Monday, 18 August 2014

Istana Woodneuk

Where do I start with this post? Do I describe it as an attraction? a ghost story? trespassing even!!! A historical piece? A day trip? All of these and more could describe this visit last week and I still can't believe this quiet timid English woman had the courage, with friends, to go hunting for this place, although probably my SG friends wouldn't recognise that description of me!!

Right let's start from the beginning.... When I started reading about places to visit in Singapore and getting lost in other fellow bloggers posts, I soon got past the "tourist" must visit places and decided I wanted to experience more of the real Singapore. Istana Woodneuk soon kept popping up on my readings, this once Royal "palace" now left to the ravages of time and as yet left alone, in its own substantial grounds, from Singapore's manic urges to redevelop, rebuild, reinvent. Talking to various friends we all said 'wouldn't it be great' if we could find a way in, get to see this place and decide for ourselves if it really was as good as the photos seen on the Internet. The biggest problem appeared to be gaining access. Although we knew people had found ways in officially this is private land (not sure what hubby thought I was up to - oops) There was very little information on how to do so, but after more digging we narrowed it down to a small hidden "path" and last week myself and 3 friends went to see if we could indeed find Woodneuk, and guess what... We did!

Now trying to research the facts around Woodneuk has proved quite tricky and confusing as there were once 2 "palaces" both belonging to the Sultans of Johor and, it appears when reading various information which state they will  "clear up the mixed messages about the two" in fact just seem to contradict themselves, so please bare with me if some of the information below is incorrect!

Tyersall House/Istana

Woodneuk is often confused with Tyersall House/Istana which once stood slightly further north and was owned by Sultan Abu Bakar (1833-95) the 21st Sultan of Johor and known as the "father of modern Johor" This we know as gospel and we know also that Tyersall was built first and was a much larger red roofed building, 210 ft by 174 ft in size and built by Wong Ah Fook and was one of the first homes in Singapore to have electricity. It was built for William Napier (1804-79) and then known as Tyersall House, Napier was the first lawyer of Singapore and founded the Singapore Free Press and was Sultan Abu Bakars legal advisor and yes Napier Road was named after him.

1857 - Napier sold Tyersall House to Sultan Abu Bakar.
1860 -  demolished? 1890  fire demolished??
1892 - was rebuilt and renamed Istana Tyersall and there was a grand opening party held on 10 Dec 1892.
1895 - Sultan Abu Bakar died leaving the house to his son who succeeded him who was Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar, who preferred Istana Woodneuk (this would assume Woodneuk was already in existence.
1905 - fire 10 Sept at 14:45
1907 - abandoned
1932 - another fire
1947 - house no longer in existence?
1990 - Singapore Government compulsory purchased Tyersall and demolished it in Nov 1990

As you can see just with this house a lot of conflicting information and a lot of fires!

Woodneuk House/Istana 

Still a large house slightly further south to Tyersall sitting on another small hill. Different to Tyersall, Woodneuk had a striking blue tiled roof, remains that can still be seen scattered around today.
Built - 1890 by Sultan Abu Bakar for his 3rd (4th) wife (info can't decide on this either) Sultana Khadijah, who died in Woodneuk in 1904, just before her death it was sold to Abu Bakars son and successor Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar
1930s - rebuilt with servants quarters attached and what is believed a guardhouse further down towards the entrance.
1935 - New Woodneuk was completed for Sultan Ibrahim to celebrate his 62nd birthday and 40 year reign as Sultan. It was built for him and his Scottish born wife Helen Bartholomew who he married in 1930. She became Sultana Helen Ibrahim in 1931.
1940 - part of it was used as a Indian Head Quarters and a military hospital was built in the grounds.
1942 - after bombing from the Japanese it is reported that 700 medics and patients died on 12 Sept 1942.
It was also used by various nationalities for head quarters by Generals, commander in chiefs and even Governor General Malcolm MacDonald occupied Woodneuk at one time.
1948 - Woodneuk was returned to the Sultan
1959 - Sultan Iskandar died
Very little information seems to be around from this time onwards, although reading comments on one bloggers site one person 'GK' said that he lived downstairs between 1973-75, having converted the rooms to bedrooms and upstairs lived a friend of the Sultans and indeed another comment said they had met and played with this family then. What a fantastic place to grow up in :)
2004 - Botanical Gardens purchased some of the land with plans to extend the Gardens and when we went in fact the "green fencing" of change is now in residence on part of the land adjacent to the Botanical Gardens.
2006 or 7? a fire completed gutted the house with the once iconic blue tiled roof collapsing into the building and it has been uninhabitable since.

The building and land is still believed to the property of the Sultan of Johor.

