James Dollery Fettes and Penang Waterworks: A Legacy of Public Service (Part 1)

By Eugene Quah

main image
The elegant bridge at the Guillemard Service Reservoir is the masterwork of Penang's Municipality Water Engineer, James Dollery Fettes. The reservoir, named after the Governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Laurence Nunns Guillemard, used to be a popular tourist attraction but has since been closed to the public. Source: Author's own collection.

JALAN TANJONG TOKONG, the main thoroughfare leading to the tourist beaches of Batu Ferringhi, is often clogged with traffic during public holidays. Torrents of visitors from outstation — a quaint colonial term meaning from out-of-state — would pour into the island. As an alternative, residents of the Lembah Permai (Vale of Tempe) suburb in Tanjung Bungah would use the narrow winding hill road that starts at the entrance of Pepper Estate, just after the junction to Fettes Park at the northern end of Jalan Mount Erskine.

Called Chui Tee Lor in Hokkien, which means Reservoir Road, it snakes around a ridge that connects Mount Olivia to Mount Erskine (Pearl Hill). Narrow with hair-raising bends, it can feel like driving on a racetrack to the uninitiated. Indeed, it was used to host the annual Vale of Tempe motor races in the 1960s. The reservoir refers to the Guillemard Service Reservoir built into the low granite ridge that the road hugs. Completed in 1929, the waterworks helped secure northern Penang’s water supply and saved the Botanic Gardens from being flooded and turned into a reservoir.

The hill road forks after a hairpin bend at its midpoint and highest elevation. Keeping right takes one down to the valley below, while to the left is a ramp that leads up to the reservoir, named after Sir Laurence Nunns Guillemard, the Governor of the Straits Settlements, who approved the waterworks. Anyone visiting the place must pass under a graceful stone bridge to enter. The picturesque reservoir compound, now a restricted area, was once a public park and a must-see tourist spot on the island. Unfortunately, the order to close it to the public for national security reasons during the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation in the 60s has never been rescinded.

The reservoir, named after the 18th Governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Laurence Nunns Guillemard, is unfortunately now closed to the public. In earlier times, the place, with its bridge and twin reservoirs at the top, was a popular tourist attraction. Source: Author's own collection.

A Sight to Behold

One day in 1986, the reservoir had visitors. It was a rare occurrence as special permission was needed to enter, even until today. As the four visitors passed under the bridge, the shady casuarina tree-lined path wound its way to higher ground, finally meeting up with the bridge itself. Crossing it, the party would have spotted a small grass-covered mound with a flight of stone stairs leading to a temple-like structure atop it, painted pure white, its dome glistening in the sun. It overlooked a pair of round pools of turquoise water arranged in the form of a figure eight.

Among the visitors was an elderly English lady, dressed in a light-coloured dress and wearing sunglasses, who, upon laying eyes on the reservoir and its well-manicured grounds, was overwhelmed by the sight of it. With her were her husband and two Chinese men; the younger one, in his mid-40s, was Lee Yow Ching (later Dato’ Seri), the manager of Penang Waterworks. Lee had earlier been approached by the woman who proudly introduced herself as Mary Naylor, the daughter of Arthur Holden Naylor, “the man who designed the reservoir more than 60 years earlier”. She requested specifically to be taken to see the reservoir. Also present was 66-year-old Prof. Chin Fung Kee (later Tan Sri), an “eminent local engineer” who had designed the Penang Bridge, completed a year prior. While at Queen’s University Belfast, he studied under Naylor, a professor of Civil Engineering and an expert in hydraulic engineering. 

Before entering academia, Naylor worked for the engineering firm, Coode, Matthews, Fitzmaurice & Wilson, and was involved in the design of the Johore Causeway and the Prai Power Station. In September 1925, Naylor, along with Australian mining engineer, William Weir Webster, arrived in Penang as consulting engineers to the Municipal Council. Sydney Upton, the explorer and engineer instrumental in the development of Cameron Highlands, soon joined them. Together with Alfred Philip Hanby Holmes, the four capable civil engineers were each responsible for a section of the vast northern waterworks project. The scheme was “conceived and designed” by their visionary chief, James Dollery Fettes. As Penang’s first Municipal Water Engineer, Fettes had the enormous and critical task of ensuring Penang’s waterworks would meet the growing population’s demands well into the late 20th century and keep Penang drought-proof. Fettes Road (Jalan Fettes) and the suburb of Fettes Park in Penang are named after him.

The Guillemard Service Reservoir as seen from space. The two pools resemble a pair of glasses. The reservoir road follows the contours of the heart-shaped valley where the Pepper Estate settlement is located. Source: Google Earth.

Port Elizabeth, Cape Colony

Port Elizabeth, the most populous city in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, is on the western part of Algoa Bay. Nicknamed the “Friendly City”, it is a major seaport and the cultural, economic and financial centre of the region. On a blustery but sunny Saturday in June during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the city’s brand-new Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium hosted its first match. A crowd of more than 31,000 spectators were present, cheering as the South Koreans edged out the Greeks by two goals that afternoon. Before the match, some fans would have parked their cars in the parking area at the stadium's Fettes Road entrance.

