Restoring a Tribute – Tan Kim Seng Fountain

Larry Koh Hann Suk, Foo Chin Peng, Wong Chung Wan

MAEK Consulting Pte Ltd

The 142 years old Tan Kim Seng Fountain is currently undergoing major restoration exercise, probably the most extensive one to-date.  The fountain was commissioned by the British colonial authorities as a tribute to Mr. Tan Kim Seng (1805 – 1864), a respected Chinese merchant and philanthropist whose contributions were pivotal in modernising Singapore's water system during the 19th century. His financial support played a crucial role in advancing water supply infrastructure, reflecting his commitment to the development and well-being of the community. Mr. Tan's esteemed status among the European and British communities in Singapore further emphasises the significance of the fountain as a symbol of cultural exchange and cooperation during that era.

The Victorian-style cast iron fountain, manufactured by Andrew Handyside and Company in England (Grace's Guide 2022) was originally installed in 1882 at Fullerton Square (NLB, Singapore Daily Times 1882). In 1905 the fountain was relocated to Battery Road and in 1925, to The Esplanade, where it remains to this day (NLB, The Straits Budget 1929). This relocation was likely part of urban planning or development efforts at the time. The fountain's design is characterised by multiple tiers adorned with intricately carved details and sculptures, culminating in a round basin at the base (Figure 1).

In 2010, the Preservation of Sites and Monuments (PSM), a division under the National Heritage Board (NHB) of Singapore, has gazetted the Tan Kim Seng Fountain as a National Monument (NHB 2010). This designation ensures its protection and preservation for future generations. Over the years, various government agencies, including the National Parks Board (NParks), have been entrusted with the care and maintenance of the fountain. NHB meanwhile provides guidance on preservation and upkeep in accordance with the Preservation of Monuments Act, ensuring that the monument receives proper attention and protection.

Continuous efforts to maintain and conserve the fountain, ensuring its longevity and safeguarding its historical and architectural value has led to its current 4th cycle of restoration since its move to The Esplanade (Figure 2).

Figure 1: Tan Kim Seng Fountain: (Left) Early photograph of the fountain, 1882 (Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board). (Right) Tan Kim Seng Fountain, 2023.

Figure 2: Continuous care, maintenance and improvement works on the fountain. Image source: (1983) The Straits Times, 23 May 1983. (1987) National Archives, Singapore. (1994) Mr Chern Lian Shan. (2023) MAEK Consulting.


Prior to the restoration, available archival documentation, historical accounts and past records were combed through. Those who were involved in the previous restoration exercise were tracked down and interviewed, some of whom amazingly retained vivid memories of works done, despite 30 years ago. A detailed condition assessment was carried out to identify various types and stages of deterioration affecting the fountain. Such appraisal was supported by a series of non-destructive tests such as surface-penetrating radar, ultrasonic thickness measurement, in-situ X-Ray fluorescence and fibrescope. These provided deeper understanding into the condition and construction details of the fountain. Study of paint layers across the fountain meanwhile gave traces of historical works, treatment and maintenance activities offering a peek into practices, skills and knowledge of years gone by. The quality of the cast iron was also assessed from metallurgical examination ( Figure 3).

Figure 3: Left photo shows the cross section of paint layers and the photo on the right is the microstructure of the cast iron from the fountain.

The fountain has suffered significant wear and damage, affecting both its functionality and visual appeal. Corrosion was extensive, both on exposed surfaces and especially in concealed spaces. Small parts or fragments were completely broken under severe corrosion. Intricate details were obscured by multiple layers of paint from past repainting exercises. Rather than offering protection to the cast iron, such unduly thick paint layers were not only peeling but had also caused other paint layers to fail. This can arise from a lack of understanding of paint chemistry, inadequate appreciation on compatibility of paint systems and often poor workmanship (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Visible corrosion damage and a broken cherub’s thumb.

Numerous past alterations had been made to the fountain. One notable intervention involved the application of dense cement mortar on the cast iron basin, likely to address previous water seepage issues. The top vase had been replaced with a different model as far back to before 1994.  Some of the spouts and outlets such as those at the urn of the cherubs and mouth of marine creatures had been sealed, effectively altering the original water display of the fountain and hence its original design intent.

