Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The story of Penang's Gurney Drive

The idea of a promenade along the north beach has long been in the minds of the people of George Town. In 1930, plans were completed for what was described as the "New Coast Road" between North Beach and Cantonment Road Ghaut (now Jalan Pemenang).

The then Commissioners of the Municipality gave considerable time to persuading land owners to give up land for the construction of the Coast Road and in 1934 it was possible to construct 510 yards of coast road. The first section was opened and named "North Beach" on the 10th October the same year. It proved to be most popular and the new "Osira" lamps with which the street was lit marked the first step for improved street lighting in Penang. By the end of 1935 the length open for public use was 1970 feet and in February 1936 the construction of North Beach to form a connection with Northam Road (now Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah) was completed.

In 1940 the Commissioners decided to extend the North Beach sea wall from Birch Road to Bagan Jermal but, in view of war conditions, not to proceed with the construction of the coast road which at that time had a length of 2,380 feet between the end opposite Pangkor Road and Birch Road. After considerable difficulty, due to the shortage of steel which necessitated amendments in the design, contracts were arranged for the construction of 3,918 feet of reinforced concrete wall with main drain outlets, and 1,785 feet of open concrete drain on the compound side of the future road. Progress was slow, due to war conditions and the shortage of skilled labour. As erosion of the foreshore was still taking place at the Bagan Jermal end, groynes had been constructed and other protective works carried out by direct labour.

In 1952, there was a suggestion that the name of Burma(h) Road be changed to Gurney Road to perpetuate the memory of the late Sir Henry Lovell Goldsworthy Gurney, the High Commissioner for the Federation of Malaya, 1948 to 1951, who was murdered in Selangor on 6th October 1951. Some Commissioners thought that the name of Burma Road should be left untouched and that the New Coast Road be named Gurney Drive instead.

On the 29th August 1952, the New Coast Road was named Gurney Drive. As a matter of interest, there was some talk as to why the road should be called a drive (which meant - 'a road for driving in, especially a private carriageway to a house') and that it should be called instead a Parade, a Promenade or Esplanade. However, no change was made.

The development of national forces in the country and the political revolution of the fifties manifested itself in a small way, when one Municipal Commissioner suggested in 1956 that Gurney Drive should be named Pantai Merdeka. This matter was taken up in Council and it was decided on 21st August 1956 that, with effect from 31st August 1957, the road would be known as Merdeka Drive and that the circus at the end of Pangkor Road be named Gurney Circus. A bust or statue of the late Sir Henry was to be constructed. The then Settlement Secretary refused to write to Lady Gurney regarding this and so the Municipal Commissioners wrote direct to Lady Gurney. She took the change very bravely and even offered to help with regard to the statue or bust. There were negotiations with a sculptor in London, David McFall, who agreed to do the job for 500 guineas or $4,500.

However, when the recommendation for the provision of $6,000 for bust came up before the Finance Committee, it was decided not only to defer the provision of a bust but also that the Drive should continue be called Gurney Drive. This matter was to be reconsidered after Merdeka Day.

The name problem reared its head again indirectly when in 1962 a Councillor suggested, while on the topic of beautifying Penang through tree planting, that the double rows of Casuarina trees be planted at Gurney Drive and that the Council could consider at some future date the renaming of Gurney Drive. A suggestion was made that the name "Casuarina Drive" and "Casuarina Beach" be kept in view. In February 1963 the Public Works Committee decided to name Gurney Drive "Casuarina Drive" and that the name "Gurney" be used for a shorter road.

When the decision came up for confirmation, there was a great deal of discussion. There were Councillors who strongly opposed the change; there were others who during their cynical moments, suggested that it be called "Avenue of the Unknown Soldiers", "Half-Casuarina Drive" (because casuarina trees were only planted half way to the road) and "Durian Drive". The matter was referred back to the Committee and was never brought up again.

Today, Gurney Drive or Persiaran Gurney is one of the most popular "resorts" in Penang and is a tribute to the foresight of those who planned that Penang may remain a truly brilliant place under a brilliant sky.

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