Old V.I., The School at the River Bend

The School at the River Bend

he present V.I. building dates from 1929. Before that the V.I. was located in High Street (now Jalan Tun H.S. Lee) in the heart of old Kuala Lumpur town where the school was first established in 1893. As the school grew over the decades, its environment also grew and changed, mirroring the parallel growth of Kuala Lumpur. Very few people are alive now who can remember what the old school location looked like or know what happened to the original buildings of the V.I. complex.

Old V.I. Map, pre-1929

After the government approved the establishment of the V.I., eight acres of land on the left bank of the Klang River were set aside. The map of 1889 shows a vastly different Kuala Lumpur from that of today. The township is barely 31 years old and most of the Asian population live on the left bank of the Klang River. The proposed site is bounded on three sides by the river and by the southern part of High Street which meets the Klang River near a large engineering complex. There are no brick buildings on the site at this time though the dotted lines representing dirt roads suggest that squatters most likely would be living there. There is a police station in High Street facing the site of the future school. The street beside it is aptly named Station Street. The other side of the river is relatively undeveloped and mostly Europeans live there. The main road running beside the railway line is called Gombak Road (Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin today). There is no proper railway station as yet.

Construction began in 1893 of two buildings, one a school block known as Block 1 and the other a large bungalow for the Headmaster. The buildings were ready for occupation in July 1894. Block 1 had two floors, the ground floor being mainly of brick while the upper part of the building was largely timber. The style was Gothic; indeed, Gothic arches abounded - there were two concentric walls of arches on the ground floor. A distinctive flèche (spire) on its roof allowed natural ventilation into the large upper floor school room. Although the school fronted High Street, its main entrance was actually on the north side. Above this entrance was a gable on which were mounted the royal coat of arms and the date of the School's foundation - 1893. A long curving porch covered the entrance steps.

No photographs have been found showing the Headmaster's Bungalow in its entirety but according to written descriptions by Mr R. J. H Sidney, one of the three headmasters who lived in it, the Bungalow had large verandahs all round and a car porch. There were servants' quarters behind it as well.

The map of 1895 shows the school a year after it opened. Block 1 fronts High Street while the Headmaster's Bungalow is further away at the bend of the river. A road slices in front of the headmaster's bungalow and crosses the Klang River to the newly built Railway Station. Quite possibly there is no school field worth mentioning yet. Gombak Road has now been renamed Damansara Road. The line from the Railway Station actually crosses the river to Chinatown further north to run along the present day Jalan Cheng Lock. Police barracks, facing the school, have now been built beside the Police Station.

In 1899 a new V.I. block, Block 2, was built beside the first block. This new block had six classrooms on the ground floor and teachers' quarters upstairs. Block 1 housed the Infant School while Block 2 was for the Lower School. As the boys aged and were ready for the Middle School, Block 3 was added in 1902 behind Block 2. This new block consisted of a laboratory and three classrooms. In addition, a gymnasium was built beside Block 3. It looked like a Roman temple with tall columns, two at the front and back, and four on each side.

In 1909 Block 4 was constructed about 50 metres across the field behind Block 1. This was for the High School and consisted of three classrooms on the ground floor. It housed the School Hall on the first floor. In 1921, a temporary building was set up to house three more classrooms. Five years later another one-storey building was erected to relieve the pressure for classroom space.

In 1911, the Headmaster's Bungalow gained a bit of notoriety during the time when the acting Headmaster was living there in the absence of Mr B. E. Shaw who was on overseas leave. One evening a European planter was shot several times in the Bungalow. He staggered down from the verandah and collapsed and died on the driveway. The wife of the acting Headmaster was accused of murder, tried and sentenced to death but she was pardoned by the Selangor Sultan after the staff and pupils of the V.I. petitioned the ruler.

The map of 1929 shows a vastly changed V.I. All the buildings that make up the school complex are in place and the road that once cut across the present school field is now gone and all land appears pretty much used up. In fact this is the last time the V.I. will call High Street its home, for in March of this year, the V.I. will be moving to its new premises in Petaling Hill. The Headmaster's Bungalow appears to have its own private road running north along the river bank to join Sultan Street. This road is called Jalan Sekolah for obvious reasons. The school's tennis courts, not shown on the map, are along this road, between the river and the shop houses. The town of Kuala Lumpur shows more built-up areas. The latest (and current) version of the Railway Station no longer sends a track across the Klang River.

