Glamour and scandal in the skies

16 05 2022

The 1920s in Singapore were exciting times for aviation. Late in 1919, Singapore witnessed its very first inbound flight, a Vickers Vimy which carried four men and which landed at the racecourse (now Farrer Park). In the excitement of seeing the Vimy land, many would have missed the sight of its mechanic, Jim Bennett, sliding along the fuselage toward the aircraft’s tail keep the nose up just before landing. The brave act — the equivalent of flaring on landing today, was quite necessary given the short landing distance required at the makeshift airfield. This would be a pattern for flights into Singapore that would follow, even after a dedicated but still makeshift landing ground had been prepared by filling Government sand pits at Balestier Plain in the early 1920s anticipation of an increase air traffic. 

The first ever flight into and out of Singapore was on a Vickers Vimy carrying four crew, which landed in Singapore in December 1919.

The lack of a proper airfield proved of little deterrence to the string of intrepid aviators that Singapore would see through the 1920s. Many, on their quests for fame, touched down here out of necessity more than anything else, as the technology of the day required multiple stopovers as flights could not take place in the dark and, due to the short range of aircraft then, required to be refuelled every few hundred miles.   

The location of Balestier Plain Aviation Ground

Among those who touched down at Balestier Plain was pioneering Australian aviator, Mrs Keith Miller (Jessie Maude “Chubby”) on 7 January 1928. The world had a fascination for the female aviator, who added a touch of femininity and glamour to the skies .She would be the first among several aviatrices to land in Singapore — although she did not actually pilot the Red Rose — a small Avro Avian that was owned and piloted by Captain Bill Lancaster. Capt Lancaster, an RAF pilot, described the aviation ground as a quagmire — something that could also describe the somewhat scandalous relationship that the pair, both of whom had spouses, would forge during the long and eventful journey from England to Australia. The pair, who took off from the racecourse (due to the unsuitability of the aviation ground) two days after landing on 9 January, survived a crash on the island of Muntok that resulted in them spending two months in Singapore having the Red Rose repaired. Repaired and tested, the Red Rose  took off once again on 14 March 1928 and arrived in Darwin on 19 March.

Bill Lancaster and Jessie Miller.

Some years later in August 1932, a murder trial involving the killing of a certain Haden Clarke, played out at the Miami Dade County Courthouse. Capt Lancaster had been charged with Clarke’s murder, which took place at a rented Miami home of Mrs Miller. During the trial, a sordid tale of love and betrayal emerged. Mrs Miller, who arrived in the United States with her lover Lancaster with the intent of having her autobiography written. She became romantically involved with Clarke, who she had employed to be a ghostwriter for the autobiography, and the allegation was that Lancaster had killed Clarke out of jealousy.  It also emerged during the trial that Clarke had deceived Mrs Miller and was a bigamist.  Lancaster was acquitted of the murder, and the pair, who were deemed to have overstayed in the US, were deported. 

The RAF aerodrome, and later the civil aerodrome at Kallang (terminal building pictured here) would be a big improvement on the “quagmire” that the Balestier Plain aviation ground was described as.

The development of RAF Seletar, and its opening to civil aviation, would write a new chapter for aviation here in Singapore. The military aerodrome, built to provide air cover for an intended naval base, would see the launch of the first regular air services to and from Singapore “Garbo of the skies”, Jean Batten  first between Singapore and the Dutch East Indies and eventually with Europe in 1933. The aerodrome would also serve as a staging ground for several other female aviators attempting to set records flying from England to Australia, who included the likes of Amy Johnson and the “Garbo of the skies”, Jean Batten. By the time of the arrival of Amelia Earhart in June 1937, who was perhaps the best known of teh aviatrices, RAF Seletar was forgotten as a dual-use airport and Singapore’s first civil aerodrome at Kallang, was in operation.


The first inbound flight
Piloted by brothers Ross and Keith Smith, a converted Vickers Vimy — a bomber built for use in the First World War but did not get to see action, touched down at the racecourse on 4 December 1919. Together with mechanics James (Jim) Bennett and Walter Shiers, the Smiths had their eye on a prize money of £10,000 — in excess of S$900,000 in today’s terms — being offered by the Commonwealth Government for being the first to fly from England to Australia. One condition was that the flight was to be done in less than 30 days and the four men were well on their way to achieving that, having arrived in Singapore some 22 days after taking off from Hounslow in London. The historic flight would land in Australian soil at Port Darwin on 10 December 1919, four days after taking off on 6 December from Singapore.


