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23 Jan 2024
updated 23 Jan 2024

Dr Robert Little
(1 Jul or 20 Aug 1819 - 11 Jun 1888)

Dr Robert Little

The narrative that follows is transcribed from Alexander (Sandy) Waddell's invaluable summary in his biographical documentation of the Little and Martin families.

Summary transcript

Born 1 Jul or 20 Aug 1819. He commenced his medical apprenticeship in 1833 and at same time attended classes at the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh, qualifying LRCS Edin, 1837.

On 11 Aug 1840 he arrived in Singapore on the Gulnare, (a ship of 338 tons ex Liverpool, Master Cape Williams, Owners Pold and Co, built Whitby 1830) to join his uncle Dr Mungo Johnson Martin in medical practice. Dr Robert was to become a prominent and longstanding member of the settlement, taking a lively interest in community matters and contributing with regularity, papers of scientific interest, to Logan's Journal. He moved from the Dispensary in the Square in 1845 to the house on Institution Hill which he named 'Bonnygrass', whose site had first been purchased by Dr Mungo Johnson Martin and Adam Sykes. The plot comprised 23,1,31 acres and, though dilapidated, the house still stood in 1987 and may yet be preserved as a protected building by the Government of Singapore.

He was involved with the establishment of the Theatre (1842) which opened Nov 1845, Library (1844), Administration of the Assessment Fund (1845), and in the same year with early experiments with caouchouc, the basis of the gutta percha and rubber industries, in conjunction with Dr Oxley. No commercial benefit accrued to him. He was party to the formation of a Presbyterian congregation (1846), and in the same year Dr Henry Allen Allen (sic) joined the Partnership...

During 1848 he submitted the following papers to Logan's Journal (1847–1862):

Vol I Long papers on fevers being caused by coral reefs - which led to animated discussion.

Vol II "The habitual use of Opium" .He was one of the first to protest against the trade (see Appendix?).

Vol III "Medical Topography of Singapore" in which he conjectured that when the Island was first settled by the British in 1819 it contained a population of only 200-300 Malays.

Vol IV "The diseases of the Nutmeg tree".

Sworn in as Coroner (Oct 1848), his appointment being warmly approved of by the 'Free Press".

On 14 Mar 1849 he married Sarah Sophia Whittle, aged 17 yrs. Her mother, whose husband was a Surveyor, had established a School for girls in North Bridge Road in 1843, Boarders $12 and Day scholars $5 a month.

In the same year he was a member of the Committee formed to establish Rules for founding Singapore Museum, He resigned the Coronership that September, being succeeded by Mr Willans.

Despite an outbreak of cholera in Singapore between January and May 1850 he continued to contribute papers on the subject of fevers to Logan's Journal with observations on the reasons for the unhealthiness of Bencoolen between 1819 – 1822 (when Raffles was completing his term as Lieut Governor, Some credence must be given to the suggestion that Dr Alexander Martin was in attendance on Sir Stamford Raffles during this period, He thus came to Singapore as Raffles was homeward bound to retirement. Dr Robert must have had benefit of inherited diary notes from his uncle, to venture on such a paper).

He served on the committee to select suitable examples from the Settlements, to be displayed at the Great Exhibition in London during 1851. He also opened a private hospital for seamen, charging them only 50 cents a day, Dr. Mungo Johnson Martin retired from the partnership during 1852 (it is recorded elsewhere as 1845).

On 5 May 1854 unrest broke out, spreading through the town and surrounding country. On Thursday 12th, with other Europeans, Dr Robert assisted Constable Bertier confront a band of armed Chinese near his bungalow on Siglap estate. Shots were fired and Chinese wounded. Arms hoard found and destroyed. In May 1855, at a public meeting held on the subject of Chinese piracy, his proposal was seconded by T O Crane Esq and carried by a majority, "This meeting highly approves of the conduct of the local Govt. in detaining suspicious junks in the harbour until the trading junks are safely beyond their reach".

In June 1855 he called on the European community to support his scheme to establish a sanatorium on the Gulong Pulai, the highest land within 30 miles of Singapore, without success, though raised on later occasions. He had hoped the East India Company would build a road to it. Bengal civilians thought Singapore the very place to come for their health, and he envisaged villas, hotels and soda water manufacturies on the top of this elysium, with mail coaches to arrive there.

