31 January 2011

The Pillbox-Bunker and Other Tales of Chancery Lane

The General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the British Forces once called this place home in the 1920s to the 1930s. The Namazie, Alsagoff and Lee (Kong Chian) families, all important historical pioneers, have resided on its revered grounds as well. Our very own war hero, Halford Boudewyn, had also used his friend's tennis court in this area to store a radio and secret war documents during the Japanese Occupation. (More on him below) An area with a rich and abundant history, Chancery Lane has its own fair share of stories to share.

Chris checking out the ventilation hatch

We were first informed of the existence of a semi-hidden pillbox in the Chancery Lane area by our friend, Peter Stubbs of fortsiloso.com. Without hesitation, we set forth for the location given to us and found the pillbox without much trouble. At first glance, it might be hard to spot the pillbox as the owners of the adjoining house have elected to plant a large cluster of bushes in front of the structure to hide it from plain view.

From a top down view, we could see that this pillbox was built to resemble a semi-circle. With its unusual round shape, we felt that it was uncharacteristic of one which was built by the British. It was constructed to face a general northwest direction with an arc of fire ranging from the west to the north and judging by the amount of earth piled on top to reinforce its defence, it was probably made to withstand aerial attacks as well. During the course of our research, we found out that the shape and form of this pillbox was similar to the extinct one situated at the junction of Anson Road and Tanjong Pagar Road.

Based on the comparison of this pillbox's shape and form with that the Tanjong Pagar Pillbox, we believe that there could be a slim chance that this pillbox at Chancery Lane was built by the Japanese. Peter Stubbs also shares us his valuable inputs with us: "I do not think that it is a British design, but am not 100% confident about that. Photos of British pillboxes in Singapore tend to show fairly similar design features. In the UK there were standard designs as well, but there were also some radical departures from standard. I know of some that were disguised as 'normal' buildings, even a section of a brick wall. Some were also half buried like this one at Chancery Lane"

He also mentioned that the idea of this pillbox being built for the purpose of defending the Japanese officer who was staying in that house seems plausible, although the officer would have been a very senior officer. Possible names which were cited were Field Marshal Count Hisaichi Terauchi and Colonel Masanobu Tsuji, the man who planned the Sook Ching massacre. Their protection would have been important to the Japanese. The defence of a regimental British HQ against the Japanese advance was also quite possible as well. Access to the inside of the pillbox may have provided us with some essential clues, such as graffiti as seen in the Battlebox, however, the loopholes of the pillbox had been sealed up and this prevented us from looking inside the pillbox and its interior workings to find out more. We understood from the owner this had to be done as there have been a few occasions where stray dogs had entered the pillbox via the loopholes and gave birth inside, thus leaving them no choice but to seal up the loopholes to prevent any animals from climbing inside or worse still, turning the pillbox into their nest or home. The overwhelming stench from dead animals who chose the pillbox as their final resting place probably hastened the owner's decision to seal it up pronto.

Front of the pillbox - sealed and overgrown with creepers and ferns

Top-down view of the pillbox, showing its unusual round shape.

Krisgage attempting to open up the rusty hatch cover.
Trust me, it weighs so much more than it looks.

As we studied the area, we noticed a rusty hatch cover atop the pillbox. Suspecting that this might be another entrance into the pillbox, we proceeded to lift up the hatch cover, only to find out that it was placed there to cover up a sinkhole. We were then told that the hatch cover belonged to the actual entrance to the pillbox located some 20 metres away. We were led to a unique round structure where a tree had been planted in a protrusion. We unanimously agreed that the structure looked very similar to a gun emplacement, although it was too small to be one. Pointing to the tree, the owner told us that there used to be a hatch where troops could enter, leading into a massive underground bunker perpendicular to the pillbox. As the cover's hinges had rusted through due to the relentless weather, the cover was moved to the sinkhole thereafter.

The top of the structure was covered with a clotted layer of moss.

A small tree planted in place of the entrance to the bunker.

We were amazed by what we heard. This would mean that the underground bunker would be pretty huge in size and conjoined to the pillbox. The owner confirmed this when he told us that the bunker was large and although it was of irregular shape, it roughly stretched from the entrance to the pillbox lengthwise. It must have been a really spacious bunker. Perhaps it was an air-raid bunker with an adjoining pillbox for ground defence as well? The architect of this pillbox must have been really fearful of being attacked both from the air and on land.The owner was also telling us about his younger days where he and his siblings would descend into the pillbox to play. He vividly describes finding various Japanese items which were left behind inside the pillbox, various badges and even a Japanese officer's epaulette.

While this may be a sign that the Japanese had definitely entered this pillbox before, we were advised by Peter Stubbs that the presence of Japanese insignia shouldn't be taken as an indication of this being a Japanese pillbox as they left their mark almost everywhere on our little island. Roughly somewhere in the middle of the bunker, we noticed that there was a stone cover lying atop a rectangular structure. Lifting up the heavy cover, we found out that this was a possible ventilation hatch as it seemed to be the only opening aside from the entrance to the underground bunker and the loopholes of the pillbox. The distance from the top of this hatch to the floor of the bunker was estimated to be roughly seven to eight feet in height.

