Sophia Blackmore (b. 18 October 1857, Goulburn, New South Wales, Australia–d. 3 July 1945, Australia) was the first woman missionary sent by the Methodist Women's Foreign Missionary Society to work in Singapore.1 During her stay in Singapore from 1887 to 1928, she helped to found two Methodist schools for girls: Methodist Girls' School and Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School [Now known as Fairfield Methodist School (Secondary)].2 She also set up a boarding home for girls, supported the early Methodist Straits Chinese Christian work, and published a Christian periodical in Baba Malay.3
Born 100 miles (161 km) off Sydney, Australia, Blackmore came from a devout Christian family from London who had migrated south in the 1850s.4 Her mother's family had associations with missionary greats such as Robert Morrison, Robert Moffat and David Livingstone, while her father was an established solicitor in New South Wales.5
Journey to Singapore
Influenced by Isabella Leonard, a visiting American missionary, Blackmore left for India on 10 December 1886 with her mind set on serving China. She was sent under the auspices of the Women's Foreign Missionary Society (WFMS) of the American Methodist Episcopal Church. In those days, single women serving as missionaries were unusual, and Blackmore's Australian church did not support such a venture.6
However, Blackmore found no permanent position when she arrived in India. In Madras (now Chennai), she met Reverend William Oldham who had gone to India for a conference. This chance meeting opened the doors for Blackmore to contribute to the growing missionary field in Malaya.7 To prepare for her move, Blackmore took Malay lessons. whilst stationed at Moradabad, from a family who had previously resided in Singapore. It was also in Moradabad that Blackmore was officiated into the Methodist Episcopal Church.8
Work in Singapore
Upon her arrival in Singapore on 16 July 1887, Blackmore was encouraged by the work of Reverend Oldham and his wife, which included the local Methodist Episcopal Church and the Anglo-Chinese School at Coleman Road. Within a month, Blackmore had opened a school for Tamil girls on 15 August 1887, with the support of Oldham, several members of the Indian community and a teacher named Alexander Hagedorn (Mrs Alexander Fox).9 Known originally as the Tamil Girls' School, it was later renamed Methodist Girls' School.10
Blackmore’s frequent visit to homes by horse-carriage within estates bounded by Telok Ayer and Neil Road led to the establishment of a second school for girls. Tan Keong Saik, along with other influential Chinese families, had persuaded her to teach their daughters – an uncommon request as education for girls was not a priority among the Chinese then. A widow, Nonya Boon, later offered Blackmore her home at Cross Street to start a school for girls.11
With just eight girls, the Telok Ayer Chinese Girls' School began lessons in August 1888.12 Under the leadership of Emma Ferris, who was the principal from 1892 to 1894, the school grew and eventually became the Fairfield Girls' School in 1912 upon its move to Neil Road.13 In 1983, the school went co-educational with its relocation to Dover Road and was renamed Fairfield Methodist Secondary School.14
Entrusted with the care of a young girl when she arrived in Singapore, Blackmore realised the need for a home for girls. Thus on 1 May 1890, a boarding home was set up for girls. First located at Sophia Road, the home moved several times along locations up the hill until its move to a bungalow at No. 6 Mount Sophia. The house stood at the pinnacle of the hillock with a bird's eye view of the city.15 It was known initially as the Deaconess Home because it also housed many single lady missionaries and teachers. It is now more familiarly known as Nind Home (1912) after American missionary, Mary C. Nind.16 The home served as a residence for school-going girls, mui tsai (Cantonese term for young Chinese female servants), abandoned girls and orphans.17 Blackmore's girls, as they became known, were nurtured in the Christian faith, and became suitable brides for Christian boys from similar homes in Malacca and Singapore.18
To help her in her work, a certain Inche Ismail taught the young Blackmore High Malay (classical Malay). However, the lingua franca used by the various communities that came to Singapore at the turn of the 20th century was a form of colloquial Malay.19 Soon, Blackmore became proficient enough in local street Malay to translate hymns. She also published the Baba Malay paper, Sahabat, using the printing press of William G. Shellabear, a Methodist missionary, scholar in Malay literature, writer, editor, translator and founder of the Methodist Publishing House.20 The paper was originally meant for women, but it became so popular that its readership extended from Singapore to Penang and beyond.21
Blackmore held Malay-language Sunday worship services in the study room of her home on Sophia Road. Her small congregation, which comprised female boarders from the Nind Home, boys from Epworth Home (a trade school and orphanage) as well as Malay-speaking Christian workers from the nearby mission press led by Shellabear, became the nucleus from which grew the Straits Chinese Church on Middle Road.22
In January 1894, Blackmore's small congregation, which by then comprised six full members and 16 preparatory members, moved into the Christian Institute at 155 Middle Road to function as a church.23 As the first Methodist church to use Baba Malay, it eventually drew many to its Sunday school and worship services over time, and was later headed by Goh Hood Keng, the first Straits Chinese to be ordained as a Methodist minister.24 As part of their mission, Blackmore, Goh and Benjamin F. West, an American medical doctor and Methodist missionary, would preach during open-air meetings at Telok Ayer.25 The Straits Chinese Church relocated to its present location at 1 Kampong Kapor Road in Little India after its congregation had grown so large that the church’s premises on Middle Road had become overcrowded.26 The Kampong Kapor Methodist Church thus traces its beginnings to Blackmore's early preaching work in the 1890s.27
