Army Camp, Lifestyle Enclave, Visual Arts Hub… Gillman Barracks’ Journey in the Past Decades

Today, Gillman Barracks is largely known as a visual arts hub located at a small quiet area off Alexandra Road. But it used to be a much bigger British military camp in the past.

Completed in the mid-1930s in a former area made up of forest and swamps, Gillman Barracks covered 118 acres (0.48km2) of land between Alexandra Road and Depot Road. Built on the high grounds at the west side of Mount Faber-Telok Blangah ridge, Gillman Barracks were strategically situated at Singapore’s southern part. It first housed the Middlesex Regiment and later the Loyal Regiment; both regiments were Singapore’s first two infantry battalions.

A network of roads were laid to link between various parts of the camp. These roads were Depot Road, Lock Road, Malan Road, Nek Road, Preston Road, Anzac Road, Railway Hill and Friendly Hill. Off limits to public access, the roads were under the charge of the War Department until the sixties.

Nek Road, Anzac Road, Railway Hill and Friendly Hill had since been expunged and no longer exist today.

The new camp was named after General Sir Webb Gillman (1870-1933), the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the East Command between 1931 and 1933. A distinguished artillery officer, Webb Gillman, on behalf of the British Army, visited Singapore for three months in 1927 to assess the colony’s defence requirements.

Gillman Barracks had office buildings, officers’ and sergeants’ messes, married staff quarters, swimming pool, recreation grounds, ordnance depots, warehouses and even service reservoirs. Sports events were regularly held at the camps’ facilities, such as football, rugby, swimming, boxing, hockey and cricket competitions.

In the late 1930s, the British decided to build a military hospital near Gillman Barracks to support the medical needs of the camp and other British military installations in the region. The 356-bedder British Military Hospital (present-day Alexandra Hospital) was completed in 1940.

During the Second World War, the Alexandra Road area came under attack by the Japanese. A fierce battle broke out between the barracks’ infantry regiment and the invaders for three days before the Fall of Singapore. The hospital’s staff and patients, reportedly 200 of them, were brutally massacred on 14 February 1942. The British officially surrendered to the Japanese a day later.

After the war, the British regained control of the barracks and hospital. Certain parts of Gillman Barracks were revamped with the wooden and nissen huts replaced by permanent concrete and brick buildings.

In 1948, Gillman Barracks became home for the British Royal Engineers. It lasted for more than two decades until the British army’s withdrawal from Singapore in the early seventies.

In 1950, a traffic roundabout between Alexandra Road and Ayer Rajah Road was renamed Gillman Circus after the nearby barracks. It was originally called Alexandra Circus but the Municipal Commissioners decided to rename it to ease the confusions of drivers, as there were two more roundabouts along Alexandra Road.

Gillman Barracks received its guest-of-honour when Duke of Edinburgh Prince Philip (1921-2021) visited Singapore in 1959. After tours of Tengah Air Base and Blakang Mati Barracks, Prince Philip flew to Gillman Barracks in a helicopter to attend a parade and lunch with the British, Malay and Gurkha officers.

Gillman Barracks, like other British camps in Singapore, was handed over to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) on 21 August 1971. A handover-takeover ceremony took place between the British Royal Engineers and the SAF Combat Engineers, where a one Singapore dollar symbolic token was used to mark the successful transfer.

On 10 October 1971, the SAF conducted its first parade at Gillman Barracks for the commissioning of 27 engineer officer cadets.

Interestingly, the one Singapore dollar token ceremony was also held when Gillman Barracks was handed over to the SAF Transport 13 years later. The Combat Engineers were relocating to their new camp at Jurong, whereas the transport battalion needed a temporary home. Hence, the transfer ceremony with the token tradition happened on 1 October 1984 upon the insistence by the engineers.

In 1985, the staff of nearby Gloucester Barracks shifted their workplaces to Gillman Barracks after Gloucester Barracks was taken over by the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC) for the development of the Singapore Science Park.

