The Jacksons of Sembawang

30 07 2019

Sembawang is one of just a few places in Singapore in which still holds the charm of a bygone era. The modern world, dominated by the sea of concrete is however, knocking increasing at its door; its latest convert being the the wonderful settings that lent context to (old) Admiralty House. The National Monument, built as the home of Commander of the huge British naval base in 1940, has seen the isolation it was provided with taken away in the effort to provide residents in the area with a sports and community hub. Similarly threatened with modernisation is the area by the coast just east of Sembawang Park and once an area of idyllic seaside villages where the villages of the new world have started to take root. One project that quite thankfully bucks the trend is the recently announced dementia-care village at Gibraltar Crescent. Currently the subject of a URA tender exercise, the village will make use of existing structures inherited from the days of the naval base and (hopefully) preserve some of the environment that the structures now find themselves in – at least for a 30-year period following the award of the tender.

A window into the past.

A quiet area of seemingly typical colonial residences,  a closer examination of the buildings of Gibraltar Crescent will reveal that they are actually quite unique even if they bear quite a fair bit of resemblance to and have many of the features of the residences that have come to be described as “black and white houses”. With the exception of a building that served as the former Dockyard Theatre or the “Japanese Theatre”, the longer than typical structures are raised on concrete columns of a height sufficient to permit a person to walk comfortably underneath the floorboards. Wood is also the main material on the buildings and masonry seems to have been used quite sparingly and used, besides in the supporting columns, in wet areas and in the ground level service structures. Quite interesting because of the wood featured in the buildings’ exterior walls, the structures tended to look more black than white in the days of the naval base as black bituminous paints that weatherproofed the wood.

A view towards the former Dockyard Theatre – a uniquely built structure along Gibraltar Crescent. It is the only large building along the street that is not raised on columns.

There are quite good reasons for the features adopted in the buildings, which were among the first to be erected by the contractor for the naval base, Sir John Jackson & Co, for the purposes of housing its European staff. Known as The “Jacksons” for this reason, they were completed in mid-1929. Features found in other “black and whites”, such as the raised supports, generous verandahs and openings, pitched roofs and wooden floorboards, kept the interiors cool, airy and bright. Although now among the oldest “permanent” residences in the former naval base, as well as being the first to have been purpose built, the buildings were intended as quasi-permanent residences and hence the extensive use of wood.

The Jacksons are raised on concrete supports and feature wooden walls except in the service areas and wet spaces.

Two “Jacksons” under construction in April 1929 (online at National Archives of Singapore).

It is also interesting to note how the various residences, while similar in appearance, have been laid out in what seems to be two distinct arrangements. One type seems to have had more of a layout with more common spaces and was perhaps used to house the lower ranking staff. This design has a centrally arranged service area and besides the access staircases at the back has two arranged at each end in the buildings’ front. The other design seems to have been subdivided into individual units, each with a service area and with what appears to have been an access staircase at both the front and the back.

A unit with a layout that lends itself to a more dorm-like use.

A Jackson which would have been subdivided into three individual units – each with its own service area.

Reports relating to the construction of the base, point to it being one of the largest engineering projects in the world at the time. The contractor employed a daily average of 3,000 coolies and had at least 30 European staff at any one point supervising through the 8 year period (from 1928 to 1936) over which the main contract was executed. The reports point to some 23 residences were built for European staff, along with numerous coolie lines. The residences were eventually handed over the the Admiralty and several among the 23 survived including the structures that are now the subject of the tender survived the war.

The front of one of the Jacksons with projections that would have served as staircase landings.

An exception may have been the Dockyard Theatre, the site of which, based on older maps seems to have been occupied by another of the “Jacksons”. Thought to have been constructed during the occupation – hence the references to it as the “Japanese Theatre” – the multi-use hall is built on a ground-level platform of concrete and is also built primarily of wood. The theatre was used as a to hold live performances including pantomimes and performances by the Naval Base Singers, as well as serving as a hall in which badminton was played in the period after the war until the British pull-out in 1971.

One of two access staircases at the rear in the first type of residence.

The verandah of the second type with privacy screens at what would have been the boundaries of the individual units.

Inside one of the residences.

Inside one of the residences.

Inside one of the residences. 


News related to the tender for the dementia care village:


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets is back

18 05 2018

Information on the series can be found at this link.

Do note that there are no further tours to Old Changi Hospital planned.

The idea behind these tours is to permit members of the public to gain access to the otherwise restricted sites to allow history and also alter misconceptions many may have about the sites such as Old Changi Hospital.

Contrary to popular belief, the site – originally part of the Royal Engineers’ Kitchener Barracks – only became a hospital after the war in 1947. That was after the RAF established an air station at Changi, building on an air strip laid during the Japanese Occupation.

Kitchener Barracks was part of the larger POW camp complex in Changi in the early part of the Occupation until early 1943. During that period, a POW hospital was set up in Roberts Barracks – in what is now Changi Air Base (West) – where the Changi Murals were painted.

Kitchener Barracks was vacated when a significant proportion of POWs were moved out of Singapore to work on projects such as the Siam-Burma “Death” Railway and was subsequently used by Japanese personnel involved in supervising the construction of the airstrip.

