When the region’s naval ships were being built at Tanjong Rhu

11 01 2020

Tanjong Rhu – the cape of casuarina trees and once known as “Sandy Point“, has had a long association with the boatbuilding and repair trade. Captain William Flint, Raffles’ brother-in-law as Singapore’s first Master Attendant, established a marine yard there as far back as 1822, for the “convenience of the building and repair of boats and vessels”.  That association would come to an end when the last shipyards relocated in the early 1990s, not so long after one of the larger establishments Vosper Pte. Ltd. Singapore, went into voluntary liquidation in 1986.

High and dry. A Point class U.S. Coast Guard WPB (left) used in Vietnam by the U.S. Navy, being repaired at Vosper Thornycroft. A Royal Malaysian Navy Keris class patrol boat is seen on the right (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

With links to Vosper Thornycroft (VT) – an established name in naval shipbuilding, Vosper Singapore was a major player in the domestic and regional naval market. It also had a long association with Tanjong Rhu that began with John I. Thornycroft and Company setting up its Singapore shipyard there late in 1926. Among Thornycroft’s successes were the construction of motor launches in 1937 for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, a series that included the very first Panglima, a name that would acquire great meaning with the naval forces of a sovereign Singapore some three decades later.

A 1927 ad for Thornycroft Shipyards at Tanjong Rhu.

Thornycroft morphed into Vosper Thornycroft (VT) in 1967, following a merger the previous year of Vosper Limited with Thornycroft’s parent company in Britain. VT would also merge with neighbouring United Engineers here, another long-time shipbuilder based at Tanjong Rhu the same year. The expanded VT would find great success, especially in the regional naval market, obtaining contracts from the Ceylonese Navy, the Bangladeshi Government, and the Royal Brunei Navy – for which it built three Waspada class Fast Attack Craft.

A view towards a bakau laden Bugis pinisi on the Geylang River from Vosper Thornycroft (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

Locally, VT also supplied and serviced the Royal Malaysian Navy, as well as the fledging Singapore navy. A contract for six ‘A’ and ‘B’ Class 110 foot Patrol Boats with Singapore’s then Maritime Command in 1968 involved the lead vessel being constructed in the parent company’s yard in Portsmouth. This arrangement set the tone for how large naval procurement would be conducted here, although VT would play little part in the subsequent naval construction for what became the Republic of Singapore Navy in the years that would follow.

The launch of the ‘A’ Class 110′ Patrol Craft at VT for the Maritime Command in 1969. Interestingly, the main deck of these steel hulled vessels were constructed from aluminium alloy (photo source: National Archives of Singapore).

The yard’s was also involved in commercial ship construction and repair, and naval repair and upgrading work. The U.S. Navy, which was involved in the conflict in Vietnam, sent several small patrol boats to the yard during this time. One of these boats was brought over from Danang by a Kim Hocker late in the fall of 1969. An officer with the U.S. Coast Guard, Kim was seconded to the US Navy. An extended stay in Singapore permitted Kim to put his camera to good use and his captures included bits of Raffles Place, the Meyer Road and Katong Park area close to where he was putting up, and also ones of the shipyard that are used in this post. One thing that is glaringly clear in Kim’s photographs of the yard is the absence of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as hard hats, safety shoes and safety belts – a requirement in the shipyards of today.

Kim Hocker with the author.

No hard hats or safety shoes! (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

VT Singapore became Vosper Pte. Ltd. Singapore in 1977 following the nationalisation of its parent company. Despite contracts from Oman and Kuwait, and an investment in a Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP) production facility partly motivated by a Marine Police Patrol Boat contract,  the next decade would see Vosper Singapore fall on hard times that would herald its eventual demise as a yard here in 1986.  The closure of the yard came a a time when plans for the redevelopment of the Tanjong Rhu for residential use were being set in motion. The shipyard site was purchased by Lum Chang Holdings the following year for the purpose, and was in turn resold to the Straits Steamship Company (now Keppel Land). Together with DBS Land, the site, an adjoining site as well as land that was reclaimed, were redeveloped into the Pebble Bay condominium complex in the 1990s.

A view towards what would become the Golden Mile area from Vosper. The naval vessel seen here looks like one of the Keris class Royal Malaysian Navy Patrol Boat (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

At the time of Vosper’s demise, there were also several shipyards that were still in operation, including privately held ones such as Kwong Soon Engineering and another long time Tanjong Rhu shipyard, Singapore Slipway. Located at the end of the cape since the end of the 1800s, was had by that time owned by Keppel and would come to be part of (Keppel) Singmarine. The last yards moved out in the early 1990s allowing Tanjong Rhu’s redevelopment into what was touted a waterfront residential district, which incidentally, was where the first million dollar condominium units were sold.

More on Tanjong Rhu and its past can be found at “The curious ridge of sand which runs from Katong to Kallang Bay“.