The construction and key sections of the fountain were investigated via inspection and strategic paint removal on site. This vital process served to develop the sequence of dismantling before shipping the fountain offsite for restoration (Figure 5). The extent of deterioration, necessitated a complete dismantling of the fountain parts for thorough intervention. The complexity of the process was uncovered when a total of 257 distinct pieces of various sizes were finally taken apart from the body of the fountain (Figure 6). Besides cast-iron, thin ornamental brass elements were also found. However, it is not known if these are original or replacement of damaged elements. (e.g., floral motifs) (Figure 7).

Figure 6: Shelving showing some of the 257 components from the Tan Kim Seng Fountain with examples of some of the higher ornate parts at various stage of restoration.

Figure 7: Discovery of different materials in the fountain’s craftmanship.

The condition and dimension of the fountain, basin and the individual elements were digitised through photogrammetry, laser scanning and structure light scanning methods (Figure 8) to provide important accurate documentation for repair and recast where necessary.

Figure 8: Samples of 3D models from digital documentation showing (left) overall fountain (middle and right) dismantled elements for restoration works.


Removal of deteriorated paint and rust took many rounds of trials involving different methods and media for cleaning and surface preparation. In the process, unexpected discoveries emerged. An example was the names of 'Dante' and 'Canova' found engraved on a book held by Calliope, a Greek mythological goddess of poetry. This illustrates the attention to detail by the fountain designer (Figure 9).

Figure 9: Engraved names – Dante (left photo) and Canova (right photo).

It underscores the importance of thorough research and attention to detail during the restoration process, as evidenced by unexpected findings like this.

Selection of protection coating involved the balancing act between science and art, adequate thickness for protection vs loss of definitions of fine ornamental features. A systematic process for monitoring, tracing, and checking have been developed to ensure that all parts of the fountain are adequately  cleaned and treated. At the time of writing, all parts have been prepared for final coating. The next challenge is re-assembling all the 257 components securely.


The processes undertaken in the restoration of the fountain demonstrated the complexity of and the need for detailedness in the works, from investigation, documentation, research, dismantling, repair, and repainting to its eventual re-installation. As the intricate details of its Victorian-styled design are meticulously restored, the fountain begins to emerge as a testament to the enduring spirit of shared history. Its once-deteriorated features are revived, breathing new life into the landmark and reigniting interest in its narrative richness.

Upon completion, the fountain will stand as a visual spectacle, attracting visitors from near and far to admire its beauty and craftsmanship. But beyond its aesthetic appeal, the fountain will also serve as a repository of historical significance, offering insights into Singapore's past and celebrating the legacy of individuals like Tan Kim Seng who shaped the nation's development.

With its restored splendour, the Tan Kim Seng Fountain will symbolize the collective efforts of stakeholders, conservationists, and community members who rallied together to preserve Singapore's heritage. Ultimately, it will stand as a beacon of Singapore's cultural heritage and reaffirming the nation's commitment to honouring its past while embracing its future.

This project has been carried out with contributions from NParks, NHB, contractor (W’Ray) and consultant (MAEK).

At the Commonwealth Heritage Forum we are hosting our spring lecture series on cast iron across the Commonwealth. For more information please see the Events page on this website. The recordings will be posted after the final lecture. 


The Fort of Lahore

Rowenna Malone

Rowenna Malone Ltd., Heritage Consultant & Commonwealth Heritage Forum Trustee

By the time of Ranjit Sing’s death in 1839, the Sikh empire of the Punjab stretched from the Khyber Pass in the north-west, across five rivers including the mighty Indus to Ludhiana, less than 290km from Delhi. Slightly smaller than France or Kenya today, it encompassed the cities of Amritsar, Jalandhar and Multan as well as Kashmir, Jammu, Srinagar and Ladakh.

