Istana Woodneuk

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

69 Responses to Istana Woodneuk

  1. Darren says:

    Hi, May i ask how do we get there?
    And Nice photos taken =D

    • Hi Darren, the “Sultan Gate” near Botanic Gardens was already locked up, so I won’t encourage trespassing from there. It’s a private property after all.
      Another hidden route is though the thick vegetation directly opposite the junction of Dempsey Road and Holland Road. Please bear in mind this method has certain degree of danger, thus I won’t encourage too…

      • hmm for your information the path nearest that leads to Istana is trek facing opposite the road that you see the sign Dempsey Road , just below the bridge but near to drainage nearing a bus stop you cant miss it , took me 5mins+ get up there, the building still up ther, foreign workers are doin some fixings , as for other parts of it will be Botanica Condo , wasted theres a long trek jungle next to Gallop Rd that is even more interesting next to Arbat House & that ones interesting ,so many places to explore still :-)

  2. Darren says:

    Alright =) Thanks alot for the info!
    Best regards !

  3. NS says:

    Hi, is the place still accessible now? The last time I went there it was but there was construction work along the side. Anyone guarding the place?

    • There’s no one guarding the place, probably because the main gate (at Botanic Garden) is locked up now and it is difficult to access through the thick vegetation and steep slopes.

      • dont in anyway climb over big gate behind as many cars are passing, as for alternate paths refer to my comment above , i have to be discrete but you wil find it ,go earlier in the day to get idea wheres the spot ,take care i got more places now i see i must explore, if out of bounds better be safe ,dont tresspass ,take care

  4. Nick says:

    A bit off topic here but a few years ago, while I was jogging around the Yishun dam I stumbled on a path (used by contruction vehicles) along the reservior (towards the direction of the golf course).

    I joggled along the path and came upon a colonial house (I think it is not there anymore).

    Do you have any info on the house? Personally I felt that it could have been a rich man’s house cos it was nicely facing the reservior.

  5. 博物馆华文义工 says:

    Hi!
    I was searching on Istana Woodneuk and came upon your post, I made a trip down to the place a few days ago, and I’m glad it’s still around! (as there were some news online on construction work that is ongoing around it). There is indeed construction work that’s ongoing now, but so far the house has not been affected yet.

    It is indeed no longer possible to go in via the gates near Botanic Gardens. To head to Istana Woodneuk, you would have to cut through the trees, the slopes, the grass plantation…(enter from the bus stop opposite Dempsey). It’s not easy, but do-able! However, please ask a friend along as it is quite dangerous to be going there alone.. Please wear long pants and covered shoes when attempting this route, my legs are badly bitten by insects/scratched by grass as I was wearing shorts…

  6. Z.Sham says:

    You do a great job, keep it up! I like this article..

  7. Sean Tan says:

    I have climbed into and explored Istana Woodneuk before during my student days with my friends.It was both a chilling and most memorable experience and for many years, I have always wondered about the history of the mansion. Today, I finally found my answer on your website, but I am very keen to find out more. How did u trace the history of this great mansion. Feel free the reply me via my email. Very much appreciated!

  8. tinesh says:

    whr is this ? in singapore ?

  9. tinesh says:

    okay (: thanks .. is it still thr ???

  10. Hey, I’d like to visit Istana Woodneuk in a few days. I was wondering, how long does it take to walk/trek to the Istana if I were to enter from the bus stop opposite Dempsey. Also, I was wondering how thick or how high are the grasses. Would appreciate if you could reply me asap, thanks :)

  11. Was it easy to find your way in? Do you just trek in straight or..?

  12. mikyo says:

    is that place still available?

  13. Hannah says:

    I am going to singapore this summer and have done quite a lot of exploration in the UK, but was wondering what the penalties might be like if you were to be caught trespassing here or in any of the other properties? and have you ever been caught?Thanks!

  14. Steve says:

    Hi, Any body intending to go and visit this area? I wish to get some company to go together.

    Kindly sms me via 81972355.

    Steve

    Thanks

  15. Alex says:

    Hey Alex here, Im part of some guys/gals that are interested in exploring Singapore rich history and forgotten past.. For those interested in joining us, drop me a text.. 94886112..

  16. Win says:

    Has anyone gone to visit this beautiful enchantment the past couple of weeks? Am visiting this place this coming weekend.

  17. Roland says:

    Sultan of Johore……a class of his own…… long live the Sultan.

