Even as the rapid development of the one-north biomedical, media and other engineering industries creep towards its doorstep, a walk around Wessex Estate, off Portsdown Road, still makes one feel he has travelled back in time.
Wessex Estate’s clusters of colonial-style black and white houses were mostly built in the 1930s and 1940s. Made up of 26 blocks of walk-up apartments and 58 semi-detached houses, they are concentrated around Woking Road, Westbourne Road, Whitchurch Road, Weyhill Close and Wilton Close, all of which were named after towns and villages in England.
The name Wessex came from an ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom that existed between the 6th and 10th century before England was unified. Coincidentally or intentionally, the names of the estate and roads all started with the letter W.
By the early fifties, there were almost 240 families of British servicemen staying at Wessex Estate, where many of them worked at the nearby military installations at Alexandra and Pasir Panjang.
In the fifties, a primary school was built at Wessex Estate by the British military for the children of their servicemen. In 1955, the use of the school premises was extended as a goodwill to the children of the Malay Other Ranks (MOR). Hence, the school became known as the Pasir Panjang Army Children’s School in the morning, and Wessex Estate Malay School in the afternoon sessions.
In 1967, the British government announced the withdrawal of its troops from Singapore. By late 1971, most of the British military had left Singapore. Wessex Estate, along with other British properties at Chip Bee Gardens, Gillman Estate, Glouchester Park, Rochester Park and Medway Park, were to be handed over to the Singapore government in phases.
By early 1976, the remaining troops, largely made up of the ANZUK (Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom) servicemen, had moved out of Wessex Estate. The Singapore government assigned the Housing and Development Board (HDB) to take over the vacated apartments and houses. The properties were later made available to the public for rental.
For Wessex Estate apartments and houses, the rental fees ranged between $200 and $500. An apartment with three bedrooms cost $200 per month, and $500 for a double-storey three-bedroom semi-detached house. Their monthly rentals would rise to $300 and $550 in the second and subsequent years. In addition, the tenants were charged $30 to $40 for water consumption, and another $3 to $6 for sewage fees.
In 1980, a rental hike of between 30% and 50% saw 100 tenants of Wessex Estate submitted a protest petition to HDB. The hike was delayed but inevitable. In late 1981, another increase in rental fees irked the tenants that many of them decided to move out of the estate.
For decades, the vast lush greenery and the rumbling sound of the passing trains added to the charms of Wessex Estate. But in the early 2000s, the quiet surroundings of Wessex Estate were interrupted as the development of the science hub and business park of Buona Vista and one-north kicked off.
As the surroundings of Wessex Estate was witnessing the rapid changes, the sleepy residential estate itself was slowly coming to life as a new and upcoming artists’ enclave. Art studios and galleries were set up by artists, painters and photographers at the loft spaces converted from the units of Wessex Estate’s black and white houses, adding some cultural touches to the forgotten former colonial buildings.
Within the laid-back neighbourhood of Wessex Estate, one can find an abandoned water tank standing on a small hilltop. The tall concrete tank, equipped with a long vertical rusty ladder, has been relatively unknown to many, but several daring boys have been spotted in their risky attempts to climb to the top of the structure – a stunt that is not advisable and is probably illegal as well.
The more famous landmark of Wessex Estate is the Colbar cafe. Opened in 1953, the Colbar (Colonial Bar in short) was previously located along Jalan Hang Jebat, a short distance away from Wessex Estate, and was extremely popular among the British troops and residents.
In 2003, the restaurant had to be relocated due to the construction of a flyover that links Queensway to the Ayer Rajah Expressway (AYE). The building was carefully dismantled and delivered to Whitchurch Road, the new home of Colbar. The building was then reconstructed to resemble its old appearance. Serving affordable Western food and coffee, the restaurant remains popular among the locals who want to experience a taste of the old colonial times.
Further down Portsdown Avenue is Jalan Hang Jebat (previously, it was situated off Portsdown Road before Portsdown Avenue was built), where rows of colonial terraces stand. Like Wessex Estate’s black and white houses, the colonial terraces were designed with the consideration of Singapore’s hot climate. With features such as high pitched roofs, verandas and rattan blinds, the interiors of the houses are able to maintain a reasonable cool temperature even during a hot day.
Jalan Hang Jebat’s colonial terraces were built by the British in the 1930s. They were used as the accommodation for the British junior ranking officers, whereas the senior officers stayed at Wessex Estate’s semi-detached houses.
Elsewhere in Singapore, clusters of colonial residential houses formerly built by the British can be found at Sembawang, Seletar, Rochester, Dempsey and Changi. Today, the black and white houses of Wessex Estate are currently managed by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC), and available for lease to one-north’s working population and residents.
An afternoon stroll at the charming Wessex Estate:
Published: 18 July 2019