Ranjit Singh brought together the warring Sikh confederacies to form the kingdom of Punjab. Aged five, he was betrothed to the daughter of the dead leader of another confederacy, the beginning of the bringing together of the Punjab. He went into battle alongside his father as a boy, fought wars against the Afghans in his teens and by the age of 21 was recognised as the Maharaja of Punjab. Relatively small in stature, scarred and blind in one eye from infant smallpox, and lacking formal schooling, Ranjit Singh may have seemed an unimpressive figure but he was to prove a highly capable and successful ruler. Blessed with an exceptional memory, he was able to run the administration and ensure the financial security of his kingdom. Ranjit Singh was also clearly a wise and insightful king who knew when to go to war and when to use diplomatic means. He also took advantage of events beyond his realm, for example employing the exiled officers of Napoleon’s defeated army to teach his own army about European warfare so that his army would be regarded as a serious threat by the British East India Company across the border.

From its capture in 1799, Ranjit Singh made his court, or durbar, at Lahore. There has been a fort at Lahore since ancient times. It was reconstructed by the Mughal emperor Akbar, in the late 16th century and added to by his successors. In the 18th century, Lahore fort was captured by Afghans, the Mahrattas and the Sikh Bhangi Misl.

Ranjit Singh made Lahore Fort his own in the last forty years of his life. He used the Summer Palace as his residence and his lavishly decorated apartments, which contrasted with his preferred simplicity of dress, astonished and impressed visitors to his court. The lower part of the nearby Sheesh Mahal survives, adorned with mosaics and mirrors, but the upper floor, where Ranjit Singh built his harem, has been lost. Connected to the Sheesh Mahal is the building that served as his justice court, the Athdara, and close by is the watchtower that the Maharaja used as his private shrine. The Moti Masjid, or mosque, was initially used as a temple and later as the treasury. Two temples were constructed: the Naag and Loh temples. Changes were also made to some of the Mughal buildings leaving today buildings that are multi-phase, such as the Lal Burj, or red pavilion.

Sheesh Mahal. Copyright, Creative Commons.

In 1818 Ranjit Singh added a fine garden laid out on a geometric pattern in the Mughal style immediately to the west of the fort, the Hazuri Bagh. In its centre was a baradari, or pavilion, built of marble taken from tombs in Lahore. Here, Ranjit Singh would escape the intense summer heat. Although the top storey collapsed in 1932, part of the building survives today.

A report in the Bombay Gazette on 18th August 1824 records that Ranjit Singh had returned to Lahore fort from Vizirabad under the salute of guns from the ramparts on 24th June. He spent subsequent days reading the newspapers to gain intelligence, dispatched commanders, reviewed battalions and viewed “the Military science”. It is an interesting insight into the life of the Maharaja.

When Ranjit Singh died on 27th June 1839, his body was laid in the Diwan-i-Am or Hall of Audience, an open-sided assembly pavilion. This no longer survives at Lahore as it was destroyed in the bombardment in 1841 by Sher Singh, one of Ranjit’s sons, in the battle for the throne which followed Ranjit Singh’s death. To the north of the Hazuri Bagh is the samadhi, or tomb, of the Maharaja, which was begun in 1839 and completed in 1851. The magnificent structure contains lotus shaped urns with the ashes of Ranjit Singh and four of his wives.

Other survivals of the Sikh era at Lahore fort are some of the havelis or houses constructed for courtiers and the Maharaja’s family. The Kharak Singh Haveli, home to Ranjit Singh’s successor, is where Kharak Singh is thought to have been poisoned in 1840. Also surviving is the haveli of Rani Jindan, one of Ranjit Singh’s wives and mother of the last Maharaja of the Punjab, Duleep Singh.

Despite later changes by the British and damage in the late 1940s and mid-1990s, glimpses of the fine buildings that housed Ranjit Singh’s court at Lahore can still be seen.

Summer Palace, Lahore Fort. Copyright, Creative Commons.

Ranjit Singh: Sikh, Warrior, King Exhibition at the Wallace Collection is open until 20 October 2024 and explores the life of the Maharaja through an impressively wide-ranging collection of artworks, arms and armour, jewellery and writings.

