The illustrated tome that made an impression: ‘Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya’

By Alex Teoh*

Among the numerous early twentieth century antiquarian books of Southeast Asia, one series of books is found in the collections of established libraries, prominent museums and serious private collectors. This series covers the British Empire and nations with British investments and political interests [1].

For a decade beginning 1901, an ambitious venture was undertaken by a South African publishing venture with headquarters in Durban and a representative office in London, Lloyd’s Greater Britain Publishing Co. Ltd. [2] A dedicated editorial team was assembled, research undertaken, articles compiled, photographs commissioned, and layouts uniquely designed. All this was published in pages of quality paper and bindings of premier leather. This was the Twentieth Century Impressions series.

To date, 17 titles in this series are have been identified: Western Australia (1901), Natal (1906), Ceylon (1907), Siam (1908), British Malaya (1908), Hong Kong, Shanghai and Other Treaty Ports of China (1908), Netherlands India (1909), Egypt (1909), Burma (1910), Argentina (1911), Uruguay (1912), Brazil (1913), Cuba (1913), Canada (1914), West Indies (1914), Chile (1915) and Western Republics (1915).

Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya: its history, people, commerce, industries, and resources. 1908, with flag of the Straits Settlements on front cover (ISEAS Library Call No: SCR DS592 W93)

Twentieth Century Impressions of Siam: its history, people, commerce, industries, and resources. 1908, with the Siamese flag on front cover (ISEAS Library Call No: SCR DS565 W94)

Twentieth Century Impressions of Netherlands India: its history, people, commerce, industries, and resources. 1909, with the coat of arms of the Dutch East Indies on front cover (ISEAS Library Call No: SCR fDS615 W94)

Lloyd’s initiated these titles as the opportunity availed in the beginning of the twentieth century.

In 1901, the British Colonial Secretary, the Right Hon. Joseph Chamberlain wrote to the Governors of the British Colonies, “inviting their cooperation in the completion in a convenient and attractive form all the information available as to the commercial and industrial life of each colony” [3]. With access to this information, Chamberlain desired the colonies to work and trade together. But the authorities of the British colonies hesitated to heed Chamberlain’s call as it would have incurred significant expenses. As a result, this undertaking was left to private enterprises like Lloyd’s [4].

The British Malaya publication was the fifth in the series. The title was authored by Arnold Wright [5], a travel writer and the former editor of Yorkshire Post [6], and co-edited by H.A. Cartwright, who had also edited three other titles in the Twentieth Century Impressions series. This British Malaya publication is a tome of 959 pages with contents covering the history, administration, people, commerce, industries and resources of the Straits Settlement and Federated Malay States in the early twentieth century.

Lloyd’s Greater Britain Publishing Company, Ltd. – the staff in Singapore [7].

Initially titled Twentieth Century Impressions of Straits Settlement and Federated Malay States, work started with the arrival in Singapore of a team of Lloyd’s staff in December 1906 [8]. The team set up office in Raffles Hotel for a year to research, write and compile the articles and photographs. It involved the writers “travelling through the country and    seeing the places, meeting people and visiting industries, and the photographers “taking striking and typical views of the places visited” [9].

More than 50 articles were written, including contributions by various colonial officers and subject specialists. The volume also included many photographs of landscapes, buildings, personalities, artefacts, businesses, etc. taken by the well-known photographic studio, G.R. Lambert & Co. of Singapore.

It was reported that G.R. Lambert supplied the publisher with more than 3,000 photographs excluding those of Penang [10], which were supplied by the Penang-based photographer A. Kaulfuss [11]. These photographs were then artistically laid out with matching background designs or with sketches of floral and local landscapes. The printing and leather binding was carried out in London by Messrs. Unwin Brothers at the Gresham Press. The completed volumes were then shipped from London and arrived in Singapore on 28 April 1908 [12].

Pictures of different trades in Malaya with background artworks [13].

This tome was not sold in bookshops but available only by direct subscription from Lloyd’s. Advertisements were placed in the local press for pre-orders and a pre-payment of at least 50% [14], appearing in Singapore’s The Straits Times, Straits Echo, and Singapore Free Press, as well as in Penang’s Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle.

An effort to find out the subscription price and number of copies printed did not result in any known published documentation or official receipts.

Upon arrival in Singapore, the tomes were distributed to subscribers in Singapore, Malaya and the neighbouring islands. Being too large and heavy for the local post, they were conveyed by travelling emissary, who obtained a receipt for each copy delivered to subscribers [15].

Following the publication, the press praised the publication with glowing reviews.

The Straits Times wrote in its issue of 4 May 1908 (p. 8): “The book is […] a sort of cyclopaedia of information concerning British Malaya, invaluable to everyone who wishes to be well posted on the existing condition of the Colony”.

