Portsdown, Seletar & Sembawang Colonial Houses

Somewhere near Bouna Vista lies a peaceful and greenery-filled neigbourhood known as Wessex Estate. The old colonial-styled estate houses a total of 26 white and black low-lying blocks that were built more than 50 years ago.

These distinctive colonial apartments used to be the homes of British soldiers and their families from the fifties to the early seventies.

Today, with the government keen in developing this area as a focus for arts and design, some of the buildings are leased out to local and foreign artists, architects and creative designers.

Opposite of Portsdown, separated by the Ayer Rajah Expressway (AYE), is another similar estate with many colonial houses, mostly for residential uses. The estate is situated beside the Hort Park.

There is a famous eating house in Portsdown known as Colbar (short form for Colonial Bar).

It was first built in 1953 at nearby Jalan Hang Jebat, and started off as a canteen to serve the British military soldiers who lived in Wessex Estate. The canteen has survived over the decades, and expatriates have gradually become its main customers after the British withdrew from Singapore in the late sixties.

In 2003, Colbar shifted to Whitchurch Road to continue serving the masses with its signature dishes in chicken chop and curry chicken.

Other similar estates in Singapore include Dempsey, Rochester Park and Seletar Camp. Dempsey and Rochester Park have transformed into high end food and beverage heavens whereas part of Seletar Camp is being reserved for the new Aerospace Hub.

Seletar Camp, popular for its peaceful and bucolic feel, currently has dozens of similar black-and-white colonial-styled bungalows leased to locals as well as expatriates.

The camp was completed by the British in 1928, as a means of air travel and air defense for the Royal Air Force (RAF). The name “Seletar” refers to the aboriginal tribes who lived along the coastal regions near the Johor Straits.

After 2006, the camp became increasingly affected by the rapid development of the Aerospace Hub, where almost half of the 378 original colonial houses have been identified to be demolished to give way to the new facilities.

Many of the houses bounded by Park Lane and Hyde Park Gate, now under Jurong Town Corporation (JTC), are left empty and awaiting for demolition. The conditions of these beautiful black and white houses are still in good shape.

There are also three huge mansions at Park Lane, one of which was the clubhouse. The clubhouse had many facilities, including a large swimming pool. It is unknown whether the other two mansions were formerly of residential use or other purposes. The designs of these mansions look to be a mixture of colonial and Malay flavours, with many pillars added to the first level of the buildings, much like a Malay attap house standing on stilts.

Fortunately for now, the houses at Mornington Crescent, Lambeth Walk and Maida Vale are spared from the modernisation. However, it remains unsure whether these occupied houses will be demolished after their leases expire in a few years’ time. The Aerospace Hub is expected to be completed in 2018.

The Seletar Base Golf Course was built as a golf club for the British personnel in 1930. The National Sports Promotion Board (NSPB) took over the course in 1971 after the British Forces withdrew from Singapore, renamed it as Seletar Country Club. When the club moved to Lower Pierce Reservoir in 1995, the course became one of the few golf courses open to public. It had also shut down due to the development of the area.

Like the former British Air Base at Seletar, there are also many classic black and white colonial houses at the former British Naval Base at Sembawang (now Sembawang Shipyard). More than two dozens of the houses are scattered on both sides of Admiralty Road East and West.

sembawang colonial houses4

There is a network of minor roads in the Sembawang vicinity that used to be restricted to public access in the past. The roads were mostly named after the Commonwealth countries and former British colonies, such as Canada, Kenya, Pakistan and Sudan. Some, like Auckland Road, Durban Road, Lagos Road and Wellington Road, were named after their cities. The rest had their names taken after the overseas territories of Britain. Bermudas, Falkland and Gibraltar are some of the examples.

sembawang colonial houses5

sembawang colonial houses6

sembawang colonial houses7

While most of the houses are occupied and well-maintained, some are in poor conditions. Just a short distance away from the century-old Beaulieu House (now a restaurant) and the Sembawang Jetty, it is a serene and quiet environment for the current residents here.