The exhibition draws on the holdings of the Wallace Collection, the Royal Armouries, the V&A and the Royal Collection as well as overseas museums, such as the Louvre in Paris, and private collections such as the Toor Collection, whose creator, Devinder Toor, has thoughtfully co-curated this show with Wallace Collection Director, Xavier Bray. The first room sets the scene with miniature paintings before the second offers a wealth of arms and armour set in a red painted room that underscores the warrior-culture of the Sikh kingdom. An extraordinary photograph of one of these warriors brings the objects to life.

More paintings illustrate the court of Ranjit Singh and his capital city, Lahore. This section culminates with his Golden Throne, usually on display at the V&A; this magnificent seat of power attracted veneration from some of the many Sikhs who were visiting whilst I was there. The jewels of one of Ranjit Singh’s queens and an extraordinary emerald belt of one of his sons gives a sense of the wealth of the court of a ruler who famously dressed very plainly himself.

The last section of the exhibition deals briefly with the turmoil that followed Ranjit Singh's death in 1839. The exhibition does not go into detail about the extraordinary series of violent deaths that saw four maharajas in as many years but then the focus of the exhibition is Ranjit Singh. The exhibition finishes with Lord Dalhousie and the East India Company effectively deposing the boy maharaja, Duleep Singh, and bringing many of Ranjit Singh’s treasures, such as the Golden Throne and the Koh-i-noor diamond to Britain for Queen Victoria. It is a sad end that underscores the greatness of the individual, a man who, through war, diplomacy, marriage and astute appointments, created and maintained a great kingdom for nearly four decades.

Krio Descendant Union (KDU)

My reflection of the “Krio bodose”

Freetown, Sierra Leone

Waltona Adeshola Cummings

President, Krio Descendant Union of Freetown

The Krios are descendants of the freed slaves that returned to the land bought for them in Freetown Sierra Leone over 230 years ago, as part of their resettlement in their new home.  The board houses are part of their history and legacy of British post-colonial rule. I still have fond memories of living and growing up in one of these iconic “Krio bodose” at 53, Waterloo Street, passed down by the maternal side of my family. We used Mansion Polish (imported from the UK) or candle wax with kerosene, to enhance the gloss and sustain the integrity of the wooden floors.

This is a Krio Board House in Steward Street, Freetown. Students from the city took part in an exciting programme of conservation works at this house in May 2024, supported by the Commonwealth Heritage Forum in partnership with West Africa Heritage Consultants. Photos courtesy of Nathan Goss, Historic Buildings Consultant and trainer on this programme.

Sierra Leone is known for its rich natural forest with abundance of wood which made it an affordable way to build these houses. The skills and knowledge at the time, which were wide spread, was transferred to the Krios by the British colonial officials. They setup various training centres and workshops to enhance the required skills in woodworking and created the Public Works Department (PWD) and Kissy Trade Centre and others in the provinces like Paguma Sawmill in Kenema. These training and skills facilities at that time accounted for a large number of board houses within the city of Freetown and its surrounding villages, they were owned by the Krios, and as a result it became a Krio symbol and identity. Woodworking skills were deeply entrenched in the hands of the Krios. Regrettably, these skills started losing their significance with succeeding generations who desired white-collared jobs instead of woodworking jobs.  Over time, the once admired board houses started to lose their prestigious value due to lack of maintenance and the loss of skilled hands.

Other factors that caused the loss of these once admired houses in the city center of Freetown’s western area and in our Krio villages in the western rural areas, which included the mountain villages and the Freetown peninsula, were varied.  On the invasion of Freetown by rebels during the civil war, over 60% of the remaining board houses were deliberately burnt down by the rebels for no obvious reason and some were destroyed by fire accidents, as was the case of my family home.  Migration of the Krios to the west and socio-economic changes have contributed to the desire to build the “stone houses” which last longer and are less vulnerable to fire.

