From Hillview to Wellesley: The Evolution of a Pioneering Boys’ School

By Eugene Quah

main image
The school in 1965. The current building, completed in 1938, was built over an old wooden bungalow that once belonged to Arthur Harold Savage. Source: Majallah S.R. Wellesley 1965, No. 1.

JALAN SULTAN AHMAD SHAH, formerly known as Northam Road, hugs the contours of North Beach, extending towards Gurney Drive. With the panoramic views it offers of the North Channel and the distant Kedah Peak, the island’s affluent and illustrious residents have long been drawn to this stretch of road, often erecting their grand mansions along this picturesque thoroughfare, earning for it the moniker “Millionaire’s Row”.

Today, as you head towards George Town along this road, you can still see these stately homes. Upon reaching the intersection with Larut Road and taking a right turn, a colonial building comes into view. This structure, somewhat modest compared to its luxurious neighbours, serves as a public school. In front of it is a curious cannon, painted a gaudy gold, giving it a tacky and plastic sheen. This ancient artillery, however, is a real 32-pounder Blomefield cannon forged in 1797 during the reign of George III. Students at the school had great fun sitting on it and playing pirates during recess time. Once in a while, it would happen that one of them would bump their head on it.

I was a student at the school during the first three years of my primary education. This school is SK Wellesley, known in its early days as Wellesley Primary School.

This Blomefield 32-pounder from 1797 made by the Walker Company of Rotterdam was gifted to the school by the late Khoo Keat Siew of Khoo Kongsi on 19 June 1975, in memoriam of his illustrious father, Khoo Sian Ewe. It is unclear how the cannon, which is similar to the ones at Fort Cornwallis, came into the possession of the family. Source: Majallah S.R. Wellesley 1965, No. 1.

Hillview Boarding School

Wellesley Primary School, though not of the same vintage as Penang Free School and St. Xavier’s Institution, has been around in some form or another for a century. It started in 1924 under the name of Hillview Government School, located “near the corner of Burmah Road and Anson Road”, about 250m south-west of its current site at Northam Road.

Hillview bungalow belonged to Alfred de Windt Neubronner, who came from an influential Malaccan family and was the father of the noted Penang architect, Henry Alfred Neubronner (see Penang Monthly October 2018 and March 2023 issues). The property consisted of the main Hillview house and a Hillview cottage (probably an annex building). Hillview was first mentioned by the press on 30 December 1895 as “the residence of the Consul of Siam and Mrs. Neubronner”. Neubronner was in fact the Consul-General of Siam and was known to the Siamese with the titled name, Phraya Dwip Siam Kich Neubronner.

Neubronner put up Hillview, No. 70 Larut Road, for sale on 16 February 1910. According to Methodist Church records, its founder, Bishop William Fitzjames Oldham, “acquired two houses at Larut Road for a Boarding House and Missionary Residence”. The bigger Hillview house was used as the boarding school.

By March, the school already had “some nice boys as boarders”. An advertisement from 1916 indicated that the school was run by the “boarding department of the Anglo-Chinese School” (ACS) and promised to “give your son the education he needs. Strict personal supervision by a highly qualified European” in “[a] European home”. Applicants were asked to contact Rev. BJ Baughman, the Vice-Principal of the ACS. A year later, Hillview boarding school already had students from “Penang, Siam, Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula”. The school closed in August 1918, and Hillview became “the home of the Mission Staff of the ACS”. In the 1920s, Rev. George Frederick Pykett, “a renowned educator” and long-time principal of ACS, resided at Hillview. The nearby Pykett Road was named after him.

Left: E.M. Park, the fourth principal of the school (1954-1956). This photo was taken in 1936 when she was the Acting Headmistress of Geylang English School in Singapore. Middle: The second principal (1946-1947), K.O. Knapp seen here in a photo from 1940. Right: H.T. Tacchi became the first acting principal of Wellesley Primary School in 1948. She was later promoted to Director of Education (Girls) for the Federation of Malaya in 1952. Source: Malaya Tribune, 23 May 1936, Page 15. The Straits Times, 14 October 1940, Page 9. The Straits Times, 9 July 1952, Page 5.
Classes in progress, 1965 at Wellesley. The library had a Teacher’s Reference library, which had books imported from Britain. The school was known for its high quality of teaching for much of the 20th century. Source: Majallah S.R. Wellesley 1965, No. 1

Hillview Government School

In December 1923, the Inspector of Schools, H.R. Cheeseman attended the prize-giving day at the Government Girl’s School at Northam Road. After the prizes were given out by A.B. Voules, the wife of the resident councillor, Cheeseman was invited to give a speech.

