Monday, August 25, 2008

My Grandfather – Tessa Mitchell

My paternal grandfather, Lewis Williams, lived and worked in Singapore in the early years of the 20th century. He was employed by a company called Topham, Jones and Railton and worked in Singapore from about 1911 until about 1930. Topham, Jones and Railton were the civil engineering firm who built the King’s and Queen’s Docks and in 1922 began building the causeway linking Singapore to Johor Bahru.

Recently I was going through some photographs in my late Mother’s belongings and came across two large photographs from my grandfather of the newly built causeway in 1924. These have now been donated to National Archives of Singapore.

Causeway from North

Causeway from South

My father, Frank Ivor Williams, was born in Swansea, but spent his early years with his parents in Singapore. His younger brother, my Uncle Idris, was born in Singapore. Both boys were sent home to the UK at the age of seven or eight, only seeing their parents on their occasional ‘home leave’. Here is a photograph of my father at an early age with his Amah which is dated 3rd March 1911.

Photo of my grandparents

I know very little about my grandparents’ life in Singapore. My grandfather died in 1948 and although my grandmother lived until the early 1960s she did not talk about her past. I think life in Singapore must have been very luxurious in comparison to their later days. They lived in Cliff House (where my uncle Idris was born), a very large and well appointed house on Bukit Chermin Road between the Keppel golf links and Chermin Way. The house is still there and is now owned by the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) who rent it out. It is apparently not possible to see the house from the road but it can be seen, situated above an oil jetty, from the north west corner of Sentosa. Here is a recent picture of the house taken from the sea.

View of Cliff House viewed from the sea. Photo courtesy of Peter Chan, 2007.

My cousin Martin visited Singapore in 1993 or 94 and was lucky enough to be shown around the house as it was between tenancies. He particularly noted the large and airy size of the rooms – one way to keep cool before the days of air conditioning. Here is a picture of the front of the house taken on that visit.

Photo of Cliff House car port. Photo courtesy of Martin Williams, 1994.

Later my grandparents moved to a large bungalow in Johor Bahru – close to the construction of the causeway. Here is a photo of my grandmother in front of that house.

After work on the causeway my grandfather worked on a geological survey for the new naval base at Sembawang and then on a hydro-electric dam project in Perak.
My family, my sister, Susan Tessier, my cousin Martin Williams and myself have very few artefacts from my grandparent’s life in Singapore. They lived a peripatetic life moving to various engineering projects and were bombed out of their home whilst living in Portsmouth in the 1940s. We have a few water colours of tropical scenes (my grandfather was also a water colourist) and among a few other photographs, this one dated 25th September 1922, of my grandparents and friends swimming at Pulau Ubin.

We also have a mahjong set, some bits of china and a big brass bowl but little else.

I shall be visiting Singapore in mid March 2009 with my husband Brian Mitchell who has also contributed to this blog. He will be looking for memories of his time there as a teenager in the 1960s and I will be looking for those long lasting signs of my grandfather’s time in Singapore – the causeway and Cliff House.

Tessa Mitchell

** More pictures of Cliff House here.


Victor said...

Welcome Brian and Tessa. I will be looking forward to meet up with you together with Chun See and Peter.

yg said...

i blogged about this mysterious villa - so, it is called cliff house - before. you can see it from the new extension of labrador park.

i have always wondered who owns/owned it and if it was occupied.

Lam Chun See said...

Thanks Yg. I didn't know that 'your house' is one and the same as this one. You think you can help us to find out more. For example, is it open to public? Brian has unearthed quite a bit of history this place; would be nice if we could visit it.

Lam Chun See said...

But first, let me add a link to your post.

Anonymous said...

The government has indicated it wishes to offer that house and all those black & white bungalows on Chermin Hill (Berlayar Hill as it was once called) as a hotel site sometime in late 2008, provided the property market still holds up well.

Not that it has never been done before as we have seen Scarlet Hotel(which belongs to those one of a kind heritage houses), this will be the first time a black & white bungalow has been earmarked as a hotel project.

The former Beaufort Hotel on Sentosa island (what's it called now???) was once the pre-war barracks of the Royal Engineers on Pulau Blakang Mati.

BTW Cliff House was designed and built by the Singapore Harbour Board sometime in the early 1920s.

Anonymous said...

My uncle, Idris Williams was at Cliff house (his birth place)again just after the 2nd World War. It was then used as an Officers Mess. I will ask my cousin, Martin Williams for more detail.
Tessa Mitchell

Icemoon said...

I didn't know Pulau Ubin has a swimming pool.