As a Krio descendant of Freetown, I was emotionally overjoyed to represent the Krio Descendants Union (KDU) /Krio Descendant Yunion (in Krio)] at the opening of the Commonwealth Heritage Forum's Skills Training Programme in Freetown. This programme will increase the number of skilled people capable of maintaining the few Krio board houses left in Freetown and its surrounding areas.  We strive to preserve our Krio culture and identity with the Krio board houses, including the ones at Hill Station and Regent villages, owned by the Government of Sierra Leone.  KDU has requested that these buildings be considered for renovation and maintained for posterity to serve as a legacy of colonial history in Sierra Leone.

Wood panelling damage (left) and floor joist damage (right) at the Krio Board house in Steward Street. Photos courtesy of Nathan Goss. 

The KDU are very grateful to the Commonwealth Heritage Forum and the West Africa Heritage Consultants for the delivery of this training programme for students at Steward Street, Freetown. We hope that our Krio Board Houses will survive for future generations and that we continue to receive support to develop skilled trainers who can repair these houses, even in more rural areas.

 “Lɛ wi ɛp wisɛƒ, Lɛ wi grap tinap ɛn bil”

For more information on the Sierra Leone Krio Board Houses Skills Development Programme see our website article here. Further updates will be available soon, now that the programme has completed.

Left: Isatu Smith, Director of West Africa Heritage Consultants outside Steward Street Krio Board House and Right: Students work on identifying boarding that has deteriorated - requiring repair and / or replacement.  Groups of students work on cutting replacement boards to the required length, or make the repair pieces. 

A toolbox to restore decorative cast iron:

The Chettinad houses in Tamil Nadu, India

Lakshmi R

Lakshmi R is a conservation architect based in India. This work was conducted in 2020 as part of a joint collaboration with the author, CEPT University, Ahmedabad and Studio ATA, New Delhi.

Cast iron was one of the earliest ferrous metals used in construction because of its fire resistance, good compressional resistance, and flexibility in design, which allowed its widespread application in structural as well as decorative purposes.  A product of late 18th century, cast iron was used in many 19th and 20th century buildings in India.

Cast iron has seen an evolution in terms of its usage from decorative to structural and structural to utilitarian. The advent of better technology in steel saw a decline in cast iron production and its usage is now limited primarily to outdoor furniture. Historic cast iron is under threat of replacement or disrepair due to negligence and lack of funds and knowledge.

Cast iron’s flexibility to take different shapes made mass production and prefabrication possible. Innumerable and intricate designs were cast and there was a great demand for decorative embellishment. The industry saw its peak in the late 19th century. Scotland, one of the leading producers of cast iron at that time shipped products to India, Malaysia, South America, and South Africa. However, by the end of the Second World War the application of cast iron as a decorative element declined and shifted from being aesthetic to utilitarian.

Even though the peak period of cast iron was short-lived, the progress made during this time was extraordinary.

Challenges of built heritage conservation in India

The architecture of British India is a shared heritage of classicism, art deco, brick and lime plaster, Minton tiles and cast iron. Even though the value of the heritage is high, with multiple influences, the efforts to conserve it have started only very recently. The main challenges faced in conserving the built heritage, especially in the case of cast iron, are lack of maintenance, funds and knowledge. Often there is a gap between the priorities of the stakeholders and international charters.

Understanding historic and contemporary cast ironwork. Source: Based on (English Heritage, 2012) (Jessani, 2016) (Maharaj, 2012).

Chettinad mansions- as a pilot study

Chettinad region

Chettinad is a cultural region of 73 villages and 2 towns forming clusters in the districts of Sivagangai and Pudukottai in Tamil Nadu. This region was part of the Madras Presidency and Princely state of Pudukottai during British rule in India. This new wave of colonisation by European powers triggered the growth of communities like Bohras and Parsis in Gujarat, and Gaundars, Mudaliars, Nadars, Shettys and Chettiars in South India who, by forming a link between the British and the Indians, secured and championed their own trade and commerce, domestically and internationally.

Chettinad now and during British Rule. Source: Base Maps (Shelat, 2012) (Kumar, 2009) (Google Map,2020).

