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 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 that was partly motivated by a Marine Police Patrol Boat contract,  the next decade would see Vosper Singapore fall on hard times. This saw to 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, it was 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).


 





A sun rise on another strange horizon

23 03 2013

Another strange horizon where the sun has risen on is one to the west of the city, and one which includes the island of Sentosa, once a military garrison named Pulau Blakang Mati and now a playground on which one of Singapore’s two integrated resorts has been built. It is across from the western end of the island – close to the area where the western rock of the “Dragon’s Teeth Gate” or “Batu Berlayer” at Tanjong Berlayer which together with another rocky outcrop, marked the ancient entrance to the harbour, that we now see the rising of the sun against silhouettes which are of another strange and unfamiliar world.

Another strange horizon that the sun rises on is at the historic Keppel Harbour.

Another strange horizon that the sun rises on is at the historic Keppel Harbour. 6.51 am 22 March 2013.

Dominating the view across the horizon, are the six distinctive towers of the recently completed residential development “Reflections at Keppel Bay”, seemingly bowing to welcome the new day. That is the last of the developments to be completed on a 32 hectare site that was originally what may have been seen as a dirty and grimy shiprepair yard, Keppel Shipyard. The yard, besides being Singapore’s most established repair yard, boasted of having the oldest graving (dry) docks in Singapore, inheriting the docks from Port of Singapore Authority when its shiprepair operations were privatised in 1968.

Keppel Shipyard post 1983. Pulau Keppel in the foreground was developed after the land on which Victoria and Albert Docks to the east were taken over for an expansion of the Tanjong Pagar Container Terminal.

Keppel Shipyard post 1983. Pulau Keppel in the foreground was developed after the land on which Victoria and Albert Docks to the east were taken over for an expansion of the Tanjong Pagar Container Terminal (photo on the Keppel Offshore and Marine website).

At the point that the yard vacated the area , which was in 1996 to move to Tuas allowing the land on which it stood to be redeveloped, four graving docks remained. This included Singapore’s very first graving dock, Dock No. 1. This was built by a British mariner, Captain William Cloughton, on land purchased in 1855 from the Temenggong of Singapore at what had been called  Pantai Chermin or “Mirror Beach”. Completed in 1859, it was Cloughton’s second attempt at constructing a dock there. The dock came under the Patent Slip and Dock Company when that was formed in 1861. A second dock company, the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company, added a second dock close by at Tanjong Pagar in 1868, Victoria Dock. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 also saw demand for ship repair increase. Patent build their second dock, Dock No. 2 in 1870. Tanjong Pagar followed with Albert Dock in 1879. Both Albert and Victoria Docks were filled in at the end of 1983, when the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) took them over to allow an expansion of the container terminal at Tanjong Pagar.

Map of Singapore Harbour in the 1950s showing the Detached Mole, Inner Roads and Outer Roads.

Map of Singapore Harbour in the 1950s. The location of the Victoria and Albert Docks as well as Docks No. 1, No. 2 and King’s Dock can be seen in relation to the coastline.

The two rival dock companies were to merge in 1881. Patent, which had been renamed New Harbour Dock Company, came under the control of Tanjong Pagar. This private entity was expropriated by the colonial authorities in 1905, passing control of the docks to the Tanjong Pagar Dock Board. The Singapore Harbour Board took over the operations of the shipping related activities along the waterfront in 1913, launching King’s Dock, in the same year. At 272 metres in length, it was reportedly the largest graving dock east of Suez and the second largest graving dock in the world at the time of its build. A last graving dock was to be added in 1956 – the Queen’s Dock. The PSA took over from the Harbour Board in 1963, before control of the shiprepair docks were transferred to Keppel Shipyard in 1968.

Kings Dock at the time of its completion in 1913.

Kings Dock at the time of its completion in 1913.

The development of Reflections at Keppel Bay, on the plot of land west of Queen’s Dock, was preceded by other developments in the area vacated by Keppel Shipyard. On Keppel Island (or Pulau Keppel), a marina, the Marina at Keppel Bay was completed in 2008. The island is linked to the mainland by Keppel Bay Bridge, completed in 2007.  Pulau Keppel, which was previously known as Pulau Hantu (one of two Pulau Hantu or “Ghost Islands” in our southern islands group), was itself a more recent development. An extension to the shipyard was built on it in 1983 when Victoria and Albert Docks were transferred to the PSA for redevelopment. It was renamed Pulau Keppel at the same time. Another development in the area is another residential one, the Carribbean at Keppel Bay. This was completed in 2004 and occupies the area around the oldest docks, No. 1 and No. 2. The four rather historic docks, have been retained in some form, and are now water channels within the developments.

Singapore Harbour Board Map, c. 1920s.

Singapore Harbour Board Map, c. 1920s.

For the area, the year 1983 is one that will probably be remembered less for the development of the former Pulau Hantu or the loss of the historically significant Victoria and Albert Docks, but for the tragic events of the evening of the 29th of January.  On the evening of the fateful day, a drillship, the Eniwetok, leaving Keppel Shipyard, drifted into the Sentosa cable car system. Its drilling derrick became entangled in a cable causing two cabins to fall into the sea killing seven people. Another four were left dangling precariously with some 13 terrified passengers trapped inside. A daring but successful rescue attempt directed by our present Prime Minister, then Colonel Lee Hsien Loong, was mounted involving the use of two helicopters operating in high winds from which rescue personnel were winched down to the cabins to pull the 13 to safety, one-by-one.

It is no longer cranes, workshops, keel blocks and large ships around the dock that we see today (a photograph of a graving dock at the former Keppel Shipyard posted on the Captain’s Voyage Forum).

Waking up to a Keppel Harbour today in which there is little to remind us of the world that once was. With the docks now disguised to blend into the new world that has been built around them, we will soon forget what they were and the contribution they made to the development of the port on which much of Singapore’s early success was built. The four docks (as well as the two to the east) were also very much the stepping stones over which the shiprepair industry, an important source of jobs in the post independent economy of Singapore, was built. It is a fate that will probably befall the place where another leading pioneer shiprepair company, Sembawang Shipyard, now operates at. That yard, together with its historic docks built to support the huge British Naval Base, was the subject of a recent Land Use Plan released to support the much talked about Population White Paper. It is mentioned in the plan that “new waterfront land along the Sembawang Coastline being freed up once existing shipyard facilities are phased out” to provide land for new business activities and it may not be far away before we would have yet another strange horizon for the sun to rise up to.