The rise of the Port of Singapore was due to three main factors:
The first was its geographic position. It was in easy reach of the junks from China, Indo-China and Thailand as well as of Perahus from the Indonesian Archipelago. It also lay on the natural shipping route between India and China, and when the ships arrived, it was the logical choice as a bunkering station.
The second factor was its status as a free port, there being no harbour, port, dock, town or light dues, while customs duties were levied only on opium, alcohol, tobacco and petroleum.
The third was a result of the commercial policy of the Government which permitted the mercantile interests a complete freedom of trade.
An added impetus to the growth of the port occurred when the submarine cable linking Singapore with Madras was laid in 1871 and direct telegraphic communication was established via India with Europe. In the following year, telegraphic communication was extended to Australia and Hong Kong.
Until 1874, cargo at the Tanjong Pagar wharves was loaded and unloaded manually at the rate of 200-300 tons per day of 10 hours. In that year steam winches and cranes were installed and working of cargo was increased to 500-800 tons per day. The contract rate of coal bunkering was also fixed at 40 tons per hour.
In 1897 electricity was introduced into the entire wharf frontage, roadways and docks, and working hours were virtually doubled. By comparison, ships at the anchorages could only work their cargoes at the rate of 7 1/2 – 10 tons per daylight hour.
Linking the Keppel wharves with the warehouses on the Singapore River were two earth roads along which the bulk of the cargo was transported by bullock carts. When an increase in the volume of cargo followed the opening of the Suez Canal, a state of serious congestion resulted at the wharves and along the roads. This led to the first phase of the Telok Ayer reclamation in 1879 which, when completed in 1887, extended the foreshore from Telok Ayer Street to Raffles Quay and provided an additional 18 acres of land on which the new access roads between Keppel Harbour and the Singapore River were constructed. At the same time Keppel Road was laid across the mangrove swamps from Tanjong Pagar (later converted to an electric tramway) also ran on this route.
The Tanjong Pagar Dock Co had opened for business in 1866 with a line of wharves measuring a modest 750ft. The Company’s first dry dock, the Victoria Dock, was opened in 1868, and the wharves were then extended to 1.450ft. Faced with competition from the Paten Slip & Dock Co which had opened its second dry dock in 1870, the Company opened its second dock, the Albert Dock, in 1879. A long-term lease on the Jardine Matheson Wharf was then arranged in 1884 and a year later, the Borneo Wharf and Purvis Wharf and their adjoining properties were purchased. The Company was thus operating two dry docks and some 6,600 feet of wharves in 1885.
The Bon Accord Dock had in the meanwhile been leased jointly by the Company and the Patent Slip & Dock and this arrangement continued until 1899 when the two dock companies were amalgamated. With this final accession the Tanjong Pagar Dock Co completed its virtual control over the entire shipping business in Singapore. Besides operating five dry docks, it possessed a wharf frontage of about 1 1/4 miles and warehouses for 200,000 tons of cargo and 250,000 tons of coals, and its properties extended over 375 acres. In 1905 the Company was expropriated by the Government, and control of its facilities subsequently passed over to the Singapore Harbour Board which was constituted under the Straits Settlement Port Ordinance of 1912.