Do you see the blink and you'll miss it ventilation hatch?

While we were taking photos and examining the hatch and the area around it, we found a couple of old bricks lying nearby. These bricks were emblazoned with the words "P.P.B.F", which meant that they were made in the now defunct Pasir Panjang Brickworks Factory. However, we believe that these bricks were not part of the original pillbox and bunker but added later to the areas around it to cover up potholes and protrusions which might cause injury.

We were also enthralled by the discover of a few round concrete stubs, each with a rusty, circular metal piece sticking out in the middle, which whese are believed to be bases for flagpoles. As for its current state, the flagpoles were probably sawn off later, leaving only the concrete bases and part of the pole intact. We could only imagine which flag would have been fluttering in the wind when this house was still under the military control - The Union Jack, or the Kyokujitsu-ki?

Standing in the vicinity of the pillbox, we thought hard about it - who could have been so important to warrant the construction of a pillbox to protect this house? Most of the Tudor houses in the Chancery Lane area were built in the late 1890s, and the ones that still stand today are extremely well-preserved. The adjoining house to this pillbox was no different. Its simple facade, coupled with a recent coat of black and white paint, simply exuded a charm of yesteryear. With the tranquility around us, we found it hard to imagine that robbery cases were rampant in this area in the early 20th century.

Old stairs leading up to the house

Wooden stumps which were once part of a defence line
consisting of concertina wires surrounding the house, according to the owner

This in turn brought up an interesting question. Who lived in this house before the current owner?

The owner recalls that his family only moved in to this house in the 1960s. He also told us that the previous occupant of the house was in fact a famous ex-international model named Joan Booty. Through a little more research, we then found out that Ms. Booty had actually used that very same house to conduct mannequin and charm classes in the 1950s. Her school, aimed at training young ladies into fully fledged models, was a resounding success judging by the number of fashion shows that the students and graduates from the school were invited to. She also traveled to Hong Kong in the late 1950s to set up a branch of her successful school there as well.

Joan Booty (second from right, top row) and her mannequins posing in her Chancery Lane home
(photo credit: National Archives of Singapore)

Her mannequins, as they were called, were also involved in several high profile events, such as gala dinners and the launch of haute couture labels. They were also involved in the "Fashion on Wheels" motorcade which showcased the latest car models during the Singapore Grand Prix at the Thomson Grand Prix Circuit in the 1960s.

Fashion on Wheels, circa 1960s
(photo credit: National Archives of Singapore)

Models on top of cars, Thomson Grand Prix Circuit
(photo credit: National Archives of Singapore)

We found this really interesting. To borrow a leaf from our friend, T.O.S.S's Harry's book, this brings to mind a compelling belief, that every house, every building and every place, has a story of their own to tell. Who could have imagined that this house had such a colourful ex-owner in Joan Booty and that the house was actually used as a school for models despite the dour presence of the pillbox upfront?

As we left the house to continue our exploration around the area, we thought that it might be good to share some interesting finds and stories from around the Chancery, Mount Rosie and Bukit Tunggal areas.

Mount Rosie and the Heritage Lychee Tree
Not too far away from Chancery Lane is Mount Rosie, a little road which leads uphill. Mount Rosie takes it name after Ms. Rosie De Souza, the wife of the exalted merchant and oldest German resident in Singapore - Theodore Heinrich Sohst - who lived here in his princely home from his arrival fresh off a sailing ship from Germany in 1865 to his death in 1912. It was sad to know that Mr. Sohst lost his sight in his twilight years, but the endearing Ms. De Souza helped him to lighten the burden with her care and attention.

The road was a private driveway leading up to a cluster of exalted bungalows and was lined with several lychee trees, with this massive tree being one of the last few standing. Fortunately, it was discovered by NParks and gazetted as a heritage tree, and for good measure too. One can only imagine the age of this ancient colossus.

Unfortunately, the fruit was not in season.

The lychee tree's massive tree trunks.

The Lee Kong Chian Mansion
Along Mount Rosie lies a wonderful mansion full of splendor and grandeur circumvented with a surrounding plot of land so large you would have thought that it was impossible for someone to own so much land in land-scarce Singapore. This grand mansion is the Lee (Kong Chian) Mansion and is occupied today one of the great philanthropist's sons. The Often heralded as Southeast's rubber and pineapple king, Dato' Lee (he was made Dato' by the Sultans of Johor and Kelantan) was a great man who was a familiar face at charity events and he set up the Lee Foundation (Malaya) in 1960.

Through his love for public work, Dato Lee initiated free public library services for the nation when he donated $375,000 via the Lee Foundation to assist the Government in building the National Library building at Stamford Road. When the National Library was relocated due to the construction of the Fort Canning Tunnel, his sons were determined to follow in their father's inspiring footsteps, donating a hefty sum of $60 million dollars to the National Library Board when the new National Library at Victoria Street. The new National Library's reference library was then renamed the Lee Kong Chian reference library in honour of the Lee Foundation's splendid contribution to society.