Published: 13 December 2010

Updated: 06 August 2013

59 Responses to Portsdown, Seletar & Sembawang Colonial Houses

  1. Patrick Ong says:

    Sadly most of these houses are not under conservation…And the high rent is chasing the earlier tenants – the families, singles and artists – out and replaced by regular folks with loads of money

  2. Jesse Abdullah says:

    Was living at Warwick road during the late 90s. Love the tranquillity, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Walking along the railway towards Hang Jebat mosque, just for a bowl of yummy chicken curry. Any idea are those colonial houses at Portsdown and Warwick still exist?

  3. Ken Benge says:

    I lived at 1 Lancaster Gate fron 1968/1971 and have happy memopries of the camp. I went back on 2007 and saw the bungalow which had been modernised but didn';t have the courage to knock on the door and speak to the occupants. Went back again 2009 and sadly much of the camp as I knew it was being demolished.
    Hope to make one more visit during 2012 as have friends who were and still are trading in Jalan Kayu.
    Sadly,what was the home and community for thousands of serviceman and their families is almost beyond recognition.

  4. Nick says:

    A little off topic here but, does anyone know anything about the bungalow on top of bukit timah hill?

  5. cate says:

    it looks really interesting, would love to visit somedays.

  6. Rob Cannon says:

    HI, What a lovely lot of nostalgic pictures to look at. I lived at RAF Seletar in 1960-62 and we moved on to the camp to live at 8, The Oval. I revisited there about four years ago, the year of the 1st grand prix, and it was lovely to be able to see our lovely bungalow. Very happy childhood memories. My Dad was a teacher at the RAF Seletar junior school.

    • Sandra Purnell says:

      I was an RAF Sgt.’s daughter at School in 1960/61 . We lived at 52 Regent’s St. RAF Seletar. I would love to revisit when I come to Singapore on 6-9th June 1914. Currently living in Australia on route back to UK> Do the houses still exist.

  7. howard says:

    i was serving my national service at school of manpower training in seletar camp. this was where we were trained to type using manual typewriters. there was a encik(warrant officer) who shouted at trainees(like myself) as “baboons”. he has since retired and is now a grassroot leader in sembawang/nee soon grc.

  8. Abigail says:

    I’m lucky enough to be the current resident of the house pictured above as Sembawang house 3. It is indeed a wonderful, serene area of Singapore – I appreciate the beauty every single day. There are also many more of the black and white bungalows on and around Canada Road across the main Admiralty Road East from the shipyard. Interestingly enough the house opposite mine is known as the old Khatib mess, see:

    http://pictures.nl.sg/434399a2-6e75-486d-8639-245949e7638e.aspx

    for photo.
    Thank you for your lovely website and I must get to the hot spring – it’s been on my to-do-list forever!

    • Gin says:

      Hi! Abigail,
      I once came acrossed the petrol car and officers petrolling the area, the petrol car and the uniforms they wore do not look like the normal police officers we usually see. Just out of curiosity, are they under different forces? or they are a special unit for the area?

  9. elroygoh02 says:

    I thought the colonial houses were detached houses that people were living in! There is also colonial houses near Changi Village. I went on a small road through many of those houses and I thought that would lead to the Old Changi Hospital!

  10. Haroon says:

    Occupant of 14 Knights Bridge here from 1970s to 1994. :) I loved my childhood life. Sadly the house has been demolished. :(

  11. Peter Dunlop author "Street names of Singapore" says:

    Please do not call the concrete and brick houses “Black & White” The black paint was only added after they were transferred to Singapore civilian ownership in the ’70s and were then let to the public. Strictly, the term black and white should only apply to those house with significant timber in their construction. The timber was painted black to help resist termites

    • Thanks…
      most of the colonial houses at Seletar, Sembawang and Portsdown are built in concrete and bricks, which means there aren’t many Black and White houses left in Singapore

