Easily one of Singapore’s largest private residences in the late 19th century and early 20th century, Istana Woodneuk was one of the two royal palaces owned by Johor Sultan Abu Bakar ibni Daing Ibrahim (1833-1895), 21st Sultan of Johor and was well-known as “The Father of Modern Johor”. Friendly to both British Empire and Qing Empire, Sultan Abu Bakar was credited for the development of Johor towards the end of the 19th century.
Istana Woodneuk is located on a small hill bounded by present-day Holland Road and Tyersall Road. After a century of abandonment, its surroundings are covered by thick vegetation; the house itself is in ruins. As if living in a lost world of its own, the place is out of bounds to outsiders and is not chartered on any modern maps.
Istana Woodneuk, or simply Woodneuk House, had long been confused with Istana Tyersall, which was located on another small hill not far away from Woodneuk.
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.
Istana Woodneuk, on the other hand, was built for the Sultan’s fourth wife Sultana Khadijah. The blue-roof palace was just as magnificent, consisting of the main building with two smaller houses by its side, possibly for the accommodation of servants or horses. Another small white building was located 100m away down the main path, and might be used as a guard house.
Istana Woodneuk’s owner Sultana Khadjah died in this grand house in 1904. Before she died, the Sultana sold the property to Sultan Abu Bakar’s son Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar (1873-1959), who rebuilt the house in 1930 for his third wife Scotland-born Sultana Helen Ibrahim (1889-1978). The dilapidated house as well as the land still belong to the royal family of Johor.
Today, the house is deemed structurally unsafe. Its iconic blue-roof had collapsed, its railings brown with rust, and plants had found their ways and thrived in the cracks and gaps on the walls. It is a real sad sight of a century-old palace with a glorious past.
Read more about other Istana in Singapore at A Forgotten Past – The Last Royal Palace of Singapore
Published: 10 October 2011
Updated: 25 January 2013