The Lee Mansion (with red roof) overlooking its attached grass field

Double gates often meant "Keep Out".
We decided to respect that notion.

Halford Boudewyn - Our War Hero
One of our favourite anecdotes stemming from the Chancery Lane area must be that of Halford Lovell Boudewyn. A police officer before WWII broke out, Boudewyn switched to supplying vegetables during the Japanese Occupation. However, unbeknown to the Japanese, he was actually smuggling secret documents from the Indian National Army (INA) Headquarters on Serangoon Road. At that time, the INA was backed by the Japanese and they were planning an invasion of India (via Burma), the jewel in the crown of the British empire. Like the Japanese, ill treatment was rife amongst the INA and they often tortured the loyal POWs of British India who refused to defect.

A dashing young Halford Boudewyn stands next to his bride,
Tessie Da Silva after the Japanese Occupation in 1946
(photo credit: National Archives of Singapore)

The whole affair started off as a grudge for Boudewyn. He was disgruntled with the Japanese for wrecking his career with the Straits Settlement Police Force in February 1942, where war broke out in the Malayan Campaign. Joining the Straits Settlement Police in 1939 after being educated in St Joseph's Institution, Boudewyn had always wanted to be a policeman. In January 1941, he was promoted to the Inspectorate and was sent to Alor Gajah Police Station (in Malacca), spending his 21st birthday with a double-barrelled gun across his knees, waiting for flying fox and wild boar. The Japanese invasion spelt the end of Boudewyn's ambition of advancement in the force. He was out of the Police Force, forcing him to find a new job. His grievance against the Japanese turned into an intense hatred.

He eventually found work during the Japanese Occupation with an Eurasian food contractor supplying food to Indian Army camps in Singapore. Working with an an Indian army officer housed in the INA HQ that he befriended - Major Aubrey Wyman - Boudewyn realised that he had access to important documents. Everyday, he would send his vegetables to the office daily and receive some returned vegetables, on the pretext that they were rotten, and along with these, documents stolen from an adjutant's office. These documents contained accounts of the POWs' mistreatment, intelligence on Japan's planned invasion of India and other important classified information. Everyday, Boudewyn gave a deep bow to the Japanese as he left for home and his bicycle carrier, where the documents were kept, was never searched by the guards. He then stored all of these documents in an oil drum buried beneath a friend's tennis court located in Chancery Lane. Eventually the house was seized by the Japanese, who converted the tennis court into a vegetable garden. They never found out about Boudewyn's secret stash.

Boudewyn later became a policeman under the Japanese in 1944 and worked for the department dealing with espionage. He was tasked to seize citizens' radios, their possession a crime which were punishable by beheading. While doing this, he kept 2 radios for himself. One was stored at the house at Chancery Lane and the other was daringly hidden in a laundry basket at the Orchard Road Police Station where he worked. With these 2 radios, he monitored Allied broadcasts and transmitted this news to prison camps through MAJ Wymen and others. He also took it upon himself to produce flyers with this transcribed information and pasted them on lamp posts and bus stops, where they were widely read and brought hope to the hoi polloi. After the war, his efforts were rewarded when he was awarded the Colonial Police Medal (Silver) from then-Governor of Singapore, Franklin Gimson. His secret stash of preserved war documents were also forwarded to India for the trial of some errant INA officers. Boudewyn rejoined the Police Force and was promoted to the position of Chief Inspector.

Chancery Lane is definitely a wonderful treasure trove as far as historical events are concerned. We have several more topics concerning this area which we would very much like to pursue, such as the exact location of Flagstaff House, Mount Rosie, which was demolished in 1938 after the GOC relocated to Kheam Hock Road, and the location of the Omaran, the family home of the Alsagoffs, which was yet another building demolished to make way for a condominium. How about the palace where the Sultan of Siak (now part of Indonesia) once resided? There is so much more to follow up, and what we've uncovered is just the tip of the iceberg.

More photos can be viewed here

Do you have any stories / information of this area? We'd love to hear from you!

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Article copyright of Aaron Chan

Photos copyright of Andrew Him and the National Archives of Singapore

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  1. Thank you very revealing... the view of the pillbox shows how it dominates the approach road, Also flagpoles ?? possibly tennis court fencing ? lots of the old B&Ws have them.


    Jon Cooper

  2. I lived at 1 Chancery Lane on the corner of Dunearn Road, 1977-1981. The house has been demolished and the area is now a carpark for neighbouring ACS. During our time there, on the embankment leading up to Barker Road we unearthed several rounds of ammunition, and a complete, live hand grenade. Would love to know more about the history of this house, such a shame it had to be demolished.

  3. I live at 9B Mt Rosie Road until my mother sold the property. I never thought I'd see it go.