As you can see some conflicting information surrounds the history of these two houses but nothing take away from the architectural beauty of the ruins and peaceful situation surrounded by all the vegetation.

So thats the history now heres our story.....

This is what we walked through 
As we entered into the undergrowth on a feint path, we climbed and slipped over fallen branches, hanging onto some for grip as we went up a couple of slopes. We then came out into a more open expanse of land covered in knee high grass. This is the first time we have ever used sticks to announce our arrival to any possible snakes, that may have been having a snooze under foot! The walk in all honesty was probably only about 15 minutes in total and the feint path was visible and much easier to spot than expected, We clambered over a ditch and reached the remains of the old road and followed it up and as we rounded the corner Woodneuk revealed itself to us covered in creepers and shrubs - what a beauty, living up to the photos we had seen.

Clambering up one of the slopes on our way in
Theres a path there honest! Didn't spot any snakes lurking in the grass thankfully :)
Our first glimpse of Woodneuk

Below are more photos of the outside and inside. I'm not sure how long we explored but it must have been at least an hour. There still remains the old panelled walls in one of the drawing rooms and wood block flooring covers the floors downstairs and up. The fact that this is rotting gives a strange spongy feeling as you walk across it. The building is a maze of rooms and hints at its once grandeur. The main split staircase, still the most stunning entrance to the house as you would have entered into the downstairs, has a sign warning that it is structurally unsafe but, we found a back stone one and ascended to the first floor which is now open to the sky where the roof has collapsed. There has clearly been some work over the years to clear away much of the fire damaged debris. The front rooms have a wrought iron balustrade edging then, which face over what must once had been a majestic garden but now just a romantic tumble of jungle. Back downstairs and we investigated the large servant areas, kitchen, washrooms and many out houses with remains of fridges, tools and benches, even the remains of an old car!

The staffs quarters and utility areas, being just a single storey they are almost totally submerged by the undergrowth
Mosaic shards of the blue roof tiles are scattered around the buildings grounds

Wood block flooring once covered the floors

The magnificent staircase to the upper floor now no longer structurally safe, with evidence of where the roof has collapsed into the building. I'm not sure if the material covering where the roof was is actually protecting the staircase much.
Some of the upper rooms
old cistern and water heater
More remains of the roof tiles, larger this time
Where the roof has caved in, onto the staffs staircase, following the fire.
Pantry I suspect?
fuse box, no wonder there were fires :)
An old range cooker sitting where once would of been a much older range or even open fire in one of the kitchens
House or tree? reminiscent of the temples in Cambodia. Just shows how nature will always take back and win.
Remains of the paneled walls in one of the downstairs living rooms. How grand it must have looked.

From here we tried to continue up the road to see if we could find where Tyersall House once stood as surely there would still be footings, but sadly the road came to an end and the undergrowth was just to thick to investigate further without more of a clue to where we were heading. So we retraced our footsteps and followed the drive down towards the main road, passed the workman's trappings, there was no one around (something I have to admit to being rather glad about) and when we came to the road we found the green gates padlocked. So back up the hill and we exited again through the undergrowth, picking our sticks up again and this time using them to slide down the slopes as well as forewarning any hissing serpents!

leaving Woodneuk via the old road
A small building not far from the main house down the drive, was it an old guard house or gatekeepers lodge?

Through the worker site only to find the exit locked so we walked back up and out the way we came in!

We appeared onto the road as if nothing had happened, that we were just passing the time of day, not that we had had just travelled back in time to an era of forgotten grandeur. That we had spent the last few hours with the ghosts of the past excluded from the modern world, just the 4 of us on our own little time travel :)

Thanks to L, N and S for allowing me to add photos of them and sharing this magic with me :)

Anyone missing any chairs??
Fong Hin & G H Watt Co. Singapore. Hunted for some information on them and I know they were in existence in 1929. I found an advert that said....
Modern sanitation & sanitary equipment for domestic & public buildings
Fong Hin & G H Watt
64 Wallich St
phone 1582.
Wallich St is by Tanjong Pagar MRT station - do they still trade?
A shed snake skin, but we didn't see any live ones!

60s-70s turquoise bath tiles - I lived in a few houses with this colour bathroom suits!

1 comment:

  1. Terimah kasih for posting your adventurous hike and exploration of Woodneuk. It was leased to ex patriot members of the Singapore Polo Club
    in the 70’s and was in excellent shape but always prone to fire. Three of my friends that lived there were ex race driver Phillip Seow, Bill Norris and Michael Hooper. I had wanted to hike back in during my last visit to Singapore but they had guards everywhere. Sad to see it as a ruin. Your history on Tyersall is very important because with the passing of time, the two istana’s have been conflated.