The British Military Hospital was transferred on 11 September 1971 to Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MOH), also for a symbolic token of one Singapore dollar. It was renamed Alexandra Road General Hospital and was reopened four days later, on 15 September 1971, as a civilian general hospital.

Gillman Barracks’ popular swimming pool and other sports facilities were made available to the public after the government took over them in August 1971.

The camp’s Base Ordnance Depot, along Depot Road, had been supplying the British army for decades. After the transfer of the barracks, the site of the depot was re-designated as a light industrial district.

Some of the storage facilities at the former ordnance depot were temporarily occupied by the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) before JTC moved in to build a series of flatted factories next to the retained former Gillman Barracks buildings and warehouses. Depot Lane Industrial Estate, initially known as Telok Blanglah Industrial Estate, was built by the mid-seventies.

The industrial estate became home to a number of small factories manufacturing the likes of furniture, spice, souvenirs and other products. There was even a mushroom cultivating factory at Depot Lane in the eighties. Hewlett-Packard (HP) also set up a factory at Depot Road in 1975, where it assembled HP-35, the first Singapore-made pocket calculator.

Today, several of the former Gillman Barracks storage facilities along Depot Road still exist and are currently leased out to be used as warehouses, offices and workshops. A couple of them still bear the 1936 inscription on their façades, indicating the year of their construction.

In the late seventies, public housings were developed in the area as HDB flats popped up at Depot Road (built in 1976) and the new Telok Blangah estate (1978). Markets, hawker centres and other public amenities were added.

With the exception of two old blocks (Block 113 and 114), the Depot Road flats, under the en-bloc scheme in the 2000s, were demolished and replaced by newer flats.

In the early eighties, Railway Hill, a former part of Gillman Barracks, made way for the development of Gillman Estate, later known as Gillman Heights. Under the Housing and Urban Development Company (HUDC) Phase III program, ten blocks with 607 five-room flats were constructed in 1984 and sold to the public.

In 1996, Gillman Heights and Pine Grove became the first HUDC estates to be privatised. Gillman Heights was collectively sold in 2009 for $548 million, and in its place stands The Interlace today.

At the eastern side of Gillman Barracks, some changes were also happening by the late eighties. The Telok Blangah Hill Park had been developed, and at the end of Depot Road was the new $12-million Central Manpower Base (CMPB), which was relocated from Tanglin Barracks in March 1989.

By the early nineties, the SAF decided to leave Gillman Barracks and return the premises to the government as state lands. The area was renamed Gillman Village in 1996 as a new lifestyle enclave filled with restaurants, cafes and pubs with a colonial and rustic setting. However, comparing to another similar concept at Dempsey Road’s Tanglin Barracks (Tanglin Village), Gillman Village did not really take off in popularity.

In 2010, Gillman Village had its name changed back to Gillman Barracks after the government planned to develop the place into a visual arts hub. A $10 million revamp saw Gillman Barracks officially launched in 2012 to become a focal point for showcasing and discussion of international and Southeast Asia arts. Homegrown galleries, cafes and restaurants were set up to attract both local and foreign art lovers and collectors.

Gillman Barracks encountered some setbacks at the beginning of its new life when several galleries closed down in the mid-2010s. But it managed to hold on and now looks forward to strengthen its visual arts hub status in the next decade, as it approaches its 100 years of existence.

Chronological Events of Gillman Barracks’ site:

1935 – Gillman Barracks was built
1936 – Ordnance depot and warehouses were added along Depot Road
1935-1942 – Gillman Barracks housed the Middlesex Regiment and Loyal Regiment
1940 – British Military Hospital was built to support Gillman Barracks
1942 – Fierce battle near Gillman Barracks between the infantry regiment and Japanese

1945 – The returning British regained control of Gillman Barracks
1948 – British Royal Engineers housed at Gillman Barracks
1959 – Prince Philip visited Gillman Barracks
1971 – Gillman Barracks handed over to the SAF for one Singapore dollar
1975 – Former ordnance depot redeveloped as part of Depot Lane Industrial Estate
1976 – Former part of Gillman Barracks (Depot Road) redeveloped as HDB estate
1982 – Former part of Gillman Barracks (Railway Hill) redeveloped as Gillman Heights

