John Little to close final outlet at Plaza Singapura – 174 years of history at a glance

John Little at the Orchard OG building in 2010.
John Little at the Orchard OG building in 2010.

John Little, the oldest department store in Singapore, will close its last outlet by the year end. The store has operated since 1842, and the Plaza Singapura branch since 1979. Robinsons Group, which manages John Little, said that the brand may live on as a pop-up store.

Here is a rundown of the store’s 174-year history:

1842: John Martin Little, a Scotsman just 18 years of age, joins forces with his relative Francis S. Martin to go into the retail business together at Commercial Square (now Raffles Place).

1845: Francis S. Martin sells all his stock in trade to the new firm Little, Cursetjee Co, run by John Martin Little and Parsi businessman Cursetjee Frommurze.

John Little Co in Raffles Place in the early 1890s. PHOTO: NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF SINGAPORE

1853: Cursetjee Frommurze leaves the partnership and sets up shop on his own as Cursetjee Co.

Cursetjee’s new business hires an ambitious English businessman from Australia, by the name of Philip Robinson – who will strike out on his own to form Robinsons predecessor Spicer Robinson in 1858.

John Martin Little’s brother Matthew comes on board the Little enterprise and the business becomes John Little Co.

1894: In January, John Little Co, Limited is registered in London with a capital of £75,000 (S$3 million in today’s dollars), to acquire the Singapore business as a going concern “and to carry on business as exporters, importers, and general storekeepers”.

John Martin Little dies in April, at the age of 70, in London.

A sign outside the John Little building showing the emporium’s name. PHOTO: ST FILE

1897: The Mid-day Herald’s “Impressions of a New-comer” column lauded the millinery department at John Little for being “under the supervision of thoroughly experienced modiales (fashionistas)”, adding that “they are quite competent to satisfy even the most fastidious of their sex as regards fashion, the material to be used, and all the rest of it”.

The author of the column was impressed, writing: “Emporiums they are, verily and indeed… and, though they are few in numbers, they entirely suffice to meet the demands here, by reason of the vast and varied stocks they keep.”

A model displaying a half-slip during a fashion show at John Little in 1955. PHOTO: ST FILE

1900: John Little is converted into a limited company.

1909: The April opening of the annual sale at John Little makes the news for causing a “tremendous” traffic jam. The Straits Times reported that every spot of space outside the store was “taken up by carriages and rickshas (sic) awaiting their fares, who were making purchases inside”.

1914: John Little opens a branch in Kuala Lumpur in April, after having had an office in the city for eight years.

The Straits Times reported then, that the new store was “three storeys high and boasts an electric lift in addition to a beautifully modelled staircase, of easy gradient”.

It featured menswear and womenswear sections, a grocery and wine department, and a furniture department. There was also a “luxurious refreshment room” for customers.

1926: John Little opens a branch in Penang.

1929: John Little opens a branch in Ipoh.

1939: John Little becomes the first European store to feature Chinese as models alongside Europeans. It was common practice at that time for retailers to show off the latest fashions by having live models in “mannequin parades”.

1942: The Japanese Occupation of Singapore begins. John Little’s Singapore premises are converted into a Japanese-only department store, Daimaru.

Its Malaysian operations do not survive the war.

Model Mercy Undersan wearing a swimsuit during a fashion show for John Litte, in 1953. PHOTO: ST FILE

1946: John Little’s Singapore premises are among the commercial buildings commandeered by the British military authorities after the ouster of the occupying Japanese forces at the end of World War II.

The Straits Times urges the normalisation of civilian retail operations in post-war Singapore, so as to quell the growth of the black market.

The newspaper wrote in March then: “It is of the utmost importance that the premises of large European retail stores should be made available to their owners the moment those owners are in a position to resume business.”

The authorities seem to agree. By August, John Little is back in business.

A Santa Claus makes an appearance at John Little on Nov 19, 1955. PHOTO: ST FILE

1955: John Little is acquired in February by Jardine Matheson, the Hong Kong firm founded by two Scotsmen in 1832 to trade in smuggled opium.

John Little is bought over by home-grown Robinsons in July.

1959: Workers are unionised under the Singapore Textiles and General Merchants’ Employees’ Union.

1960: John Little moves its retail operations out of its building in Raffles Place, which had expanded to four storeys since the day of John Martin Little.

The John Little building is leased out as office space to other companies.

The department store goes on to set up shop across the island.

The John Little building is seen in Raffles Place in 1960. PHOTO: ST FILE

1972: Specialists’ Shopping Centre opens in Orchard Road. Robinsons opens an outlet by December.

John Little will go on to be the anchor tenant in four of the building’s seven storeys.

1973: The Raffles Place premises are sold to the Singapore Land and Investment Company for S$27,965,000 (S$130.5 million today).

1977: John Little closes shop in Liat Towers.

Shoppers crowding around inside John Little at Specialists’ Centre during the Great Singapore Sale on May 24, 2002. PHOTO: ST FILE

1979: John Little opens shop in Plaza Singapura in August, its fourth and biggest outlet at the time.

In December, it closes down its Straits Trading Building branch “as the space requirements are too limited”.

1985: The Plaza Singapura outlet is closed, as are John Little stores in Robina House and Clifford Centre.

1987: John Little is rebranded “JL” in an attempt to win over younger customers.

2003: John Little returns to Plaza Singapura. It has seven other branches across the island – in Specialists’ Shopping Centre, Northpoint, White Sands, Causeway Point, Jurong Point, Compass Point and Parkway Parade.

2005: John Little closes shop in Parkway Parade.

2006: John Little closes shop in Compass Point and White Sands Shopping Centre.

John Little at the Orchard OG building in 2010. PHOTO: ST FILE

2007: John Little shutters its flagship Specialists’ Shopping Centre premises.

It relocates to the seven-storey Orchard OG Building, where it is the sole tenant, and opens a new flagship outlet in Marina Square.

2008: Dubai’s Al-Futtaim Group takes over Robinsons.

John Little closes shop in Northpoint.

2010: John Little leaves the Orchard OG Building and also closes its Causeway Point outlet.

2015: John Little closes shop in Marina Square and Tiong Bahru Plaza.

2016: John Little closes shop in Jurong Point and prepares to wind down at Plaza Singapura.

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