  12. Peter Dunlop author "Street names of Singapore" says:

    I would welcome debate on the term “Black & White”.
    In my recollection, none of the brick and concrete houses such as at Portsdown Road, Rochester Park, Medway Park and so on had any black paint when they were British military quarters. I believe that the black paint was an addition, a marketing ploy, of the various government agencies entrusted with these properties and their immensely valuable land bank, since independence. At first the rents were very low but in time some of them became popular with Singaporeans and the rents began to rise.
    I believe that the term “Black & White” should apply strictly to houses with a significant amount of timber in their construction. Such houses are to be found in Alexandra, Tanglin, off Scotts Road and behind Dunearn Road and elsewhere. Many were built as quarters for military and administrative officers of the colonial government

  13. Keegan says:

    Peter Dunlop, that’s very interesting and pertinent info! Thanks a lot! Now i understand why there are so many so called “Black and White Bungalows” in unexpected areas of Singapore – it’s cos they aren’t REALLY colonial B&W houses!!! And yes, what you say about it being a marketing ploy is sooooooooooo true!! Thanks for opening my eyes!

  14. Katena Leck says:

    Hi,
    I’ve been living in a colonial bungalow in seletar camp since 1994 to 2008. Had a wonderful time there. Can anyone tell me when were the houses at Warwick road built? Were they built the same time as Ports down road colonial houses?

  15. Shona Fullerton says:

    We lived in Montreal Rd a the Naval Base (Woodlands) from 1971-1974. Dad was with the RAF.

    We had also lived at Changi, on the Chip Bee estate and Krangi.

  16. There is a colonial-styled house along Alexandra Road, left vacant for several years… Anyone has info of this abandoned house?

  17. Sin Yee says:

    some of the old colonial houses are very visually interesting and I’m looking for an abandoned one for filming of a short film. Anyone has good suggestions and how do I go about applying for the permission to shoot the short film at the place?

  18. Chris says:

    Hi, I just lived in 202 Lagos Circle at Sembawang after a stint working with the MoD.

  19. Rai says:

    Hello there! Just wondering if you know any infomartion about this bungalow at Thomson Rd. It is visible from PIE toward Changi entering from Thomson. It has a driveway uphill leading to the main building. When i was walking pass, i could see there were some birds, not sure if its a hen, along with 3 or 4 of its chicks at following foraging near d grassy area. I really had that old school kampong feeling. Really curious about the current owner and what it used to be. I saw a sign “Europa Country Club” but the guard said that its a private property and there is no entry.

  20. Joyce Lewis says:

    My husband and I were both serving members of the RAF and were posted together to RAF Seletar in 1967. We stayed at the Pasir Ris hotel for a week before finding a house in Jalan Tari Zapin off Jalan Kayu, this was only for another few weeks as we were then allocated a small bungalow on Seletar camp in Edgware Road. We are going to Australia for a holiday in the New Year and stopping three nights in Singapore We would love to see if any of our old haunts still exist and have a trawl down memory lane as we have such fond memories of Singapore and Seletar. I was demobbed in late 1969 and we came home with our baby daughter in 1970.
    Can anyone advise whether it would be worth going to visit Jalan Kayu or has it all gone now?
    Joyce

    • katenaleck says:

      Hi Joyce, I feel a need to answer to your post as there are some coincidence of your time spent in Singapore as with me living here.  My husband and I moved into hay market in seletar camp in 1994 and stayed right up to 1st January 2009 when the government took back most of the rented black and white houses in the camp for air hub development.  We then bought a house at Jalan Tari Zapin. And stayed there for 4 years till end of last year. We missed the lay back and close to nature living of a black and white house that we moved into Normanton estate ( portsdown black and white) where we are also closer to our boys school.

      Edgware has still half a street intact but the camp has changed alot, Jalan Kayu miracly survive through the years,  most of the houses along the road have retained its old look but alot of food places have popped up too. It has still a very old charm about it with the roti prata shop still there. Overall I think though the camp has changed alot, it is still worth a walk down memory lane. Hope you have a good time should you decide to visit Singapore and Seletar Camp.