More photographs taken at Vosper Thornycroft from the Kim Hocker Collection:

Painting the old fashioned way (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

 

One more … (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

 

The security guard or jaga … wearing a Vosper uniform (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

 

It was common to see pushcart stalls outside the gates of shipyards and factories in those days (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

 

A store? (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

 

Shipyard workers – again no hard hats (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).

 

Welders at work (Kim Hocker Collection, 1969).


 





The curious ridge of sand which runs from Katong to Kallang Bay

25 11 2012

Taking a walk by the waterfront by the Singapore Indoor Stadium these days, it would be hard to imagine a time not so long ago when looking across to Tanjong Rhu, a very different scene would have greeted one’s eyes. Where million dollar condominium units housed in cream coloured blocks now dominate the view across, the scene a quarter of a century ago would have been one of wooden boats, wooden jetties, slipways and drab looking structures running along a body of water the surface of which would have been littered not just by rubbish that had found its way into the three rivers that flowed into the basin, but also by carcasses of dead animals that floated down from the many farms that has once been located upstream.

Tanjong Rhu (left), seen across the Kallang Basin today.

Tanjong Rhu translates from Malay into the Cape of Casuarina (Trees). Once described as a “curious ridge of sand which runs across from Katong to Kallang Bay”, its tip, known as “Sandy Point” has had a long association with the boat building and repair trade, having been an area designated for the trade by Sir Stamford Raffles as far back as 1822, with Captain Flint being the first to set a company to do that in the same year. By the 1850s, the trade was already well established around Sandy Point and the trade continued to thrive in the area even after the first graving dock was constructed in New Harbour (Keppel Harbour) in 1859. Over the years, among the business that found their way to Sandy Point were the well established names such as British boatbuilder John I. Thornycroft which set up in 1926 and United Engineers – which had a longer history. Thornycroft became Vosper Thornycroft in 1967 following the 1966 merger of the parent company with Vosper Limited in the UK. Vosper Thornycroft’s Singapore operations in turn merged with United Engineer’s in 1967. The yard unfortunately got into financial difficulties due to the mid 1980s recession and went into voluntary liquidation in early 1986.

The end of Tanjong Rhu was home to several shipyards including Vosper Thornycroft (seen here), the parent company of which is an established builder of Naval craft in the UK and Singapore Slipway (which became Keppel Singmarine), established as far back as 1887.

A slipway of a boatyard on the Geylang River

A well established organisation involved in shipbuilding still around that can trace its history to Sandy Point is the newbulding arm of Keppel Corporation, Keppel Singmarine. The subsidiary of what is now Keppel Offshore and Marine is a merger of Singmarine and Singapore Slipway. It was Singapore Slipway that had been established at Sandy Point in 1887 when a group of merchants bought William Heard and partner Campbell Heard and Co’s slipway which was set up earlier in the decade and formed the Slipway and Engineering Company. Keppel Singmarine’s yard operated at Tanjong Rhu until the early 1990s.

A boat littered Kallang Basin in 1973 at the time of the completion of the National Stadium (Singapore Sports Council Photo). Land reclamation along the Nicoll Highway promenade can be clearly seen.

Besides the shipyards, another area of Tanjong Rhu a short distance away from its tip that wasn’t very pretty was at the area known as Kampong Arang. That had been an area that was dominated by wooden jetties, used by charcoal traders to offload charcoal from tongkangs (wooden lighters) coming in from Indonesia and Thailand. The charcoal trade was established in the area in 1954 when charcoal traders were uprooted from the waterfront along the reclaimed land south of Beach Road to allow for the construction of Merdeka Bridge and the Nicoll Highway. The once thriving charcoal trade operated at Tanjong Rhu up until January 1987 when the trade was already in decline. At its height in the late 1950s, as many as 300 tongkangs plied between the two countries and Tanjong Rhu, falling to 60 by the time the 1970s had arrived when demand fell as many households had by then already switched to using gas and electric stoves. The traders were relocated to Lorong Halus (only 15 of the 40 that operated at Tanjong Rhu continued at Lorong Halus with demand mainly from the reexport of charcoal than from the local market) in early 1987 at the tail end of the decade long Kallang Basin cleanup efforts.

Another view of Kallang Basin and Tanjong Rhu today.

Beyond the cleanup efforts, the face of Tanjong Rhu has also been altered by the land reclamation south of the cape which has increased its land mass. The land reclamation, started in the early 1970s, was originally intended to allow for the construction of the East Coast Parkway and was further expanded to give the area now referred to as Marina East – at the tip of which the Marina Barrage now closes the channel between it and Marina South which has turned Marina Bay and the Kallang Basin into a huge reserve of a much needed resource, fresh water. The shifting out of the trades from the area were complete by the time the mid 1990s had arrived and allowed much of the northern waterfront area of Tanjong Rhu to be developed into a residential area and the basin into a recreational area that it is today.

[see also: Where slipways once lined the muddy banks of the Geylang River: Jalan Benaan Kapal]