Significance of cast iron in Chettinad mansions

Chettiars travelled the world and their community flourished as an economic power during the British period. Thus, Chettinad architecture was influenced both through these global connections and by the Tamil traditions. The grid town planning system and the urban fabric remains unchanged, however the typology of the houses evolved from the 1850s to the 1940s. Every space in the Chettinad houses was conceived to exhibit the wealth of the owner. The houses had huge plans, monumental facades, and use of rich and decorative architectural elements. Materials and expertise from all over the world were brought in to construct and decorate these palaces. Teak wood was imported from Burma, satin wood from Ceylon, marble from Italy and Belgium, and cast iron from UK and other parts of India.

Many of these houses have since been demolished and replaced with modern buildings. They have been the centre of attention nationally as well as internationally and are on the tentative list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites and on the World Monuments Fund (WMF) watch. Also, the ‘Indian heritage passport program on the Chettinad trail in Tamil Nadu’ envisages a tourism scheme for the Chettinad region. While such programmes continue to promote tourism, the on-the-ground situation continues to be in a constant threat.

Antique Markets in Karaikudi.

Understanding cast iron and its processing: properties

The process of cast iron starts with extraction by mining, followed by smelting in a blast furnace to form pig iron, which is remelted in a cupola furnace to get molten iron. This molten iron cast in a sand mould gives cast iron. This, however, tends to go back to original iron oxide form by corrosion.

Physical properties.

Mechanical Properties.

Chemical Properties- microscopic structure of cast iron. Source: (English Heritage, 2012).

Corrosion in cast iron cycle.

Casting defects.

Mechanical Damage.


Incompatible interventions and poor maintenance.

Biological colonisation.

Inventory in the Chettinad region

A variety of cast iron elements were studied in the Chettinad region. They were categorised and catalogued which helped to understand the material and its usage better. Two examples are shown below:


It is important that the treatment methods used are efficient, understood by the users and most importantly fit in the context in terms of their availability and cost. The impact on the environment is another factor that should be considered.

Treatment methods: key concerns 

Cost effectiveness- understanding the cost of the method.

Proximity- based on the distance at which the service/treatment method is available.

Ease of doing- depending on the scale, condition, location of the element.

Risk to environment/health- every method poses risk, but understanding the levels of risks, in determining the use.

Only one cast iron manufacturer working on decorative elements was located at a distance of 230 kms from Chettinad in Coimbatore. For lab services, there was an educational institute within 1.5 km and another college lab located in Madurai, at a distance of 90 kms. There are a good number of pattern makers and blacksmiths available locally in and around the Chettinad region. For dry ice blasting, the closest place is in Chennai which is 700kms from Karaikudi and the closest place for grit blasting is in Coimbatore at a distance of 210 kms.

Two cases from the study- gate and staircase are shown below:

Toolbox for Chettinad

Section I: overarching principles

These principles need to be followed throughout any level of work or intervention.

To record the object as found and at all stages of work.

To care for and maintain the object, to halt or minimise ongoing deterioration. Maintenance should be carried out at different intervals for different elements as per their location and vulnerability. Maintenance schedules are necessary to minimise the potential deterioration and damage to historic ironwork and the danger to those who use or come into contact with the ironwork. The following stages should be followed by each owner:

Interventions should be reversible, but where this is impossible, interventions must respect the significance of the object. All new material should be identifiable and distinguishable from the old.

Section II: identification and prescription

Three examples of how to identify and choose the right treatment.

Section III: treatment procedures

Two methods for treatment:

Flame welding:

Traditional pattern making:

Section IV: maintenance guidelines

In addition to repairs and restoration the ongoing maintenance of cast iron is equally important. This section guides the user to formulate their own maintenance plan, post treating the defects.

Section V: directory of resources

This directory of resources is specific to the Chettinad region.

The way forward

This toolbox is the result of a pilot study based in Chettinad. The framework can be applied in different contexts to create additional local level toolboxes. The constraints will change with the context and this will lead to a more area specific list of solutions that can become a ready reckoner for all users and stakeholders.

At the Commonwealth Heritage Forum we are hosting our spring lecture series on cast iron across the Commonwealth. For more information please see the Events page on this website. The recordings will be posted after the final lecture. 

Scroll to top