|Carte de Visite (Trimmed)
14 August, 1902
Researching the name of this old sergeant of the Singapore Volunteer Rifles posed a somewhat unique problem since any
online search turned up hundreds of hits for the inventor of the telegraph and telephone Alexander Graham Bell.
This trimmed carte de visite which is dated 14 August, 1902 depicts a old veteran sergeant of one of those obscure colonial
units that were raised throughout Victoria’s far flung empire during the last half of the 19th Century. The Singapore Volunteer
Rifles were typical in many ways of these military units that were often modeled after the Rifle Volunteer battalion that
became all the rage in Britain in the 1850s. The Singapore Volunteer Rifles had their origins in 1854 in the wake of an
outbreak of violent riots between Chinese secret societies in Singapore. The colony had been stripped of its garrison of
regular British troops due the conflict with Russia in the Crimea and local authorities created the Singapore Rifle Volunteer
Corps to fill the gap in security. It was one of the earliest officially sanctioned volunteer units the British Empire. The Corps
lasted until 1887 when it was disbanded due to a serious drop in membership. Having dwindled to half a company these few
but still eager members were reformed the following year into the Singapore Volunteer Artillery. The Singapore Volunteer
Artillery (SVA) would have the singular distinction of being the first military unit in the British Empire to field the Maxim
Machine Gun – thanks to the Sultan of Jahor who personally funded the purchase of the new weapons.
Membership in the SVA continued to increase and by 1901 it was re-designated the Singapore Volunteer Corps with four
battalions: the SVA remained and the Singapore Volunteer Rifles (SVR), the Singapore Volunteer Infantry and the Singapore
Volunteer Engineers were added. Membership in all of the battalions was limited to Europeans except the Singapore
Volunteer Infantry which was made up of residents of Asian ancestry.
With history seeming to repeat itself the SVR after establishing a record of some note in the colony soon found its
membership falling to the point that in 1903 it was disbanded by the Colonial Government. The other battalions of the Corps
soldiered on and helped but down the blooding Sepoy Mutiny of 1915 when elements of the Indian 5th Light Infantry rose in
rebellion. The 5th was predominantly a Muslim regiment and Britain’s declaration of war against the Ottoman Empire of one
of a number of contributing factor in the rising.
The Corps would contributed to the defense of Singapore during World War II and would eventually be absorbed in the
Singapore Defense Forces in 1965.
So far I have been unable to find any records mention Sergeant A. G. Bell. Records for Colonial Volunteers units like the
SVR simply don’t exist and other sources have to be consulted. I have found dozens of announcements for drills, meetings
and other functions of the SVR in The Straights Times between 1900 and 1903 that mention officers and NCOs of the
battalion by name but nothing for an “A. G. Bell” If he had signed his name in full I may have been able to find mention of him
someplace. Bell’s rank is actually that of Colour Sergeant with this being evidenced by the double horns, crossed sword and
crown above his sergeant chevrons. The diamond shaped badge and stars on his cuff give us some idea as to the length of
Bell’s career in the Volunteers. These are efficiency badges and were awarded for attending all required training, drills and
musters for a given time period. The diamond was for the most recent completed year of service and each star represented
five years of service which did not necessarily have to be consecutive. Bell had at least 20 years effective service with the
Volunteers by the time he had this portrait taken. One must assume that his career included good portion of time with other
elements of the Singapore Volunteers and not just the Rifles.