Singapore Polo Club

The Singapore Polo Club was formed in 1899, following earlier unsuccessful attempts to start such a club in Singapore.1 Play began at the Singapore Sporting Club but moved to Balestier in 1914 when the Polo Club set up its own premises there.2 It moved to its current location at Thomson in the 1940s.3 Many improvements have been made to the club over the years, and these have helped to attract more members.4

Formation of the club
The start of the Singapore Polo Club can be traced to a notice in The Straits Times that a meeting to establish a polo club was scheduled to be held at the Exchange Rooms on 9 February 1886.5 Men interested in polo were encouraged to attend. At the meeting, it was decided that from 1 October 1886, both playing and non-playing members would be required to pay a monthly subscription fee of 50 cents. Playing members had to pay an entrance fee of $8, and a lifetime membership would be conferred to non-playing members at the cost of $12. Polo was played twice weekly, on Tuesdays and Saturdays at 4.30pm.6 Headed by secretary pro tem E. W. Birch (later Sir Ernest Birch), a group of civilians and several officers from a regiment from Kent that manned the Singapore garrison then decided it was time for polo to be established in Singapore.7 They collected the funds required to establish a club and level the ground for the game.8 A set of rules for the game was agreed upon during a meeting in March 1886.9

However, besides these early efforts, there appeared to be no further development in the establishment of polo in Singapore.10 While another attempt to revive polo on the island was reported in the press in 1890, it was met with even less success than the initial attempt.11 This was unsurprising as polo was not regarded as a game for the masses as it required a select combination of skills such as good horsemanship, ball sense, courage and team spirit as well as a fast, intelligent and responsive pony.12

Nonetheless, it was apparent that polo was not to die out in the colony.13 It was revived once again in 1899 with the unexpected support of the King’s Own Regiment from Hong Kong when they were transferred to Singapore in January 1899.14 Some sources cite the formation of the Singapore Polo Club as 1899 (instead of 1886),15 likely referring to the day the newly revived club played its first game on 16 February 1899.16 The game was played at the racecourse of the Singapore Sporting Club, which had earlier agreed to allow polo to be played on its race grounds at what is now Farrer Park, much to the chagrin of the golfers who shared the premises.17

Royal patronage
The game had its share of royal patronage in the early years of polo’s existence in the colony. For example, polo in Singapore received a boost when Sultan Ibrahim of Johor announced in March 1899 that he intended to learn to play.18 He also put at the disposal of the Singapore Polo Club the beautiful grounds of his palace at Tyersall (opposite today’s Singapore Botanic Gardens) for polo games.19 Another royal patron was Prince Henry of Prussia, who had played polo at the club over several days in January 1900.20 He also presented the club with a cup as a prize to be played for.21 On 25 April 1901, the Duke of York visited the club.22 His visit sparked much excitement, especially during the actual gymkhana (or equestrian game).23 In 1922, HRH the Prince of Wales (the future Duke of Windsor), a polo enthusiast, played a five-chukka game during his visit to Singapore.24 The Singapore Polo Club was also graced by a visit from HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh in 1965 when he played a winning match for the club against the combined Royal Pahang and Royal Johore team.25 After the game, Prince Philip was presented with a silver horseshoe memento and an honorary life membership of the club.26 Another member of the British Royal family, HRH Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, also played a game of polo during his unofficial visit to Singapore on 5 January 1974 and similarly received an honorary life membership from the club.27

A new permanent home
This royal support and the affluence of the Europeans in Singapore at the time meant that most of them could afford horse-drawn vehicles and were able to engage in regular entertainment and sporting activities. Thus, the game flourished as did the Singapore Polo Club.28 By 1904, the club had 24 players, each with two ponies.29 As membership at the club grew, the committee made efforts to obtain one additional day of play per week (making it three in total) on the racecourse and establish more facilities.30 But the Singapore Golf Club refused to give up one of its playing days, claiming it had 46 players on the course every day.31 By the end of 1912, the Golf Club had managed to convince the Singapore Sporting Club to disallow polo on its premises.32 The Polo Club thus had to find permanent grounds of its own, though play moved for a short period to a property owned by the Sultan of Johor in the Orchard area.33

On 12 March 1914, the Singapore Polo Club moved to its first permanent home at Balestier Road, bounded on one side by McNair Road.34 Play began that month.35 Its official opening was held a month later on 13 April 1914, when a grand opening gymkhana was held.36

However, the strength of the club varied, as its membership waxed and waned with the arrival and departure of regiments.37 Although there were a number of civilian players, the majority of the members were regimental players and hence liable to be transferred, which made it difficult to build up a permanent core of players.38 Club operations were also disrupted by the two World Wars (1914−1918 and 1939−1945).39

