by Zaubidah Mohamed
Situated off Lornie Road and completed in the late 1860s, MacRitchie Reservoir was the first water supply system implemented in Singapore. The Impounding Reservoir or Thomson Road Reservoir, as it was originally called, came about through the donation of S$13,000 by philanthropist Tan Kim Seng in 1857. The reservoir was renamed MacRitchie Reservoir in 1922 after James MacRitchie, who was Municipal Engineer of Singapore from 1883 to 1895.
Early proposals for a water supply system
The water supply of Singapore has always been an important concern since its early days as a British settlement. Soon after the British established a trading post in Singapore in 1819, the number of trading vessels and migrants arriving at the island grew rapidly.1 This raised the demand for fresh water supply, and existing water supply that had depended on wells quickly became inadequate.2
As early as 1823, second British Resident John Crawfurd proposed spending S$1,000 to build a reservoir and waterworks to cope with the increasing demand for fresh water but nothing came of it.3 In 1852, John Turnbull Thomson, the government surveyor, proposed water supply plans that included damming the headwaters of the “Singapore Creek” or building reservoirs to capture the water from Pearl’s Hill and Government Hill.4
In 1856, Captain Macpherson, Executive Officer and Superintendent of Convicts and Roads, requested and obtained $500 from the Municipal Committee to build a water tank or reservoir at the foot of Government Hill – one of the recommendations put forward by Thomson.5 This avenue of water supply was intended to be for use in times of drought.6
Tan Kim Seng’s donation
The following year in 1857, Tan Kim Seng, a wealthy Straits Chinese merchant and a Municipal Commissioner, donated S$13,000 towards the improvement of the town’s water supply.7 The Resident Councillor then, H. Somerset Mackenzie, apparently used $8,109.66 of the donation to purchase earthenware pipes for the project, but when they had arrived, the transaction was rejected by the Municipal Commissioners and they were never used.8
In response to Tan’s donation, plans were eventually made and submitted in January 1863 to the seat of government which was then in Calcutta.9 However, it was only after a severe island-wide drought the following year that the proposal to build an impounding reservoir at Thomson Road, and pipe the water to Government Hill was approved and funded by Calcutta.10
The construction of the reservoir was largely completed in 1867.11 However, the project stopped short of bringing the water supply into town as it was necessary to raise the height of the water on Government Hill. Only in 1873 was a further project approved by the Governor to modify the reservoir in order to establish a pumping station, and also the cast-iron piping needed to distribute the water within the town area.12 The pumps and distribution network were not completed until 1877.13 The Thomson Road reservoir seems to have been first referred to as the Impounding Reservoir in 1876, during a Legislative Council session, and both names were in use till it was renamed MacRitchie Reservoir in 1922.14
To commemorate Tan Kim Seng’s generous donation, the Municipality erected a fountain in honour of him in 1881, originally located at Fullerton Square, which was at the end of Battery Road opposite the Singapore Exchange and General Post Office.15 Owing to traffic problems, it was moved to the Esplanade near the Cenotaph in 1929.16 The walk along the Esplanade, where the fountain was moved to was named the Queen Elizabeth Walk in 1953, in honour of the Queen.17
In 1891, James MacRitchie, the Municipal Engineer, was tasked with repairing the water supply and expanding the Impounding Reservoir. Its capacity was enlarged from 150 to 600 million gallons at a cost of $317,000, and officially opened on 29 September 1894.18 However, by 1900, even further expansion was required and plans were made to channel water from the Kallang River, one of the island’s bigger sources of fresh water, into the Impounding Reservoir.19
The next year in 1901, a drought necessitated the pumping of the water from Kallang River over a ridge to the Reservoir.20 To take in this extra water from the Kallang River, the height of the Impounding Reservoir’s wall was raised in 1905.21 In addition, a tunnel from Kallang River to the Reservoir that did away with the need for pumping, was also constructed between 1906 and 1908.22 It was renamed the MacRitchie Reservoir in 1922 by the Municipal Commission, in tribute to James MacRitchie’s work according to a plaque placed at the reservoir.23
The reservoir was the site of another commemoration when the remains of local war hero, Colonel Lim Bo Seng, were brought there in a military ceremony held in 1946, and buried in a grave on a hilltop overlooking the reservoir.24 Today, the grave is part of MacRitchie Reservoir Park.25
MacRitchie Reservoir Park
This park was opened in 1967 and has become a popular spot for joggers and strollers.26 The park’s unique feature, and also notably the Republic’s first band-stand was built over the water, and connected to the shore by a zigzag walkway and a floating fountain.27 Students were allowed to canoe at MacRitchie in 1978, and a boathouse was completed in 1979.28 In 2000, sport fishing was allowed at a designated area on the east end of the reservoir near the Lornie-Thomson Road junction.29 An extensive makeover from 2008 to 2011 under the Public Utilities Board’s Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters (ABC Waters) Programme added a two-storey carpark and toilets with shower facilities.30
Syonan Jinja Shrine
Lying in the forest, surrounding the MacRitchie Reservoir is a cluster of stone ruins – originally, a Japanese Shinto shrine. It was built by the Japanese during the Second World War using prisoners-of-war as labour, and was later destroyed just before the war ended in 1945.31 The shrine, the Syonan Jinja, was marked by the National Heritage Board as a historical site in 2002.32
1. Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A history of Singapore, 1819–1988. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 11–13, 27. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
2. Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddell, R. St. J. (1991). One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. 1). Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 326. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
3. Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddell, R. St. J. (1991). One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. 1). Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 326. (Original work published 1921). (Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
4. Thomson, J. T. (1852). Report on the projected water-works for the supply of Singapore town. Singapore: Singapore Free Press Office, pp. 13–16. Retrieved from BookSG.