The contents of this post supplement that of my talk (cum virtual tour of old Kallang Airport), “An Aviation Journey“, for Singapore Heritage Festival held on 8 May 2022.





An enlightened space

4 04 2022

Voluminous spaces amply illuminated by natural light are often a visually treat. We have quite a number of these spaces in Singapore, including several that go back to a time when harnessing natural light and ventilation for interior spaces all seemed very logical.

A view of the main hall of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

One fine example of a such a voluminous space is the main hall of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. The hall features a high vaulted ceiling that rises to a height of some 21.6 metres to keep its users cool. A fair amount of natural light also streams into the space through windows placed at its roof’s gable ends and also along the sides, making it quite a joy to behold. The station is one of many designs that have flown off the drawing boards of architectural firm Swan and Maclaren. The design of the hall’s gable ends recalls the one of the firm’s earlier works, the Malayan Motors showroom on Orchard Road.

The former Malayan Motors showroom.

Designed in 1925, the building — like Tanjong Pagar Railway Station — can still be admired. It now stands at the end of a delightful row of conserved buildings opposite Dhoby Ghaut MRT station and looking at it, it is not hard to see how the former showroom must have been quite an attraction on Orchard Road when it was completed in early 1927. The showroom’s façade, which is effectively a gable end, is topped by a sunburst like decorative feature that seems very much to be a call for attention. The window arrangement on this face does also seem quite similar to that of the gable ends of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station’s main hall, although in being dressed to act as the showroom’s street facing façade, is much more elaborately designed.

Similarities can be seen between Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the former Malayan Motors showroom.

The former showroom, which now stands as a marker of a stretch of Orchard Road that was at the heart of Singapore’s motoring trade, has long fascinated me. Other than its showroom on the ground floor, which I had chance to visit as a child when my father purchased a Morris Marina in the 1970s, I’ve often wondered what lay behind the glorious face of building and its multitude of windows. I long imagined that was a showroom or perhaps a workshop on its upper floors and I was rather disappointed to learn from the building’s plans that what did lie under the rather elaborate roof were offices — at least at the point of design. Knowing this, what now intrigues me is why all that elaboration for a set of mere offices? Whatever it was however, it must have been quite a space to marvel at.

What lies behind the face of the Malayan Motors showroom’s gabled ends.

The showroom’s construction came at a time when the motoring trade was on the up and when Orchard Road had established its place a centre for the business of getting around. The street in its post-plantation era, had become a choice residential neighbourhood and both residents and visitors needed a means to move around, especially with Orchard Road being some distance from the commercial area. By the late 1800s, livery stables from which horses and carriages could be hired, lined the street. Hackney carriages plied the street as much as taxis now do, and carriages makers and horse traders set up shop.

Stables on Orchard Road.

The introduction of the motorcar would see a change of fortunes for those involved in the trade. Some of those involved in the business of horses and carriages would become among the first to trade instead in horsepower, leading to the area retaining its place as a hub as the private transportation business evolved. New entrants to the business, with a greater capacity to respond to shifting demands, soon dominated the scene, with names such as Cycle and Carriage and C F F Wearne (later Wearne Brothers) — now household names in the trade, setting up shop in the area in the early 1900s. By the end of the second decade of the twentieth century, at least a dozen car dealerships had been established in the area close to the entrance to Government House — something I touched on during the Age of Locomotion tour that I recently conducted as part of a series of four historical tours of Orchard Road for Design Orchard’s “The Non Season”.

The “motor” end of Orchard Road, a hundred years apart.

C F F Wearne and Co, one of many success stories associated with the motoring trade, was founded by two Western Australian brothers Charles Frederick Foster Wearne and his brother Theodore James Benjamin (T J B or Theo). The two had come across to Singapore in 1892 and worked their way up from being apprentices at the New Harbour Dock Company to qualify as marine engineers. In 1906, with a startup capital of 700 Straits dollars that Theo provided, C F F Wearne and Co was established as a motor garage in Theo’s brother-in-law’s coach house. This was a time when there were just a handful of cars on the island. In a matter of months, C F F Wearne and Co moved into two shophouse units in Orchard Road. Having secured the agency for Oldsmobiles, the company would expand its portfolio to include makes such as Morris, Rolls Royce, Bentley and Ford and in no time, established themselves as a main player in the business with C F F Wearne and Co becoming Wearne Brothers.

