The History Behind Istana Woodneuk

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Surrounded by thick vegetation and a troubling past, the now abandoned Istana Woodneuk have now become a hotspot for local explorers.

The origins of Istana Woodneuk can be traced back to the  Tyersall Park Estate (also known as Tyersall Estate) and Tyserall House (located within the estate) in the mid 1850s.

The 24.4-hectare large estate was once owned by William Napier, the first lawyer of Singapore and a legal advisor to Sultan Abu Bakar, 

Tyersall House & Istana Tyersall

In 1857, Tyersall Park along with Tyersall House was sold to Sultan Abu Bakar ibni Daing Ibrahim (Sultan Abu Bakar). Sultan Abu Bakar, the first Sultan of Modern Johor, was credited as “The Father of Modern Johor” for his contributions towards Johor’s development in the 19th century.

Newly appointed as the Temenggong of Johor, the land was bought to maintain the Sultan’s presence in Singapore.

colored photo of Istana Tyersall house
Tyersall House | Image credits: Wikipedia

The first public telephone line in Singapore was installed between Tyersall House and Istana Woodneuk.

news clipping stating Istana Tyersall first public line with Istana woodneuk
News article by The Straits Times in May 1883 | Image credits: National Archives of Singapore

In 1890, Tyersall House was demolished and rebuilt on a larger scale to better suit the need of the Sultan family. This was however, contradicted by other sources that suggested that the mansion was teared down due to a fire.

Designed by architect Dato Yahaya Awaluddin and built by Wong Ah Fook — a Chinese entrepreneur who helped built many of Johor’s prominent buildings — the new mansion was built on the exact spot where the Tyersall House once stood.

Sultana Fatimah, the first wife of Sultan Abu Bakar, was the in-charge of the construction of the Istana. However, she failed to see the completion of the mansion as she passed away in 1891.

The new mansion was named Istana Tyersall.

Facade of Istana Tyersall palace in 1930
Istana Tyersall in the 1930s | Image credits: National Archives of Singapore

Decked with marble halls, oriental draperies, silk furnishings and even gold plated cutleries, Istana Tyersall was then the most luxurious mansion in Singapore.

News clipping of Istana Tyersall grand opening in 1892
News article by The Straits Times in December 1892 | Image credits: National Archives of Singapore

A grand opening was held in 1892 to celebrate the completion of the mansion. The opening was attended by many prominent officials and businessman including the 13th Governor of the Straits Settlements Sir Cecil Clementi Smith.

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In 1905, Istana Tyersall suffered another major fire due to faulty electrical wiring. The fire reportedly occurred in the upper floors and burnt through to the ground floor.

An estimated 500 soldiers were called from the nearby barracks to recover the valuables and isolate the fire from the rest of the house. The damage was estimated at between $75,000.

Conspiracists have suggested that the fire was perpetrated by the British to minimize the Sultan’s influence on the island; electrical supply was still running during the fire, which should not have happened if the power was tripped.

Contrary to popular belief that the mansion was demolished, Istana Tyersall remained standing and was maintained by caretakers. The palace was later used for large-scale events such as horse polo and automobile race meet. A Tyersall Country Club was also set up to oversee the various activities held in the Tyersall Park estate.

photo of gathering at Istana Tyersall house
Gathering at Istana Tyersall | Image credits: Wikipedia

A second fire occurred in 1932 but was rapidly put out by two fire engines from the Singapore fire bridgade.

In 1935, Istana Tyersall was reportedly demolished under the orders of Sultan Ibrahim.

Istana Woodneuk

Located not far from Istana Tyersall is the Istana Woodneuk; the two mansions are often confused due to their similarity in architecture. The former is cladded with brick red roof tiles while the latter sports a blue-tiled roof.

The exact history of Istana Woodneuk is unknown, although old records have suggested that it was built by Captain John Dill Ross, a trader in the region.

Istana Woodneuk served as a temporary residence for Sultan Abu Bakar’s third wife Sultana Fatimah bte Abdullah till the grand opening of Istana Tyersall in 1892.

“And I give and bequeath to my wife, Sultana Khadijah… the ground, house, furniture, and garden situated in the district of Tanglin in Singapore called “Woodneuk” … which is near by the Istana Tyersall” – Sultan Abu Bakar’s will in 1985

Istana Woodneuk was gifted to the Sultan’s fourth wife Sultana Khadijah after his death in 1895. Sultana Khadijah then sold the house to Sultan’s Abu Bakar’s son Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar before her passing in 1904.

Istana Woodneuk was demolished in after a huge fire (date unknown) and rebuilt by Nanyang Structural Co. Constructions began in 1932 and was completed in 1935. The new mansion was renamed as Istana Wooden York but remain known by its more popular name Istana Woodneuk.

facade of blue-tiled roof at istana woodneuk
Istana Woodneuk | Image credits: State of Buildings

Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar and his Scottish wife Sultanah Helen took up permanent residence in the estate after the completion of the new Istana Woodneuk.

front porch of istana woodneuk
Istana Woodneuk | Image credits: National Archives of Singapore

In the late 1930s, the land where the demolished Istana Tyersall once stood was used as a military camp and hospital for the Indian Army. Istana Woodneuk was also converted into a headquarter for the British Army in preparation for World War II. An estimated 700 lives were lost in the Tysersall Park estate during the 1942 Battle of Singapore when Japanese bombers bombed the area. 

After the liberation of Singapore, the mansion was occupied by several other officials including Governor General Malcolm MacDonald before its eventual return to the Sultan of Johor in 1948.

Abandoned Istana Woodneuk

Unoccupied since the 1950s, the palace was maintained by a caretaker hired by the Johor State Council before being abandoned in 1986 after his demise.

On two separate acquisitions in 1990 and 2009, the Government of Singapore purchased plots of the Tyersall Park estate as part of Botanic Gardens’ expansion plans. Istana Woodneuk however, was not part of the purchase and remained a property of the Johor Royalty. The remaining land—estimated to be one-fifth the size of Singapore Botanic Gardens—was valued in 2007 at S$4.7 billion.

facade of abandoned istana woodneuk
Istana Woodneuk | Image credits: Supernatural Confessions Facebook Page

In 2006, another major fire broke out in the palace and destroyed the iconic blue roof as well as much of the upper structure. The mansion was deemed to be beyond repair. However, much of the mansion’s first floor remains intact and its splendour can still be seen.

graffiti of walls in abandoned Istana woodneuk
Graffiti in Istana Woodneuk | Image credits: @dadawilde Instagram

Today, the abandoned mansion have become a popular hot spot for local explorers, drug addicts and worshippers.

second floor of abandoned Istana woodneuk
Second floor in Istana Woodneuk | Image credits: @esaiaspoh Instagram
devilish graffiti in abandoned Istana Woodneuk
Istana Woodneuk | Image credits: @jovebeh Instagram

Istana Woodneuk entered the limelight in 2018 when author Kevin Kwan revealed that the mansion was the inspiration behind the novel and movie Crazy Rich Asians. 

The land is currently owned by the State of Johor an is designated as ‘Special Use’ and ‘Open Space’ under URA Master plan 2019, meaning that it cannot be sold or developed for commercial purposes. With that, the future of Istana Woodneuk remains uncertain as there are no clear directions of whether the land will be purchased by the Singapore government or purchased as we have seen in the acquisition of the rail corridor.

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