5. Municipal committee: 25th January 1856. (1856, February 14). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Report on the administration of the Straits’ Settlements during the year 1856–57. (1998). In R. L Jarman (Ed.), Annual reports of the Straits Settlements 1855–1941 (Vol. 1, 1855–1857). Slough, UK: Archive Editions, p. 89. (Call no.: RSING 959.51 STR-[AR])
7. The supply of water at Singapore. (1859, November 12). The Straits Times, p. 3; Municipal Commissioners: 24th December 1857. (1857, December 31). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. The supply of water at Singapore. (1859, November 12). The Straits Times, p. 3; The water works. (1869, July 17). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Municipal council. (1863, January 24). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Annual report on the Administration of the Straits Settlement, for the year 1863–64. (1998). In R. L Jarman (Ed.), Annual reports of the Straits Settlements 1855–1941 (Vol. 1, 1855-1857). Slough, UK: Archive Editions, p. 485. (Call no.: RSING 959.51 STR-[AR])
10. The Singapore free press: Thursday morning, 11th August 1864. (1864, August 11). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), p. 3; Municipal council. (1865, August 26). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Shorthand report of the Legislative Council. Singapore, 27th June, 1870. (1870, August 6). The Straits Times, pp. 2, 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Legislative council. Singapore, 23rd June, 1873. (1873, July 13). The Straits Times Overland Journal, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG;
13. Smith, C. J. (1998). Report on Singapore for the year 1877. In R. L Jarman (Ed.), Annual reports of the Straits Settlements 1855–1941 (Vol. 2, 1868–1883). Slough, UK: Archive Editions, p. 324. (Call no.: RSING 959.51 STR-[AR])
14. Legislative council. (1876, November 18). The Straits Times and Singapore Journal of Commerce, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. [Untitled]. (1881, October 22). The Straits Times Overland Journal, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; D’Aranjo, B. E. (1890). The stranger’s guide to Singapore. Singapore: Singapore Press, p. 4e. (Call no.: RCLOS 959.57 DAR); Savage, V. R., & Yeoh, B. S. A. (2013). Singapore street names: A study of toponymics. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, pp. 131–132. (Call no.: RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
16. Historic fountain: Removal of Tan Kim Seng memorial. (1929, May 3). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. ‘Queen Elizabeth Walk’. (1953, May 3). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Singapore water supply. (1894, September 22). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. The municipality: Report for 1900. (1901, August 21). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Singapore public works. (1904, May 20). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Municipal board. (1905, December 30). The Eastern Daily Mail, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Municipal commission. (1916, July 29). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. [Untitled notice]. (1922, November 21). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Remains of Col. Lim Bo Seng laid to rest. (1946, January 14). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. New look for MacRitchie Reservoir. (1985, December 6). The Business Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Minister to open MacRitchie Park. (1967, August 4). The Straits Times, p. 13; Lim, S. J. (1996, December 14). Go back to nature, and. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Minister to open MacRitchie Park. (1967, August 4). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. More places for canoe enthusiasts. (1978, November 25). New Nation, p. 3; Canoeing for JCs. (1979, May 24). New Nation, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Neo, H. M. (2000, December 15). Ok to fish at 3 more reservoirs. The Straits Times, p. H9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Ee, W. W. J. (2009, May 31). MacRitchie makeover done. The Straits Times, p. 15; ABC Waters projects nearing completion. (2011, March 5). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Chong, E. (1990, November 26). War veterans visit ruins of Japanese shrine. The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32. Historic sites. (2002, September, 17). The New Paper, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at 2009 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.