      Katena

      Sent from Samsung Mobile

    • Hi Joyce, you can check out “A Walk Through the Old Neighbourhood – Jalan Kayu” on how Jalan Kayu looks like today… There is also a couple of old photos of Jalan Kayu in the 1970s and 80s

      Jalan Kayu still very much remains the same as before, but Seletar Camp, as what Katena has described, has changed a lot in recent years

  21. Peter Clay says:

    Hi Joyce, my name is Peter Clay and I was stationed at RAF Seletar from 1966 to 1970 with 52 Sqdn. My family and I lived first in Jalan Tari Zapin but after 4 months we moved to Seletar Hills but this was only to last for 3 months as the RAF then moved us into 23 Birdcage Walk on the base and there we stayed until we left Singapore in February 1970. I moved across to work out of RAF Changi when Seletar became the first air base handed over to the Singapore Armed Forces in February 1969. I then travelled to and from Seletar to Changi every day for a year before sadly leaving Singapore at the end of February 1970. I am returning to Singapore in October 2014 and look forward to seeing all of the changes that have taken place.

  22. Peter Clay says:

    Hi Joyce Many thanks for your rapid reply to my comments on Seletar. I thought it might have changed beyond all recognition but it seems some is still recognisable. Is it still a military base or is access open to the general public? If not I suppose I will have to write to the Commanding Officer to request permission to enter so that I can show my son and daughter in law who will be with me where we used to live.

    • Joyce Lewis says:

      Hi Peter, That was weird, I have just got home and read your messages and then to find that you thanked me for my reply was very odd. I am just replying! We have not yet been back to Seletar, we travel in January 2014, so can’t answer your questions. I was hoping for similar answers!. Your spell of service was pretty much the same as ours except that we stayed at Seletar until June 1970, I was a Cpl WRAF on Seletar and the very last member of the WRAF on the station, I worked until November 1969 when I retired to have our first child. My husband was a Sergeant in 6 TSU and he worked on Seletar until we came home in June 1970. I was in Changi hospital having our daughter in February 1970 when you were travelling home. Hope you enjoy your visit next year, if I find out anything useful I will let you know next March. Best Wishes Joyce

      • Peter Clay says:

        Hi Joyce Sorry the reply was not from you but from REM SG my mistake. However I hope you enjoy your trip in March and I look forward to your comments on your return. I think we were there at the same time and I have a daughter who was born in Changi hospital on 19 July 1967.Its hard now looking back to realise that she is 47 years old but then again I am 72, I guess we never think in our minds how old we are. Best wishes Peter

    • Hi Peter, I’m not Joyce but RemSG, the author of this page. I’m the one who replied you above ;)
      There is still a small restricted military camp but much of the Seletar vicinity has been opened to public access since many years ago, so you can just drive/walk in at your own leisure.
      As mentioned, Seletar has undergone big changes particularly in the past 2/3 years. Half of the colonial houses there have been vacated and will probably be demolished soon. Some of the old roads were expunged too (I’ll upload the maps later)

    • siti says:

      Hey Peter, I just thought I would write this reply. Your comment above reminded me so much of what happened when my late father attended my graduation in England in 1995. His situation is somewhat the reverse of yours. He was with the Singapore Army and in the 50s he was sent to England (I think for training). We went to Salisbury and there was one military base he wanted to return to. Unfortunately, we did not write in first so there was no chance for him to visit. He seemed more than happy though, to be able to see it from the outside.
      As his daughter, I was so proud of him and was sad he didn’t get to go in. I would imagine, your son and daughter-in-law would also like to see a part of your history… if indeed it is still visible (with the change Singapore has gone through).
      I am currently in Canada, but I am sure Singapore would welcome you :)

  23. Peter Clay says:

    Hi SMG sorry for the mix up. Many thanks for your info and look forward to your map of the present situation.

