William Goodall: Robinson Crusoe of Singapore

Jun 15, 2023 0 comments

Sandwiched between the mainland of Singapore and the Malay Peninsula, in the Straits of Johor, lies the small island of Pulau Sarimbun. The island lies within the Singapore Air Force live firing area and is restricted to casual visitors, but back in the early 1900s, it was a popular picnic spot and for nearly a decade, it was the retirement home to an Englishman named William Arthur Bates Goodall.

William Goodall was born in Eccles, Manchester in 1880, and was brought up there and in Bedford. After passing high school, Goodall enlisted as a private in the British army’s Manchester Regiment, and fought in the Second Boer War. His performance earned him the King’s and Queen’s South Africa Medal. After the war, Goodall quit the military and embarked on a civilian career. He spent some time in Sumatra and tried his hand at tin mining and tea planting. Afterwards he landed a job with the Singapore Municipal Commissioners’ Water Department, where he helped in the construction of the Pierce, Gunong Pulai and Pontian reservoirs.

Goodall discovered Pulau Sarimbun in the early 1920s when he and some of his friends went on a boating expedition and landed on the island. They found the island delightful, and thought it was “an ideal place for bathing and picnic parties”. It has a 60-feet-high hill in the middle from which one could have great views of the sea and the island of Singapore beyond, with its rolling land and rubber, coconut and pineapple plantation. On the other side was the city of Johor Bahru, with bungalows of the outskirts and a kampung at the water’s edge.

The group pooled their money together and built a small shack up the hill and used it for parties. But as the years passed, Goodall found himself spending more and more time on the island. When the contracts on the Singapore Reservoirs ended in 1932, he decided to live there permanently. Goodall felt like a castaway.

“Being a Robinson Crusoe is a delightfully peaceful existence for those who are not wedded to the pictures, the club, the hotel bar or a bevy of friends and acquaintances and for those who love nature,” Goodall told a journalist.

William Goodall’s house on Pulau Sarimbun, circa 1932.

Living on the island alone was difficult and the work exhausting. The launch and the two dinghies needed constant attention and washing. The mooring buoy had to be changed every six weeks. Rubbish had to be burned or dumped at sea, and water pumped twice a day to the refrigerator water tower. Fruit trees needed spraying and cultivating. Undergrowth needed cutting back, and the house needed a continual stream of small repairs. Eventually, he got tired and hired two Chinese employee to help him with practical and clerical matters, and a Javanese boatman.

Goodall’s unique lifestyle piqued the interest of a British journalist and a story appeared in the London Evening News in 1937, with a few embellishments:

Should you happen to sail past Pulau Serimbun at sunset-a most unlikely occurrence, as it is off the beaten track-the musical notes of a Boer bugle will float over the waves, and the Union Jack together with a mysterious ensign being a white horse impressed on dark azure background, will flutter slowly to the ground. Perhaps you will have the good fortune to observe Mr W.A.B. Goodall erectly saluting during this evening rite, for the island is his private kingdom...There he hopes to live peacefully to the end, ruling his four subjects, who are also his friends—a Chinese educated at Cambridge, two Chinese servants and a Malay boatman.

While Goodall enjoyed the attention, he denied that the flag raising ritual was a daily occurrence. Also, the “Cambridge educated” Chinese servant was actually a Singapore student who secured his Cambridge certification at a local examination. He helped Goodall in clerical matters.

Goodall’s story spread like wildfire, and he received many letters from readers in New Zealand, Germany, Britain and the United States.

“These letters were of a direct consequence of a long and very inaccurate account of my life on the island which appeared without my knowledge in the Evening News, London,” Goodall told The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser. “Some of my correspondents seemed to think we lived behind a stockade and spent our time beating off the attacks of savages. They exhorted me 'to keep the flag flying' and so on'.”

Despite the inaccuracies, Goodall did accept a certain measure of jurisdiction:

I've been dubbed the laird of Serimbun by the press, and as I'm the only authority on the island, with a staff of two Chinese and one Javanese, I suppose the title is a good one.

Despite being geographically isolated, William Goodall actively participated in the social scene of Singapore. He maintained regular correspondence with the Straits Times, discussing matters concerning the natural history of Serimbun. On one occasion, he acquired a Kapal Hantu, a Malayan "Ghost Ship," which he donated to the Raffles Museum. The Manchester Regiment continued to be stationed at Singapore and Goodall was always a prominent figure in the annual commemorations of Ladysmith. He displayed remarkable storytelling abilities and frequently traveled to Singapore to deliver radio talks, sharing captivating anecdotes about his life on the island.

William Arthur Bates Goodall died in 1941.

In the 1970s, the island of Pulau Sarimbun became part of the Singapore Air Force live firing area and became restricted. It’s no longer possible to visit the island.

# Robinson Crusoe Of Johore Straits, The Straits Times
# Amateur Robinson Crusoe On Straits Island, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser
# As I was Saying, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser


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