In February 1942, with the fall of Singapore to Japan, tens of thousands of Australian and British troops were marched from the city to the infamous Changi POW camp.
Today, Changi Museum is popular with people interested in what happened with the POWs between 1942 and the end of the WW2. The Museum’s collection includes photographs, drawings and letters by prisoners, along with audio tours detailing the lives of the men and women imprisoned there.
But many visitors don’t realise they also can visit the old Tanglin British Barracks on Dempsey Hill – the place from where many of the troops, including about 15,000 Aussies, were marched by the Japanese to Changi. It was a march that reportedly took around 14 hours. Some POW’s remained imprisoned at the Barracks, going out from there to work details.
I never knew about Dempsey Hill on my various trips to Singapore until 2017 when a New Zealand friend living in Singapore took me there for breakfast. What a revelation! It covers more than 200 acres (about 80 hectares), so lots to explore!
Today the old British Army barrack buildings house upmarket restaurants, cafes, and antique shops. Some of them were once gaol cells for prisoners of war, a military hospital, a chapel, and of course, homes for the military and their families. The area includes lovely walking trails, and a wealth of history!
It is an escape from the hustle and bustle of central Singapore, even though it is quite close to the Singapore Botanical Gardens and Orchard Road.
The British Army Tanglin Barracks were built on a former nutmeg plantation in the 1860’s. The buildings were a mix of British colonial and local Asian styles, with wide verandahs and big thatched roofs for good ventilation.
In 1911 the original thatch was replaced by red French tiles that can still be seen on some of the buildings today. Corrugated iron, rusted with time, is on other roofs. The buildings are now protected under Singapore’s conservation guidelines.
An early visitor to the Tanglin Barracks was the famous British writer, Rudyard Kipling who spent time in Singapore in the late 1800’s.
In 1915, during WW1, about 800 Indian soldiers mutinied against British forces in Singapore. They broke into the barracks, killing British officers and freeing German internees. It was a major crisis for the British in Singapore, and it took several days before peace was restored by reinforcements from the British and allied forces.
After WW2, the Barracks became home to the General Headquarters of the Far East Land Forces.
The British eventually withdrew its troops by 1971 following Singaporean independence in 1965. The Singapore Armed Forces moved in and remained there until the barracks was leased out to the private sector, evolving as Tanglin village, a retail enclave that thrives today with antique, carpet and furniture warehouses, cafes and restaurants.
The area was renamed Dempsey Hill in 2007, honouring General Sir Miles Christopher Dempsey, Commander in Chief of the Allied Forces South East Asia, based in Singapore in 1945. He was also the General Officer commanding the Malaya command, based in Singapore.
Sir Miles had fought in both WW1 in France and in WW2 in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. He was the Commanding Officer of the main British force in the 1944 D day landings in France.
I wonder what Sir Miles would think about Dempsey Hill today. It’s a great place to dine, and includes a Michelin star restaurant.
I enjoyed a fabulous breakfast at Jones, the Grocer on my 2017 visit. I believe it no longer operates at Dempsey Hill, and other shops have probably changed hands, particularly with the pandemic. However, there continue to be plenty of good options for dining and shopping, and you access up to date information about them on the Dempsey Hill website at:
I highly rate a visit to Dempsey Hill!