  24. Hi, these are the maps of Seletar, ten years apart

    Map of Seletar 2002

    (Source: Singapore Street Directory 2002)

    Map of Seletar 2013

    (Source: http://www.streetdirectory.com/)

  25. Joyce Lewis says:

    Hello everyone, thank you for the really nice replies to my message. Also thanks for the maps, I see that Edgware Road is still there although foreshortened. I think it looks as though our old house, number 30 has dropped off the world! Never mind it will still be good to go back and look at the camp and Jalan Kayu, might even have a wander down Jalan Tari Zapin. It is nice to know that we will be able to go onto the camp area without having to apply for permission. Next we will have to find out how to get from the centre of Singapore City out to Jalan Kayu, still it will be fun to find out. Thanks again Joyce

    • David says:

      Hi Joyce, Peter, as per the author of this blog, Seletar Camp has changed alot since the days when you lived here. But some of its charms still remain and I think it is definitely worth a visit, at the very least to stop by at the prata shop outside for a hot (or cold) teh tarik (pulled tea)

      The old camp gates are still around, but without any sentries now, you can drive or walk through freely. Nice to note that even the old searchlights at the top of the gates are still intact. And beside the entrance is a cairn that was just unveiled a few months back by the RAF Seletar Association when a few of it’s members flew to Singapore for the ceremony;

      http://www.asiaone.com/print/News/Latest%2BNews/Singapore/Story/A1Story20130402-412941.html

      That too should be worth a visit to see and take a couple photos. After that it’ll be a trip down memory lane for you as you pass through the gates and see the roundabout and the familiar names; Edgeware, Maida, Lambeth. Take a lovely stroll around (but preferably not in the heat of the Singapore 12 noon sun) these streets that you used to call home. The houses are all still there and very well conserved. You will see some very uniquely done up homes, including one filled with lovely vintage automobiles and motorcycles with it’s own 1950s style garage.

      Old Birdcage Walk’s houses are still there too, but most are either empty or leased to aerospace related companies as they are on the other side closer to the aerospace sector. You can definitely walk right up to them nonetheless, no military restrictions.

      Need to point out something relating to the above 2013 map; it does not show Oxford street, but trust me, it’s still there, I currently live at Oxford Street

      Back to the walkabout; at the end of Oxford Street and before you enter Old Birdcage walk is a lovely old canteen under a big tree, operating since the 1960s till today. Mostly serving tea, coffee and light snacks and opened till 4pm (closed sundays). Another nice place to stop for a break before you head towards Old Birdcage. From there you can continue to explore the other side of the camp before making your way back out to Jalan Kayu.

      Getting from downtown to old Seletar airbase -> either just take a taxi direct, or you can take the subway (MRT) to either Sengkang or Punggol station, then take a 5 minutes taxi ride from there. There is also a bus 103 direct from Serangoon bus interchange. This is the only bus that goes into the old airbase estate

      Interesting side note reminding us of Seletar’s past; just last week they found a Japanese aerial bomb near St Martin’s Lane while digging. It is a 100kg bomb from WW2 that didnt detonate and stayed lodged in the ground all these years. Imagine; during the time you were living in Old Birdcage Walk this scary device was underground, barely a street from your home :-)

      Thankfully the military has control-detonated the device and all is safe now. Thus as you can see, your old stomping grounds is still a very interesting and beautiful place to visit. Here’s wishing both of you a safe and lovely trip to Singapore and Seletar, take care. – David

  26. Lunch at the nostalgic Colbar @Whitchurch Road






  27. Jennie Aries says:

    As a teenager aged 15 we walked along Lagos Circle regularly to get to the Naval Base Club to the Teenagers Room, where, I met my husband, who also lived in the Naval Base, further towards the Gate, you used to get to The Causeway to cross to Jahore B. We did return, 17 years ago, and had a lovely day touring around the Base, visiting our old haunts, including the Dockyard Pool!

  28. Joyce Lewis says:

    Thank you for your information David, we are really looking forward to our visit in February and getting quite excited at the prospect. Joyce

  29. horlicksyey says:

    Hello! I was just wondering if anyone knows the location of the house in the last two pictures ?

    Thank u!! :-)

  30. Abigail says:

    @ Horlicksyey – I think Wellington Road, Sembawang.