Peter mentioned Beaufort Hotel. I wonder is that the one with a soccer field outside the barrack? The monorail (is the line demolished?) passed right beside the field.

Victor said...

The Beaufort Hotel was renamed The Sentosa Resort & Spa in 2002.

Icemoon, shouldn't that be the seaside off Pulau Ubin and not a swimming pool?

Anonymous said...

One time there was a Mississippi River boat moored at the pier to Sentosa island - where is it now? Wen there once for Tex-Mexicana food.

There was also a similar river-boat in the 1970s called the "Singapore Lady" which took visitors for boar tide and dinner in the waters off Clifford Pier. Are they the same river-boats?

Icemoon said...

Peter, are you talking about the boat offering food with Christian theme? Actually there are two restaurants on the boat. The one with theme is on top, open air. The Tex-Mexicana is below, in air-con. The boat is at Marina South now, at the ferry terminal.

Icemoon said...

Victor, I'm not sure leh. Look at the old Chinese Swimming Club. Isn't their swimming pool technically at the seaside? LOL

Icemoon said...

Peter might be referring to - this

Lam Chun See said...

I seriously doubt that there was a swimming pool in Pulau Ubin in 1922.

I took a closer look at the scan that Tessa sent me. Definitely not a modern swimming pool. The edge of the 'pool' is a row of wooden stumps and the coconut tree is just beside the pool. Probably it's the sea. Looks more like a pond actually.

I will upload a biggr photo.

Lam Chun See said...

In an earlier post, FF expressed amusement at the 'fashion' of 3-year old Peter. Actually taking a closer look at the fashion in Tessa's photos, I find them quite fascinating. Surprised that in our hot weather, the folks are so conservatively dressed. And then there is the Amah's attire and the lady in samfoo posted by Peter in his Tiong Bahru (1).

And then I went back to see Freddy Neo's photo of him and his British neighbour. I realised that when we were kids, we tended to stand quite straight (attention!) when posing for the camera.

Anonymous said...

Actually now that you brought up the subject, I wondoer how many of us can remember the "infant fashion" we had. I still have my months old photo and initially I thot why not put it up on the blog. Then sensibility knocked me.

Back in the 1950s, it was fashionable for infant males to do studio shots posing totally nude as if to prove their manhood. I checked around and found my female cousins never had to do nude shots. I checked the name of the photo studio and found it to be Lucky Studio at Tiong Bharu boutique hotel location.

Over to you Chun See and Victor......what about you guys?

Anonymous said...

Thanks icemoon - the river-boat is correct.

Looking at Tess 3 photos of the house, the couple on the lawn and the pond, they look the same. Check the wooden balustrade - they r the same. The roof is attap and look more Anglo-Malay architectural influence. Could it be outside Singapore like a summer resort. Maybe Johore? Unlikely to be Pulau Ubin. Seen similar houses in the Chancery Lane area in Singapore.

Lam Chun See said...

I have some photos taken very young but all 'decently' clothed. I think an uncle of ours took them. There are few family portraits taken in studio.

Anonymous said...

We have another photo of the Pulau Ubin swimmng group - this time showing more of the house. And both photos have (in ink and old fashioned handwriting)details on the back identifying the place as Pulau Ubin and giving dates so we are sure they are correctly identified.

We also have a further photo of a sort of swimming shed and fenced area and this one says on the back 'The place were we bathe. It is on the sea shore fenced off to keep alligators and sharks out. Willy and self in water.' Willy is I assume the name Tessa's grandmother called her grandfather and it is dated 3rd March 1912. This is the same handwriting as on the Pulau Ubin photos.

yg said...

i have not gone to keppel club to find out about cliff house but i found something at this website:

you may want to check it out.

Icemoon said...

I'm awaiting photos of the Ubin Swimming Pool by our guest bloggers. :P

Lam Chun See said...

In talking about that Pulau Ubin swimming pool, I think we have overlooked the fact that the year was 1922, a full 86 years ago. Out of curiosity, I did a bit of googling about the history of swimming pools and came across this interesting bit about the first Olympics swimming event here.

In 1896, the first of the modern Olympic Games were held in Athens, Greece..... The swimming event was held in the Aegean Sea, in the Bay of Zea. The gold medalist for the swimming event was a fellow named Alfred Hoyos Guttman. Of the event, he said that his greatest struggle "was against the towering twelve-foot waves and the terribly cold water."

Helps to put things in perspective doesn't it?

Tom said...

