Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Woodneuk House - a palace in ruins

Forgotten to many is an abandoned house, a palace or Istana of sorts to the Sultan of Johore. The house is known as simply Woodneuk house. There was another house or palace that resided in the grounds previously. It was called Tyersall house or Istana Tyersall and people often confused Tyersall house vs Woodneuk house because of its proximity. Hopefully my article below helps clear this confusion and also help share what i have learned (or in my case, still learning) about the heritage value of this building and it's rich historical past. 

Tyersall House ( Istana Tyersall)
Originally a country house, it was owned by Mr. William Napier and built in 1854. Sitting on 67 acres of land, it was put up for sale in 1857 and ownership transferred to the Sultan of Johore. It was rebuilt on a larger scale by 1892. Sultan Abu Bakar threw a party or ball, marking its reopening on January 15, 1895. The roof of the new house was said to have a distinct red tiled roof. The map below provides concrete evidence that they were different buildings based on maps that date as far back as 1907 by Rev. G.M. Reith.
Handbook to Singapore c. 1907
indicating location of both houses
1895 marked also the death of Sultan Abu Bakar, and Sultan Ibrahim who succeeded as Sultan of Johore preferred Woodneuk house when he came to Singapore. The Tyersall house suffered a major fire in September 10, 1905 which damage the central portion including its ballroom. The cause given was faulty wiring and damages was estimated to be $40,000-$50,000. It suffered another fire in 1932 and from what i gathered, the building cease to exist by 1947.
Tyersall  photo circa 1929 
Tyersall House (picture taken from the lake)
(source: National Archives ) 
Tyersall House and first motor meet in June 1907
Woodneuk House (Istana Woodneuk)
In an article dated 1865, there was already mentioned of a Woodneuk house in the vicinity of Botanic Gardens for rent. A similar article putting out the place for rent appeared in 1883. In 1892, there was an auction of its furniture and furnishings of a person named D. Brandt in August 1892. When did the Sultan of Johore took ownership of Woodneuk?

Woodneuk : Past and Present
The new Woodneuk House was completed in 1935 in time for the celebration of the Sultan of Johor's 62nd birthday and his 40 years of reign. Sultan Ibrahim or H.R.H. Paduka Sri Sultan Al-Haj Sir Ibrahim al-Mashur ibni al-Marhum Sultan Sir Abu Bakar (born 17th September 1873 and ruled from 4th June 1895 - 8th May 1959) ruled during this period. It was said this house was built for Sultan Ibrahim and his English wife Helen Bartholomew. They married in 1930, and she was crowned Sultanah Helen Ibrahim in 1931.
Sultan Ibrahim and Sultanah Helen Ibrahim
Woodneuk was a beautiful place and was described one built with bricks and stones. The building is colored dark cream and grey with a roof of lovely blue shimmering Devonshire tiles. The doors are made to fold back fully and at the blue lounge where the 2 staircase are located, the main coloring is a soft shade of pastel blue. The panels you see behind the column in between the staircase are beautiful screens made of light wood with panels of old chinese carvings. This panels were originally from Tyersall. The parquet flooring has persian rugs with the central rug being of beautiful soft blue with brocade and china themes. The article goes on to describe even the second floor. What i have done below is to illustrate what it looked like in the past and its current state. 
Past and Present (Staircase)
Past and Present (Dinning area)
Past and Present (upstairs lounge) 

Past and Present (bedroom) 
An advertisement for a House keeper
Pre and Post War
In 1940, the Sultan of Johore allowed for part of the Tyersall Park to be used by the Indian Troops HQ to be stationed and converted as a military camp area with many vehicles in a mechanisation effort of the Indian Army. The field hospital was also built here. It was the Australian Field HQ of Gen. Bennett during WW2 during the Japanese invasion, as well as the Indian Regiments Field Hospital.

After Singapore was liberated, it was occupied by Sir Miles Dempsey, followed by Commander-in-Chief Sir Montagu Stopford and in January 16, 1947, Governor-General Mr. Malcolm MacDonald occupied the place. In 1948, Woodneuk was returned to the Sultan of Johore for his official use.

There was an article on the Johore Government allocating $14,500 in 1954 to re-roof Istana Besar, Johore Bahru and the Istana Woodneuk, Singapore. After Sultan Ibrahim passed away in 1959, Woodneuk seem to have finally lost its lustre with hardly any articles mentioning invites, visitation or even for its maintenance, was mentioned. At some point, Woodneuk was unoccupied and a fire in 2006 caused further damage to the place. A heritage building, it is now in a sad state waiting for a slim hope that it can be saved before total collapse.
Woodneuk before the fire that cause it's beautiful blue roof
to collapse. circa 2006 (credit: Positive Image Photography)
Woodneuk in 2014 (the roofing gone as a result of a fire in 2006) 
Woodneuk in 2014 (the roofing gone as a result of a fire in 2006)
Beautiful dual staircase

The land where Woodneuk sits on, according to the land query is still a private land. This land i assume still belongs to the Johore Royalty.  A portion of the original land was however acquired in 2004 by the state and part of this land is now is part of NParks future Botanic Gardens expansion.
Private land (source:one map) 
Part of Tyserall land acquired by State and part of NParks
[research still on-going] 

Advertisement. (1865, September 18). The Straits Times
Advertisement. (1883, May 29). The Straits Times
Advertisement. (1892, August 27). The Straits Times
Heart of the lion city. (1930, December 20). The Strais Times
The Home beautiful built for Sultan of Johore. (1935, September 12). The Straits Times
Singapore's Indian soldiers live in Sultan's Park. (1940, May 2). The Straits Times
Advertisement. (1941, March 13). The Straits Times
First motor meeting. (1947. April 19). The Straits Times.
New roofs. (1951, December 20). The Singapore Free Press
The story of Tyersall house. [website]. API
Reith, George Murray. Handbook to Singapore with Map, Second edition 1907. [website] access via Southeast Asia Visions
Woodneuk pictures  [website] Positive Image Photography, Synapseman


Jimmy Wong said...

Very interesting. It is more than a palace.

Bridget Smart said...

was hoping to visit but have seen conflicting info on whether its possible/legal to do so? would you no anything about access to the grounds?

Rojak Librarian said...

Thanks Jimmy for the kind words

Rojak Librarian said...

Dear Bridget, i don't think i would want to comment on the legality of access. Hence you notice, no mention on how to get there.

Bridget Smart said...


Ching Lea Yee said...

hi . can i check what time of the day did u go to istana woodneuk? cause i want some good natural sun lighting haha

Rojak Librarian said...

Hi Ching Lea Yea. Started of in the morning. All the best !

Paddy Chee said...

You still remember me .
It was WONG AH FOOK the famous carpentar who built this Woodneuk House ( Istana Woodneuk )

WONG AH FOOK is my great great grandfather .
Not sure if you know about him, you can google him .

I will email you .

Paddy Chee

Rojak Librarian said...

Of course i remember you Paddy ! I must thank you for sharing the old pics. Thanks for the insight on Woodneuk.