Another review by an H.M.R. in The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (Weekly Mail Edition) of 14 May 1908 (p. 10) commented that “there is no man, be he student, politician, merchant, or professional man, who will not find in its thousand pages, much of interest and of solid value.” It further complimented “the quality of paper, printing and handsome morocco binding, [… bearing] in mind that the book has been produced on purely commercial lines, without the assistance of a government subsidy […]”

Mr W. Makepeace, the editor of the Singapore Free Press, praised the publication in The Straits Budget of 14 May 1908 (p. 10), “We have called this book a “library”, and this is the only term which does it justice.”

However, it was less well-received on the academic front. An English Orientalist and Malay linguist, C.O. Blagden, gave a 16-page detailed review in the January 1909 issue of The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. He detailed some inaccuracies and mix-up of names, locations, and local customs. He identified a series of repetitive subjects. He regretted the index for the size of the book as “quite inadequate”. However, he acknowledged the strength of the commercial and industrial aspects of the book and added that he had “never seen a work so lavishly illustrated.”

Today, after a century, this tome is a rare and antiquarian title. With the rich documentary content in its 959 pages, it is highly sought after among libraries, archives, museums, researchers, and private collectors. The extensive selection of photographs which included colonial officers, local personalities with their families in traditional clothing, commercial buildings and their operations, views of landscapes, harbours, plantations, mining operations, and portraits of different trades provide an excellent and authentic source of visual record. As many of the photographs were not published elsewhere, these may be some of the only pictorial evidence of British Malaya available from the early 1900s.

The three titles listed above are available in ISEAS Library and accessible to researchers and interested readers.

Conserving a damaged copy of Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya

This copy [16] suffered from major structural damages and heavy insect infestation. Over the past century, the leather covers were torn and detached. The decorated leather spine was worn and loosened. The binding of the text block was weak, and the sewing was torn. Many pages were loosened and had tears. There were numerous insect holes and dirt on the leather covers, marbled end pages and printed pages. Of possible health concern was the presence of unidentified white powder on the covers and on some pages.

After much consideration and consultation with the owner, the decision was made to restore the tome for safe reading and access by stabilising the pages of the text block and replacing the weak covers. The conservation process included surface cleaning of dirt, repair of torn pages, re-sewing of loose pages and sections, and strengthening the text block and matching marble end pages. The stabilized text block was then bound to new leather covers and spine of a similar colour. The title, decorated with designs and the flag of the Straits Settlements, was hot stamped on the new spine and cover. The original covers and spine were then sleeved and kept as part of the history of the book.

About the guest author

*Alex Teoh is a paper and book conservator of rare manuscripts, collectible prints, antique maps, photo albums and antiquarian books. His focus is the local material culture of the written text in Southeast Asia, including local book binding and daluang (bark paper) in Javanese and Malay manuscripts.


[1] Arnold Wright, H.A. Cartwright, and O.T. Breakspear, Twentieth Century Impressions of Burma (London: Lloyd’s Greater Britain Publishing, 1910), preface.
[2] Arnold Wright and H.A. Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya (London: Lloyd’s Greater Britain Publishing, 1908), 266.
[3] “A Great Undertaking – New Book on the SS – Forthcoming Publication by Lloyd’s Greater Britain Pub Co Ltd.”, Eastern Daily Mail and Straits Morning Advertiser (Singapore), 14 December 1906, 4,
[4] Ibid.
[5] Arnold Wright was a writer of many travel books including The Malay Peninsula: a record of British Progress in the Middle East (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1912). He was the editor of eight titles in the Twentieth Century Impressions series.
[6] “A Great Work”, Straits Times (Singapore), 11 December 1906, 7,
[7] Arnold Wright and H.A. Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, 265.
[8] “A Great Work”.
[9] “A Great Undertaking – New Book on the SS”.
[10] “Advertisement – G.R. Lambert & Co.”, Straits Times (Singapore), 14 December 1907, 6,
[11] Arnold Wright and H.A. Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, 814.
[12] “Advertisement”, Straits Echo (Singapore), 6 May 1908, 6,
[13] Arnold Wright and H.A. Cartwright, Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya, 216.
[14] “Advertisement – Notice to Subscribers”, Eastern Daily Mail and Straits Morning Advertiser (Singapore), 11 Oct 1907, 2,
[15] “20th Century Impressions of Straits Settlements – Interesting Account of a Book in the Making”, The Straits Times (Singapore), 20 December 1906, 8,
[16] Belonging to a private collector in Singapore.

In making materials available online, the ISEAS Library always does its best to meet the requirements of copyright and other laws. If you have concerns about any material that ISEAS Library has placed online and want to suggest that it be taken down, please contact us at