Introduction to Book Four of “Penang: The Fourth Presidency of India”

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Book Four is entitled: “Suffolk House”

Perhaps more than any other early building in Penang, Suffolk House represents the high expectations that were held for the island as the fourth presidency of India. Indeed it seems to have mirrored the changing fortunes of the island: planned at a time when the promise of Penang becoming the principal British naval hub on the eastern side of India was still on the agenda; rising to eminence following the end of the long wars with France; falling into disrepair with the abolition of the presidency; then returning to importance as Penang slowly clawed back its fortunes on the back of sugar and spice exports. In retrospect it is easy to consider the construction of the largest and grandest home on the island as an extravagance, an indulgence or a property venture gone wrong. But at the time it was somewhat visionary and had circumstances turned out differently William Edward Phillips’s gamble may well have paid off. Despite its mixed fortunes Suffolk House would nevertheless remain one of the island’s premier official residences for most of the nineteenth century. 

Why does this building have this claim to fame? Because the expectations of Penang’s importance and prosperity as a presidency failed to reach a point at which other such grandiose buildings could be justified, and no other person followed Phillips’s example. This could have been due to the sheer cost, or perhaps others were not prepared to invest so heavily in a place they may have deemed to be a temporary posting. But in reality the numbers just did not stack up. A home the size of Suffolk House was too large as a private residence for most people and an equal rent was attainable in town for a far lesser investment. Yet the underlying principle that encouraged Francis Light to construct a substantial building to represent the authority of the government remained, and this was perhaps the saving grace for Suffolk House. It was simply too grand to be ignored.