The History Behind Istana Woodneuk

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The History Behind Istana Woodneuk

Surrounded by thick vegetation and a troubling past, the now abandoned Istana Woodneuk continues to plague the mansion till this day

The origins of Istana Woodneuk can be traced back to Tyersall Park (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 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 served to maintain the Sultan’s presence in Singapore.

Tyersall House | Image credits: Wikipedia

In 1890, Tyersall House was demolished and rebuilt on a larger scale to better suit the need of the Sultan family; records have suggested that the mansion was teared down due to a fire.

Designed by Dato Yahya and built by Wong Ah Fook — a Chinese entrepreneur who had built many of Johor’s prominent buildings — the new mansion was built on the exact spot where the Tyersall House once stood. Named Istana Tyersall, it was reportedly the first residential house in Singapore to be powered with electricity.

Sultana Fatimah, the first wife of Sultan Abu Bakar, was in-charge of the construction of the Istana. However, she passed away in 1891, a year before the completion of the mansion.

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

Decked with marbel halls, oriental draperies, silk furnishings and even gold plated cutleries, Istana Tyersall was the most luxurious mansion in Singapore at that time.

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

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 to isolate the fire from the rest of the house. The damage was estimated at between $75,000.

However, conspiracist have suggested that it 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 well maintained by caretakers. The palace was also used for large-scale events such as Horse Polo and Automobile race meet.

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.

It was reported that the palace was ordered to be demolished in the mid 1950s.

The Government of Singapore acquired the Istana Tyersall in 1990 with a compensation of $25 million and demolished the building.

Istana Woodneuk & Istana Wooden York

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

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 completion 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 1925 after a huge fire and rebuilt by Nanyang Structural Co. The new mansion was renamed as Istana Wooden York but remain known by its original, more popular name.

Istana Woodneuk | Image credits: State of Buildings
Istana Woodneuk | Image credits: National Archives of Singapore

Istana Woodneuk was rebuilt in 1935 after another fire (the third recorded fire in Tyersall Estate) in the early 1920s. Sultan Ibrahim and his Scottish wife Sultanah Helen took up permanent residence in the estate after the completion of the new Istana Woodneuk.

In the early 1940s, the estate briefly served as a military camp and hospital for the Indian Army while Istana Woodneuk was converted into a headquarter for the British Army. An estimated 700 lives were lost in Tysersall Park 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.

Today

Unoccupied since the 1950s, the palace was maintained by a caretaker hired by the Johor State Council before being abandoned in 2004 after his demise.

In two separate acquisitions in 1990 and 2009, the Government of Singapore purchased plots of the Tyersall Estate as part of the Botanic Gardens’ expansion plans. Istana Woodneuk however, was not part of the purchase and remained as 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.

Istana Woodneuk | Image credits: Supernatural Confessions Facebook Page

In 2006, a 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 splendors can be seen.

Today, the abandoned mansion has become a popular hot spot for local explorers, photographers and even drug addicts.

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 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 government or exchanged as seen in the railway. 

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