Not all Black and White at Mount Pleasant

1 11 2015

With much of Singapore now dominated by the clutter and monstrosities of the modernised world, “Black and White” housing estates are a breath of fresh air. Many of these estates can still be found scattered across the island. Set in lush greener, they contain houses that are characterised by their whitewashed exteriors and their black trimmings. Built in the early decades of the twentieth century, these houses were the homes of the colony’s administrators and wear a poise and an elegance that seems lacking in the residential architecture of the modern world.

The 'black and white' house at 159 Mount Pleasant Road.

The ‘black and white’ house at 159 Mount Pleasant Road.

The rear of the house - with the kitchen and servants quarters arranged in typical fashion behind the main house.

The rear of the house – with the kitchen and servants quarters arranged in typical fashion behind the main house.

I am always grateful for the opportunity to take a peek into one of these houses, a good number of which are being leased from the Singapore government for quite a tidy sum. One that I recently got to see — thanks to arrangements made by a friend and fellow blogger James Tann with the house’s occupant, was 159 Mount Pleasant Road. Laid out in a style typical of the early “Black and White” house — of single room depth, and with a carriage porch arranged under a projecting second storey verandah, the house is one of a cluster of similar houses built in the 1920s along the northern slope of Mount Pleasant as residences for the fast developing colony’s Municipal Councillors.

The carriage porch and projecting second storey verandah.

The carriage porch and projecting second storey verandah.

The projecting second storey verandah.

The projecting second storey verandah.

Located close to the top of Mount Pleasant, one of the high points in the series of undulations that extend to the municipal burial grounds to its northwest in the area of Bukit Brown, there is much to admire about the house and the expansive grounds it has been provided with. From James, I also discovered that what was most interesting about the house was not so much its architecture nor the beauty of its settings, but a secret that the house and its grounds held for some seventy years.

From the porch one steps into an entrance hall and the stairway - again typical of an daly 'Black and White' house design.

From the porch one steps into an entrance hall and the stairway – again typical of an early ‘Black and White’ house design.

The dining room on the ground level, as seen from the entrance hallway.

The dining room on the ground level, as seen from the entrance hallway.

James, who photographed the house for a book on the Adam Park Project, shared what had been learnt about No 159 and the houses in the vicinity through the piecing together of evidence found in history books, maps and also what had been unearthed on the grounds. The project, which is led by battlefield archeologist Jon Cooper, seeks to establish from archaeological evidence, what went on in and around Adam Park in the final days of the battle for Singapore in February 1942.

The area in the foreground was where both spent ammunition and a cache of unused British ammunition was recently uncovered.

The area in the foreground was where both spent ammunition and a cache of unused British ammunition was recently uncovered.

In a video on the dig that took place on the grounds of No 159 Mount Pleasant Road earlier in the year, Jon Cooper paints a picture of the events of the last days leading up to what seems to have happened on the morning of 15th February 1942 — the day of the surrender. Japanese forces, having met with stiff resistance from the 1st Cambridgeshire regiment, who had been holding the ground for three days at Adam Park, decided to move north. On the evening of 14th of February, the Japanese were able to penetrate positions held by 4th Battalion of the Royal Suffolks at the Singapore Island Country Club and at Bukit Brown. In retreat, the Suffolks retreat, falling back across a valley (which would be the low ground at Jalan Mashhor / Gymkhana Avenue), to positions on Mount Pleasant. Here, a mix of units including the 125th Anti Tank Regiment, the Royal Engineers and elements of the 9th Northumberland Fusiliers, brace for a Japanese attack and have the area fortified with the “Black and White” houses along the edge of the ridge serving as defensive positions.

In the video, Cooper also tells us of two well-documented attacks on Mount Pleasant that would follow. One comes from an account recorded by Henry Frei, who once taught at the NUS, through interviews with Japanese veterans. This account makes mention of an attack on “Hospital Hill” which wipes out a whole company of Japanese troops.

The house that was thought to be used as a hospital on the top of Mount Pleasant.

The house that was thought to be used as a hospital on the top of Mount Pleasant.