The 1910 built C F F Wearne Garage

By 1924, Wearne Brothers would be producing car bodies locally for assembly to Ford car chassis shipped to Singapore by Ford Canada for the local market. A small assembly plant was established at Penang Lane to handle the work. To avoid any conflict of interests between the Ford agency and other agencies under the Wearne Brothers umbrella, a subsidiary, Malayan Motors, was set up the same year acting as agents for agents for Armstrong-Siddley, Morris, Sunbeam, Packard, Rolls-Royce, Essex, Erksine and Standard motorcars. Malayan Motors operated out of the 1910 constructed C F F Wearnes’ garage, which stood on the site of the 1927 built Malayan Motors showroom at 14-20 Orchard Road. The 1927 building does in fact have the 1910 building appended to it, having been built in front of the older structure. This is quite evident from the difference in floor levels of the older back section and newer front section of the former showroom.

The difference in floor levels between the old and new sections of the building.

Wearne Brothers, which established the first local airline to operate out of Singapore in 1937, Wearnes Air Services (Charles Wearne was also a great aviation enthusiast), would be greatly affected by the war. War not only disrupted Wearnes Air Services operations just as it was about to see returns on the investment and Wearnes’ other businesses operations, war would affect the Wearne brothers in a very personal way. Whilst Charles and Theo made it out of the very last shipping convoy to leave Singapore just a few days before the inglorious Fall of Singapore, two of Charles’ sons would become Prisoners of War. Charles also passed on at the age of 71 in Mandurah, Western Australia, a year before the war ended.

Malayan Motors made its last sale in the showroom in August 1980, after which the company consolidated it operations at its Leng Kee Road branch. The showroom was renovated in 1988 and used by the Singapore Manufacturers’ Association as SMA House and from 2002 to 2020, the building was used by the private school Management Development Institute of Singapore or MDIS.

The former showroom was a witness to war.

Let there be light!






History Misunderstood: Changi Point

5 04 2021

Set in scenic surroundings in Singapore’s rustic north-eastern corner, the area we refer to as Changi Point, is one in which I have found great joy in. It is an area of much beauty with much of its natural geographical features intact and wears a charm that is little changed from the time I first interacted with it more than half a century ago. Over the years, I have also discovered that the area is one with quite a history; a history that is even recorded in maps of a 17th century battle off Changi. Also as fascinating is Changi Point and its more recent past, one that goes back to the early decades of Singapore as a British East India Company trading port.

Changi today – with a view towards Pulau Ubin

Remote and inhospitable and with its surroundings dominated by mangrove and terrestrial forests in British Singapore’s earliest years, Changi Point’s charm must have already been in evidence then; so much so that several adventurous souls amongst the gentry recognised its potential as a spot for a retreat.  Among the first to see this was Mr Gottlieb, who put up Fairy Point bungalow on what could be thought of as the prime of prime locations on the seaward side of an elevation he christened Fairy Point Hill.

Fairy Point – the site of Mr Gottlieb’s Bungalow

In addition to Mr Gottlieb’s place of escape, the government had also had a bungalow built. Besides serving as a stay-over location for officers sent to the remote area for surveys, its use was extended for leisure purposes.  By the mid-1840s, Changi Bungalow – as it had come to be known, had gained the reputation of being a “fashionable resort for picnic parties”. Constructed of wood, the bungalow had to be rebuilt several times over the years with its last iteration being demolished in 1965. The expansive grounds of the bungalow is an area that until today, has been in the hands of Singapore’s successive governments and amongst the structures now found on it is the 1950 built Changi Cottage, as well as several other holiday facilities.

Changi Cottage

One holiday home from Changi’s past that is still standing is a bungalow that belonged to Mr Ezekiel S Manasseh, who is often confused with Sir Manasseh Meyer. A founder of Goodwood Park Hotel, Mr E S Manasseh is better known for his mansion in Tanglin, Eden Hall, which is the British High Commissioner’s residence today. Mr Manasseh also maintained a holiday home in Changi Point. Located on the left bank of Changi Creek, he often extended its use to newlyweds for their honeymoon early in the 1900s. The bungalow stands today as the CSC Clubhouse.