There are no accounts of torture and in fact accounts of POWs held at Kitchener Barracks tell us that the POWs had minimal contact with the Japanese troops during their time there. Dispatches sent by General Percival to the War Office in London prior to the Fall of Singapore also confirms the fact that there was the hospital at Changi did not then exist.


 

First of 2018 visits will be to the former Naval Base housing area in Sembawang

Details of Visit:

Date : 2 June 2018

Time : 10 am to 11.45 am

Registration: https://goo.gl/forms/bcdJ8nlccdtBiqSo1 (Limited to 30 persons)
[Registration has closed as all places have been taken up. An email with instructions will be sent to all who have successfully registered through the above link.]

Participants must be 18 and above.

Do note that a unique registration is required for each participant. Walk-ins on the day will not be permitted. There is also a list of terms and conditions attached to the visit as well as clauses relating to indemnity and personal data protection you will need to agree to. Please read and understand each of them.

Do also note that some walking will be required for this visit.


A second series of “Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets” guided State Property visits is being organised this year with the very kind permission and support of the Singapore Land Authority (SLA). The visits will take place once a month starting from June and will possibly run until December 2018. The series will present an opportunity for registered participants to visit several State properties as well as discover each of the sites’ histories. The series this year will also see the participation of the Urban Sketchers Singapore (USKSG), who will be invited to sketch the properties involved (sign-ups managed separately by the USKSG).

The “Japanese Theatre”, thought to have been built during the Japanese Occupation.

The first guided visit of the series will be held on 2 June 2018. This will take participants into the heart of the former Sembawang Naval Base’s residential complex, set in an area where the base’s first housing units came up. The properties that will be visited each represent a different period of the base’s history: pre-war, the Occupation and the last days of the base. The properties involved are a Black and White house at Queen’s Avenue, a community hall cum theatre thought to have been built during the Occupation at Gibraltar Crescent and a rather uniquely designed block of flats – one of two that came up in the early 1960s at Cyprus Road.

The staircase of a tropical modern apartment block built in the 1960s.

The construction of the Naval Base, which stretched along Singapore’s northern coastline from the Causeway to what is today Sembawang Park, was a massive undertaking. Construction began in the late 1920s and included the relocation of villages, clearing of land – much of which was acquired by the Straits Settlements Government from Bukit Sembawang and donated to the Admiralty. It was only in the late 1930s that the base was completed. Built in response to the post World War I Japanese naval build up, the base was sized such that the entire British naval fleet could be accommodated. The base also boasted of the largest graving dock east of the Suez – the King George VI (KG6) dock.

A pre-war housing unit.

To accommodate the large numbers of British personnel that were needed, first to construct and then later to operate the base (the latter with their families), large numbers of residential units were built. Amenities, such as recreational facilities and schools, were also constructed. Many of these can still be found – spread across large areas of the former base given to housing. These properties and the settings they are still found in, provide an idea of the considerations that were taken by the military facility planners to provide a maximum of comfort and ease living conditions in what would then have been a strange and harsh tropical setting.

Found in the housing area – the “Ta Prohm” of Singapore?

With the pullout of the British military forces in 1971, the base ceased operations. Besides the large number of former residences1, parts of the base are still very much in evidence today. These include some of the base’s working areas – such as the former dockyard (which was taken over by Sembawang Shipyard in 1968) and the former Stores Basin (now used as a naval supply depot and as the wharves of Sembawang Port).

The block of flats in Cyprus Road.


1Some 400 former residences including low-rise flats were handed over to Singapore in 1971 when the British pulled their forces out. Many saw use by the ANZUK forces and later the New Zealand ForceSEA.


Previous Discovering Singapore’s Best Kept Secrets visits to the former Naval Base:

More on the Naval Base:






Last post standing

16 07 2012

Standing somewhat forgotten and hidden under the roots of a tree is a marker of what used to be the perimeter of what had once been described as the largest naval base east of the Suez – the Royal Navy base at Sembawang that extended for some six and a half kilometres as the crow flies from Woodlands (close to the Causeway) to Sembawang (where Sembawang Park is today). The marker, a gate post belonging to the former Rotherham Gate, the northernmost gate into the former base, is the last remnant of several entrances into the huge naval facility that had once been the pride of the British Empire and a significant source of employment for residents of Singapore.

Rotherham Gate in the 1960s (source: Derek Tait).

The gate located at the western edge of the Naval Base and one of the main entrances into the base (the others being Sembawang Gate and Canberra Gate to the east and the southeast) was renamed as the Rotherham Gate in 1945 in commemoration of the role of the Commander of the RN Destroyer HMS Rotherham in the acceptance of the surrender of men from the Japanese Imperial Navy at the Naval Base in September 1945. Along with the other gates, the gate was manned by security personnel deployed by the Royal Navy stationed at the guard-houses that had once stood by the entrances, right until the end of October 1971 when British Forces formally withdrew from Singapore. Remnants of some of the gates in the form of gate posts and guard posts had in fact stood for some time after including that of the Rotherham Gate. Based on an account by a former resident of the base, Mr Kamal Abu Serah, the guard-house that had stood inside the gate had actually housed a provision shop after the opening up of the Naval Base in 1971.