After World War II
After World War II, the club decided to move from Balestier to its second (and current) permanent home at Thomson Road. After the Japanese Occupation ended, the state of the polo field, which had been completed at a cost of $50,000 in 1941, was in a horrible swampy condition, occupied by Chinese squatters and their market gardens, and overrun by ditches and drains, with a 50-foot diameter pond located right in the centre of the field. A great deal of laborious manual work, stretching over several months, was required to restore the field to its pre-war condition. This involved levelling the ground, filing up holes, a doming process that took eight months to complete, and rolling and cutting the ground using bullock carts to re-establish the grass and turf. The old grandstand at Balestier Road polo field was dismantled and reassembled to recreate the clubhouse at Thomson Road.40 Play began at its new home in 1947 with inter-club tournaments held the following year.41

Many improvements were made to the grounds in the 1950s, such as the rebuilding and addition of new stables, the construction of eight houses that served as syces’ quarters and the creation of a new riding school. In 1955, a new clubhouse was opened. It was a sizeable building, equipped with changing rooms and showers, a covered verandah to watch matches, a bar, and space for social events. These projects were funded largely with the aid of generous donations from the Singapore Turf Club. 42 The Pony Section (a riding school for children) was created in 1959, and in 1962 an Adult Riding School was added. The Singapore Polo Club also held riding lessons for the disabled.43 This helped open the club’s doors to the general public.44

In the 1960s, the club turned down an offer to merge with the Bukit Timah Saddle Club, as the former wanted to focus more on polo and less on horse riding.45 To increase its membership and remain viable after the pull out of the British armed forces in 1971, the club increased local membership in the 1960s by reducing membership fees. At the end of 1967, special subsidised Singapore Armed Forces memberships were offered to officers of the Singapore Armed Forces and the police force.46 The club also elected its first local president.47

With the increase in memberships, the Singapore Polo Club underwent a major refurbishment and expansion in the 1980s to add offices, a billiard room, squash and tennis courts, and a swimming pool to its facilities.48 With these improvements, membership has grown further.49

Today, while polo remains the club’s main focus, it has further expanded its range programmes, facilities and services. These include riding programmes, outreach programmes to serve the community at large, sports activities and facilities (such as livery facilities), venue rental for corporate events and meetings, a poolside bistro and a restaurant that serves Pan-Asian cuisine.50

Jeanne Louise Conceicao

1. Wendy Hutton, The Singapore Polo Club: An Informal History 1886–1982 (Singapore: Girdwood Enterprises, 1983), 33−35. (Call no. RSING 796.3530605957 HUT)
2. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 47.
3. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 79.
4. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 122–23, 126.
5. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 9.
6. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 9; “Singapore Polo Club,” Straits Times Weekly Issue, 16 September 1886, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 10; Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, eds., One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 2 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 335. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
8. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 10.
9. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 10.
10. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 10, 13; Makepeace, Brooks and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 335.
11. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 13.
12. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 13.
13. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 17.
14. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 29−30.
15. A. Pereira, “It’s Us against Them: Sports in Singapore,” in Past Times: A Social History of Singapore, ed., Chan Kwok Bun and Tong Chee Kiong (Singapore: Times Editions, 2003), 150. (Call no. RSING 959.57 PAS-[HIS])
16. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 35.
17. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 29, 107; Alex Josey, Golf in Singapore (Singapore: Asia Pacific Press, 1969), 27 (Call no. RSING 796.352 JOS); Lulin Reutens, The Eagle & the Lion: A History of the Singapore Island Country Club (Singapore: Singapore Island Country Club, 1993), 22. (Call no. RSING 367.95957 REU)
18. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 37.
19. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 37, 40.
20. “Prince Henry,” Straits Times, 8 January 1900, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 39; Makepeace, Brooks and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 336.
21. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 39; Makepeace, Brooks and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 336.
22. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 41.
23. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 41.
24. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 52.
25. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 109.
26. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 109.
27. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 117.
28. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 41.
29. Makepeace, Brooks and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 335.
30. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 42; Makepeace, Brooks and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 335.
31. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 42; Makepeace, Brooks and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 335.
32. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 46−47; Reutens, Eagle & the Lion, 23.
33. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 47.
34. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 47.
35. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 47.
36. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 47, 49.
37. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 41.
38. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 41.
39. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 51, 69.
40. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 68−75.
41. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 79.
42. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 79−83.
43. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 89, 101, 107, 121.
44. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 89.
45. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 107.
46. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 113.
47. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 113.
48. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 122−23, 126.
49. Hutton, Singapore Polo Club, 122−23, 126.
50. Singapore Polo Club,” Singapore Polo Club, accessed 15 April 2021.

Further resources
Polo for Singapore,” Straits Times, 31 January 1899, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

Robert Powell, Innovative Architecture of Singapore (Singapore: Select Books, 1989), 56–59. (Call no. RSING 722.4095957 POW)

The information in this article is valid as at April 2021 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.

Sports and games