The Bible Women's Training School was established to train local women to continue with the duties of Christian social work that had already been established by the Methodist missionaries. Blackmore was the first to head it between 1901 and 1903. The school trained Eurasian ladies and gradually Chinese women from various parts of Malaya in home visitation. The training school was considered ahead of its time in developing self-supporting work for the purpose of building Christian leadership and ideals which local women could exemplify in their own lives.28
Retirement and death
Blackmore retired to Australia in 1928, although she did make several visits to Singapore prior to the outbreak of World War II. She passed away on 3 July 1945 in Australia.29
Leaving a legacy
Posthumously, Sophia Blackmore was inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame, which was launched by the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO) on 14 March 2014. She was honoured for her contributions to the development and progress of Singapore.30
1. G. L. Yeow, “Cooke, Sophia,” in A Dictionary of Asian Christianity, ed. Scott Sunquist, David Wu Chu Sing and John Chew Hiang Chea (Michigan: W. B. Eerdmans, 2001), 89 (Call no. RSING q275.003 DIC); Bobby E.K. Sng, In His Good Time: The Story of the Church in Singapore, 1819–2002 (Singapore: Bible Society of Singapore: Graduates' Christian Fellowship, 2003), 112–14 (Call no. RSING 280.4095957 SNG); Theodore R. Doraisamy, ed., Sophia Blackmore in Singapore: Educational and Missionary Pioneer 1887–1927 (Singapore: General Conference Women's Society of Christian Service, Methodist Church of Singapore, 1987), 1 (Call no. RSING 266.70924 SOP); Tommy Koh, et al. eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, 2006), 65. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
2. “Farewell for Worker,” Malaya Tribune, 25 January 1928, 7 (From NewspaperSG); Doraisamy, Sophia Blackmore in Singapore, 113–14; Ho Seng Hong, Methodist Schools in Malaysia: Their Record and History (Petaling Jaya: Board of Education, Malaya Annual Conference, 1965), 66. (Call no. RCLOS 370.9595 HO)
3. Yeow, “Cooke, Sophia,” 89; Doraisamy, Sophia Blackmore in Singapore, 29–52, 56–61; Sng, In His Good Time, 118, 160.
4. Doraisamy, Sophia Blackmore in Singapore, 1–2.
5. Doraisamy, Sophia Blackmore in Singapore, 1–2.
6. Sng, In His Good Time, 112; Doraisamy, Sophia Blackmore in Singapore, 2–4.
7. Sng, In His Good Time, 112; Doraisamy, Sophia Blackmore in Singapore, 4–5.
8. Doraisamy, Sophia Blackmore in Singapore, 4–5.
9. Doraisamy, Sophia Blackmore in Singapore, 8–12; Sng, In His Good Time, 113; Ho, Methodist Schools in Malaysia, 65.
10. Yeow, “Cooke, Sophia,” 89; Sng, In His Good Time, 113.
11. Doraisamy, Sophia Blackmore in Singapore, 21–24.
12. Sng, In His Good Time, 113–14.
13. Doraisamy, Sophia Blackmore in Singapore, 24; Ho, Methodist Schools in Malaysia, 69–71, 133–35, 283.
14. Sng, In His Good Time, 112–14; “Co-Ed Methodist School Opens,” Singapore Monitor, 27 March 1985, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Doraisamy, Sophia Blackmore in Singapore, 31–34.
16. “The School That Sophia Built,” Straits Times, 15 July 1987, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Sng, In His Good Time, 118.
18. Yeow, “Cooke, Sophia,” 89; Doraisamy, Sophia Blackmore in Singapore, 45–50.
19. Doraisamy, Sophia Blackmore in Singapore, 16–17.
20. Doraisamy, Sophia Blackmore in Singapore, 33–34, 56; G. L. Yeow, “Shellabear, William Girdlestone,” in A Dictionary of Asian Christianity, ed. Scott Sunquist, David Wu Chu Sing and John Chew Hiang Chea (Michigan: W. B. Eerdmans, 2001), 759 (Call no. RSING q275.003 DIC); Sng, In His Good Time, 117–19.
21. Doraisamy, Sophia Blackmore in Singapore, 56.
22. Theodore R. Doraisamy, The March of Methodism in Singapore and Malaysia, 1885–1980 (Singapore: Methodist Book Room, 1982), 16 (Call no. RSING 287.095957 DOR); Doraisamy, Sophia Blackmore in Singapore, 19, 21–22, 33; Yeow, “Cooke, Sophia,” 89.
23. Doraisamy, March of Methodism in Singapore and Malaysia, 16.
24. Yeow, “Cooke, Sophia,” 89; Scott Sunquist, David Wu Chu Sing and John Chew Hiang Chea, eds., A Dictionary of Asian Christianity (Michigan: W. B. Eerdmans, 2001), 310 (Call no. RSING q275.003 DIC); Sng, In His Good Time, 160–61.
25. Sng, In His Good Time, 160.
26. Theodore R. Doraisamy, Forever Beginning: One Hundred Years of Methodism in Singapore (Singapore: The Methodist Church in Singapore, 1985), 139 (Call no. RSING 287.095957 FOR); Earnest Lau and S. E. Jesudason, Lest We Forget 1894–1994 (Singapore: Kampong Kapor Methodist Church, 1994), 30. (Call no. RSING 287.095957 LAU)
27. Wan Meng Hao and Jacqueline Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2009), 189 (Call no. RSING 959.57 WAN-[HIS]); Yeow, “Cooke, Sophia,” 89; Sng, In His Good Time, 160.
28. Doraisamy, Sophia Blackmore in Singapore, 58, 60–61.
29. “Farewell for Worker,” Malaya Tribune, 25 January 1928, 7 (From NewspaperSG); Doraisamy, Sophia Blackmore in Singapore, 66; Yeow, “Cooke, Sophia,” 89.
30. “Our Heritage,” Methodist Girls’ School, accessed 20 May 2020; “Sophia Blackmore,” Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations, accessed 3 September 2020.
The information in this article is valid as at September 2020 and correct as far as we can 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.