What was life like in the V.I. in the twenties? There were the cadet corps and the scouts to keep the boys busy after school. The cadets had their own rifle range in an open space nearby. Wednesdays were reserved for bugle band displays in front of Block 4. The games played were football, cricket, tennis and hockey. The Musical and Dramatic Society was founded during that period and put up several plays that were well received by the population of Kuala Lumpur. In fact the Society even took its plays to other towns like Penang, Ipoh and Singapore.

The annual school sports were nothing short of a carnival with massed physical drill displays - dumb-bell, wand and club swinging in unison - in the presence of hundreds of parents, not to mention the public who poured in from High Street. The different communities would put up their own tents in the V.I. field and from these would exude the appetizing odours of a hundred and one delicacies. And on Empire Day, the twenty-fourth of May each year, every pupil participated in the sports events and almost everyone received a prize.

Headmaster Richard Sidney wrote that the old V.I. was a fairly noisy place as there were hawker cries and traffic noise coming from High Street throughout the day and even at night. Then there was the Railway Station a mere 200 metres away with the squeals of brakes and the noise of trains shunting and chugging past. The engineering works just south across the river was sometimes unbearably noisy during school hours.

As if that wasn't enough the school had the Klang River crocodiles to contend with. Kuala Lumpur was still sufficiently wild enough in those days for crocodiles to be lurking on the banks of the river. The Malay Mail of 16th September 1898 reported that a seven-foot long crocodile had been dispatched with two shots. It had been lying on the river bank behind the school toilets which in those days were built over the Klang River. Some teachers in the 1920s, like Mr. F. C. Barraclough, used to keep rifles in the classrooms that overlooked the river a mere hundred feet away and take potshots at the reptiles. One year a ten-footer was reportedly bagged. Nevertheless, some V.I. boys would take their lives in their hands during school recess to harass the crocodiles basking on the river bank by throwing stones at them.

The Klang River had another hazard - it flooded often. As the V.I. site was on low ground, the school would occasionally be under a few feet of water during the rainy season and had to be closed (much to the delight of the boys, undoubtedly). The Headmaster's Bungalow, being closer to the water's edge, got the worst of it. In 1926, the Headmaster, Mr. G. C. Davies, and his family had to be rescued by sampan when they were stranded in his Bungalow.

The flood nuisance was so persistent that after much discussion over the years government approval was given for the V.I. to build its present premises on what used to be a Chinese cemetery and golf links. After the school moved to the current premises in 1929, the old Headmaster's Bungalow was demolished to allow the Klang River to be diverted and straightened in the early nineteen thirties.

Old V.I. Map, post-1929

The crudely drawn AAM map of 1939 shows a significant change in the former V.I. complex. The various kinks in the Klang River are now gone and the river is pretty much what it is like today but only three buildings are shown in the complex now known the Technical College. The artist seems to have missed out Block 4 and the other smaller buildings for some reason, but has drawn in the road separating Block 1 from Blocks 2 and 3.

The map of 1950 shows little change in the former VI complex five years after the war, except the artist has put back the buildings missing from the 1939 map! There is extensive road remodelling south of the complex near the Chinese Assembly Hall where a roundabout has been built. The Technical College remained in High Street until 1954 when it moved to Jalan Gurney (now Jalan Semarak) and the newly established High Street School took over the old V.I. premises (its first Headmaster was an ex-V.I. teacher, Mr. H. M. de Souza). In 1957 this School in turn moved out to new premises in Setapak and, dropping the Street from its name, called itself High School Setapak!

The map of 1961 shows a densely packed post-Merdeka Kuala Lumpur, with buildings sprouting everywhere. The end of an era is approaching as all the remaining former V.I. buildings except Block 1 are to be demolished at year's end to allow for the construction of the viaduct spanning the Klang River from the National Mosque to the Chinese Assembly Hall. Station Street has been renamed Jalan Balai Polis and its length is truncated considerably as the Police Station premises have been extended into the junction of the street with High Street. High Street in turn has now been renamed Jalan Bandar and the roundabout at the Chinese Assembly Hall is now known as Bulatan Merdeka. Of interest is the road called Old River Road. This can only be a hint as to what the road once was - a watery bend in the river which once coursed alongside the school's Blocks 2 and 3 and which had been filled in during the early thirties. The river has become a road!

