Dempsey Hill History
What better way to celebrate National Day this month than to discover a local heritage trail brimming with the history of Singapore? Before it became synonymous with shopping and midday margaritas, this hip hideaway was once a place of regiment and order. We delve in to Dempsey Hill history and hear from two veterans on what it was like back in their day!
Formerly known as Mount Harriet, its story began with a prosperous nutmeg plantation that reached all the way to what is now the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Following an unfortunate outbreak of disease, the plantation was forced to seize operations in 1857. With the British Empire facing political unrest in its other colonies, the government was looking to further fortify the island. They bought the land and began construction of a military camp known as the Tanglin Barracks.
The first of these barracks were built in the area where Dempsey Hill and Loewen by Dempsey Hill currently stand. In addition to the barracks, there was a school, reading room, library, officers’ quarters and, eventually, a hospital and church too. Troops and their families made this place their home away from home for the years to come.
Things took a turn during World War II, when the colonial government surrendered to the Japanese in 1942. The soldiers defending Singapore suddenly became prisoners of war, and the barracks were transformed into storage units for medical supplies and POW housing. But, after almost four years of unrest, the Japanese finally surrendered and British forces retook control of Singapore and the Tanglin Barracks, making them the General Headquarters of the Far East Land Forces. Once again, British soldiers, officers and their families roamed the grounds of Tanglin.
Real Life Singapore History
We hear from two veterans as they recall their time in Singapore and reflect on what’s come of it today.
Gary Bennet, former British Serviceman
“At the time I was there, there were probably 500 servicemen housed in identical, nondescript buildings in Blocks 7, 8, 9 and 10 at Dempsey Road. They had access to facilities such as a swimming pool and cinema, both now demolished, and a gymnasium overlooking the cricket pitch – a building that still stands today.”
Gary lived in the north end of Block 9. Back then, each block was split into three sections: accommodation at the north and south, while the centre section was devoted to communal washing, showers and toilets. Today, this area is occupied by REDSEA Gallery and ARTitude Galeria. Drawing on his memory, Gary guesses that parts of the old accommodation are now used as the gallery’s showroom.
Tour Tip: Make a trip to Block 9 to see it for yourself. Then, head over to The Dempsey Project for a leisurely brunch, or to La Forketta for authentic Italian cuisine under the roofs of the restored barracks.
Kerry Taylor, Women’s Royal Army Corp
“Block 72 was used for administration and was where the officers worked, while Block 73 was where the girls lived. On days off and in the evenings, we would sometimes go to the Tanglin Military Services Club. It was there that I met an Australian soldier. We started ‘going out’, fell in love and decided to get married. Our wedding was lovely – it was in the beautiful St George Church with all our army ‘family’ around us.
Today, Block 73 is the location of Invictus International School, while Block 72 is home to early childhood education experts Gate Junior, and Singapore’s only dedicated indoor and outdoor swim school, Swish! Swimming. Here, you’ll also find The Yard Dempsey, a multi-specialist acrobatic sporting facility for kids as young as 18 months.”
Tour Tip: Kerry recalls that one of the men’s blocks was located down Loewen Road; it was to the left, away from Block 71 and just up the hill overlooking the oval. Why not rest your feet at the popular Trimmings Salon & Spa for a mani-pedi and have a go at identifying the building from Kerry’s memory!
All that walking will surely have worked up an appetite; up the road you’ll find Chang Korean BBQ, serving up traditional Korean fare. Carnivores can feast to their heart’s content on their premium cuts of beef and pork grilled over charcoal.
Still hungry? In the same block as Invictus International School (Block 73), you’ll find Anjalichocolat. Treat yourself to their handmade chocolates with distinctive flavour pairings to go – think Lemongrass Coconut Truffles, Star Anise Bonbons and Kaya Toast Pandan Chocolate.
To discover more stories and heritage in the area, download the free Dempsey Hill Trail Map at dempseyhill.com.
Read more about Dempsey Hill history here.
This article first appeared in the August 2021 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase the latest issue or subscribe, so you never miss a copy!