Recollections from a Seletar childhood, 1967-70 by Ian Old

One day in 1967 the news was broken to me that we were going to move because my father, Warrant Officer Bill Old, had been posted to Seletar, which was in the Far East apparently, to be the Air Movements Warrant Officer. At the time we lived at RAF Cottesmore, home to three Vulcan squadrons, where my father was part of Supply Squadron. As a six year old the imminent move meant little to me but looking at an atlas showed me that travelling to Singapore was not going to be a short trip. The move meant I would have to start at another school, after one year at Cottesmore Primary School.

Around September, we flew in a Cunard Eagle Bristol Britannia from Gatwick to Singapore, landing at Paya Lebar. I don’t remember the route we took but I do recall the humidity when we got out of the aircraft. So this was the Far East! It was so warm, even during the night.

Our first home was in Jalan Kayu, (see pictures 1 and 3) the precise address still unknown, where we stayed for a few weeks before moving onto the station itself, into No.4 Brompton Road (see pictures 2, 4, 13, 14, 15 and 17). A few months later, I think early in 1968, we moved into No.1 of the same road, which was on the corner of Brompton Road and Maida Vale. It seems to have been the only property on that side of Brompton Road, there being a large open space to the right of No.1 as you looked from the road (see pictures 9 and 18). As such we were only yards from the well-known Piccadilly Circus roundabout. I don’t know why we moved such a short distance.

I recall going to school, Seletar Junior School, near the golf course. We travelled to it by RAF white coaches when we lived in Jalan Kayu, or on foot when we lived on camp. I remember the attap huts, single-storey buildings, but pictures of brick buildings I have seen very recently mean nothing to me. The milk at school was awful and tasted nothing like the milk in the UK. I was surprised to discover only this year that school finished at lunchtime, when we went home for lunch.

A common playtime pastime was British Bulldog. During one game I fell over and was covered in mud, leading to me being given spare clothes and my uniform was put in a large brown envelope. My mother was not happy when I arrived home not in my own clothes!

The boys wore white short-sleeved shirts, with the school badge, which I still have, (see picture 19) on the breast pocket and khaki-coloured shorts. The girls wore green and white checked dresses. When children were leaving for the UK, it was the custom for fellow pupils to write messages and sign their names on the uniform. I did not see this happen again during the remaining nine years of my school days although it seems to be popular again with school children.

I remember two trips with school. One was a tour of Keppel Harbour (Singapore harbour), on a small, slow-moving boat. There was a strong smell of petrol and oil and the water was filthy. I hoped the ship did not sink as I wasn’t a good swimmer and the water looked terrible. On another occasion we went to what I referred to as a the crocodile farm but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a childhood delusion. The snakes in the cages scared me, partly because of childhood fear and partly because I had never seen such creatures before. One of my classmates was so scared that she cried all the time we were off the coach.

I remember little about what we ate at meal times. I know that I struggled with the spice of curries, so I had to make do with boiled rice, hard-boiled eggs and tomato sauce. Many years later I tried a real curry again and this time I enjoyed it, and it has become one of my favourite dishes! I know my mother did not do much cooking as we had an ahmah to do this. There were pineapples in our garden and I do remember having fresh pineapple which only thirty minutes before had been in the garden!! Every time I have that fruit now I am taken back to those days.

I remember my 7th birthday because it is when I got my first bicycle. In the birthday picture (see picture 5), I am the second from the left, back row, and Anthony Brown is second from the right and his sister is on the left of the front row. I do not have any idea as to who the others are, unfortunately.

The properties we lived in on Brompton Road were detached bungalows. No.1 comprised a veranda, large lounge, dining room, three bedrooms, kitchen and a garden which was on all sides of the bungalow. (See pictures 6 – 12). I loved playing on the veranda when it was raining, as the air was cool and I could remain dry. My mother was not happy when I developed the habit of sliding across the red brick tiles of the veranda, as my socks were permanently stained.