“There was a time not so long ago,” he said, “when it was quite impossible to get a sufficient number of efficient local mistresses [female teachers] in Penang.” “Now, however, partly owning to the increased numbers in the secondary departments of the girl’s schools and partly owing to the Pupil Training Classes, we have no difficulty in this direction,” he said. “For instance,” he continued, “the new Hillview Boy’s Primary School of which Mrs. Ferguson is to be Head mistress, … is to be entirely staffed, as indeed it should, by local mistresses.”

By February 1924, Cheeseman announced, “[The Hillview Government School] opens on Monday, February 11, at 8am. There are vacancies for about 50 more boys.” By 6 October the following year, Sir Laurence Guillemard, the Governor of the Straits Settlements, had announced in his annual address that, “In Penang, the temporary Hillview School has been opened.”

Ferguson, the new school’s principal lived nearby at No. 39 Northam Road. Known as Mrs. A. Ferguson, she was the widow of William Herbert Ferguson, the former municipal Chief Architectural Assistant who died in 1915 in Singapore, leaving behind four children.

The school continued to grow rapidly and, by 1928, was running out of space to accommodate new students and needed to move to a permanent site. The Straits Echo on 20 February 1929 reported that “the Hill View School in Burmah Road has now been handed back to the American Mission, owing to the removal of the government school to the corner of Northam and Larut Roads—a property which was acquired last March.”

The Wellesley Primary School Swimming Team at the Penang Chinese Swimming Club. The club house and pool were built mostly through the efforts and funding of rubber millionaire, Heah Joo Seang. Seen here is his grandson, Heah Sieu Lay (front row, right). He later became a banker; his brother, Sieu Ghnee, who also studied at Wellesley, became a general surgeon. Source: Majallah S.R. Wellesley 1965, No. 1

Wellesley Primary

The wooden bungalow, once the home and dispensary of the late Arthur Harold Savage, “was taken over by the then Straits Settlements Government” as the new premises and the school was renamed Wellesley Primary School, after the former Governor-General of India, whom Province Wellesley was also named after.

The first Headmistress was Robina Duncan. She first arrived in Penang on 18 December 1922 to assume the post of the Headmistress of the Anglo-Chinese Primary Boys’ School in Chulia Street.

Just a few short years later, a larger building to house the school was required to accommodate even more students. In October 1936, Acting Inspector of Schools, J.M. Meade announced that, “Owing to the rebuilding of Wellesley Primary School, Primary Classes for boys will be housed in Hutchings School next year.” At this juncture, the school was the only government school “in the Settlement of Penang which gives elementary education in English”.

After some delays, the new building was finally completed in 1938 and the school, then with an enrolment of 600 students, moved into it on Thursday, 16 June 1938 and operated until the outbreak of World War II. Duncan lost her life while escaping the Japanese invasion of Malaya on the S.S. Kuala off the Riau Archipelago in February 1942. It was said that the Japanese forces occupied this building during the war, but I have been unable to verify this.

Lim Hun Kung was the fifth principal of the school. He was also the first local and male to hold the post. He was succeeded by Barbara Robless, one of the many talented Eurasian teachers which included Glenn Johnson and Tony Foley, who worked at the school. Source: Majallah S.R. Wellesley 1965, No. 1

After the War

“After the Liberation in 1945, the building was requisitioned by the army for use by the Indian Army.” Ooi Tiang Guan, although not officially the headmaster, was in charge and responsible for the reorganisation of the school. “The boys were accommodated at the Chowrasta Malay School in Hutton Lane and later moved to Westlands School using the building in the afternoon.” Ooi would later become the principal of the Jelutong English School. It is interesting to note that the first four principals and three acting principals of the school were all women.

“From its inception up to May 5 of 1958, the school was a Primary School in the sense that it had classes from Primary I and Primary II.” The boys were then transferred to the feeder schools such as Hutchings, Francis Light or Westlands Primary Schools, which, in turn, would send boys to the Penang Free School (Secondary School). One distinguished alumnus of the school who followed this educational path was Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin ibni Almarhum Tuanku Syed Putra Jamalullail, the 12 th Yang di-Pertuan Agong. His Highness, currently the reigning Raja of Perlis, started attending Wellesley Primary School on 5 January 1950. After completing his early primary years, His Highness transferred to Westlands and then to Penang Free School for his secondary education.

After 1958, “the school became a Full Primary School with classes from [Standards] I-VI”, after which the best pupils would proceed to Penang Free School.

The first edition of the school magazine was published in 1965. The editor was Quah Liang Keng. Source: Majallah S.R. Wellesley 1965, No. 1


For many decades after its inception, the school was much sought after for its educational excellence. By the 1960s, it had one of the finest primary school libraries in the country which boasted “no less than 5,000 children’s books”. Notable families would enrol their children to be educated in English at the school.