Old V.I. Map, 1990s

Over the next thirty years, Block 1 would become, firstly, the Panggung Derama under the auspices of the National Drama Council and later the Pusat Seni. Its final and rather ignominious rôle was that of a storehouse for Alam Flora, a waste management company which stacked litter bins at the back of this hundred-year-old heritage building. As the map of 1993 shows, Block 1 sits forlornly amidst massive change. Tall skyscrapers loom above it and there is a busy traffic interchange a stone's throw away. Jalan Sultan Mohamed now runs where the old Klang River used to curve past the Headmaster's Bungalow. The old Jalan Sekolah is now nameless and is just a narrow lane separating the Klang Bus Station from the Uda-Ocean Shopping Complex. Since 1998 an LRT track (not shown) follows Jalan Sultan Mohamed to the Pasar Seni station opposite the Bus Station. Old River Road has lost its name but still serves its function of funnelling High Street (Jalan Bandar) traffic into Bulatan Merdeka. Ever since the late sixties, Jalan Bandar has been called Jalan Tun H.S. Lee. To complete the V.I. connection, the late Tun H.S. Lee, though not a Victorian himself, sent his sons to the new V.I. in the forties and fifties.

On the evening of July 26, 1999, a fire broke out in Block 1, started possibly by drug addicts who had sneaked into the empty and supposedly locked building. The roof and wooden floor were destroyed although the concrete walls survived. The gable with "1893" inscribed on it and which had stood for 106 years was consumed by the flames. Thus, the very first and most historic building of the Victoria Institution met its sad demise.

Old V.I. Visual

The above visualization depicts the school at the end of a school day in the late twenties, with students involved in the major extra-curricular activities - cadets, scouts, football, Indian club swinging and cricket. Hawkers along High Street do roaring business with home-bound V.I. boys. Across the Klang River in the background is the Railway Station. Facing the school (roof partly shown on left foreground) are the barracks of the High Street Police Station. To the far left, accessible by a bridge (not shown) from High Street, is a large engineering works. Large trees actually line the school's frontage with High Street and many more flourish within the compound, but they are not depicted here in order that the school buildings are not obscured. The Headmaster's bungalow is drawn from imagination, based on written accounts of its features and from its outline in the maps.

[Click here for a four-fold enlargement of the same sketch]

Copies of this visualization have been presented to the National Archives, Badan Warisan Malaysia, the Library of the Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur and the V.I. Museum. The visualization was also printed in The Victorian of 1999 with a two-page summary and with no other accompanying visuals.

An Old V.I. Photo Album

Block 1

Old V.I. Block 1

  1. View of the north façade (the Infant School) with the Royal Coat of Arms and the year "1893" on the gable.
  2. Mr Chan Hung Chin with his wolf cubs at the High Street (east façade) entrance. (1926)
  3. View of the south façade taken from High Street with a bit of Block 2 visible on the left. (Early 1900s)
  4. Old V.I. Block 1A

  5. The west façade is background to a group photo of scouts in 1913.
  6. The west façade is on the left as the photographer of this scout group faces southwards and captures Block 3 in the background. Behind the scoutmaster is the stone staircase leading to the upper floor of Block 1. In the background beyond this staircase may be seen a skywalk linking Block 3 to Block 2. (1924)
  7. Block 1 as seen from the Police Station on the other side of High Street. In this 1960s photo it is now known as the Panggung Derama.

Blocks 2 and 3

Old V.I. Blocks 2 & 3

  1. Block 2 (left) and Block 3 form the backdrop for a cadet parade. (1899)
  2. The west façade of Block 1 is in the left foreground. The gap between Block 2 (left) and Block 3 ends at a hedge beyond which is the Klang River. (1923)
  3. The School Cricket team posing in front of the gymnasium.(1913)

Block 4

Old V.I. Block 4

  1. The school staff in front of the entrance to Block 4, the High School. (1910s)
  2. The cadets on the school field with Block 4 in the background. (1927)
  3. An inter-school debate in the School Hall on the first floor. The top of the staircase can be seen through the door on the left. (1924)

