Remembering Robinsons: 19th century department store survived fatal inferno, Japanese invasion

Coconuts Singapore
·3-min read

Robinsons has a long history in Singapore stretching back to 1858.

As one of Singapore’s oldest retailers, the store announced today that it was liquidating its assets and soon closing for good its last two stores at The Heeren and Raffles Shopping Center. Through its 162 years of operations, the retail has braved war, a disastrous fire, and growth across borders at its peak.

Here are some facts you probably didn’t know about the retail chain.

Robinsons first opened in 1858

The department store was originally known as Spicer & Robinson when it first opened in 1858 at Raffles Place, selling not clothes and accessories but food staples such as tea, rice, sugar, oatmeal, biscuits, crackers, cheese, and preserved meats. The business was founded by Brits Philip Robinson and James Gaborian Spicer, who was also the former keeper of a local prison. The business was later transferred to Robinson’s son Stamford Raffles Robinson, who, despite the name, should not be confused with British colonialist Stamford Raffles.

Storefront of The Heeren outlet dated 2013. Image: Faguo/Facebook
Storefront of The Heeren outlet dated 2013. Image: Faguo/Facebook

Japanese occupation

Robinsons was bombed twice during the Japanese occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945 and had to close temporarily. It served as the headquarters for the British defense force at the time.

Deadly Inferno

The same store caught fire on the morning of Nov. 21, 1972, and reportedly killed nine people. The blaze collapsed the entire building and was recorded as one of the worst fires in Singapore’s history.

Those who died were said to be trapped in an elevator when a short circuit on the ground floor sparked the conflagration. Firefighters had to draw water from the nearby Singapore River to put it out as hydrant pressure at the time was too weak. The damage at the time was estimated at about S$14 million, or nearly S$50 million today.

Emirate Owner

Spicer & Robinson changed its name to Robinsons & Co. a year after it was founded and changed hands several times over the years. In 2008, it was bought by Dubai’s Al-Futtaim group, which also acquired the Singapore franchises of Zara, Marks & Spencer and John Little, which prior to its 206 closure had been regarded as the city’s oldest department store.

Business expanded in Malaysia

Robinsons opened stores in 1975 at the Masjid Jamek shopping area in Kuala Lumpur before it closed. It reentered the Malaysian market in 2007 with outlets at The Gardens Mall in Mid Valley City and The Shoppes at hotel and apartment complex Four Seasons Place. However, both stores will close soon due to bankruptcy. Robinsons announced this today at the same time it revealed plans to close its Singapore stores.

Robinsons spent 31 years at The Centrepoint mall

Opening in 1983, the store in The Centrepoint mall on Orchard Road has been there 31 years after relocating from Clifford Centre. The flagship store closed its doors in 2014 when its lease was over, and that title went to The Heeren outlet, which opened a year earlier in 2013.

Christmas decorations at The Centrepoint in 2004 when Robinsons was the mall's anchor tenant. Photo: Formulax
Christmas decorations at The Centrepoint in 2004 when Robinsons was the mall’s anchor tenant. Photo: Formulax

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So long, Robinsons: Vintage department store to close its last Singapore stores

This article, Remembering Robinsons: 19th century department store survived fatal inferno, Japanese invasion, originally appeared on Coconuts, Asia's leading alternative media company.