1984 – SAF Combat Engineers handed over Gillman Barracks to SAF Transport
1985 – Gloucester Barracks staff relocated to Gillman Barracks
1993 – SAF departed Gillman Barracks
1996 – Gillman Barracks was renamed Gillman Village as a lifestyle enclave
2010 – Gillman Village was renamed Gillman Barracks
2012 – Gillman Barracks launched as new visual arts hub
2013 – The Interlace condominium completed at former Gillman Heights

Published: 28 December 2021

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6 Responses to Army Camp, Lifestyle Enclave, Visual Arts Hub… Gillman Barracks’ Journey in the Past Decades

  1. Alan F Rawle says:

    We (father, mother, brother and I) lived at 9 Railway Hill from 1964 – 1967 when my father was in the Royal Engineers (3 Training Regiment). Had a short time at the Windy View Hotel (Buena Vista Road) while we got suitable accommodation. The NAAFI looks like one of the pictures too.
    Attended Bourne School. Blk 6 looks identical to the building that my father worked at – Colonel McKenzie (spelling?) in an office immediately in front. I remember the swimming pool well and also the Gillman Barracks 1937 looks like one part of Bourne School (the other was a long walk up the hill – now the International School I believe). Our basha hut classrooms were around the quadrangle where assembly was held. I still have a couple of school reports from those days. Great teachers and a fantastic time. I remember how good the Gurkhas were at soccer even though they played barefoot. We had Rambahadhur Gurung, Yambahadhur Gurung, and Yam Rai in our class. Not sure on the spellings here – it was a long time ago… Left for the UK in 1967 where I had one year at Torquay Boys Grammar – everything seemed slow in comparison.

  2. Alan F Rawle says:

    Oh, and I remember swimming in the Gillman Barracks pool (listening to the Rolling Stones on the jukebox!) when Singapore announced its independence from Malaysia. For a short time there was a fear that hostilities could break out. I remember Raffles Square and Robinsons and starting my stamp collection in earnest there – have just resurrected it on retirement. Straits Settlements and all that jazz….

  3. Wuxl says:

    I remembered in the 1970-1980s Lock road and Alexandra road seem to be seperated by some sort of Escarpment or small depression of sorts with Alexandra road on higher ground. I am not an alumnus of St Andrew JC but someone may be able to attest to walking up the Malan road slope to Alexandra Road to take a bus?
    Nowadays Alexandra road seemed to be very close to lock road though

  4. Nihal Kulatilake says:

    Does anyone remember the two rows of shops that were next to Gillman circus. There was a supermarket on one side and general stores and a tailors on the side, with a cafe at one end. I used to live in one of the shops.

  5. jeffho says:

    Anyone doing NS in the 70s at Gillman Barracks will remember the lights of this temple, A Thousand Buddhas at Telok Blangah Hill, especially for me, waking up for the 5BX during my recruit days there in 1973. Somehow, the sight of the extraordinarily bright temple on the hill top at 5 am made the 5BX less daunting.

    A Thousand Buddhas at Telok Blangah Hill

  6. Peter Wang says:

    My father worked in CEPO(A)- Civilian Enlisted Personnel Ordinance ( Camp A) between 1952 – 1970 from a clerk to a chief Clerk before the British Withdrawal and the office closed to be become ANZUK( Australia/ New Zealand/ United Kingdom Forces based in Sembawang out of Bersatu Agreement of 5 countries joint armed forces protecting Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.

    I had often visited his offices entering Deport Road Camp from Alexander Road next to AIA building as a kid enjoying attending Christmas Party and family gathering for the local personnel. They were recruited to handle the payroll of local enlisted personnel such as the amah( servants for the officers and upper NCOs,) of gardeners, drivers and administrative staff. It was much a privilege working for the forces as it was on 4 and half day week with holidays thrown in following the English holidays. The barracks buildings are still intact as Gilman Camp and the various store houses are still there. Walking through the barracks bought back fond memories of days gone by accompanied at times to his office. A time of Colonial Singapore

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