The Tanglin Barracks was built by George Chancellor Collyer in 1861 for European troops.1 The barracks served the British garrison infantry battalion until the fall of Singapore in 1942. After the war, it was home to the General Headquarters of the Far East Land Forces until the withdrawal of British troops in 1971.2 From 1972 to 1989, the site became the headquarters of the Ministry of Defence and the Central Manpower Base.3 In 2001, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) moved into the main building of the barracks. The area has since been redeveloped into Tanglin Village – a commercial cluster that focuses on lifestyle, education services and the arts.4
In the 1840s and ’50s, the land on which Tanglin Barracks sits used to be a nutmeg plantation owned by William E. Willan, a clerk in the Land Office.5 Chinese businessman Hoo Ah Kay (also known as Whampoa) also owned land there. Tanglin was thriving with nutmeg cultivation before a disease outbreak wiped out the plantations in 1857.6
The government purchased approximately 800 ha of land in Tanglin for 25,000 Spanish dollars in 1860 to build the barracks. Part of the land purchased belonged to Whampoa.7 Prior to this, the earliest troops in Singapore were stationed at Fort Canning as well as the areas around the waterfront and city-centre. These barracks’ close proximity to the commercial district was a cause of concern for the merchants, as they felt that the godowns would be in danger during a military attack. Hence, the government contemplated moving the troops to outlying areas such as Tanglin.8
The case for erecting new barracks was further strengthened by the increased presence of rival European powers; fears of a ripple effect from the Crimean War of 1854 and the Indian Mutiny of 1857; unease over the power of Chinese secret societies; and the increased pirate activity in nearby seas.9 These events highlighted the defence vulnerabilities of Singapore, and renewed appeals were made to the India Office to strengthen the fortifications of the city.10 After the Indian Mutiny, the government felt that it was necessary to house the European troops separately from the native troops.11
Architecture and use
Work on the new barracks began in 1860 under the supervision of then Chief Engineer of the Straits Settlements, George Chancellor Collyer, and was completed in 1862.12 The original barracks consisted of 10 commodious attap-roof and timber buildings that could each accommodate 50 men. It also had service and recreational facilities like wash-and-cook houses, hospital wards, a school, a reading room, a library, officers’ quarters, a fives court and two skittle alleys.13
Built for the tropical climate, the barracks were “large, airy structures with wooden floor boards raised on piles some four feet above the level of the surrounding ground”. The outer walls of the building stretched out to an open verandah, and the many windows and doorways allowed for maximum ventilation.14
However, the barracks remained unoccupied until the late 1860s because of the delay in troop deployment. Except for two fairs held on the barracks grounds, the Horticultural Fête in 1864 and Fancy Fairs in 1866,15 the property stayed unused and fell into disrepair.16
In 1867, the Straits Settlements came under the direct rule of the Colonial Office in London, and the disagreements over defence matters were settled.17 Tanglin’s first troops, however, found the place in a dismal state. C. H. Malan, the officer in charge of the regimental wing quartered at Tanglin, documented the challenges the officers faced, such as wild animals and dense vegetation around the barracks, in his book, A Soldier’s Experience of God’s Love and his Faithfulness to his Word.18
The first full battalion to move into Tanglin Barracks was the 80th Foot Staffordshire Volunteers, who arrived in Singapore on 17 March 1872.19 Before the arrival of the troops, the barracks underwent a renovation, including re-roofing and the addition of a hospital.20 Over time, a cricket ground, gymnasium, and gardens were also constructed under Malan’s direction. These facilities provided recreation for the soldiers and were meant to help deter boredom and drunkenness.21
Incremental improvements followed: Thatched roofs were replaced with more durable tiles and a new garrison church was built in 1911 by W. H. Stanbury of the Royal Engineers. The garrison church is known today as St George’s Church. Between 1934 and 1936, the barracks underwent another round of extensive renovations. The airy verandahs made way for more interior space. The square support columns and the French-tiled roofs were, however, preserved.22
There are no records to show when the original officers’ mess was constructed, but old photographs suggest that it was built out of timber and thatched roof and had numerous shuttered windows. Efforts to fortify Singapore after World War I included the rebuilding of the mess as a sturdy, modern concrete neo-classical building with Shanghai plaster finish. However, the plaster was barely dry when Singapore began preparing for the Japanese Occupation.23
Adaptive use of the Tanglin Barracks and Tanglin Camp
Many of the roads around Tanglin Barracks hint at the Singapore’s colonial history in the area. These include Napier, Minden, Camp and Sherwood roads.24 The barracks served the British garrison infantry battalion until the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942. After the war, it became home to the General Headquarters of the Far East Land Forces until the withdrawal of British troops in 1971. The Ministry of Defence and the Central Manpower Base were subsequently headquartered at the site from 1972 to 1989.25
In the early 1990s, the MFA took possession of a portion of the Tanglin Barracks site with the former officers’ mess as its centrepiece. The original architectural character of the building was restored, and the ministry moved into the building in 2001. Named the Old Tanglin Officers Mess, the building was gazetted for conservation on 1 December 2003.26
As more up-market and niche restaurants began to move into the former Tanglin Barracks, the Singapore Land Authority decided to tap on the area’s growing appeal as a “bohemian enclave”, and developed the site as Tanglin Village in 2006. Organised into three clusters named after the main arterial roads – Dempsey, Minden and Loewen – the businesses there focus on lifestyle, education and art interests,27 with retail as well as food and beverage outlets setting up shop there. Other than the continued positioning of Tanglin Village as a unique lifestyle enclave,28 education remains another distinctive feature with the addition of a special-needs school, the Melbourne Specialist International School, within its premises in 2015.29
1915 Indian Mutiny
On 15 February 1915, 13 soldiers from the British and Johore Military Forces, and the Singapore Volunteer Corps as well as one German prisoner-of-war were killed when mutineers from the 5th Native Infantry of the Bengal Army based in Alexandra Barracks broke into the Peirce Road perimeter of Tanglin Barracks during the Indian Mutiny in Singapore.30 However, the Veteran Company of the Singapore Volunteer Corps quickly regained control of the barracks.31
Joshua Chia Yeong Jia
1. Ray K. Tyers and Siow Jin Hua, Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & Now (Singapore: Landmark books, 1993), 114 (Call no. RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS]); Gretchen Liu, In Granite and Chunam: The National Monuments of Singapore (Singapore: Landmark Books; Preservation of Monuments Board, 1996), 185. (Call no.: RSING 725.94095957 LIU)
2. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 177.
