As a Friend of the Museums (FOM) docent I thoroughly enjoy guiding the History and Heritage tours at Gillman Barracks (GB). You’d think spending an hour outdoors amongst lush tropical foliage sharing knowledge about Singapore’s defining moments in its history would satisfy anyone’s desire for entertainment, but for me it goes beyond that. What is most heartwarming is witnessing the testimonials, old photographs and stories shared by visiting relatives of the ex-servicemen once based at Gillman Barracks.
Since 2014 the FOM has offered Art and History tours to the public, two years after Gillman Barracks was converted into Singapore’s Contemporary Arts hub. Eighteen months later saw the introduction of the History and Heritage tours as a test during SG50’s Singapore Heritage Festival. Weeks before the Festival, the National Heritage Board and Economic Development Board approached FOM about offering a history tour and thanks to the determination of two FOM docents, research was quickly compiled and put into a script for history docents to follow. All GB’s history research came from the Singapore Archives, the National Library, field work, online blogs, testimonials and photographs. Today FOM has more research on GB than the National Library Board or Singapore Archives put together!!
Motorcycle Police at Gillman Barracks in 1958. Photo credit: Yeeman Fan
A little about GB history. From 1935-1971, Gillman Barracks served as a British Army barracks and later as a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) camp until 1996 when it was converted into Gillman Village, a restaurant and retail hub. It was named after General Sir Webb Gillman commissioned by the London War Office to assess the defense capabilities of the new naval base in response to the Japanese threat in East Asia. Before the outbreak of WW2, Gillman Barracks served to accommodate the 1st Batallion Middlesex Regiment (1936-38) and 2nd Batallion Loyal Regiment (1938-1942), doubling the size of the infantry in Singapore. Two important milestones took place in the history of Gillman Barracks: firstly, GB was the last British post to fall before surrendering to the Japanese on February 15 1942. Secondly, in 1971 after the British withdrew from Singapore, they sold the barracks to Singapore’s new government for a token sum of $1, and then the SAF Combat Engineers moved in.
Gillman Barracks sits on top of the southern ridges overlooking Keppel Harbour – a site that was once a jungle swamp. At one time Gillman Barracks covered 118 acres spanning from the AYE in the North to Telok Blangah Road in the South, to Alexandra Road in the West and to Mount Faber Park in the East. Nine three-storey housing blocks, the size of Block 9, were built on the hills of Telok Blangah for the single men’s quarters and 48 clusters of married quarters were built along Railway Hill (now the Interlace Condo) and Preston Road. Other buildings functioned as mess halls, regimental institutes and transport depots. The Royal Engineers of Far East Land Forces also built tennis courts, badminton courts, a swimming pool and a cinema to keep the troops entertained during down time. Their fondest memories were of the swimming pool. Today the swimming pool has disappeared somewhere in the jungle and only 11 of the original 70+ colonial buildings remain in an area covering roughly a third of the original.
Visitors can discover more intriguing stories of Gillman Barracks’ past by registering for the one-hour History and Heritage tour on Eventbrite.sg. These tours are offered most Saturdays at 5pm and led by trained FOM docents but do not include visits to the art galleries or the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art (NTU CCA). The FOM also offers Art & History tours at 4pm on Saturdays and these cover some history but focus predominantly on the art galleries and the NTU CCA. If you have not yet visited Gillman, sign up for a tour and see why visitors and docents alike are enchanted by its stories from the past.
Photo credit: Glyn Wright
Excerpt from a testimonial from Glyn Wright sent via email of October 24, 2015:
“My wife and I just returned to our hotel after spending an afternoon at Gillman Barracks. It was an especially poignant visit for me as my maternal grandfather served in the 1st Battalion Middlesex Regiment. Together with my grandmother and mother (who was 12 at the time) he sailed with the battalion from their Egypt station and was among the first soldiers to arrive in 1936 to live there.
We took the History and Heritage tour and with the help of our guide Cassie, I was able to pinpoint the exact location of some photographs I have in my possession that were taken by my relatives in 1936/37. Among them are two photographs of the entrance to the Barracks in which Blocks 37 and 38 and the steps leading up the hill past the regimental badge can clearly be seen.”