The Browns lived opposite at 2, Brompton Road. I believe their father was also a Warrant Officer. Anthony, his sister (name long forgotten) and I were frequent play mates (see pictures 11 – 12). On one occasion I decided to try hairdressing and managed to cut off a significant amount of Anthony’s sister’s hair. I was really sorry but that did not make much difference when it came to explaining what I was doing using scissors so close to someone’s face!! However this was soon forgiven, if not forgotten.

My eldest brother was a boarder in the UK so several times each year we went to the (then) international airport at Paya Lebar to bid him farewell, or welcome him to Singapore. This always seemed to require a night-time trip. I loved seeing the aircraft in the different airline colours and hearing the sound of the engines.

The days out of school seemed to be filled with fun. The equatorial weather meant we more often than not were outside, where there was plenty of space to indulge our imaginations. British military bases were built with space and separation between the married quarters and the “working” areas but Seletar seemed to take this to a new level. At regular intervals a man came round on foot with a machine to deal with the mosquitoes by producing a dense white cloud. We loved to run into it as it was thick and we tried to avoid each other in what now seems like man-made fog.

On Brompton Road, next to No.1, was what seemed then, to me at least, to be a very large field. This was the scene for many, many hours of games of cowboys and indians. I think there was a small concrete structure at the far end, which was damaged, it was claimed by the Japanese in World War Two. Sunblock did not seem to be available but calamine lotion was, it being used to cool my sunburnt skin on numerous occasions. Even now I can recall the odd smell and unpleasant feeling as it dried.

On some occasions we ventured as far as the airfield itself, where we would watch the activity without anyone in authority telling us to move away. Parents seemed to have less concern as to where their children were than parents do now and we seemed to be allowed to play out for hours without overt supervision. I found the sights and sounds of the aircraft, including the helicopters, totally fascinating. The sheer scale of the Beverley really impressed me. Whenever I could watch the various flying machines, I would.

The weather was always warm and often hot. When it rained, it really did, hence the large open storm drains. Jumpers were completely unnecessary and I did not have any to wear anyway. A lot of the time boys did not even wear shirts. I don’t remember having any t-shirts, so it was either a short-sleeved shirt or nothing. In the rainy season we would go to school with a showermac and this was the only time two layers were worn. I think I only wore anything on my head when I was playing soldiers.

I know we went to the Station Swimming Pool many times. Whilst I messed around in the pool, my parents could watch from underneath large shades. I think we travelled there by taxi, going past the local Air Training Corps unit building, where a retired de Havilland Vampire trainer could be seen. The serial number of this machine, XH358, was one of the first fruits of my research into the aircraft of the FEAF, which began during the eighties. The aircraft seems to have not survived long after the British withdrawal. Other people have mentioned baboons harassing/scaring people walking or cycling near the pool but I have no recollection of this. Maybe our using taxis avoided us tangling with the apes.

On one day I took a book and pencil and walked the short distance to Piccadilly Circus, where I sat on the grass bank on the MQ side and wrote down the numbers and letters (in the format nnAxnn) on the plates of the numerous RAF lorries going up and down this major road on the camp. I found this activity interesting and even more so when I realised I was seeing the same vehicles several times. I do believe this led to me becoming a plane spotter only a few years later, as I learned about the system of identifying military aircraft.

I remember little of television programmes, although I do recall one which featured Indian female dancers and another with the retired British footballer Billy Wright presenting a football match each week during the UK season. I do remember listening to BFBS radio, although only the song “Two little boys” by Rolf Harris sticks in my brain.

There were numerous visits to the station cinema. I saw both “Zulu”, starring Michael Caine, and Walt Disney’s “Jungle Book” for the first time at Seletar. Both are still amongst my favourite films. One evening in 1969 I went with my parents to see the film “Battle of Britain.” I really enjoyed the flying scenes. I didn’t know that the next day we would watch the film again at school!! Playing Spitfire and Messerschmitts became the norm for weeks afterwards.

I often saw lizards and one of my brothers amazed me by saying that you could pull off a lizard’s tail. He demonstrated this fact but I lacked the speed necessary. On another day he fried an egg on the concrete, using only a small amount of butter. I knew it was hot but I was staggered by the frying!