The area where the Rotherham Gate once stood. The last post standing is now gripped tightly by a tree which has taken root on the post.

Hidden behind the roots of a tree and parasitic plants which have also taken root on the tree is the last post standing … close examination reveals a rectangular concrete column beneath the tree’s roots.

The gate post today, serves as a marker of the western end of what is the recent redeveloped Woodlands Waterfront , an area that for a long while had been left behind by the pace of redevelopment that has swept through much of the rest of Singapore. The area had after the opening up of the Naval Base, long been a haunt for anglers and was in fact one of the places that I frequented in the 1970s for fishing and to catch crabs. A derelict jetty which was missing most of its deck planks had been one of two jetties that my father sometimes took me to. The jetty, the old Ruthenia Oiling jetty (which my father had referred to as the Naval Base jetty) has since been demolished. It was one of several jetties that jutted out of the coastline in the area, the only one that was accessible to the public in the 1970s and became quite a popular spot for crab fishing before it was demolished. The other jetties were the Customs Jetty, the Shell Jetty (Woodlands Jetty), and the large L-shaped jetty that was used by the Royal Malaysian Navy – the Tentera Laut Diraja Malaysia (TLDM).

Parts of a 1968 map showing the location of the Rotherham Gate, the perimeter fencing and the position of the four jetties in the area (source: Ms Nora Abdul Rahman).

The TLDM had maintained not just a large jetty in the area – Woodlands had in fact hosted the main base of the TLDM, KD Malaya, up until 1979, the base having first been established in 1949 with the setting up of the Malayan Naval Forces (MNF). The TLDM continued to operate KD Malaya as a training facility even after the shift of the main naval base to Lumut up until December 1997 together with the jetty. The jetty has since been incorporated as part of the Woodlands Waterfront redevelopment and is now opened to the public. Both the jetty and the former TLDM barracks, which can be seen along Admiralty Road West, remain as a reminder of the Malaysian navy’s long-standing presence in what was an independent Singapore.

Part of the former TLDM jetty, now opened to the public, seen at dusk.

The view across the straits to Malaysia … Malaysia operated a Naval Base across the straits in Singapore up until 1997.

In between the Shell Jetty and the former TLDM Jetty is where a river, Sungei Cina, spills into the sea. Sungei Cina, for most part, still has its natural banks. The vegetation that one finds along its banks is probably representative of the vegetation which would have been found along much of the swampy shoreline that had existed before extensive reclamation work during part of the ten years it took to construct the base in between 1928 to 1938 – construction which saw substantial parts of the coastal swampland filled with earth – some of which came from excavation work around where the Naval Dockyard was being constructed to the east of the Naval Base. A large part of the land on which the Naval Base had been built was that which had acquired by the Straits Settlements from belonged to the Bukit Sembawang rubber estate and given to the Royal Navy for its use. The huge excavations around the area of the Naval Dockyard was not just to provide a dockyard that since 1968 has been used by Sembawang Shipyard, it also provided the largest naval graving (dry) dock in the world when it was opened in February 1938 – the King George VI dock (known also as ‘KG6’) which is still one of the largest dry docks in South East Asia.

A swamp once extended along the shoreline of what is now the well manicured Woodlands Waterfront – a waterfront that even before its redevelopment has attracted many anglers to the area. The Senoko Power Station and the Shell Jetty can be seen at the far end of the shoreline.

Vegetation along the banks of Sungei Cina is probably representative of the vegetation found along the coastline before the Naval Base was constructed.

Speaking of the graving dock, it has been reported that a ‘keramat tree’ was said to have been responsible for a delay in its completion, as a consequence, the completion of Naval Base. The ‘keramat tree’ had been a lone tree standing (after the rubber trees around it had already been cleared) on a hill which needed to be leveled to allow the graving dock to be constructed. The coolies assigned to cut the tree, which was thought to have stood where the top of the graving dock now is, could not be persuaded to do so, believing the tree to be occupied by evil spirits. An anonymous letter was said to have mysteriously appeared carrying a warning that if a certain sum of money was not paid to allow gifts to be offered to appease the spirits, three heads of the firm involved would die. The warning wasn’t heeded and the tree eventually blown up and an increase in malaria cases followed which was put down to the act. That wasn’t all, as was predicted, three untimely deaths did follow – that of an agent for the contractors, the managing director and a sub-agent.

A photograph of KG6 with the Queen Mary docked in it in August 1940 (source: Australian War Memorial – ‘Copyright expired – public domain’). The construction of the dock had been delayed by the refusal of coolies to remove what was referred to as the ‘keramat tree’.

The tree that has taken root on the last gate post does perhaps serve to remind us of the tree that had had resisted the base’s construction. It does however serve, more importantly, to remind us of more than that, preserving within the tight grasp of it roots a memory of the wider area’s association with a huge and strategic naval facility. The facility was one that, large enough to accommodate half of the British Empire’s fleet, provided jobs to one in ten in Singapore accounting for one-fifth of its GDP at the time and one that should not be forgotten.