Singapore Swimming Club
The Singapore Swimming Club (SSC) was established in 1894 at Tanjong Rhu by a group of Europeans.1 In 1994, the club celebrated its 100th anniversary with the opening of a museum dedicated to its history and the publication of a commemorative book.2 With a large membership base, it continues to concentrate on its core offering, swimming, besides providing a wide range of sports facilities.3
The SSC owes its origins to a group of young European men who, in the early 1890s, cruised on sampan from Johnston’s Pier to Tanjong Rhu to reach their bathing spot. They bathed off a military pier that projected into the sea from the old Tanjong Katong Fort (the present Katong Park), spending many hours swimming in the cool waters and relaxing on the clean sand of a long and empty coastline. The men brought sandwiches and bottles of cold tea for a picnic after the surf and discussed having a place for changing and a bar – thus the idea for a swimming club was born.4
On 23 October 1893, the leisure swimmers sent a circular to various offices to obtain support to start a swimming club. Interested parties paid $1 monthly to meet club expenses. Soon, 30 signatures were received and an inaugural meeting was held on 6 November 1893 at the former Waverly Hotel (since demolished). The Singapore Free Press reported the presence of about 20 people at the meeting that was presided by A. L. Tregarthan. The club’s committee comprised F. Nawton, R. Price, G. Mousley, R. Charlton, H. Fregarthen, H. L. Coghlen and W. Craig. The first clubhouse in Tanjong Rhu was an attap hut rented from a Malay fisherman. When a bungalow, belonging to a Mr Drew, was found in the vicinity, the attap hut was abandoned. A Chinese sampan was hired at $10 a month to transport members to the club from Johnston’s Pier.5
The facilities of the club in its early days were simple and the food on offer was plain, consisting of tinned sardines or sausages, biscuits, bread, tinned butter and beer. The bungalow was in a dilapidated condition and the landlord was unwilling to renovate it. The club’s first members therefore painted and spruced the place up themselves. The Swimming Club was officially inaugurated and opened on 7 February 1894. At the time of its opening, there were 50 members.6
After its humble beginnings, the club’s membership began picking up. It rose steadily from 65 men in 1894 to 79 in 1895 and then 116 members in 1899, with $835 in its coffers. In 1895, the club decided to allow ladies in on Wednesdays. On 26 January 1895, the first aquatic sports meet of the club was held with a reportedly large turnout. On 14 June 1897, the club held its inaugural swimming race. In the years to follow, this race was to become one of the Club’s most important social and sporting event and was regularly featured in the sports section of the Singapore Free Press. In 1899, concerned about the ownership of the bungalow, the club bought the property from its owner, Mr Gaggino, for $3,500. It financed its purchase by issuing debentures.7
The purchase of the bungalow led to improvements to the premises – a sea wall, a large dressing room and a bathing enclosure surrounded by stakes were built. A diving platform was also added and was completed in 1899. The Swimming Club thus became an established institution with over 200 members. Most of its members in the early years were British or other Europeans and were made up mostly of assistants in mercantile firms and trading and business houses, such as John Little’s, Robinson’s, Telegraph Co., Insurance Company and Guthrie. Subscription remained at $1 a month. By 1902, the club had paid off its debentures and, the following year, with sufficient funds in its coffers, a new clubhouse was in the pipeline. This clubhouse was constructed at a cost of $15,165, and a carnival was held to celebrate its opening on 21 May 1904. Regular swimming competitions were held on Sundays. The early 19th century also saw the club renamed Swimming Club of Singapore, as the Singapore Sporting Club (founded in 1843) pointed out that people might be confused by the same initials of the two entities.8
In the years before World War I (1914–18), the club developed steadily. By 1913, club membership had risen to 500 and the club was in an “excellent financial position”. Visitors to the clubhouse came by sampan and, later, by steam launches from Johnston’s Pier. Some cycled to the Sea View Hotel instead and then walked to the clubhouse from there, through dense coconut plantations. When Grove Road (later renamed as Mountbatten Road) was opened, it allowed limited access by road to the club for the first time. During the war, many members left Singapore for active service in different parts of the world, resulting in a period of lull.9