Muslim graves at the foot of Batu Puteh Hill – a reminder perhaps of Kampong Batu Puteh.

Around this time (the early 1900s), a Japanese owned hotel also made an appearance along the beach just east of Fairy Point in the area of a Malay kampung named Kampong Batu Puteh.  The wooden hotel, which was perched on stilts that extended across the foreshore, was rumoured to have offered more than a getaway and was rumoured to have been a place of ill repute. Whatever the hotel may have offered, time would soon be called on it with events on the world’s stage setting a new course for Changi Point.

While the Great War of 1914 to 1918 did not affect Singapore directly, its impact was and would be felt in many ways, not least through the fluctuations in the price of rubber through the war. There was also that episode of the insurrection that began at Alexandra Barracks during Chinese New Year in 1915 that was founded partly on a rumour being spread among the Sepoy Muslim mutineers  that they were being sent to Mesopotamia to fight fellow Muslims. Among Britain’s allies who responded to calls for help were some 190 Japanese resident volunteers, and another force of 142 from two Japanese naval ships.

Memorial to the victims of the 1915 Mutiny at Victoria Concert Hall

The Imperial Japanese Navy had been on the rise for a number of decades. Having acquired knowhow to build its own naval hardware as well as in naval tactics from Britain and France, by the time the war started, the Japanese navy was in a good position to support its allies in the Entente. Japan actions in the naval arena would also however lay its ambitions bare, especially in regard to German held territory in China. The sense of discomfort in Britain grew in the post-war period with Japan having the third largest navy in the world after the United States and Britain. By 1921, a decision had been taken by Britain to protect its Far East interests through the construction of a huge naval base in Singapore.

HMS Bulwark off the northwall of the Naval Base in the 1960s – the northwall is where the far end of the shipyard is today (source: http://www.acig.org/artman/publish/article_203.shtml).

A consequence of building the naval base in Singapore, and having it sited in Seletar – as the Sembawang area was also known as, was in the placement of coastal artillery around Changi to defend the base against naval attack. Changi, located at the eastern entrance to the Tebrau or Johor Strait, was hence, strategically sited at the entrance to the naval base. With the need to install, man, maintain and protect the guns, Changi was also developed as a military cantonment.

An extract from a 1935 map showing positions or intended positions of Defence Electric Lights at the eastern entrance to the Straits of Johor (including those at Pengerang) and their coverage (National Archives of Singapore online).

The first section of the cantonment was built at Changi Point. Work progressed in in a stop-start manner, first from 1927 to 1930 and again from 1933 to 1935, due to the evolving political situation in Britain.  Being the first barracks on site and located in a prime location, this section became the home of Royal Engineers’ units as Kitchener Barracks. There would also be barracks constructed for the Royal Artillery at Roberts Barracks and for infantry units at Selarang Barracks. In addition to these, a few other camps were also established for the rank and file among the British Indian Army troops protecting the area.

Selarang Barracks Officers’ Mess

The huge investment in the base and in facilities at Changi and elsewhere across the island did little in terms of doing what it was meant to do and on 15 February 1942, the “impregnable fortress” that Singapore had been touted as, fell into the hands of Japanese forces – a mere two months after Japan launched its invasion of Malaya. Except for the feint assault on Pulau Ubin on the eve of the Imperial Japanese Army’s 8 February 1942 invasion of Singapore, and the firing of Changi’s huge coastal guns against advancing Japanese troops, Changi would see little in terms of military action in the lead up to this inglorious fall. Contrary to popular belief, the guns were used with at least one of the monster guns of the Johore Battery firing about eighty rounds before its rifling started to protrude. Although the guns were fired, they did little to stop the advance. The armour piercing rounds that they were supplied with in anticipation of a naval assault, were ineffective against ground forces. On 12 February 1942, with Japanese forces made rapid progress coming down the down and west, the order was given to units defending Changi to pull back to Singapore’s urban centre. The cantonment and its lightly damaged buildings were left empty, and Changi’s guns destroyed. It would be some days later, on 17 February 1942, that Changi would come into the spotlight.