The same year in company with Robert McEwen, J T Thompson, a surveyor, and three others he took part in an expedition up the Skudai by boat, (for details see Appendix A)

In 1866, with Mr. Greenshield, he proposed that the land in the rear of the Institution (the present playground) which belonged to the school might be sold to raise money. The scheme was not adopted. He advertised in Apr 1857 to sell land on Institution Hill in lots of one or more acres for house building. No sales accrued.

The opium steamer Fiery Cross, Capt Grant, arrived 31 May 1867 bringing first news of Indian Mutiny. Lord Elgin arrived in Singapore 3 Jun 1857 en route to China and after all night discussions sent instructions for diversion of troops for that expedition to India.

During the 1850's legislation was being framed in England for reform of the medical profession requiring the registration of those recognised legally to continue in practice, with appropriate qualifications. In anticipation, Dr Robert attended first session 1858/59 at Edinburgh University, and was joined in partnership by Dr John Hutchinson Robertson, as Little and Robertson (no further mention found of Dr Henry Allen Allen in the partnership, who died in 1869. Perhaps he cared for the practice during Dr. Robert's absence).

Attended second session 1859/60 at Edinburgh University and sat his first and second examinations in Jun/Jul 1860 and graduated MD with a thesis, which was highly commended, On the Climate and prevailing diseases of Singapore. (The first half of Part One of which is in the handwriting of Sarah Sophia Little, who had accompanied him to Edinburgh).

In May 1861 Drs Little and Robertson advertised that their Singapore Dispensary was put under the entire management of Mr Robert Jamie, who had come out from Edinburgh for the purpose. He lived many years over the Dispensary in the Square but latterly he lived at Serangoon on the large coconut plantation he bought there.

At a Public Meeting called 28 Mar 1862 to finalise the location of an iron bridge, originally ordered for Kallang, Dr Robert urged for the original site at Kallang. (His plantation at Siglap was in that direction.) It was erected as first planned later in the year.

On 6 Jun 1863 he was a signatory in the purchase of the Mission Chapel.

A meeting was called at the Town Hall 11 Dec 1863 to discuss implications of transfer of administration of Singapore from the East India Company to the Colonial Office, London. Among those present were Matthew Little, representing John Little & Co and Richard Brennand, Merchant (and son-in-law). Dr Robert was appointed to the Committee to investigate the resources and commerce of the Straits Settlements, and if expedient to put themselves in communication with the Commissioners appointed by Her Majesty's Government. The Committee published their report in pamphlet form by 9 Jan 1864, reiterating matters of complaint already raised and setting out a number of tables of statistics to shew there was an excess of receipts over the expenses of the Settlement.

On 8 Mar 1866 he became a subscriber to the founding of the Tanjong Pagar Dock, first mooted in 1864, and at an Extraordinary General meeting a report was received that due to an underestimate the original capital of $300,000 required to be increased to $600,000. Mr Samuel Gilfillan and Dr Robert Little proposed the motion be adopted, which was unanimously approved.

In April 1866 he is mentioned as Honorary Surgeon, Singapore Volunteer Rifle Corps, formed prior to 1857, to which he was gazetted 1 Jan 1858. Singapore was created a Crown Colony 5 Jan 1867. Under the first Queen's Governor, Harry St George Ord, he was appointed a Member of the Legislative Council in company with the Hon W H Read, T Scott (of Guthrie & Co) and F S Brown.

In the same year he was listed among the original shareholders of Singapore Library, mentioned as a member of the committee establishing the Rules on founding the Singapore Museum and requested by the Governor to preside as Chairman relative to an Exhibition of Colonial products in London. He proposed Govt, pay $560.71 to the proprietors of the Library and make them life members - in transferrence of their rights. Later he reported declining interest in the Garden Society and recommended it be taken-over by the committee of the Raffles Museum and Library, for which responsibility had already been assumed by Government.

Around this time his wife Sarah Sophia Little died, perhaps as late as 1869.

Early in 1870 he protested about the appointment of a certain Mr Skinner as Inspector of Hospitals, since he was not a medical man but a lawyer. Later in the year he made a round-the-world tour, spending some time in China and later visited the Ruler of Hawaii [probably King Kamehameha V (1830–1872)].

He married secondly Mary Elizabeth Campbell 5 Jan 1871, making the return passage to Singapore during February, where on 24 Feb 1872 at a public meeting he proposed the first resolution that the expenditure of public money on a railway was unwarranted. In 1873 he recorded a dissenting vote when serving on a Commission to enquire into the desirability of introducing Chinese into the Police Force, The Legislative Assembly agreed that they should not be introduced.