After the war, however, the club entered into one of its busiest periods. The construction of Meyer Road and Tanjong Rhu Road enabled cars to drive up to the covered porch of the clubhouse. The advent of the motorcycle and the light car also increased the mobility of members as they could head to the club from their offices on a weekday instead of waiting until Sunday. A Koleh Club dedicated to the sailing of single-hulled dinghies was launched in 1919 but this activity was short-lived and folded in the late 1920s. The club was also supplied with piped-in water and electricity for the first time after 1920 and in 1925, saw improvements in sanitation and upgraded dressing rooms for men and women.10
Sea swims were a popular form of exercise and some would swim the distance from Johnston’s Pier to the club. An important swimming event was the annual Christmas Day one-mile race from the club to Sea View Hotel. This was tragically cancelled, however, after a club member, Miss Boyer-Smythe, was attacked and killed by a shark in February 1925. As a safety measure, a rectangular enclosure made of wooden stakes was constructed and swimming was confined to this area. This temporary pagar was later replaced by a permanent one made with concrete piles embedded in the sea bottom.11
After the first World War, female membership and patronage became more flexible with the admission of ladies as honorary members in 1923, and the extension of the club usage to ladies on public holidays. Another milestone was the club reverting its name to “Singapore Swimming Club” in 1931 because the Singapore Sporting Club had by then been renamed Singapore Turf Club. The addition of a pool was also a sensation. The proposal to build a pool was to enable members to enjoy a swim regardless of the tidal conditions and was also driven by a fear of sea contamination since the area around the club was becoming more developed. The pool was officially opened on 3 December 1931 by then Governor of the Straits Settlements Cecil Clementi, who, after declaring it opened, threw off his dressing gown and jumped into the pool. The opening of the pool caused a stir throughout Malaya at the time, as nothing like it had been seen in the country before. The cost for constructing the 210 feet (64 metres) long by 100 feet (30.48 metres) wide pool was $54,000.12
Along with the opening of the pool, the club also opened its new wing in 1936, measuring 64 feet (19.5 m) long by 36 feet (11 m) wide, which was constructed parallel to the pool. The extension was built at a cost of $20,000. Ladies’ accommodation occupied the ground floor, while the upper storey housed a 6,500 square foot dance floor, a restaurant, an air-conditioned steak bar and lounge, a ladies lounge, reading and writing rooms, a billiards room, the main kitchen and the club’s offices. The floor area for the men’s dressing room was also doubled. The new wing was characterised by rounded roofs, 1930s British architecture and the Art Deco style.13
The club’s membership, which had risen to 2,821 by 1928, grew substantially with the pool’s opening. This was due in part to the influx of service personnel who arrived to work at the British naval and air bases in Singapore. The club prospered until the Japanese Occupation (1942–45), when the Japanese took over the club premises and reportedly used it as a leisure centre for its officers. The Japanese also built a number of bunkers at the site of the old car park and on an adjacent vacant plot of land (where The Waterside Condominium is presently situated). After the Japanese surrendered in September 1945, the club was left in a bad shape, with the swimming pool half-filled with dirty water, missing furniture, fans, light fittings, cutlery and kitchen equipment as well as a damaged seawall and diving stage. Instead of being returned to the club members, the British armed forces requisitioned the club as a services club, calling it The Lido. With ready access to materials, the British army took three months to restore the club to its pre-war condition and re-opened the club on Christmas Day, 1945. Club members pressed hard for the return of the premises, and this finally took place on 7 July 1946, with the club reopening and the commencement of restoration works.14
After SSC’s reopening, the club’s activities were resumed with a vengeance, with the re-introduction of Thursday and Saturday night dances leading to an extension of its Saturday closing hours to 2.30am, galas and water polo matches on Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings. The club also received war damage compensation from the government of $131,017, which served as funds for the club restoration. The steady increase in club membership necessitated the building of a car park and in 1949, the Eu Tong Sen estate granted the club rent-free use of its land next door as a car park.15