Some of the descendants of Khaw Sim Bee studied there, the school being conveniently just a stone’s throw away from their family mansion, Chakrabongse House. Heah Joo Seang, the rubber millionaire, also sent his kin to the school, which was also attended by numerous members of the Merican clan, such as Caleel Merican, one of the early Malay doctors and a senior of Mahathir Mohamad when they were both studying medicine in Singapore.

Other notable alumni include the historian, Ooi Keat Jin, the illustrious lawyer, the late Sulaiman Abdullah, David Arumugam and his brother, the late Loganathan Arumugam, who founded the iconic Alley Cats band popular in the 1970s, as well as two-time Olympian swimmer, Jeffrey Ong.

Quah Liang Keng, the 7th principal (1969-1974) at his desk. He was the first alumnus of the school to become its principal. Source: Majallah S.R. Wellesley 1965, No. 1, Eugene Quah Ter-Neng (Photo).


Although the origins of the Wellesley Primary School as a government-run school can be traced back to 1924, the school using its current name has existed for only 95 years. Today, the school is helmed by Puan Mashitoh binti Pakir Mohamed.

I decided to write this article about my alma mater after finding the first copy of the school’s magazine, Majallah Sekolah Rendah Wellesley, published in 1965, among the papers of the 7th principal of the school, Quah Liang Keng. A Wellesleyan himself, Quah moved on to Hutchings and then later to Penang Free School. He was offered a scholarship to study in England but chose to stay in Penang to teach. By 1965, he was already a supervisor under the first local and male principal of Wellesley, Lim Hun Kung. Quah became principal of the school in 1969 and held the post until 1976. He was my father.

Wellesley is probably the only school in the country that possesses an 18th century British cannon; this curious relic came to be placed in front of the school during Quah’s tenure. It was a gift from his friend, the late Khoo Keat Siew, to the school in memory of his father, Khoo Sian Ewe.

  • [1] “Admission to Wellesley Primary School, 1937,” Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle, pg. 9, October 26, 1936.
  • [2] “Advertisements,” Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle, pg. 5, February 16, 1910.
  • [3] “Advertisements,” Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle, pg. 9, February 8, 1924.
  • [4] “Government Girls’ School,” The Straits Echo (Mail Edition), pg. 1445, December 11, 1923.
  • [5] “Governor at Wellesley Primary School,” Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle, pg. 7, November 28, 1936.
  • [6] “Hillview - Boarding School for Boys,” Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle, pg. 3, December 28, 1917.
  • [7] “Local and General,” Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle, pg. 2, December 30, 1895.
  • [8] “Modification of Colony Education Policy,” Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle, pg. 3, October 27, 1936.
  • [9] “Police Court,” The Straits Echo (Mail Edition), pg. 126, February 9, 1925.
  • [10] “Social and Personal,” The Straits Times, pg. 8, December 18, 1922.
  • [11] “What About His Education? ‘Hillview’,” Straits Echo, pg. 7, June 2, 1916.
  • [12] Arnold Wright & H.A. Cartwright (1908), “Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya,” pg. 612.
  • [13] Federal Government of Malaysia (2002), “Malaysia, Buku Rasmi Tahunan, 2002,” pg.12.
  • [14] Federation of Malaya (1949), “Indent On Crown Agents For Wellesley Primary School Apparatus And Materials”, Document. Arkib Negara: 1957/0474936W
  • [15] Khoo Salma Nasution (2006), “More Than Merchants - A History of the German-speaking Community in Penang, 1800s-1940s,” pg. 76-77.
  • [16] Laurence Nunns Guillemard (1924), “Straits Settlements Governor’s Annual Address,” Presented on 8th October 1924 to the members of the Council.
  • [17] Methodist Episcopal Church (1920), “Annual Report of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church,” Volume 102, pg. 685.
  • [18] Methodist Episcopal Church (1920), “Hillview,” Malaysia Conference 1920, Minutes, pg. 456.
  • [19] Quah Liang Keng, editor (1965), “Majallah Sekolah Rendah Wellesley,” No.1, Volume 1.
  • [20] Quah Liang Keng, Private papers, 7th principal of Wellesley Primary School (1969-1976)
  • [21] S.C. Yeomans (1929), “Concerning Local Schools,” The Straits Echo (Mail Edition), pg. 143, February 20, 1929.
  • [22] Straits Settlements (1931), “Blue Book for the Year 1931,” pg.4, 22, 72, 129.
  • [23] Straits Settlements (1936), “Proceedings of the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements for the Year 1936,” pg. 29.
  • [24] Straits Settlements (1937), “Annual Reports for the Year 1937,” pg. 474.
  • [25] Zarinah Daud (1990), “It Started as a ‘Teaching’ School,” New Straits Times, May 30, 1990.
Eugene Quah

is an independent researcher and writer who is working on a book tentatively called “Illustrated Guide to the North Coast of Penang”. He rediscovered the joys of writing after moving back to Penang from abroad.