Mount Palmer

Singapore Infopedia

by Cornelius, Vernon


Mount Palmer, later known as Mount Parsee (also spelt “Parsi”) or Parsee Hill, was located near Tanjong Pagar and the bay of Telok Ayer Street in theearly 19th century. Mount Palmer, the largest of the hills on the coastal stretch, was approximately 119 ft tall.1 John Palmer, a Calcutta merchant, had acquired the hill shortly after the founding of Singapore. The hill later became a defence facility and was known as Fort Palmer. After the hill was mostly levelled, the road subsequently laid out was named Palmer Battery Road, which was eventually shortened to Palmer Road.2

Named after John Palmer (b. 8 October 1767–d. 22 January 1836, Calcutta, India), Mount Palmer was the first to have a small bungalow at its peak in the 1820s. The head of John Palmer & Company, an Indian agency house, Palmer was known as the father of the Indian mercantile community.3 On 1 January 1827, Robert Hardie obtained a 999-year lease from the secretary of state for British India for that parcel of land. When Palmer ran into financial difficulties in 1827, he sold a portion of the hill to an unknown Parsi in 1828. Palmer’s house then became the Parsi Club and the slopes of the hill were used as burial grounds by the Parsi community in Singapore. It became known as Bukit Parsi (Malay for “Parsi Hill”) among the Malay community.4 An 1884 survey map of Mount Palmer depicts an area for “Parsee tombs” as well as a “Parsi lodge” across the road.5

On 23 May 1867, Robert Hardie sold the land for $6,000 to Hoo Ah Kay, Parsick Joaquim and Cursetjee Pestonjee Lalla, as tenants-in-common and not as joint tenants. Not long after, on 12 May 1871, Lalla sold his share to Hoo and Joachim as tenants-in-common for $2,750.6

From as early as 1819, there had been plans for the construction of fortification for the protection of Singapore against external aggression. This was for the protection of the town and harbour and not the entire island. Captain Edward Lake of the Madras Engineers submitted the first major defence plans. Realising the strategic importance of Tanjong Pagar, Lake chose Palmer’s Hill and Pearl’s Hill as sites for fortification.7 Hence, Mount Palmer had already been singled out as a site of fortification from June 1827, part of a chain of batteries to protect the town and east coast from attack by sea. Part of the hill on Mount Palmer overlooking the eastern entrance to Keppel Harbour became a defence facility called Fort Palmer, which by 1864 had five 56-pounder guns.

The development of the harbour was a major impetus to the economic growth of Tanjong Pagar. The bustle attracted property developers and the former agricultural land was quickly bought over by the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company and private housing developers. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 consequently led to an increase in trade activities. Bullock cart traffic transporting goods from the harbour to the town area made the building of new roads more urgent. In the early 1870s, the removal of the hill was suggested as it was obstructing access to the town. As the cost of building the roads was too high for the Dock Company to bear alone, a deal was struck between them and Governor William Robinson, in which the company was to allow the government to install a battery on top of Mount Palmer. In return, the government was to bear the cost of building the roads to the docks.9

In 1872, the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company purchased part of Mount Palmer from Hoo. On 17 January 1878, Mount Palmer was purchased from the trustees of Joaquim. The following year, the top of Mount Palmer was handed over to the government for a battery.10 A road was constructed soon after, which stretched from Collyer Quay (through Robinson and Anson roads, and later Keppel Road) to the docks.11 In 1878, there were also fears of a war with Russia; on the recommendation of the colonial engineer and Robinson, the defence works on Mount Palmer were reconstituted.12

Initially a defence scheme for the colony which eventually grew into a vast project of reclamation and land construction, Fort Palmer was the last military installation to be removed from Tanjong Pagar. It was demolished in 1905 to make way for the second Telok Ayer Reclamation Project and the construction of Telok Ayer Basin. By the end of the project in 1932, most of Mount Palmer had been levelled for landfill, except for a small knoll housing the remnants of the old Parsi burial ground and the rear of the Fook Tet Soo Khek Temple.13