Tom said,
Brian, and Tessa, I like the two photographs of the Singapore Causeway in its early days, it is the first time I have ever seen them, I realy think you brought up a wee bit of history, the second photo, Causeway from the south, caught my eye, when I was haveing a good look at it , I was just wondering if the two ships, and the three barges, in the photo were Civil, or British Navy?. talking about Pulau Ubin, could Peter or Chun See, or Zen help me out here, if my memory is right, was there a rifle range on Pulau Ubin, Iam sure I use to do some shooting practice there.

Anonymous said...

The rifle range on an island together with some buildings was Pulua Tekong Besar. It must have been a pre-WW2 construction. I think it had 2 ranges - 100m and 300m. Went there once. I understand its still exists just behind the Tekong BMTC School - one building was designated a heritage center.

On Pulau Ubin, I have photos of a Scottish-looking bricked house which was previously occupied by some British families during the 1920s.

Icemoon said...

Tom's zoning in on the photos caught my attention.

Have a question for the oldies here. In the first photo (Malaysia's side), is the hill behind the Causeway the famous Hill 95?

Lam Chun See said...

I don't know of any Hill 95. But I do know of Hill 181 (I think that's the correct figure) at Marsiling. We had our defence camp there during my section leaders trg. One night I was guarding the sector facing JB. I could see the lights of JB and the causeway, and it was really quite lovely. I mentioned that timeless moment here.

However, I don't think Hill 181 is visible from this photo. It is more to the left.

Lam Chun See said...

Tom. I think Peter is right. That island with the firing range was probably Pulau Tekong. I did a couple of army reservist in-camp trainings there in the 80's. There was one camp which comprised mainly wooded buildings. I did a few sessions there. Another was further in-land. I did one session there.

You can see some photos of Pulau Tekong taken in 1969 here.

yg said...

the historical hill is at woodlands town park east in marsiling. i am not sure of the number - whether it's 95, 130 or 181. my friend who lives in marsiling gave the name of the hill as 130. i blogged about the park here:

(p.s. i must learn from chun see how to use html tags in my comment, so that i don't have to type out everything)

Tom said...

Tom said..
Thanks CHun See and Peter for joging my memory, yes I remember now the rifle range was not that long , 100m to 300m would be about right, I always thought the practice range was on Pulau Ubin not Pulau Tekong, thanks for the memories, Iam hoping to visit alot of the places I use to know when I come out to visit you guys, And Singapore, Iam hoping it wont be to long before I come out.

Lam Chun See said...

Tom. Let me know if you are coming to Spore. I can bring you to Rifle Range Road which is just a couple of km from my house. And of course Changi.

Anonymous said...


sorry for the delay in responding (away for a few days) but checking out the high quality scans of the causeway photos suggests that the boats are barges plus a couple of civilian craft that may have has something to do with the construction - the barges might well have been used to transport the material for the causeway which was excavated from an island off the north coast of Singapore

Anonymous said...

Hello Tessa,
I was amazed to find out about this great blog especially your story regarding your grand father Frank Lewis Williams . I have been doing genealogical research for almost 4 years now to trace the long lost british side of my maternal family : The Jones ( Milford Phillips , Martha Clara , Tom Bright Jones the 3 of them stepbrothers and sisters of your grandfather and your great aunt Mabel Ellen Williams ).
Milford Philipps works also in the same company in Singapore as a civil engineer and dock contractor
I would be delighted to be in touch with you.
My name is Dominique Coze

Anonymous said...

Hello Dominique,
I have passed your comment on to my cousin Martin Williams. He has done a great deal of family research and I am sure he will want to contact you too. How do we get hold of you more directly than via this splendid blog?
Tessa Mitchell

Anonymous said...

Hello Tessa ,
My email address is

kim said...

I am hoping that someone from this blog will be able clear up a question I have. My ancestor William Weymss Ker(r) who has a long and somewhat important place in both merchant history and that of the building of Singapore Harbour is said in many sources to have been the builder of Cliff House and that it was built on the summit of Mirror Hill ( Bukit Chermin ? ) in around 1848 but that it was burnt down in the 1960's. Can anyone provide me with the linking proof that the house pictured is the same Cliff House? Im happy to answer questions. Kim ( Australia )

David Hope said...

You are correct - Cliff House was located on the top of Bukit Chermin and yes burnt down in the 60s

Cliff house is not the house one can see from the water

John Torgersen said...

We lived there in 1976 and 1977. While not the original Cliff House, it was indeed called that when we lived there. I have many pictures if anyone is interested.

Anonymous said...

We moved into Cliff House in 77, presumable after you left. We stayed for 4 years until the government did not renew our lease. We were told a government official wanted to move into Cliff House.