Istana Woodneuk & Tyersall House

Beside Botanical Gardens, there is an abandoned piece of land with an old mansion built by a Johor Sultan. Within the forest of bounded by Tyersall Ave and Holland / Napier Road, lies the majestic mansion that had seen better days. This empty mansion has been abandoned for 50-60 years, and in 2007 a fire broke out at the house and the iconic blue roof collapsed leaving the structure in ruins.

The bash in was easier than we had anticipated and we were greeted by a majestic piece of history as we emerged from the jungle. This forgotten place has been visited by many adventurous explorers and photography enthusiast for years. So information or photos of Istana Woodneuk are a dime a dozen on the internet. Thus, I’ll just share a brief history and the photos we took during our visit.

The trek through the forest was short and took no more than 10 minutes, however it was a bit of an uphill climb and proper footwear and attire is definitely recommended. You can enter anywhere along Holland road and we entered and exited at two different points – I’m not sure where exactly but we just looked for a gap in the foliage and went for it. If you enter from directly behind the bus stop, you can hike straight up the hill and you will hit a path that will take you to the house on the right.

“Woodneuk” or “Woodneuk house” was one of the Sultan’s town residences. It was grand, but the press never referred to it as a palace. Some intrepid adventurer at some point probably affixed the “Istana” title to it to emphasise its link to the Malaysian royal family, and that has stuck ever since.

When I first saw the structure, my first thought was that it was actually in pretty good shape. Most of the structure, save the roof, is still in good shape and the grand staircase is very much intact. I was expecting the house to be in total ruins.

This mansion was built by Sultan Abu Bakar in 1890 for his beloved fourth wife Sultana Khadijah. In 1905 Sep 10, the mansion caught fire was badly damaged. It was then renovated by Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar (Sultan Abu Bakar’s son and 22nd Sultan of Johor) in the early 1930s.

In 1942, it was temporarily used as a hospital for the soldiers fighting in Singapore. In February that year, Japan invaded Singapore and the hospital became a military target. Again, a fire occurred and 700 medical workers and soldiers were burnt to death. Today, it is surrounded by thick overgrown vegetation along Holland Road, forgotten and in ruins. The land where the house is standing on still belongs to the Sultan of Johor.

According to a local paranormal group, this quiet mansion is the location for some “festivities”. They claim to have seen imperial guards stationed outside the house, and inside the big hall there were well dressed royalty, high society ladies and gentlemen and businessman attending a party there. They also claim to have come across a man styled and dressed like an English gentleman sitting leisurely on an old sofa.

After exploring the abandoned building, we took a walk down the dirt path and found a small structure that looked like a store or possibly a guardhouse about 100 metres away. A little further down the road, we encountered a construction worker and a stash of what looked like marble floor tiles stacked neatly in a pile. Chatting with the worker, he revealed that they were refurbishing the mansion and replacing the tiles within. I wonder if Istana Woodneuk would one day rise from the ashes and be restored to its former glory. Whatever the case, I don’t think it will ever be the same again.

For more information about Istana Woodneuk and the sultans that once lived here, see poskod.sg.

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Istana Woodneuk is commonly confused with Istana Tyersall, which was located on another small hill not far away from Woodneuk. The following history of Tyersall House has been extracted from Remember Singapore.

It all began with the Tyersall House. It was a majestic house built by William Napier (1804-1879) on a piece of 60-acre land beside the Botanic Gardens. Napier was the first lawyer of Singapore and founder of the Singapore Free Press, and had Napier Road named after him. He was also Abu Bakar’s legal advisor. The adjacent Tyersall Road, meanwhile, was named after Tyersall House.

In the 1860s, Napier sold his land to Abu Bakar, who had just taken the role of Temenggong from his father in 1862 and wanted to maintain a presence in Singapore. The Tyersall House, however, was destroyed by a fire decades later in 1890. By then, Abu Bakar has proclaimed himself as the Sultan of Johor (in 1885). He decided to build a new mansion, named Istana Tyersall, to replace the demolished Tyersall House.

The Johor Sultan hired Wong Ah Fook, famous early Chinese contractor and entrepreneur who founded the city of Johor Bahru in 1855 with the Sultan’s father Temenggong Daing Ibrahim, to build the palace. It was designed with the most extravagant ornaments, fitted with western-styled furniture and powered with electricity, an incredible feat during that era.

It was said that the Sultan’s first wife Sultana Fatimah was the overall in-charge of the design and planning of Istana Tyersall. However, she did not live to see the completion of the grand palace as she passed away in 1891.

Istana Tyersall was completed in 1892, and had a grand opening attended by the Governor of the Straits Settlements Sir Cecil Clementi Smith (1840-1916), Malay royalties and many prominent Chinese businessmen.

In an eerie coincidence, Istana Tyersall was also burnt down by a fire, possibly due to a faulty electrical wire, on 10th September 1905. By then, Sultan Abu Bakar had already passed away for a decade.

In 1990, the Singapore government issued a compulsory acquisition of a dilapidated Istana Tyersall at a compensation of $25 million to the descendants of Sultan Abu Bakar. The house was razed to the ground by end of November that year.

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