The spiked No 2 Gun, one of three 15″ guns of the Johore Battery.

The Fall of Singapore left the Japanese invasion forces with quite a big headache. With tens of thousands of surrendering British and Australian led personnel from units that made the retreat down Malaya and troops defending Singapore, they were overwhelmed. There was the need to accommodate, secure and maintain the discipline among the Prisoners of War (POWs) and a solution provided by Changi and its abandoned cantonment. On 17 February 1942, some 50,000 prisoners-of-war or POWs, were made to march to Changi to occupy its various barracks and camps.

Barrack Hill in Kitchener Barracks – part of the POW camp for Southern Area forces from Feb 1942 to May 1943.

The former Kitchener Barracks was used to accommodate members of the Southern Area forces with some 15,000  Australian POWs occupying Selarang.  The POW hospital was also to be centralised in Roberts Barracks on 26 February 1942, one of two sites – the other being Selarang – at which hospitals were established prior to the Fall of Singapore and immediately after the POWs were moved to Changi.  It would be in the chapel at Roberts Hospital that the famous Changi Murals would be painted. The murals still exist today. Found in Block 151 in Changi Air Base West, they are quite unfortunately out of bounds to members of the public. In the early part of camp life, there had apparently been minimal contact with their captors, with prisoners being tasked with wiring themselves into the various barrack areas as well as taking care of their own discipline.

Block 151. Now in Changi Air Base West, this was one of the Roberts Barracks blocks that served as the POW Hospital from February 1942 until September 1943.

Life as a POW in Changi, and in Kitchener Barracks was tough for many reasons and not least through the lack of food and nutrition as well as the diseases that the POWs were exposed to due to conditions in captivity. Still, many found the strength to go on through the activities that were organised. Sports became a means to provide distractions to the routine of life as a POW – at least in the first year of captivity. Among the ranks were several professional sportsmen, including Johnny Sherwood, a footballer who played in the war time FA Cup final.  The sports fields and facilities that the barracks in Changi had been provided with proved useful with cricket and football matches being played on them. Theatrical performances were also organised and college level courses. In Kitchener, classes of the Southern Area College were taught by academics, some of whom were from Raffles College. Several were members of volunteer units which had been placed under the Fortress Singapore command.

The Changi Padang – it was used for sporting activities during the first year of POW captivity.

In the many comparisons that were made by POWs at Changi, there is a consistent theme of how life may have been hard, but was in fact “heaven” compared to what many were to face elsewhere. Throughout the initial period of captivity starting in April 1942, work teams were organised and sent to various of Singapore to work on building and construction projects. Teams would also be sent to the Thai-Burma Railway, which the Japanese were constructing to provide a supply line to support their push into Burma and towards the Indian subcontinent. Often described as the “Death Railway” it was where the POWs really suffered, being put to hard labour. Besides an extreme lack of nutrition, POWs also suffered from deliberating diseases, with many succumbing to them.  

River Kwai, Kanchanaburi in Thailand in Dec 1984, the area was where many POWs were sent from Singapore to work on the Death Railway .

Kitchener Barracks, being where the bulk of the troops defending Singapore were being held – as opposed to troops that had made the retreat down Malaya – had the healthiest POWs and hence, was where many of the members of the first working teams were drawn from. By May 1943, POW numbers had dwindled to the point that Kitchener Barracks was closed as a POW camp and in September 1943, Roberts was similarly closed, with the POWs and the POW Hospital being concentrated at Selarang Barracks. Both Kitchener and Roberts Barracks were taken over by Imperial Japanese Army units who were involved in the construction of an airstrip at Changi. This started with POW labour in September 1943 and by the end of 1944, the airstrip was operational.

While all this was happening, returning POWs from the Death Railway were placed at Selarang Camp and also at Sime Road Camp. A change in POW administration would however see the POWs concentrated in Changi Prison and its grounds from May 1944. Civilian internees, who were being held at Changi Prison from February 1942 to May 1944 were moved to Sime Road to make way for the POWs.

The main Changi Prison gate – one of the structures of the prison that has been kept. The prison was a site of civilian internment from Feb 1942 until May 1944, following which POWs were moved in.

