Sir Stamford Raffles and The History Of The Runnymede
Thomas Stamford Raffles was born in 1781, to Captain Benjamin Raffles and his wife Anne and in 1793 was sent as a boarder to the Mansion House Boarding school in Hammersmith, London. He joined the East India Company in London as a temporary clerk in 1795.
Raffles became Assistant Secretary to the new Governor of Penang in March 1805 and married Olivia Marianne Fancourt. He met her when she went to the East India House to petition for a pension from her deceased husband Jacob C. Fancourt, who was – before his death, an assistant surgeon in Madras. The Raffleses arrived in Penang in September 1805, together with Raffle's sister Mary Anne. They were housed, on arrival, in the Government Guest House until Olivia found a wooden, attap-roofed bungalow at the foot of what was to be known as Mount Olivia (Mount Erskine). In 1807, Raffles commissioned a new home to be built at North Beach.
Penang became known as an excellent place to recuperate from illnesses. An old friend of Raffles, John Casper Leydon stayed with the Raffleses after his illness. He fell in love with Olivia. When he left Penang, he wrote long letters to her. In a letter to John Leyden on 3rd. August 1808, Olivia wrote – "Mr. R. is building a pretty brick house on the beach, which I hope will be finished in eight to ten weeks." This is the only known letter from Olivia to have survived and it is kept in the National Library of Scotland.
The Prince of Wales Gazette dated 4th. January 1809 writes – "The north beach will, ere long, assume a very handsome appearance, when several elegant villas, now building, are finished. The new buildings commence with Runnymede, the property of Mr. Raffles and adjoining are the grounds of Mr. Hobson, Mr. Robinson, Mr. Erskine, Captain Douglas, Mr. Pearson and Mr. Lawrence, on which houses are erected."
D.C. Boulger states in his book; "The Life of Sir Stamford Raffles", that Raffles paid a sum of 330 pounds a year in rent for it. This leaves a question as to whether Raffles actually paid for the building or whether he rented it from another person.
The new house was named Runnymede after the English field on which King John of England signed the Magna Carta. It was a single storey building with louvered wooden window shutters, carved balconies, deep cool eaves and large, relatively open living spaces within. During their stay in Runnymede, Raffle's two younger sisters joined them, adding to the gaiety of the many evening functions.
Raffles was moved to Malacca in 1811. Runnymede was advertised in The Prince of Wales Gazette – for sale. In C. E. Wurtzberg's book; "Raffles of the Eastern Isles" it was stated: - "Runnymede survived as a house in Northam Road up to September 1901, when the roof caught fire and the house was burned to the ground." Some of the surrounding buildings were renovated and Runnymede was converted into a hotel to compete with The E & 0 Hotel. W. Foster and H. Parker - two Scotsmen - managed the Runnymede Hotel.
In 1923, The British Malaya Magazine commented: "The Runnymede Hotel has come right to the front in the last few years; and from its merits in regard to service and appointments, the hotel is one of that select number which the tourist or visitor retains in his recollection for its individuality and unobtrusive comfort".
There were four buildings making up the whole of Runnymede. A few rooms were laid out as private flats with separate entrances from Northam Road. Every hotel room had fans, running water and electric light. A large, airy seafront wing was built in the 1930's, which is the three storied building we see today. The first and second floors were guest rooms and the ground floor housed the huge ballroom.
In 1935, Runnymede boasted of a post office as well as a telegraph office. Services offered by the Runnymede Hotel included a hairdresser, book stall, reading room, billiard room, railway ticketing office and a fleet of cars with chauffeurs. Cocktail dances were held every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with dinner dances on Thursday and Saturday. Dinner was served on the lawns, (weather permitting). The well known lawyer P.G. Lim remembers attending dinner dances at the Runnymede in her early years and always had a new evening dress for the occasion. Dress was formal for the evenings with long dress for ladies and black tie for the men. Runnymede Hotel management took over the Crag Hotel on Penang Hill, and to celebrate the 1935 Silver Jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary, the front page of the Pinang Gazette ran a full-page advertisement with a photograph of the hotel taken from the air.
The British Navy took over the hotel in 1940, to house fleeing Europeans. After the war, the British Military occupied the buildings and in 1951 the Choong Lye Hock Estate sold Runnymede for $1.5 million to the British Government for continued military occupation. With Malaysia's Independence in 1957, the British sold the Runnymede for a token sum of $1.00 and the buildings became a government rest house and recreation centre called "Wisma Persekutuan". Parents of a friend, recalled staying in Runnymede Hotel on their journey back to England in 1963. Her mother was most upset that, with all the fresh vegetables in the markets, they were served baked beans as "the Vegetable of the Day" for their evening meal.
In 1986, the Malaysian Military moved into the premises. The main building is now used as an officer's mess and exhibition area, with their living quarters in the floors above.
The public can and do, rent the ballroom for wedding and dinner parties.