Another account that Cooper refers to, speaks of the attempts that were made on the morning of 15th February to retake a house that had been infiltrated by the Japanese. The house, on the north side of Mount Pleasant Road, is described as as hard to take due to its elevation below the road. After two failed attempts to retake it, the house is hit with twelve anti-tank shells which were fired from a gun positioned at the junction of Mount Pleasant Road and Thomson Road. The house, which catches fire, is cleared of Japanese troops before burning down. With the help of a 1948 aerial photograph, Cooper was able to identify this house as being No 160 through its new roof, which lies right across Mount Pleasant Road from No 159. An article in the Singapore Free Press dated 25 June 1948, which reports the discovery of the remains of eight soldiers on the grounds of a “bombed house” at 160 Mount Pleasant Road, provides further evidence. 

160 Mount Pleasant Road, which was infiltrated by Japanese troops and subsequently bombed.

160 Mount Pleasant Road, which was infiltrated by Japanese troops and subsequently bombed.

Remains were also found at the far end of No 159’s garden. They belonged to a British officer and were reburied in Kranji War Cemetery. An aim of the dig at No 159 was to find if anything else belonging to this officer could be found on the grounds.

A view towards the far end of the garden. The remains of a British officer killed in the course of fighting, was buried.

A view towards the far end of the garden. The remains of a British officer killed in the course of fighting, was buried.

While no further evidence was found of the officer, the main area of focus of the dig taking place at the near end of the huge garden, did meet with success. The recent removal of a tree coupled with the gradual washing away of the topsoil by rainwater provided a huge clue as to where to carry out this dig, through which thousands of pieces of ammunition were uncovered. The find, which includes both spent cases and a cache of unused ammunition that had deliberately been buried, confirmed that there was fighting in the garden of No 159, which would have been used as a staging point for the counterattack on No 160. The large quantity of unused ammunition, which was of British origin, also provided evidence of the final positions held by British troops as they made their preparations to surrender.

Mount Pleasant Road served as the final battle line before the capitulation.

Mount Pleasant Road, seen here running between #159 and #160, served as a final battle line before the capitulation.

There probably is a lot more that lies buried in and around No 159 and the “Black and White” houses in the vicinity and it is possible that the grounds of these houses may never reveal their secrets. Based on the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s 2014 Master Plan, the area will be the subject of future redevelopment — perhaps as part of the intended Bukit Brown estate and on the evidence of the two MRT stations that have been planned for. It would be a shame if and when this happens. Not only will we lose a lush green part of Singapore with its “Black and White” reminders of a forgotten age, we will also lose a crucial link to a chapter in our history that we must never be forget.

The URA Master Plan 2014 indicates that the area will be redeveloped in the future.

The URA Master Plan 2014 indicates that the area will be redeveloped in the future.


More photographs of 159 Mount Pleasant Road

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16 responses

1 11 2015
Sarah Thibault ( Allen)

I Lived at 159 from 1969 with my parents. I distinctly remember a large square patch in the garden on right side of driveway where no grass grew. We were told 16 bodies lay there. We could not get anyone to work there so mum got the property excorcised by a priest . People were very superstitious then and still are. There was also a pile of rubble on left side of the house we made into a rockery well tried again nothing grew much there either.
The house had been empty a long time because it was haunted by a Japanese official who apparently committed suicide. We were supposed to hear the dragging of his sword and a sweeping noise because he had an Indian man to sweep the floor before him! It’s amazing the stories we heard while living there. And finally before we arrived they decided to use the house for the female police cadets but apparently they went ‘amok’ on first night so house became unoccupied until we arrived !!!!! I have wonderful memories living in that house and happy to share more stories if interested.

1 11 2015
Stanley

Very interesting story! I was in the Methodist Lutheran Hostel at that time – 18 Farrer Rd Singapore 10

2 11 2015
Jerome Lim, The Wondering Wanderer

Thanks for sharing Sarah. What you have mentioned is indeed interesting! I have heard of sightings at the houses in the area of the former Naval Base. A photograph in circulation taken in the garden of one of these houses in the 1960s even shows what clearly resembles a Japanese soldier in the background. I’ve also been told that those residing in these houses had difficulty finding help as many of the locals were afraid of working in the houses. If you do have more stories to share, they would be well appreciated. 🙂

21 05 2018
David Wood

Sarah, do you have any idea, or memory’s, of the name of the people who lived in 160 at the time your family lived in 159?

21 05 2018
Allen Cheong

There was a fierce battle fought at that hill. The japanese took heavy casualties trying to take the hill from the defending british soldiers. That location was also dubbed as Hospital Hill.