  31. Laishrem Prakash Kumar Singh says:

    Hi ,

    So many memories just dance around me this morning and I went back to my 1984, when I was living in 108 Jalan Hang Jebat with my family. I remember my first friend Robin , who lived on 107 top floor with family, they are two brothers & one sister, his father like music. I wish I can get his contact. I miss you my friend, when I went on 1996, it was just like same it was, and I spent my whole day.
    Contact Me: Laishrem@gmail.com

    With love
    Prakash

  32. An empty colonial house at Dahan Road, off Admiralty Road West. There’s also an old makeshift shelter (bus stop?) outside the house.


  33. janice goh says:

    hi, we are interested to be able to rent a house in seletar camp. our kids will love to live in a house surrounded by nature. my husband and i will love the sound of crickets…
    what kind of rent should we be expecting to pay?

  34. Libby says:

    Hi
    Does anyone have any information about Rochester Park?

    My father lived there from 1957-1962 and I visited a few weeks ago. The house he lived at – number 18 – and a number of others on the road are boarded up for redevelopment.

    I wondered what was going ot happen to the boarded up houses. A number of others in the vicinity have been converted to restuarants.

    Thanks in advance!

  35. Black and whites at old Seletar airbase to get new lease of life

    The Straits Times
    Feb 11, 2014

    The black and white bungalows at the former Seletar airbase were built to house officers from Britain’s Royal Air Force before the outbreak of World War II.

    Now they could house offices, schools, restaurants, spas and sports facilities under plans being drawn up by the Government, The Straits Times has learnt.

    All 32 bungalows, which have been vacant in recent years, and two former military buildings at The Oval and Park Lane will also be gazetted by the Urban Redevelopment Authority for conservation.

    Despite the planned makeover, JTC Corporation is intending to maintain the colonial charm of the structures. “This will add vibrancy to the area and the ambience will also be preserved with the decision to zone it as a heritage site,” said JTC’s aerospace director Leow Thiam Seng.


  36. Some empty yet beautiful colonial houses at Rochester area, opposite Star Vista




    • Libby says:

      Do you know what these houses are being redeveloped into? My father lived at number 18 and has many happy memories of the area.

  37. David Taylor says:

    THe RAF Seletar Association have in their ranks members who lived and worked at Seletar from as far back as the thirties up until closure as an RAF Base in 1969. Lots of data in our archives on everything to do with the base from 1928 the the present day. For details contact dt@deltatango.net

  38. falwasser says:

    Nostalgic… As a child we lived in a beautiful house on Ratus Road Sembawang, apartment on Admiralty Road and then Durban Road flats (an amazing community there).

    It’s sad seeing the empty houses. The stories they could tell. The echoes of laughs and playing through those houses. Sad.

  39. Janet says:

    What Fun! Just fell into this blog while looking for names of streets! I’m scanning all my pictures and trying to document them. We moved on the base when it first opened to the public in 1976. Hardly anyone was living there and I had my pick of bungalows…I chose the one on Edgeware right where it faces Knights Bridge. I picked this one because it had a telephone booth right outside. I knew it was going to take months before I could get my own. I was alone most of the with two little boys while my husband was flying in Indonesia. What good memories… most of the families were British (I’m an American)… wonderful Halloween party – trick-or-treating all over the base followed by “tea” / BBQ! I remember my boys’ friends who lived on Knights Bridge – Bryan and Jenny Rebecca…how I learning to play golf on an empty golf course – Sammy was the pro…chasing our little dog home and locking him up so he wouldn’t roll in the sand traps! Matthew was our grocer who came by a couple of times a week.

    Thanks for the memories! It was so long ago.

  40. Effa says:

    Hi,
    Does anyone know if I can rent any of these colonial houses for a 2day event (wedding)?

  41. Barbara Lake says:

    I lived on Wessex Estate twice. The first time 1952 – 1954. Cannot remember the name of the court but it was directly opposite the Pasir Panjang Infants school. We watched it being built and then I went there. From 1959 – 1960 we lived further up in Gibraltar Court.

    We lived on Birdcage Walk, Seletar from 1958 – 1959.

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