  18. Nathan says:

    What a great find! – love finding derelict places to explore which seems rare in Singapore. Is anyone up for exploring this place? I’m new to Singapore and would like to find some like minded people to visit the place if anyone is up for it!

    sms: 84207103

  19. Jeff says:

    HI! Just visited Istana Woodneuk last week, for the second time this year. The place is still accessible over the fence on the left of the main gate, though the small side gate on the right is now padlocked (it wasn’t in March – I could waltz right in.)

    The house is still intact (a wonder in itself!), but it seems some work had been done on the building since March. One of the rooms had its door smashed in (workboot prints on the remains of the door) and the furniture was dragged out and heaped in a corner.

    I wonder if the authorities have some plan for the building?

  20. cardelo says:

    I just visited this place earlier this month. The fastest way is from Holland Road, at the bus stop opposite Dempsey Road. A path is barely visible among the trees, to the left of the bus stop (if you are facing the road). It’s about a 15 minute trek up a steep slope. If you are exiting from the same spot, keep left (as the path branches off to the right to a slightly more difficult path that leads to the other side of the bus stop). Tried walking through the construction site to see if there’s an easier way out but was stopped by the workers

  21. Oldman says:

    Just curious, to those who visited the place this year, is the old abandoned Jaguar still there?

  22. toddrone says:

    All these years born at nearby Gleneagles hospital and raised in Holland rd area, I passed by that eerie stretch of Holland road and Botanic gardens since childhood, only to hear old wives tale of a huge istana in that “forest”. Your pictures laid to rest to my wild imaginations and I admire and appreciate your explorations and historical facts so that the next generations can at least, read about Singapore’s forgotten past. Thank you.

  23. EMF says:

    Heard that the government is extending Botanic Gardens towards the forest. It came out in.the papers today. Not sure if they are going to demolish
    Istana Woodneuk though

  24. Ng Tong Peng says:

    Thank You for the story, for ten years I was station at Tanglin Camp opposite this Istana Woodneuk. I learn that it belongs to Johore Royalty. I also had a colleague who live in one of the house on this property. However, she never reveal to us how she come to live there or her relation to this property. Now I understood this part of history.

  25. EMF says:

    Is this still Malaysia land or has it beem given to Singapore?

  26. changkh says:

    is this still there?

  27. There’s an ongoing construction at the junction of Holland Road and Pierce Road, which is directly opposite of the site of Istana Woodneuk.
    Not sure if they are developing a private condominium or an office tower there, but probably next time the residents at the highest levels are able to catch a clear view of the ruined palace

  28. Barnabas says:

    I’ve always seen the Gates to the residence but never knew that Istana Woodneuk was within.
    Wow!

  29. May says:

    Hi, I would like to visit this place. I just want to check – is the location of the “hidden” entrance at ( 1.307898,103.810405 ) (coordinates for google map) ? Thank you!

  30. Ellie says:

    What a great site. Thank you so much for all the information!
    Has anyone approached whatever department is responsible for planning and/or heritage and enquired about the Government of Singapore’s intention for this historic building? As long as it’s still standing it might not be too late to preserve this gem of heritage.
    As an Australian child who had the privilege of living in Singapore and exploring (often via the monsoon drains) shrines and visiting kampongs alone in the 1950s, Singapore was the most wonderful place to live. It would be wonderful to maintain this gem of the past relating to the Sultan of Johor.

  31. Xal says:

    Really interested to check out this site :)
    Gonna do some research first though.

  32. Ng Tong Peng says:

    May suggest to leave this place alone. Wait till development, maybe a heritage park. It is still private property. We have to respect them.

  33. John Henesy says:

    I was based in Tyersall Army Camp in 1955 -57. Is it still there? and where is it in relation to the old house? I am visiting Singapore later this year and would like to visit the old camp.

    • Ng Tong Peng says:

      Never know there is Tyersall Army Camp. Opposite there was formerly the Dempsy Camp. Supply me detail and will check. Contact me when in Singapore and I am happy we both tour the area. Nice knowing You, Regards.

  34. John Henesy says:

    Ng Tong Peng and Chang, thank you for your responses. If you leave Holland Road and go down Tyersall Avenue for about half a mile, the Tyersall Army camp was on the left. I am 77 now and my visit will depend upon medican insurance requirements for a heart condition. I have another incentive to visit though as my daughter is currently working and living in Singapore. We used to play football and cricket at Tanglin. There was also a running track for athletics. . I think it is a golf course now?

  35. Ng Tong Peng says:

    The golf course was formerly part of Singapore Army. This is on the right side going from Holland Rd towards the City. Now is a commercial place. The church still there.