During the Maria Hertogh racial riots which occurred on 11 and 12 December 1950, Europeans and Eurasians came under attack and the club served as a sanctuary for members and their family who took refuge at the club for two days until the police declared that the situation was secured and that it was safe for those at the club to return home.16
Club membership rose in the 1950s and peaked at 4,645 in 1955. However, with the imminent pull-out of British forces and their civilian attachments, the character of club activities changed, and no longer possessed the same carnival-like atmosphere during earlier times. After 1955, membership began to decline. In 1960, women were allowed to attend the annual general meeting although they were not granted any voting rights. In 1962, an important change to the membership and management rule occurred when nominations for top offices were no longer confined to members “who are British subjects by birth”. In 1963, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew issued a directive to all British clubs that they could no longer stick to their “white only” rule, and the SSC accordingly began admitting Asian members. By 1969, the decline in membership since 1955 had begun to reverse, with an increasing number of locals joining the club; this more than made up for Services Club members leaving the club for good due to the pulling out of all the British forces and their civilian attachments in Singapore. The change of membership from an exclusively European club to a more Singaporean one took a lengthy 12 to 15 years to accomplish. The first Singaporean club president, Dr Chan Swan Tong, was elected in 1972 and by 1976, the majority of the club’s office bearers were locals.17
With the promotion of swimming at the essence of its club’s existence, the club has churned out many swimming champions throughout its history and has employed many swim coaches of high caliber, from George Creighton who hailed from Scotland to elite local swimmers-turned-coaches, Kee Soon Bee, Neo Chwee Kok and Lionel Chee. Between 1949 to the late 1950s, the club’s top European swimmers such as Wiebe Wolters, Norma Hutchinson, Barry Lancaster and Keith and Derek Mitchell gave outstanding performances in open and closed inter-club and Singapore Amateur Swimming Association competitions and smashed many club and national records at various Asian games. Overseas swimming legends such as Roy Romain, Britain’s “king of the butterfly-breast stroke” and seven Olympic gold medal winner, American Mark Spitz, were also invited by the club for demonstration sessions and swim clinics to help fuel the swimming ambitions of the club’s young athletes. The 1970s were a golden era for the club, with the emergence of leading local swimming talents such as Molly Tay, Tay Chin Joo, Elaine Sng, Junie Sng and Khoo Teng Chuan. At various periods in its history, the club were also active in promoting other water sports such as water polo, diving and water ballet/ synchronisation.18
Developments and progress
Due to the growth in club membership and increased members’ demands, a master plan was drawn up during the 1970s to expand the club size and its range of facilities to match those of other cubs. In October 1977, the club purchased a 96,436 square-foot reclaimed land for $178,000 and it acquired another 9,332 square feet of land for $22,400 in December 1978 for the purpose of redevelopment. By 1978, the club had a healthy base of 4,081 members and membership in the club was much coveted. Ordinary membership entrance fees had risen to $1,000 for single male members, $1,500 for couples and $500 for single lady members and junior members. In 1981, the club’s new wing, costing an estimated $6 million, was launched and it incorporated a multi-storey car park, a 50-metre by 30-metre swimming pool, a health centre, games room, six squash courts, two tennis courts and changing rooms. In 1992, the club eschewed tradition and appointed a professional team headed by a general manager to run the club according to the policies established by the club’s management.19
