St George’s Church is the oldest Anglican Church in Southeast Asia, although with its most recent restoration completed in 2011, it looks as fresh as it would have done when its first service was held on Christmas day, 1818.
Curiously the Anglicans were the last of Penang’s major religious groups to build a dedicated place of worship, perhaps less surprising when you learn that the building was entirely funded by the British East India Company, who were probably more concerned by their ledgers than the good book. Better late than never, this beautiful church, fronted by a quartet of double doric columns and topped by a gothic spire, modelled on St George’s in Madras, stands in a large green lawn, dappled by the shade of a huge, century-old mahogany tree.
You would be forgiven for mistaking the elegant rotunda in front of the church as a sort of baptistery in the Italian style but it is actually a cenotaph dedicated to Penang’s founder, Francis Light. Entirely funded by public conscription, it is testimony to the influence of this high priest to the colony, its inscription moving in its heartfelt description of him as “a Father” to whom the community were “greatly attached”.
The austere church interior almost transports you to any parish in England, until you notice the ceiling fans, recently installed air-con and rattan seat pews. Japanese bombs dropped in 1941 wreaked structural havoc but failed to damage the Bishop’s chair near the altar or the lovely stone baptism font near the entrance, topped by its own little wooden pointy hat to avoid less than considerate visitors using it as a large ashtray.
To complete the journey from cradle to the grave, why not continue on to the Protestant cemetery, not as you might suppose behind the church itself (you’ll find a less than holy car park here) but a five-minute walk away near the E&O, in its original spot, pre-dating the church.
This large, slightly overgrown space, with clusters of peeling sepulchres and weather-ravaged gravestones beneath canopies of frangipani trees, is worthy of the most sensational gothic horror novel. The tombs and gravestones huddle together, as if even in death the pioneer community seeks safety in numbers; as well as segregation — notice that beyond the wall, a small locked gate bars the way to the Roman Catholic patch.
A wander through brings many poignant moments, especially with a collection of infant graves in the furthest corner, as well as throwing light on the interesting mix of governors, judges, planters, engineers, merchants, midshipmen, missionaries and mothers who made up the early settlers. Dutch, Chinese, French, German, Armenian and American surnames attest to the mix of nations.
The earliest surviving memorial is from 1789 and the most recent from 1892, for the grandly named Cornelia Josephine van Someren. Many prominent early members of Penang’s community find their resting place here, including Francis Light. Film buffs may be interested to know that Thomas Leonowens, the husband of the Anna made famous by “The King and I” is also buried here, his untimely death no doubt prompting her to search for her famous teaching commission.
The combined peaceful walk beneath a shady mahogany tree, a gothic spire and a canopy of frangipanis makes for a rewarding and evocative, if not slightly spooky, insight into the influence of the British East India Company and the invaluable contribution of the Protestant community to early Penang. If you fancy continuing on in colonial style, make a visit to nearby Fort Cornwallis, or head to the E&O for a tiffin lunch.
By Judith Atkinson
Last updated on 2nd April, 2015.