I had a large bedroom all to myself, although I seemed to spend little time in it apart from sleeping. The weather was too good and I preferred to play in the lounge if I had to be indoors. I can still visualise the dark green coil, about the size of a cooker ring, that was lit each night to deter mosquitoes. I was not bitten although my mother was often attacked.

Friday nights were marked by walking down to the market in Jalan Kayu, which was only a short distance on foot from where we lived on camp. I was fascinated by the idea of shopping in the open air, the stalls and displays lit by large lamps, which attracted countless insects.

Most weekends we travelled to Singapore City by taxi, the black and yellow vehicles being very common as few servicemen seemed to have their own cars. I believe these vehicles were a British design. The Robinsons department store, with its twin grand staircases, was a common port of call. One of the department stores had a restaurant where we often had lunch. There were live fish in a large tank which customers could select to eat a few minutes later!

Living on Seletar meant I would see aircraft flying five days a week almost every week of the year. Up to the end of March 1969, I would see RAF machines, sometimes up close when my Dad would take me to his workplace, or to look on the flightline. From April, RAF flying ceased at Seletar and soon Singaporean Air Defence Command (SADC) training aircraft and helicopters were to be seen.

My father took me one day to see the Beverleys being scrapped, this being early 1968. I don’t like heights so I declined the offer to climb into the cockpit of what appeared to be a massive aircraft. I was terrified when I heard the tremendous noise made when the outer wing sections were cut off and fell onto the concrete below.

The Javelin was retired from RAF service in April 1968 when 60 Squadron was disbanded, it flying a diamond-nine formation around Singapore. I heard the tremendous roar and rushed outside our home to see the fighters flying overhead in close formation. I was very impressed and made my own tribute by constructing nine triangle-shaped fighters out of Lego soon afterwards.

In March 1969 the Belvederes of 66 Squadron performed a farewell flypast which I witnessed and painted a picture of the scene, which I asked my father to give to the squadron. As the unit had disbanded this was not possible but my father still took me to see the Belvederes awaiting scrapping, in a line. I found pictures of the line-up only a few years ago and I was transported back in time.

From April 1969 Dad was working on more routine supply duties as there were no RAF air movements at Seletar any more. Sometimes I went with him and was amazed by the amount of equipment that he was dealing with.

As the major engineering facility in the Far East, many aircraft were scrapped at Seletar by 390 MU personnel. Often the gutted airframes would lie in a grassy area, awaiting being sold for scrap. Dad would take me to look at these from time to time and talk to me about his knowledge of aircraft. He referred to this area as the elephants’ graveyard. At the time I didn’t comprehend what I was looking at but only a few years later I saw other scrapped aircraft and from a plane-spotter’s point of view, it was sad and thought-provoking.

During our time out there I had to have a filling at the Station Dentist. I was upset by the experience and from a shop very close by, I was bought an Airfix Lightning kit to placate me, this leading me into model-making, a hobby I followed for many years, and haven’t ceased yet.

I had several coach trips to the RAF Hospital at Changi for a problem with my right foot to be monitored. As I was fascinated by aircraft, I enjoyed going as I was likely to see aircraft. There was a checkpoint on the road which ran parallel to the single runway. Sometimes the coach had to stop to allow a large aircraft to taxi past.

In March 1970 my father’s tour came to an end, this being his second at Seletar and his third in FEAF. On our last night on Seletar, we left the camp in a taxi to travel the short distance to where our ahmah lived, which to me it seemed to be in a jungle. We were treated to a feast of food, both very interesting and filling.

The next day we marched out of the MQ and moved to transit accommodation at Changi Creek for a few days where we waited for our flight home. The water on the beach were crystal clear and I really enjoyed playing there, although I was scared by a large (to me anyway) jellyfish.

Our transport home was a BOAC Boeing 707. The route involved stops at Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar) and Rome, Italy. In those days I was allowed to go into the cockpit during the flight. We landed at London Heathrow where there was snow on the ground. It was also damp and very depressing. Being back in the UK did not seem very appealing.

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