There was another Hospital Hill around Woodleigh near Woodleigh Waterworks. That location also seen heavy fightings between the british and the japanese coming in from the east of singapore.

16 02 2020
PragmaJoe

This is an amazing story and it would be wonderful to hear more. 😊

11 03 2020
Maarten kelder

Dear Sarah, I just saw this post. We have lived in 159 MPR for 17 years (still do) and we have discovered an amazing WW2 history with the help of war archaeologist John Cooper. We would be keen to connect with you. Could you please mail me at maarten_kelder@hotmail.com with your contact details?

5 11 2015
Catherine Spence

This article has been a nostalgic trip down memory lane. I grew up in one alot like this one at 30 Malcolm Road, just the other side of Whites road from Mt Pleasant Road if memory’s eve’s me right….

3 07 2017
Geeta Mo

reminded me of my home

5 11 2017
Allen

Hi James,
I had read the articles on the ambush at sleepy valley. I am intrested to find out where could we find the records or documents old maps on this? Are there any records or maps on the battles around the serangoon line? I had heard about battles around the hills at woodleigh waterworks area, the old paya lebar school and even in areas around seletar reservoir and upp thompson road junction.

21 05 2018
David Wood

This brings back memory’s of a similar house that was owned by the Borneo Company/Inchcape back in the 1950’s through to the 1970’s. It was located in the Tanglin/Holland Hill area. It was occupied by one of the company’s directors. In my fathers time of working for that firm, the resident family was Mr and Mrs Webster. That such houses often have a “presence” does not surprise me. The same company owned large houses tin the major centres throughout peninsula Malaya and Sabah/Sawarak/Brunei, which were used by their expat staff. Many had similar going’s on inside, (reported from time to time by the occupants) The house we lived in in K.L. from 1957 through to 1967 was used by senior Japanese officers and also the Kempeitai during the Japanese occupation. In our case, the house, having been used by the latter as an officers “comfort station” (brothel) contained several and activity of one kind or another occurred almost daily. (We got used to it and learned to ignore it.) We also dug up partial human remains from time to time, when doing some landscaping in the garden. We just reburied the bits we found.

25 05 2018
David Wood

After doing further research, I can confirm that immediately post WW2, 160 Mt Pleasant Road was purchased by the Borneo Company/Inchcape and was occupied by the MD of Borneo Motors, until the company sold it in the mid to late 1970’s.

15 02 2021
Andrew Hintz

Fascinating article. My family lived at 184 Mt Pleasant Road during much of the 1970s, and our gardener occasionally unearthed live ammunition when digging in the garden. Although our home was some distance west of No. 159, your account sheds some light on why it might have been there.

16 02 2021
Sarah Thibault

David Wood no sorry can’t remember who lived in 160 but there was a French family the » Camps « at the house with the big banyan tree at the entrance. It must have been 158 or 156. Later in mid 70,s the houses were taken over mainly for bankers etc. In early 80’s we moved to 150. It had been recreation club for police I think and horses were stabled there. We lived there due to easy access to Singapore polo club. After a down pour one day I came across a hand grenade caked in mud. I flicked it with my finger wondering what it was! Bomb squad were called in and they covered it with sand bags and exploded it. I was amazed at how it lifted the bags up also glad it did not explode in My face !!

18 02 2021
Andrew Hintz

We knew the family who lived in the house with the big banyan/waringin tree at the entrance to its drive during the latter-half of the 1970s–I believe it was No, 162–as well as the family at the house with the fantastic ‘widows walk’ copula at its top, which is pictured above as the house thought to have been used as a hospital. I recall there being an amazing view from up there.

10 06 2021
Michael Kerr-Patton

Sarah
I have just come across your post whilst researching for my own memoir. We lived at 158 Mount Pleasant Road from 1981 to 1983. I followed Richard Youens who lived there for the previous 2 years. My wife and my 2 children enjoyed our life there. My elder daughter went to Tanglin and was picked up by the school bus at 6.45 whilst the younger went to Winchester school. Our amah Johora and our kibun lived in but came from the kampong nearby. We had an above ground swimming pool which was fun. The house was below the road and the lower garden also fell away, where we played badminton. We did not know our neighbours very well, as I was away a lot of the time and I reserved the weekends for the family. I do know however that many of them were bankers.

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