Sophia Cooke (b. 27 February 1814, Hilsborough, Norfolk, England–d. 14 September 1895, Singapore) was an Anglican missionary and teacher who made significant contributions to the Chinese Girls’ School (CGS) – now known as St Margaret’s School.1 She also started the Sailors’ Rest and the Singapore branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA).2 Cooke organised worship services in Chinese, which spurred the Anglicans and Presbyterians in Singapore to follow suit.3 Sophia Road, where CGS was once located, was named after her.4
Cooke attended a school in Bury St Edmunds, England, and studied music, French and Latin.5 She worked as a governess for 20 years, during which she developed an interest in mission work.6
The turning point in Cooke’s life took place when she was a governess at the home of Archdeacon Hone. On one particular occasion, the Reverend G. T. W. Hough visited the home to share about the work of the Church Missionary Society. Cooke was interested in his sermon as she had long been keen on mission work. She subsequently presented herself as a candidate to the Church Missionary Society in London, and was accepted as an agent of the Society for Promoting Female Education in the East. Her assignment was to head CGS in Singapore.7
Heading the Chinese Girls’ School
Cooke left England on 10 March 1853 and arrived in Singapore on 29 July 1853. For the next 42 years, she made CGS her life’s work. In its early days, the school served as a boarding house for poor, abandoned or abused Chinese girls.8 At the time, it was not uncommon for poor Chinese families to sell their daughters into servitude or slavery.9 Some of these girls were rescued by the police and placed under the school’s care and protection. For others, their families voluntarily sent them there to gain a free education.10
As CGS’s superintendent, Cooke ensured that the students received a sound education consisting of Bible studies, history, geography and needlework, among others. She also instilled in them a strong work ethic and the value of Christian service. Older girls were tasked to care for the younger ones, and they often accompanied Cooke on her hospital visits, bearing flowers, drawings and embroidered pillow cases for the patients.11 In 1861, the school moved to new premises at Sophia Road,12 and the first Chinese ragged school was formed on 6 March 1865.13
Many of the CGS pupils under Cooke went on to become Christians and married Christian men in China. Thus, the evangelistic work started by Cooke continued through her students in China. Cooke did such excellent work with the school that she became synonymous with it.14 The school was popularly known as “Miss Cooke’s School”.15
In 1857, Cooke and a few other women formed the Ladies’ Bible and Tract Society. They met every month and published a quarterly magazine titled The Christian in Singapore. The society was absorbed into the newly formed Auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1870.16
In 1875, Cooke started the Singapore branch of the YWCA. The establishment was the outcome of monthly meetings that Cooke organised for women. Many who attended the meetings were former students of CGS. The women had Bible readings and discussions on home life. They also paid visits to the sick in hospitals and the needy. In addition to Chinese, Cooke also involved European and Eurasian women in her work.17
Even though the primary focus of Cooke’s work was women, the needs of men were not neglected. Having noticed that Chinese men lacked a place of worship, she began weekly worship services for both Chinese men and women in 1857. This spurred the Anglicans and Presbyterians to do the same.18
Concerned for the sailors, soldiers and policemen in Singapore, Cooke set up the Sailors’ Rest in 1882, a place where destitute and ill sailors were clothed and fed. In addition, she held weekly Bible classes for sailors, soldiers and policemen.19
Cooke also committed herself to helping the sick. She made regular visits to the hospitals, spreading cheer to the patients by bringing them flowers, food and toys. She also encouraged them with kind words, read the Bible to them and sang hymns.20
Cooke fell ill on 26 August 1895. She did not recover from the illness and died peacefully, in the presence of her students, on 14 September 1895. Her passing was mourned by many in Singapore.21
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), 215 (Call no. RSING q275.003 DIC); E. A. Walker, Sophia Cooke, or,Forty-Two Years’ Work in Singapore (London: Elliot Stock, 1899), 1 (Call no. RRARE 287.10924 WAL; microfilm NL11273); “The Crusade of Sophia Cooke,” Straits Times, 12 November 1960, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Yeow, “Cooke, Sophia” 215; 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), 66–68. (Call no. RSING 280.4095957 SNG)
3. “The Late Miss Cooke,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 14 September 1895, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Sng, In His Good Time, 66–67.
4. Yeow, “Cooke, Sophia” 215.
5. “Late Miss Cooke”; “Crusade of Sophia Cooke”; Walker, Forty-Two Years’ Work, 1–2.
6. Sng, In His Good Time, 62–63.
7. Walker, Forty-Two Years’ Work, 2–4; Yeow, “Cooke, Sophia,” 215.
8. Walker, Forty-Two Years’ Work, 5; Yeow, “Cooke, Sophia” 215; “Crusade of Sophia Cooke.”
9. “Crusade of Sophia Cooke”; Sng, In His Good Time, 62–63; Walker, Forty-Two Years’ Work, 36.
10. “Crusade of Sophia Cooke”; Sng, In His Good Time, 63; Walker, Forty-Two Years’ Work, 36.
11. Sng, In His Good Time, 64–65; Walker, Forty-Two Years’ Work, 37, 38.
12. Sng, In His Good Time, 63.
13. Walker, Forty-Two Years’ Work, 43.
14. Sng, In His Good Time, 65–66.
15. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 2 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 460. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
16. Sng, In His Good Time, 67.
17. Walker, Forty-Two Years’ Work, 87; Sng, In His Good Time, 67–68; Yeow, “Cooke, Sophia” 215.
18. Sng, In His Good Time, 66–67.
19. Crusade of Sophia Cooke”; Sng, In His Good Time, 63, 66–67; Walker, Forty-Two Years’ Work, 73.
20. Walker, Forty-Two Years’ Work, 86–87.
21. “Late Miss Cooke”; Sng, In His Good Time, 68; Walker, Forty-Two Years’ Work, 78.
J. T. Gracey, Eminent Missionary Women in Singapore (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1899), 106–10. (Call no. RRARE 266.00922 GRA; microfilm NL27610)
The information in this article is valid as at October 2020 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.