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The ghosts of Commercial Square

A sad, sad day for Singapore commercial history, as Robinsons - a department store founded in Singapore - is set to close after 162 years of existence.


Robinsons itself summed it up in a terse statement: “The overarching business model of department stores is outdated.”


The Straits Times put together a neat infographic summarising Robinsons’ history:

Credit: The Straits Times.

Actually, Robinsons is part of a bigger story which began in Raffles Place 178 years ago - in 1842.


At that time, Raffles Place was known as Commercial Square, because it was the commercial and mercantile heart of the Town of Singapore.


That year, John Martin Little, an 18-year-old Scot, and his uncle Francis S. Martin, set up a retail business there. Three years later, Martin sold his stock to Little and his new partner, Parsi businessman Cursetjee Frommurze; the company was renamed Little, Cursetjee & Co.


The company posted its first advertisement in The Straits Times on 2 September 1845, just one and a half months after the newspaper was founded on 15 July.

In 1853, Frommurze left the partnership and opened his own business, Cursetjee & Co., hiring an ambitious English businessman from Australia, Philip Robinson. Little replaced Frommurze with his brother Matthew, and renamed his firm John Little & Co.


Here’s an advertisement for John Little’s wares in the Singapore Free Press on 24 February 1854:

As for Robinson, he also decided to strike out on his own in 1858, setting up a firm with James Gaborian Spicer, a former keeper of the Singapore Jail. The firm’s name was a combination of theirs - Spicer & Robinson. It posted its first advertisement in The Straits Times on 25 February that year:

Like John Little, Spicer & Robinson was also located at Commercial Square, and it opened just two weeks before the area was renamed Raffles Place in honour of Sir Stamford Raffles, who had been credited as the founder of modern Singapore.


Just a year later, in 1859, Spicer left the business, so Spicer & Robinson became Robinson & Co.


By the early 20th century, John Little and Robinsons had become the shopping giants of Raffles Place, frequented by the European community. They occupied colonial-style buildings which faced each other in the august square.

The 1920s: Back when Raffles Place was beautiful. Robinsons was to the far left; John Little to the right.

During the Japanese Occupation, both department stores were closed; John Little’s premises were converted into a Japanese-only department store, Daimaru. However, Japanese rule was short-lived, and both reopened after the Occupation ended in 1945.


Their fates finally merged in 1955, when Robinsons acquired John Little.

Robinsons in 1955. Credit: The Straits Times.
John Little in 1960. Credit: The Straits Times.

Gradually, the shopping nexus of Singapore shifted from Raffles Place to Orchard Road. John Little moved out first, in 1960; then Robinsons in 1972, after that terrible fire which gutted its historic quarters. Both ended up in Specialists’ Shopping Centre at Orchard Road - and in numerous branches around the island.

The aftermath of the 1972 Robinsons fire. Credit: The Straits Times.
Specialists' Shopping Centre in 2006. John Little was the anchor tenant. Credit: Terence Ong, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Their original homes in Raffles Place eventually made way for skyscrapers - One Raffles Place (63 storeys) and the Singapore Land Tower (48 storeys) occupy the sites today.


The beginning of the end came in 2008, when Dubai’s Al-Futtaim Group took over Robinsons. From a peak of eight outlets in 2003, John Little closed its final outlet in Plaza Singapura on 2 January 2017, ending 163 years of history. And now, at 162 years old, Robinsons looks set to follow its former Commercial Square neighbour into the night.

Robinsons at The Heeren. "Everything Must Go" - including the brand itself.

The only physical reminder of these two institutions in Raffles Place today: The facade of Raffles Place MRT Interchange, which was modelled after the facade of the John Little building.

Credit: Land Transport Guru.