Rich legacy of Penang Free School

The porch of the main building of Penang Free School with its distinctive tower.

The porch of the main building of Penang Free School with its distinctive tower.

IN history textbooks at schools, Penang Free School (PFS) is described as the oldest English school in South-East Asia.

But this passing mention of the 202-year-old school does not do justice to what it went through to become the crowning glory of Penang’s educational history.

To really know what the school is made of, try picking up a copy of ‘Let the Aisles Proclaim’, published by Penang Free School Foundation and authored by Quah Seng Sun.

The book title is a line from the school’s anthem.

The 341 glossy pages tell of the school’s history from 1816 to 2016, from its days of British influence to becoming more ‘Malaysianised’, as discussed in one chapter of the book.

Readers will learn how Rev Robert Sparke Hutchings began the school at a rented prewar shop house in Love Lane before it was relocated to the current Hutchings School in Farquhar Street and finally to its current grounds in Jalan Masjid Negeri in January 1928.

Clear-cut chronological documentation is seen throughout the book as it goes into other aspects such as the principals, new buildings, the iconic school bell as well as the school’s notable alumni.

But Quah could never tell the tale of PFS without also outlining Penang’s history.

He put PFS’ ancient archives to good use, detailing delightful historical details like how Captain Francis Light developed Penang island to the point that it was ripe for PFS to be born.

Quah, 64, is an Old Frees Association (OFA) member and a historical enthusiast who studied at PFS from 1966 to 1972.

The Penangite was a journalist for six months before he entered the banking industry and stayed there for 24 years before making another career switch,joining an Internet-based recruitmentcompany.

Though not a professional historian, Quah, who wrote extensively on chess games inthe past, proved his dedication to be exacting in his quest to trace the historical trail of PFS.

A chat with the author revealed thatinformation from 1860 was a difficult task, as well as the happenings between the two world wars.

“Everything that happened in PFS since 1945 was well-covered.

“But during World War II, many records were burned to keep information out of the hands of the Japanese,” he said.

He added that most of the documentation about the school were usually personalrecollections and short essays by personalities, rather than a comprehensive coverage of the school’s history.

Before ‘Let the Aisles Proclaim’, he said there had never been a volume to crystallise the school’s history.

“It was important to show how thechanges took place at the school because it also reflected the development of education in the country,” he said.

In 2016, the school was bestowed heritage status in time for its 200-yearanniversary on Oct 21, 2016, and the book commemorates PFS’ bicentennialcelebration.

‘Let the Aisles Proclaim’ retails at RM100 each and is available at Gerak Budaya Bookshop, Areca Books, The Old Frees’ Association in Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah and Penang House of Music.

Only 3,000 copies are available. Details, email