  36. John Henesy says:

    Is the church the Catholic church? If it is then I used to attend mass there. It was next to one of the football pitches. Every Sunday morning I used to walk from Tyersall camp to the church at Tanglin. From memory, it took about 15 minutes.

  37. Ng Tong Peng says:

    According to Google Map, this is St Geogre’s Church. The golf, the Royal Tanglin Golf course. I wish you good health.

  38. John Henesy says:

    I have found the area where the Tyersall army camp was. It is Tyersall Park and I have located it on Google Earth. It is now waste ground and jungle. It is on the left hand side of Tyersall Avenue. There was also an entrance gate on Holland Road. Googling ‘Tyersall Park Singapore’ brings up a website with a Google map of Singapore, then entering ‘Tyersall Park’ brings a close-up of the area.
    I returned to the UK in 1957. I have no idea when the camp ceased to exist.

  39. John Henesy says:

    The Tyersall camp was mainly occupied by the Royal Signal’s but also contained a small unit of Royal Army Pay Corps. The whole camp was surrounded by chain link fencing and barbed wire. Within this, a perimeter road ran all around the camp. The main entrance, with guard post was on Tyersall Avenue. The barrack rooms and other buildings were inside the perimeter road and went up the hillsides. The cook-house and NAAFI were outside the perimeter road and cllose to Tyersall Avenue. The Pay Corps offices were outside the perimeter fence and towards Holland Road. There was another entrance to these offices from Holland Road. I am going to try and get some old maps of Singapore which provide details of the camp. I can then superimpose this onto the Google Earth map to see where everything is/was I was very impressed by how much work you have done on the military camps in Singapore. I had no idea there were so many. There was also an army shooting range at Bukit Tima, did that count?.

  40. John Mullins says:

    Look like the Istana Woodneuk might be demolished as a part of the Botanic Gardens Extension, such a shame that an historical landmark such as this may no be preserved as a part of that project:

    http://www.sbg.org.sg/attractions/attractions.asp

    http://www.straitstimes.com/breaking-news/singapore/story/photo-gallery-work-begin-year-tyersall-extension-botanic-gardens-20130

    • Azreen says:

      Not likely if Istana Woodneuk stands on a land that still belongs to the Johor Royalties. Time will tell I guess.

      • John Mullins says:

        The whole property has been acquired by the Singapore Government. The extension of the gardens has now been delayed until 2016 but will happen, the only question left is if the Istana itself will be saved. It does not appear on the plans for the new gardens that were posted at the link above (which has now been taken down). Here is the latest link I could find that confirms the same:

        http://news.asiaone.com/news/singapore/bigger-botanic-gardens-2016

  41. hello… anyone can accompany me to Istana Woodneuk to take photos during this week ? Because it’s rather dangerous to go alone… I think it’s a great subject for my school final project =) Please add me in facebook, Shawn Tay Zhi Qiang

    • Chang says:

      I am interested to go see too before it gets demolished.

      • Sure, it’s cool to go together instead of alone being quite dangerous. It’s best to have a trip there before it gets demolished but hope not in the near future… you can add me in Facebook. we can discuss a time and date then try to find out how to go there.

  42. Mohd Firdaus says:

    When to searched that place twice recently , it seems like i can’t find tht place . Any knows and kind enough to guide us to that place please do sms me at 90108884 . Not trying to up for some stupid things or bad business but just wanna have some photosnap at that beautiful place . So yea do sms me aight

  43. George Kane says:

    I lived in Istana Woodneuk from late 1973 – late 1975 with my wife and 3 kids. A friend played polo for the Sultan of Johor, was staying on the 2nd floor, invited us to occupy the downstairs side rooms, which we converted to bedrooms. The entrance hall was huge, living room was huge. Along the way we inherited a couple of former polo ponies, which is how I learned to ride a horse. There were around 50 acres on the istana grounds, and another 50 acres adjoining, near Taman Nakhoda. British Army HQ was on the opposite side of Holland Road, in the Dempsey area. Above ground swimming pool, scorpions under the dining table, snakes in the pantry – ah, for the good old days!

  44. John Mullins says:

    Hello George, what an amazing experience it must have been to have lived with you family at Istana Woodneuk. Do you have any pictures from that time that you can share on this group?

    • George Kane says:

      Oops .. John. I have not been on this site in a while – negligent of me, as I am deeeeply into Singapore nostalgia. I shall monitor diligently in the future. Am looking through family photos. Will return soon.

  45. John Mullins says:

    Great George, look forward to it!

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