One of the myths that have been spread about Changi and the POW experience is that of the hospital in Kitchener Barracks being a place of torture by the Kempeitai. There is however no basis for this myth. Not only was there no functioning hospital in Kitchener Barracks during the period of captivity, there are certainly not reports or accounts that exist. Instances of torture by the Kempeitai did however take place in the wake of Operation Jaywick, which involved a commando raid on Japanese shipping in Singapore harbour. During what has been termed as the “Double-Tenth Incident”, civilian internees at Changi Prison were suspected of aiding the commandos through radio transmissions. Several were interrogated and executed in exercise that would involve the arrest and subsequent torture of Elizabeth Choy at the YMCA in Orchard Road.

Changi would find a new purpose after the war. The Royal Air Force (RAF) found the airstrip that the Japanese had added particularly useful in landing transport aircraft bringing in much needed supplies. This would lead to the strengthening and subsequent use of the runway for the RAF’s heavy aircraft and the setting up of RAF Changi, an air station that would become the RAF’s principal air station in the Far East. The former Kitchener Barracks, would become the headquarters of the Far East Air Force (FEAF) command, with Barrack Hill, renamed FEAF Hill. The roads in the area, were also renamed after RAF air stations.

A view from FEAF Hill

To support the new air station, more accommodation was also added across the area, starting with several single floor bungalows. A number of semi-detached accommodation would also be added. Many of these buildings can still be found. In addition to this, a hospital was set up for the RAF on FEAF Hill. This initially involved the former sick quarters on top of the hill (renamed Block 37) and the former H-Block – a three-storey barrack block of Kitchener Barracks which was turned into a ward block 24. Separated by a flight of 91 steps, transfer pf patients between the two blocks required an ambulance. The construction of a third block – the six storey Block 161 (with four usable floors) – with lifts and walkways to connect the two older blocks in 1962, helped ease that burden.    

Blocks 161 and 24 of the former Changi Hospital.

Following the pull-out of British Forces in 1971, the former barracks were put to use in several ways with the barrack blocks along Hendon Road accommodating Singapore’s Commando Unit and several of the accommodation units being turned into holiday facilities for civil servants. Sports and recreation clubs, such as the Changi Swimming Club, the Beach Club and the Sailing Club were also established using existing facilities left by the RAF. One outcome of the development of the air base, is the idea of developing Changi also for civil aviation. There were in fact plans announced in 1948 to develop a world class airport in Changi . That did not quite happen, but the idead came up once more in the 1970s leading to the development of Changi Airport.

One of the post WW2 semi-detached additions, seen in September 1987. These served as married quarters during the RAF days and were converted for use as government holiday chalets in the 1970s.

Today, much of the area of the former Kitchener Barracks and the RAF camp is still intact. Many of the sites and structures completed from 1928 to 1935, including barrack blocks and residences are still standing. Some, such as have gain prominence having been used by Raintr33 Hotel and Changi Hospital. There are also some still in use, such as BNP Paribas APAC Training Centre, Coastal Settlement, and the recreational spaces such as the former Officers’ Club – now the Beach Club and the Yacht Club – now Changi Sailing Club. There are also the oldest structures – the officers’ residences at Batu Puteh Hill and Fairy Point Hill, including one, that sits on the site of Mr Gottlieb’s demolished bungalow. The collection of barrack structures of the former Kitchener Barracks, are perhaps the last, almost complete set of structures from the interwar militarisation of Singapore that is still around, structures which tell a story of Changi’s development, of war, and of how through a series of twists and turns, it became a key aviation staging ground for the RAF and then for Singapore.





Aviation Milestones: first regular intercontinental flights out of Singapore

7 09 2020

The first regular flights from/to Singapore to/from Europe operated out of RAF Seletar. The RAF air station, which was completed in 1930, played host to the first regular air services connecting Singapore with the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) from 1930. Connections with Europe would take a few more years and in May 1933, the Royal Dutch airlines, KLM – the world’s oldest airline in May 1933 introduced regular services from Singapore to Europe. Using a Fokker F.XVIII, the outbound journey took seven days and inbound eight days – with multiple stops.

Flying then was not for everyone of course. It would have cost an arm and a leg and maybe a little more with a single ticket from Singapore to London priced in excess of £164. That would be the equivalent of £11,815 or more than SGD 21,000 in 2020!

Air Travel between Southeast Asia and Europe in the 1930s.