Established on 6th November 1874, Donaldson & Burkinshaw has a rich and colourful history dating back one and a half centuries. Our founding partners, Alexander Muirhead Aitken, Alexander Leathes Donaldson and John Burkinshaw, contributed actively to the legal profession, jurisprudence and public life of early Singapore. Aitken left his mark especially in the judicial institutions, while Donaldson and Burkinshaw both dominated the legislative branch of this former British settlement.

The history of the Firm has been chronicled by Roland Braddell et. al. in their book "One Hundred Years of Singapore", an excerpt of which appears below:

“Mr. Alexander Muirhead Aitken was admitted as a special law agent in Singapore in 1852, and was called to the English Bar at the Middle Temple in 1864. He took a leading part in public affairs for many years, and his name is to be found on many of the committees appointed at public meetings to carry on local agitations. As has been said, he acted as Registrar of the Court for a short while in 1856; and in 1870 he acted for a month or two as Attorney-General. Otherwise he practised privately, in 1861 with Mr. Abraham Logan, leaving him the next year, and from 1871 to 1873 with Mr. Bernard Rodyk. In 1873, Mr. Alexander Leathes Donaldson joined Mr. Aitken, and the next year they were joined by Mr. John Burkinshaw, the Firm being called in the Directory, “Aitken, Donaldson & Burkinshaw”, though in the Bar records, “Aitken and Co”. Mr. Aitken retired in 1879, and the Firm became Donaldson & Burkinshaw, as it is today.

It has already been mentioned that Mr. A. M. Aitken was the founder of the Firm of Donaldson & Burkinshaw. These two latter gentlemen were in leading practice from the ‘Seventies until the Nineties'. Both of them were respected and popular, and did much useful work in the place.

Alexander Leathes Donaldson was admitted an Attorney at Westminster in 1865, and to the local Bar in 1873; John Burkinshaw was admitted an Attorney at Westminster in 1863, and to the local Bar in 1874. When Mr. Bond retired, his place on the Legislative Council was given to Mr. Burkinshaw; in 1893 it went to Mr. Donaldson, in 1896 back to Mr. Burkinshaw, Mr. Donaldson having retired in 1895. Mr. Burkinshaw continued to be on Council until 1902, when he retired. … These two gentlemen built up the leading European practice of their day, and their jack-in-the-box possession of a seat on the Legislative Council undoubtedly gave the Firm great influence. Both of them were sound legislators, displaying force and wisdom in their speeches, and being of undoubted assistance to the deliberations of the Council.”

Alexander Donaldson was one of three members of the first local Bar Committee formed in 1875 to assist the Attorney-General in matters affecting the local profession and practice etiquette. In 1907, the Courts Ordinance made this Committee a statutory body, effectively the genesis of today’s Law Society of Singapore.

Of particular note, Alexander Donaldson and John Burkinshaw both acted for the plaintiff in the high profile law suit of The Jeddah [1881] KY 24 (Kyshe Law Reports), a case about an abandoned steamship which inspired Joseph Conrad’s epic novel “Lord Jim”, later made into a movie by Columbia Pictures in 1965.

In the late 1800's, Sir Hugh Fort, one of the Firm's partners, was a top litigator with a fearsome reputation. He was later appointed King’s Counsel and co-authored the "Index of Cases Judicially Noticed 1865-1890". "One Hundred Years in Singapore" describes him thus:

“It is said that Sir Hugh had the finest brain of any man who has ever come to the Straits, not merely in legal affairs but in public ones as well. He was a Member of the Legislative Council from 1905 to 1908, and again from 1909 to 1910, being knighted in 1911 after he had retired. For years he held a leading place in Singapore life; he led its Bar, the Unofficials on its Legislative Council, and his word was law in all matters of sport and club life. As an advocate Sir Hugh was deadly ; he pounced on a weakness, he made the strength of his own case seem impregnable, and he was always cool and collected, while to his opponents he was fairness itself.”

Another exceptional talent who served the Firm as an administrator was Chan Kim Boon, a Peranakan linguist noted for his Baba Malay translations of Chinese classics such as "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" and "Water Margin". Before joining the Firm, he taught mathematics to military men at the Foochow Naval School in China, several of whom fought bravely and were martyred in the first Sino-Japanese War in 1894 to 1895.

Prior to the Second World War, as one of the leading law firms in Singapore, the Firm represented an impressive list of banks, companies and merchants. Law practice was interrupted by the onset of the War during which the Firm’s documents were preserved at the Supreme Court, thanks to the efforts of senior staff members.

Mercantile Bank Building, where Donaldson & Burkinshaw had their office from 1937 to 1978

After the War, the Firm continued to dominate the legal landscape of Singapore. Members of the Firm exercised considerable influence on the early politico-legal development of modern Singapore. Mr. C F Smith, a senior partner of the Firm, was involved in the work of the 1954 Rendel Commission appointed by Governor Sir John Nicoll in July 1953 to undertake a comprehensive review of the constitution of the Singapore colony.

Until 1970, the Firm had offices in Malaysia at Johor and Kuala Lumpur, and in Sabah at Jesselton (now known as Kota Kinabalu) and Sandakan. When the Promulgation of the Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance No. 30 of 1970 took effect, these offices were closed as lawyers who were non-Malaysian nor permanent residents could not practice in West Malaysia.

The Firm's senior partners in the 1960s and 1970s, Antony Purdon Godwin and Wu Chang-Sheng (better known as “C S Wu” or “Fred Wu”), were exceptionally well-regarded litigators. The late C S Wu, son of well-known plague fighter Dr. Wu Lian-Teh who was credited for modernising China's medical services and medical education, was particularly respected for his expertise in construction arbitration. Godwin and Wu were also founding members of the Council of the Singapore Advocates and Solicitors Society in 1967, the precursor to the Law Society of Singapore. The late Henry Mosley Dyne, a former senior partner who retired in 2000, was widely respected for his expertise in trusts and equities. The late Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, a well-known local politician, was also a partner of the Firm in the early 1970s.

The Firm continues to be a full service law firm today and is highly regarded internationally.

Henry Richard
Lubbock Dyne
1911 - 1948

Henry Richard
Lubbock Dyne
(1947 Caricature)

Henry Mosley Dyne
1932 - 2003

C. S. Wu
1932 - 2002
(1988 Caricature)