3. Dhoraisingam S. Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage: Through Places of Historical Interest (Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, 1991), 309 (Call no. RSING 959.57 SAM-[HIS]); Gretchen Liu, Ministry of Foreign Affairs HQ and the Old Tanglin Officers Mess (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2008), 3. (Call no. RSING 725.12095957 LIU)
4. Cara Van Miriah, “Full House at Dempsey,” Straits Times, 29 November 2009, 48. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 177; Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage, 308; Liu, Granite and Chunam, 185.
6. Low Wye Mun, “A History of Tanglin Barracks: The Early Years,” Pointer, 25, no. 4. (1999): 81. (Call no. RSING 355.005 P); Miriah, “Full House at Dempsey.”
7. Liu, Ministry of Foreign Affairs HQ and the Old Tanglin Officers Mess, 8; Malcolm H, et al., Between Two Oceans: A Military History of Singapore from 1275 to 1971 (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2011), 81 (Call no. RSING 355.0095957 BET); Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 372. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
8. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 177.
9. Liu, Ministry of Foreign Affairs HQ and the Old Tanglin Officers Mess, 5.
10. Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage, 308.
11. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 177; Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage, 309.
12. “Retrospect for 1861,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 7 February 1862, 1. (From NewspaperSG); Liu, Granite and Chunam, 185.
13. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 177; Liu, Granite and Chunam, 185; Liu, Ministry of Foreign Affairs HQ and the Old Tanglin Officers Mess, 8; John B. Hattendorf, The Two Beginnings: A History of St. George’s Church, Tanglin (Singapore: The Church, 1984), 11. (Call no. RCLOS 283.5957 HAT)
14. Low, “History of Tanglin Barracks,” 83.
15. Liu, Ministry of Foreign Affairs HQ and the Old Tanglin Officers Mess, 8.
16. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 177; Hattendorf, Two Beginnings, 11; Low, “History of Tanglin Barracks,” 84.
17. Hattendorf, Two Beginnings, 12; Liu, Ministry of Foreign Affairs HQ and the Old Tanglin Officers Mess, 8.
18. C. H. Malan, A Soldier’s Experience of God’s Love and of His Faithfulness to His Word: Being a Few Notes from Military Service, with Thoughts (London: J. Nisbet, 1875), 9 (Call no. RRARE 231.042 MAL; microfilm NL30537); Liu, Ministry of Foreign Affairs HQ and the Old Tanglin Officers Mess, 8.
19. Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage, 309; Liu, Granite and Chunam, 185; Liu, Ministry of Foreign Affairs HQ and the Old Tanglin Officers Mess, 10.
20. Low, “History of Tanglin Barracks,” 84.
21. Low, “History of Tanglin Barracks,” 85; Liu, Ministry of Foreign Affairs HQ and the Old Tanglin Officers Mess, 10; Hattendorf, Two Beginnings, 17.
22. Low, “History of Tanglin Barracks,” 86–87.
23. Liu, Ministry of Foreign Affairs HQ and the Old Tanglin Officers Mess, 11, 13.
24. Liu, Ministry of Foreign Affairs HQ and the Old Tanglin Officers Mess, 3.
25. Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage, 309; Liu, Ministry of Foreign Affairs HQ and the Old Tanglin Officers Mess, 3, 17.
26. Liu, Ministry of Foreign Affairs HQ and the Old Tanglin Officers Mess, 21–22; “Former Tanglin Officers Mess (URA Building),” Urban Redevelopment Authority, 26 July 2016; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “MFA’s Move to Tanglin,” statement release, 3 May 2001.
27. Leong Wee Keat, “Tanglin’s Eclectic Dream,” Today, 8 November 2006, 4. (From NewspaperSG); Singapore Land Authority, “Tanglin Village – a Distinctive Community of Lifestyle, Education and Art Interests,” press release, 7 November 2006.
28. Singapore Land Authority, “Retail and F&B Tender for Blocks 17 and 18 Dempsey Road,” press release, accessed 16 January 2017.
29. Amelia Teng, “New School Teaches Kids through Art, Music, Dance: School Takes in Special-Needs Children Aged Three to 18,” Straits Times, 6 February 2015, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Liu, Ministry of Foreign Affairs HQ and the Old Tanglin Officers Mess, 12; Murfett, Between Two Oceans, 163.
31. Murfett, Between Two Oceans, 165.
“Tanglin Camp Being Redeveloped,” Straits Times, 3 January 1998, 36. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article is valid as of 2015 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.