Around the School

Old V.I. surroundings

  1. Cricket practice. Block 1 (left) and Block 4 (right) are in the background. (1924)
  2. The school car park between Block 1 (right) and Block 4. (1923)
  3. Mass club swinging to piano music on the school field with a bit of Block 4 visible on the right. Taken from the Headmaster's Bungalow looking eastwards towards Block 1. (1924)
  4. Cars passing Block 1 (not shown) on the left and heading for the High Street exit. (1923)

The Tennis Courts

Old V.I. Tennis Courts

Located opposite the shop houses in Jalan Sekolah, this 1925 photo shows the tennis courts beside the Klang River just north of the school field. Today this same spot is occupied by the Klang Bus Station. The shop houses have gone but their façades have been preserved as part of the Uda-Ocean Shopping Complex.

The Headmaster's Bungalow

Old V.I. HM's Bungalow - 1

  1. The map outline of the Bungalow with three sides surrounded by the Klang River. (1929)
  2. The school's newly appointed prefects pose in front of the Bungalow. (1923)
  3. Richard Sidney decides to sleep on the verandah of his Bungalow and converts his bedroom into an office, thereby allowing his office in the school to be used as a staff room.
  4. Old V.I. HM's Bungalow - 2

  5. This undated photo shows the principal room of the Bungalow after two smaller rooms were remodelled with the removal of a dividing wall.
  6. Prefects and their guests gather on the front entrance verandah for the Annual Prefects' Dinner. (1926)
  7. The Annual Prefects' Dinner in progress. (1926)

The River

Old V.I. River 1

  1. No distinct photographs of the Klang River together with the school have been located. In this 1928 group photograph of prefects gathered between Block 4 (right) and the Klang River, the glint of the river may be seen in the left background.
  2. In this 1927 photo of Mahluddin, the School Football Captain, the Klang River is also visible in the background on the right.
  3. An undated photo of the confluence of the Klang and Gombak in the early days of Kuala Lumpur. The V.I. is only 3/4 kilometre downstream.
  4. A portion of either the Klang or the Gombak River in the 1880s. The early huts of Chinatown may be seen in the background.

Klang Valley Panorama

Old V.I. River 2

This early 1900s view was taken from the hilly Belfield Road area overlooking the Kampong Attap shop houses which face the Klang River. The scope of the photograph is marked in gray in a superimposed 1889 map of Kuala Lumpur. The Klang River's wildly meandering course is clearly seen on the map and indicated in the photo. The sunlit façade of Block 1 marks the V.I.'s location in the middle of the town but, unfortunately, the many trees in the school compound serve to obscure the other school buildings. That portion of the Klang River which skirts the V. I. is also not visible.

The 1999 Fire

Old V.I. Fire A

  1. The skeletal remains of the porch facing High Street
  2. The southern façade with its small wooden porch.
  3. The northern façade with part of the long curving porch most of which has been spared. The gable above, inscribed with "1893" - the year of the school's foundation - is gone along with the fronds of the nearby palm trees.
  4. Old V.I. Fire B

  5. The southern façade from the top of the stairs.
  6. Collapsed rafters on the first floor beams.
  7. The ground floor with the some of the ubiquitous gothic arches in the background.
  8. The ground floor with remains of partitioning that were probably of post-1960 vintage

Photos 1 - 3 are used by courtesy of Lim Huck Chin of Badan Warisan Malaysia. The rest are by the writer.


Many thanks to:

  • Old Victorian Dr. Chong Siew Meng who supplied me with many old maps and old photos of K.L and with whom I shared the exhilarating experience of unravelling the mystery of the old V.I. layout.
  • Mr G. Alphonso of the National Archives for maps and information on old K.L. and for general advice.
  • The V.I Library for access to the old school magazines.
  • Mr. George Yap (class of 1926) and Mr. Leslie M. Keun (class of 1928) who helped confirm the essential layout of the High Street premises and for interesting snippets about the old V.I.
  • Badan Warisan Malaysia for use of its photos and for its donation of a framed old V.I. visualization to the V.I. Museum.

VI The V.I. Web Page

Created on 09 April 2000.
Last update on 23 November 2003.

Contributed by:
Chung Chee Min

Ooi Boon Kheng