Penang and active engagement in sporting activities. Not least, he had fun with the boys, developing a tradition for being “dunked” in the sea.

As headmaster, Hughes took his responsibilities seriously. He knew he wouldn’t be able to establish the same close relationships with his pupils as he had enjoyed as a geography teacher, and that he would need
to make changes following Merdeka. There were financial and governance administrative processes to change, as well as cultural transitions such as language and religion, in line with the constitution of the new country. Malay classes were already in place, but now were made compulsory for all boys entering the school. Wanting to set an example, Hughes welcomed the Governor using the Malay language at his first speech day.

Like Pinhorn, Hughes promoted the sporting side of school life and was ever-present not just at school sports matches, but often at practices too.

Like Pinhorn, Hughes promoted the sporting side of school life and was ever-present not just at school sports matches, but often at practices too. His pupils felt Hughes treated them fairly and were inspired by his enthusiasm and commitment. The dunking tradition of old continued during a charity fundraiser for the school in 1962, when Hughes seated himself beneath a bucket of water and proceeded to get a good soaking.

Hughes's engagement photo.

Although he had originally expected to leave Malaya soon after Merdeka, Hughes was asked by the Governor of Penang, Raja Tun Uda, to stay and ensure the transition of the school until he could be replaced by a Malayan. This took place in 1963 when Tan Boon Lin became headmaster.

In his old age, Hughes’s former pupils sponsored visits for him and his wife, Jean, whom he had met in Penang, and their children to Penang for a series of reunions. These visits were driven by deep friendships, appreciation for the education provided and, above all, fond and sentimental memories. DVDs of old cinefilms recorded during his geography excursions were shown amid much merriment.

Hughes and his wife died within a week of each other in March 2011, and tributes from old boys poured in via a dedicated website to this respected and loved couple for the impact they had on the lives of a generation of Old Frees.


J.M.B. Hughes’s son, John Hughes, who was born in Penang, will be sharing a collection of his father’s old photos of Penang and Malaysia from the 1950s to early 1960s at Penang Institute on October 23 at 3.30pm. For more information and to RSVP, contact Copies of J.M.B. Hughes’s memoir, The White Crocodile's Tale, will also be on sale.

Selected sources:
Langdon, M, “Penang, The Fourth Presidency of India, 1805-1830”, Areca Books, 2013. Boon, R, “Rev Robert Sparke Hutchings”,, Penang Lang Lah, 2010 Penang Free School Online Introduction to Pinhorn letters and Pinhorn private letters Rajarao, J. C., “Penang Free School and the Old Frees Association, Kuala Lumpur and Selangor, Early History and Reminisces”,, 2011 JMB Hughes: The White Crocodile’s Tale, Areca Books, 2014. Personal conversations with John and Mary Hughes

Louise Goss-Custard is a consultant, researcher and occasional hiker who has been living in Penang for seven years.


Back to Table of Contents

awesome comments

Other Stories

  1. July, 2016

    Where the Sea Meets the City is Where the World Meets Penang

    Intrinsically linked to the water, George Town's waterfront is where it all began – and it still continues to amaze.
  2. June, 2016

    A New Era Comes to Balik Pulau

    From affordable housing to quaint homestays and getting in touch with nature and the land, the township is undergoing an interesting revival.
  3. May, 2016

    A City For All Classes

    Liveability is more than just making it to the top of a list; it is about ensuring quality of life is available to every spectrum of society.
  4. April, 2016

    A Sky of Stars: Penang Shines as a Sporting State

    We have more champions than we think.
  5. March, 2016

    Make a Date with Nature: Tourism Turns Green with Age

    With an array of outdoor activities, ecotourism flourishes in Teluk Bahang.
  6. February, 2016

    TPPA – The Winners and the Losers

    Malaysia makes a bold move in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). It will change the game for many Malaysian companies.
  7. January, 2016

    Education – Ever the political victim

    Every political crisis inevitably claims its share of casualties. Normally, those who fall on the wrong side in the corridors of power will find their careers cut short. It is no different in Malaysia. Time and again, we have seen ministers and high ranking officials dismissed, along with their retinue of retainers and apparatchiks every ...

© Copyright 2015 Penang Monthly. All Rights Reserved | Solution By Spanlogic