Birch Memorial Clock Tower: 4 Faces and a Murder

Birch Memorial Clock Tower


Built to commemorate and honour James W. W. Birch, the first British resident of the state of Perak, the Birch Memorial Clock Tower was unveiled in 1909. At the time it cost $25,000 to construct. It is located in Ipoh’s Kinta District across the road from the Ipoh State Mosque, Sultan Idris Shah II Mosque, and just a few hundred metres from Ipoh Railway Station.

Arguably, it is one of Ipoh’s most significant monuments to the legacy of British colonialism. It is a memorial to James W. W. Birch who, on 2 November 1875, was fatally speared while taking a bath in Kinta river. His murderers were Pandak Indut and Si Puntum, followers of Dato Maharaja Lela and fellow Malay chief Dato Sagor Ngah Kamaddin Radin Lop. All four were tried and hanged for Birch’s murder. Sultan Abdullah Mahmud Shah II, who was part of the murderous conspiracy, was deposed and exiled to the Seychelles.

There is considerable debate about Dato Maharaja Lela motives for the murder. Some argue that he was a Malay nationalist hero fighting unwanted imperial invaders. Others argue that he wanted to exact revenge on James W. W. Birch because he outlawed slavery in Perak. Dato Maharaja Lela was a slave trader. His income derived from seizing and selling the Orang Asli (original people) as slaves. Therefore, it is asserted that Dato Maharaja Lela was so furious about his slave-trading livelihood getting destroyed that he plotted with other slave-traders to assassinate Birch.

It is well beyond the scope of this article to become embroiled in such a debate but it is worth pointing out one of the interesting ironies here: the Birch Memorial Clock Tower is located next to named after Dato Maharaja Lela – Jalan Dato MaharajalLela 😊

Birch Memorial Clock Tower

Birch Memorial Clock Tower Architecture

The clock tower is located in a square between Sultan Idris Shah II Mosque and Medan Selera Dataran Dato’ Sagor Food Court. The clock tower has one mother bell, 6 feet 6 inches in diameter and weighing 1000 pounds (about 454 kilograms). There are four smaller bells weighing 250 pounds (lbs) each. Together, at the top of each hour, they sound the chimes of Big Ben.

Originally, on the north-facing niche of the monument, was a bronze bust of James.W.W.Birch with a dedication to him underneath. However, this disappeared around 1958.

It is a four-sided white-washed square tower consisting of four panels that are claimed to represent the different ‘stages’ or “growth of civilisation”. Each panel faces one of the four cardinal compass points.

Birch Memorial Clock Tower North

North-facing Panel

The north facing panel of the Birch Memorial Clock Tower represents the stone age (hunter, fisherman, and a woman spinning), hunter age (a man and a woman) and the early Eastern peoples (a Nubian with gold and ivory, a Chaldean Astrologer, a Woman making pottery, an Egyptian, an Assyrian, and a Persian)

Birch Memorial Clock Tower West

West-facing panel

The West facing panel covers the Eastern Mediterranean with Moses, David, a Phoenician and a woman representing the Agean civilization. For the Far East there is Confucius, Buddha, Lao Tzu. For Greece and Rome there are depictions of a woman representing Greek Art, Alexander the Great, Plato and Augustus.

Birch Memorial Clock Tower South

South-facing Panel

On the South facing panel, there is Constantine the Great symbolizing the Byzantine Empire. For Islam, there was an illustration of Mohammed but following objections in 1958, this was painted over. The depiction of the Prophet of Islam is forbidden. Islamic aniconism shuns images of sentient beings.

Other portrayals on the south facing panel are a Crusader for the Age of Chivalry, Saint Clare of Assisi for the Age of Faith, Saint Thomas Aquinas for Gothic Art. The Renaissance is portrayed by paintings of Galileo Galilei, Michelangelo, Vittoria Colonna, and Columbus, while Martin Luther embodies the Reformation. A painting of William Shakespeare symbolises Elizabethan Age.

Birch Memorial Clock Tower East

East-facing panel

The East facing panel of the Birch Memorial Clock Tower is devoted to ‘Modern Science, Art and Social Services’ characterised by Isaac Newton, William Harvey, James Watt, An unnamed Embroiderer, Beethoven, Robert Stephenson, Louis Daguerre, Florence Nightingale, Charles Darwin, Thomas Alva Edison, and Joseph Lister.

Visit Birch Memorial Clock Tower Monument

This Birch Memorial Clock Tower monument is a must do for anyone visiting Ipoh. Located next to Peraks’s State Mosque and just around the corner from Ipoh’s magnificent colonial-styled railway station,  it forms part of a lovely half-day tour of Ipoh’s Old Town.