Today, a small 19th-century mausoleum still stands on a small knoll near the foot of the former Mount Palmer.14 Known as Keramat Habib Noh, this shrine houses the tomb of Habib Noh bin Mohammed al-Habshi, who is believed to be a Muslim saint.15  The Masjid Haji Muhammad Salleh, a mosque built in 1903, is located next to the Keramat Habib Noh.16

In February 2016, the construction of the new Prince Edward Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) Station in the area was announced, with the remnants of Mount Palmer and a single-storey structure in the Bestway Building compound making way for the new Shenton Way Bus Terminal. MRT construction works would skirt around the three existing religious structures in Palmer Road: Fook Tet Soo Khek Temple, Masjid Haji Muhammad Salleh and Keramat Habib Noh.17

Vernon Cornelius & Faridah Ibrahim

1. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 573 (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); George Bogaars, Tanjong Pagar Dock Company 1864‒1905 (Singapore: G.P.O., 1956), 182. (Call no. RCLOS 959.51 BOG)
2. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 2 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 6 (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS]); Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 286. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
3. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 30; The Late John Palmer, Esqre,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 12 July 1841, 3 (From NewspaperSG); Anthony Webster, A. (2007). The Richest East India Merchant: The Life and Business of John Palmer of Calcutta 1767–1836 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007), 44–64. (Call no. RSEA 954.03092 WEB)
4. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 250–61, 288; Singapore Guide and Street Directory (Singapore: Ministry of Culture, 1966), 218. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 SSD)
5. The National Archives, United Kingdom, Mount Palmer, 1884, survey map, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. D2016_000225)
6. Bogaars, Tanjong Pagar Dock Company, 183.
7. Tanjong Pagar Citizens' Consultative Committee, Tanjong Pagar: Singapore’s Cradle of Development (Singapore: Tanjong Pagar Citizens’ Consultative Committee, 1989), 66. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TAN-[HIS)
8. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 378 (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS]); Gerard Corr, “Spectator,” Straits Times, 11 October 1976, 12 (From NewspaperSG); Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 260, 286.
9. Tanjong Pagar Citizens' Consultative Committee, Tanjong Pagar: Singapore’s Cradle of Development, 16.
10. Bogaars, Tanjong Pagar Dock Company, 182–83; Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 6.
11. Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 6.
12. Bogaars, Tanjong Pagar Dock Company, 183.
13. Bogaars, Tanjong Pagar Dock Company, 184; Tanjong Pagar Citizens' Consultative Committee, Tanjong Pagar: Singapore’s Cradle of Development, 19, 57, 59, 71; Lim Cheng Sian,Palmer Road Foot Tet Sook Khek Temple Archaelogical Research Project: Preliminary Site Report Version 1.4, 9 March 2006, 1–2;Telok Ayer Basin,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 24 September 1932, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Mohamad Ghouse Khan Surattee, ed., Lambang Terukir: Dalam Mengisahkan Manaqib Habib Noh Bin Muhamad Alhabsyi Yang Syahir (Singapore: Masjid  Al'Firdaus, 2010), 45, 69 (Call no. RCLOS 297.4092 LAM); Muhammad Ghouse Khan Surattee, The Grand Saint of Singapore: The Life of Habib Nuh bin Muhammad Al-Habshi (Singapore: Masjid Al’Firdaus, 2008), 34, 51. (Call no. RSING 297.4092 GRA)
15. Norman Edwards and Keys Peter, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 469. (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA])
16. “Ceremony at Singapore’s Most Famous Muslim Shrine,” Straits Times, 23 April 1940, 11; “$1M Facelift for Mosque, Shrine,” Straits Times, 15 December 1986, 14 (From NewspaperSG); Wan Meng Hao and Jacqueline Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2009), 162–63. (Call no. RSING 959.57 WAN-[HIS])
17. Melody Zaccheus, “Parts of Heritage Site Palmer House to Be Cleared for MRT,” Straits Times, 25 February 2016, 1. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 2017 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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