This Fettes Road, unlike its namesake in Penang, stands as a tribute to another member of the Fettes clan – Alexander Fettes – who was several times mayor of Port Elizabeth at the turn of the 19th century. Hailing from the small town of Laurencekirk in Scotland, though raised in Aberdeen, he was a skilled stone cutter and mason. On emigrating to the British Cape Colony (now South Africa), Alexander Fettes soon found success when he partnered with James Dollery to construct the waterworks of the bustling, yet water-scarce settlement.

When Alexander Fettes and his wife welcomed a new son to their family, they named him James Dollery, after Alexander's business partner. The boy, James Dollery Fettes, obtained his early education entirely in Port Elizabeth and in 1895, at the age of 15, completed his schooling and started work with the Port Elizabeth Municipality as a member of the engineering staff. He was eventually tasked with “special work in connection with the water supply”. Fettes Senior was, by then, a town councillor and Chairman of the Special Water Committee. 

Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom

James Fettes then left South Africa to further his education in Scotland. He joined the Edinburgh-based engineering firm, J. and A. Leslie and Reid. The founders, James and Alexander Leslie, were accomplished civil engineers involved in the construction of many waterworks in Scotland. While apprenticing at the firm, he also attended Heriot-Watt College, the precursor of the modern-day Heriot-Watt University. He was elected as an Associate Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers (AMICE) on April 3, 1906. He then appeared to have returned to Port Elizabeth to help Charles Dimond Horatio Braine in preparing a survey of the water supply of the city. Braine singled out the young engineer for praise “for the accuracy of the levels” that were “within [three] inches throughout the route”, “in spite of the mountainous nature of the country”. This attention to detail and propensity for diligent work would serve him well for the next stage of his career.

Left: The Fettes College coat of arms is an extended version of the original heraldry. Their family motto was “Industria” or Industry (diligence, energy and purpose), which both Alexander and his son, James, had in abundance. Right: Unfortunately, there are no known published photos of James Fettes. This photo is of his only child, Peter Fettes, a BBC Radio personality who was born in Penang. Source: Court of the Lord Lyon (Scottish Heraldic Regsitry), British Broadcasting Corporation.

Air Itam, Penang, Straits Settlements

In April 1906, the Municipal Commission decided to go ahead with the “[Tanjung] Bungah water scheme” devised by Leonard Moore Bell, the municipal engineer, which included “a balancing reservoir” at Sungai Kelian in response to a drought affecting Penang’s water supply in the preceding year.

However, due to many postponements, by 1908, the plan had changed, and an impounding reservoir was being considered at Batu Ferringhi instead. James Fettes was “brought out from England” on contract “to be in charge of the waterworks scheme” and as Bell’s assistant. The 26-year-old civil engineer arrived in Penang on December 10, 1908. Fettes eventually became a permanent staff and was given the responsibility to oversee the construction of the Air Itam reservoir. Possessing a “charming personality”, Fettes “was greatly liked and respected by the Municipal staff”.

Although not a trained architect, Fettes was deeply involved in the entire design of the Air Itam reservoir and went on to pen a detailed description of its construction together with a blueprint of a domed recorder house of his design to the Far Eastern Review a few years later. This domed recorder house was the prototype of the far more refined ones that Fettes would later incorporate into the design of the Guillemard Reservoir and the Batu Ferringhi Waterworks. His architectural aesthetics may have been influenced by his friend and cricket mate, Henry Alfred Neubronner, then Penang’s foremost architect. In 1910, Neubronner masterfully blended Mughal-inspired architecture into the Kapitan Keling Mosque renovation works.

The domed recorder house of the Air Itam reservoir, designed by James Fettes, contained a Venturi metre that measured water flow. It was the precursor to the more refined domed houses he later showcased in the Guillemard Service Reservoir and Batu Ferringhi Waterworks. His signature can be seen on the bottom right. Source: Far Easter Review, September 1923 Edition.

James Fettes, much like Neubronner, was a veritable polymath: brilliant in a variety of scientific, artistic and sporting fields, and highly esteemed in social circles. Not only was he Malaya’s eminent authority on waterworks but he was also a fine athlete and photographer. Considered “a great all round cricketer”, he captained “the Penang, Penang Cricket Club and the Municipality” teams at one time or another. Additionally, he took part in motor races and hunts on horseback; in the Penang Automobile Club annual races, he raced in the motorcycles division while his boss, Leonard Bell, drove a new-fangled Ford in the cars division. He was also regarded as one of the best amateur photographers in Penang. His entry entitled “No. 165 – Views Outside the Town” won him first prize at the annual Pinang Impressionists’ Exhibition of 1913. According to an article in the Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, Fettes, who was elected a Fellow in 1911, was “very keen on walking and photography” – providing him with “a very intimate knowledge of the island”.

To be continued…

Eugene Quah

is an independent researcher who is working on a book about Tanjung Bungah and Tanjung Tokong. He rediscovered the joys of writing after moving back to Penang from abroad while on a hiatus from designing software.