Towards the end of the 20th century, a five-year development plan was made for a new clubhouse to be completed in two phases. The first phase, costing S$13.5 million, was completed in November 1994.20 The new facilities added were a multi-storey carpark with a health centre in its basement, a jacuzzi, changing rooms, two new food-and-beverage outlets, a new 10-lane bowling alley, four tennis courts, a spectator’s gallery and six badminton courts. The second phase of the development, costing S$20 million, was completed between 1999 and 2000, and included a 250-seat theatrette, a karaoke lounge, a live-music lounge and a block of apartments.21 A new five-storey administration building was also constructed to replace a pre-war structure.22
To raise funds and make room for new members, the SSC began buying back inactive memberships at S$10,000 in 1994, and selling them back to new members at S$20,000. This recycling of membership ensures that the club does not have more members than it can cater for.23 A museum displaying memorabilia from the past was opened in 1994 as well to mark the club’s centenary. Archival material was collected over several years and past and existing members were approached to contribute items relating to the club’s history.24 On 23 October 1995, the club’s executives served as waiters at a dinner event to raise funds for the Spastic Children’s Association of Singapore. Earlier in the day, a badminton tournament was also held with each player donating S$50 for a game of badminton and the dinner. Non-badminton players contributed S$40 to attend the dinner. A total of S$100,000 were raised from the event.25 After the redevelopment was completed, the new club was officially opened on 27 February 2001, graced by honorary life member, the late President S. R. Nathan as its guest-of-honour.26
The club underwent further development in 2009, adding a new recreation and children’s pool, a playground, jackpot room, delicatessen, outdoor area for Cabana, spa, retail space, children’s corner and cue sports room. Extensions were also added to the multi-storey car park, gym and The Palms restaurant.27
Today, the SSC is a far cry from being an exclusively European club. It offers a total of 10 food and beverage outlets, three swimming pools for serious and recreational swimmers and those learning to swim, a full suite of sports facilities ranging from badminton halls, squash and tennis courts to a bowling centre, an air-conditioned table tennis hall and two air-conditioned fitness studios. Besides swimming programmes catered for swimmers of varying proficiency levels, the club also organises a wide variety of sports competitions, fitness classes and recreational courses such as Chinese brush painting, dancercise and line dance.28
Naidu Ratnala Thulaja & Nor-Afidah Abd Rahman
1. Tan Chun Lee, The First 100 Years: Singapore Swimming Club 100th Anniversary (Singapore: YTJ Total Communications on behalf of Singapore Swimming Club, 1994), 7, 9. (Call no. RSING 797.210605957 TAN)
2. “The Shark That Got a British Officers’ Club a Pool,” Straits Times, 7 April 1994, 4; T. Ranganayaki, “SSC Opens Museum to Mark 100th Year,” Straits Times, 29 November 1994, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
3. “Singapore Swimming Club,” Singapore Swimming Club, accessed 29 September 2016.
4. Tan, First 100 Years, 7.
5. Tan, First 100 Years, 7–8.
6. Tan, First 100 Years, 8–9; “The Swimming Club,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Free Press (1884–1942), 8 February 1894, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Tan, First 100 Years, 12–13, 17.
9. Tan, First 100 Years, 14–15, 23.
10. Tan, First 100 Years, 24–26.
11. Tan, First 100 Years, 27.
12. Tan, First 100 Years, 28, 29, 31, 33.
13. Tan, First 100 Years, 28, 29, 31, 33; “Club Milestones,” Singapore Swimming Club, 20 June 2018.
14. Tan, First 100 Years, 30, 80, 81, 83–84.
15. Tan, First 100 Years, 84–85.
16. Tan, First 100 Years, 86–87.
17. Tan, First 100 Years, 85, 95, 99–101, 103, 104, 105, 113; Singapore Swimming Club, “Club Milestones.”
18. Tan, First 100 Years, 43–55.
19. Tan, First 100 Years, 105–09.
20. Tan, First 100 Years, 109.
21. Mardiana Abu Bakar, “Swimming Club to Buy Back Inactive Memberships,” Straits Times, 7 April 1994, 4; Ranganayaki, “SSC Opens Museum to Mark 100th Year”; Singapore Swimming Club, “Singapore Swimming Club.”
22. Tan, First 100 Years, 110.
23. Abu Bakar, “Swimming Club to Buy Back Inactive Memberships.”
24. Ranganayaki, “SSC Opens Museum to Mark 100th Year.”
25. “Club Executives Serve as Waiters to Raise Funds,” Straits Times, 24 October 1995, 25. (From NewspaperSG)
26. “S’pore Swimming Club Re-Opens,” Straits Times, 2 March 2001, H11 (From NewspaperSG); Singapore Swimming Club, “Club Milestones.”
27. Singapore Swimming Club, “Club Milestones.”
28. Singapore Swimming Club, “Singapore Swimming Club.”
The information in this article is valid as at September 2018 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.