He resigned from the Legislative Assembly 26 Sep 1874 together with Messrs T Scott and W R Scott over the Governor's disregard of the strong expression of public opinion in the abolition of the Grand Jury and the uselessness of their membership.

On 6 May 1875 he was a signatory in the grant of land No 304 on which the Presbyterian Church was built.

Dr Robertson left the practice in 1879, but remained in Singapore. Dr Robert retired only three years later in 1882, and with the second family took a holiday in Scotland, where the children Mary, William, Matthew and John Wishart were left in Edinburgh to commence their education. He was not well and no longer enjoyed robust health. His finances were in disarray due to the failure of two banks. However they were back in Singapore for the birth of Louisa, youngest and last of the family, 20 Dec 1883.

Mary Elizabeth Little, his second wife died 6 April 1884. His eldest unmarried daughter Jessie went to Singapore, took charge of the four remaining children and brought them and Dr Robert to live at 48 St John's Park Road, Blackheath. His daughter Mary and the three boys joined them there from school in Edinburgh. These were quiet times after his many involvements in Singapore, where his orchid garden had been considered second only to that of the 'White Rajahs' of Sarawak. Visiting Naval Surgeons and Officers were in the habit of paying their respects (Surgeon Edward H Cree RN "lunched with Dr Little who is in private practice here. He is an Edinburgh man and an old fellow student of mine.")

He had more recently lost the friendship of Mr Whampoa, the most influential member of the Chinese community and a patient (died 1880), who onetime had been a co-member of the Legislative council. (It was he who presented Dr Robert with the engraved claret jug passed down to Col William Campbell Little and thence to 'Robin' McEwen Little's family.) A fitting gesture was accorded him by the Singapore Council in recognition of the many years of service he had given to the community, that should any of his children be in need of assistance in the City, aid would be granted.

His younger brother John Martin Little also lived in Blackheath but Matthew Little died in Hampstead in 1887. Dr Robert died 11 Jun 1888. He was buried in plot 3779 Greenwich Cemetery, Shooters Hill, Blackheath, where also lies his daughter Mary who died 31 Jul 1869 aged 13. The plot had been bought by his brother John Martin Little.

Dr Robert had a wide ranging and enquiring mind with apparently an unlimited capacity for work. It is said that he had a big voice, yet a kind heart, being much respected in the community and despite occasional displays of quick temper was described as 'a courtly man who always wore gloves'. His temper was displayed on an occasion recorded by his son Matthew who, aged 7, accompanied his father out driving in a small carriage. A Chinaman, also driving, passed him on the road. This, as is not unknown in modern times, aroused the Doctor's wrath and whipping up his horse tore along in a frenzy until he had overtaken the Chinaman. By this time he was the sole occupant of the carriage, Matthew having been thrown out in the violence of the chase. He was later found in a ditch suffering from concussion, but suffered no permanent harm.

There must have been extensive gardens around 'Bonnygrass' since the site was of 23 acres as recorded in the original transfer. This must have been the spur to cultivate his great collection of orchids and thereby his personal friendship with Sir James Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak, as whose guest he spent a Christmas accompanied by Jessie.

Prior to his second marriage, probably 1870-71 he made his way home by way of a world tour, visiting China and calling on the Ruler of Manila, a visit which was repaid by the Ruler when he came to Singapore about 1882.

Over the past 500 years, the Philippines have been akin to a destitute and defenceless orphan girl serially ravished and abused by a string of richer and more powerful celebrity nations – Mexico, Britain, Spain, the USA, and Japan. External power was generally exercised via a Governor-General appointed by the ruling nation.

I think that the ruler of Manila to whom Sandy refers must have been one of these Governor-Generals (Governors-General?), all of whom would presumably have been based in their official Residence in the capital city of Manila. Going by the approximate dates of Dr Robert's round-the-world trip, there are two likely candidates:

But from their documented characters and actions while in office, it's a no-brainer as to the one with whom Dr Robert should get on so well:

  • Carlos María was '... considered the most beloved of the Spanish Governors-General ever assigned in the Philippines'.
  • Rafael was '... famous for his use of "Iron Fist" type of government, contradicting the liberal government of his predecessor'.