Mount Sophia was one of Singapore’s earliest middle-class residential neighborhoods in the 1800s.1 Early residents included William Flint, who was appointed by Stamford Raffles as Singapore's first master attendant,2 as well as August Behn, V. Lorenz Meyer and F. A. Schreiber of Behn, Meyer & Co. who were listed as residents of Mount Sophia in 1842.3 It was also home to prominent businessman, Eu Tong Sen.4
Mount Sophia was originally known as Bukit Selegie or Bukit Selegi. The word Selegie refers to a wooden spear sharpened and hardened by fire, and is speculated to be linked to the Malay name for a “wooden-dart” (seligi). An alternative source references the nibong palm, called seligi, which is used in the making of such spears. A third explanation attributes the name to a famous Bugis pirate chief. The Bugis people living there were named after him as Orang Selegie.5
The earliest known map documenting Bukit Selegie dates back to 1822, shown with the adjacent Bukit Rawa, later known as Mount Emily.6 Captain William Flint had occupied the hill with his family in the latter part of 1823. Mount Sophia was supposedly named by him, in honour of Raffles's second wife, Sophia Hull, and Flint's daughter, Mary Sophia Anne.7 Flint was related to Raffles through his marriage to Raffles's favourite sister, Maryanne Raffles.8 Hence in early colonial times, Mount Sophia was also commonly referred to as Flint's Hill.9
The earliest known documentation of Mount Sophia can be seen in Philip Jackson’s sketch dated 5 June 1823, which is also the earliest known drawing of Singapore, in a note stating “Mount Sophia Singapore. Propriet. Captn Flint” (sic).10 On the first topographical survey of Singapore by George D. Coleman published in 1836, the hill previously marked as Bukit Selegie had been replaced by Mount Sophia, while Bukit Selegie replaced Bukit Rawa, later known as Mount Emily.11 Mount Sophia was later sold to Charles Robert Prinsep who, by 1840, had established a huge nutmeg and coffee plantation on the hill and in the surrounding areas.12
In 1859, Prinsep subdivided his estate into lots to be sold.13 There are suggestions that the hill’s name was attributed to other women who were named Sophia, specifically Sophia Prinsep, daughter of Charles Robert Prinsep; Sophia Cooke, a missionary who arrived in Singapore in 1853; and Sophia Blackmore, a missionary who came to Singapore in 1887.14 These attributions are rather unlikely as Philip Jackson’s 1823 sketch and maps from the 1830s had already shown the existence of this hill and it being named Mount Sophia.15 Sophia Cooke and Sophia Blackmore were missionaries who ran or established schools for girls on Mount Sophia, namely, St Margaret's School and Methodist Girls' School. Cooke became the principal of St Margaret’s in 1853, while Blackmore founded Methodist Girls’ School, originally known as the Tamil Girls’ School, in 1887.16
Educational and religious institutions
Sophia means "wisdom" in Greek and is an appropriate reference to the proliferation of educational institutions on the hill.17 These include Trinity Theological College, which was established on Mount Sophia in 1948,18 and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) which moved there in 1985.19 The college has since moved to Upper Bukit Timah Road, while NAFA found new premises on Bencoolen Street.20 When Methodist Girls' School moved out from Mount Sophia in 1993,21 its grounds were subsequently occupied by the Singapore Hotel Association Training & Educational Centre (SHATEC) and St Francis Methodist School. SHATEC has since moved to Bukit Batok, while St Francis Methodist School relocated to Upper Bukit Timah Road.22 St Margaret’s Primary School, however, still operates on the hill today at Wilkie Road.23 In 2010, the School of the Arts moved to their campus along the foot of Mount Sophia.24
Redevelopment and conservation
In 1996, the area around Mount Sophia was acquired by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) for the development of the nearby North-East Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) line. Although the area was subsequently slated for residential development under the URA 2008 Master Plan, more than 80 buildings around Mount Sophia were given conservation status in 2003 and 2011 due to their significant heritage value.25
The former Cathay Building, Singapore's first skyscraper and its first air-conditioned cinema, also stood at the foot of Mount Sophia. The cinema was opened in 1939, but the building was eventually closed in 2000 for redevelopment. On 10 February 2003, Cathay Building (now The Cathay), with its Art Deco façade, was gazetted as a national monument.26
In Cantonese, yi-wong shan-keuk yau chuk-tsai keuk hui, which literally means "foot of Second Governor's hill going up from Tek Kha”, where “Tek Kha” refers to the Selegie Road neighbourhood and the “Second Governor’s hill” refers to the former Government Hill (the current Fort Canning Hill).
In Hokkien, ji-ong sua kha ti tek-kha khi, which also literally means "foot of Second Governor's hill going up from Tek Kha”.
1. Karl Ho, Ho, “Moving Up on the Mount,” Straits Times, 26 March 2005, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Mubin Sheppard, ed., Singapore 150 Years (Singapore: Times Books International, 1982), 135. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS])
3. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 351, 377. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
4. National Archives of Singapore, Aerial View of Eu Tong Sen’s House, Eu Villa at Adis Road, Mount Sophia, 1940s, photograph, National Archives of Singapore (Media-Image no. 20080000051 – 0054)
5. Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 262, 337. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
6. National Archives (Singapore), Singapore 1822–3, 1955, survey map, National Archives of Singapore (accession no.SP004502); Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 260, 262, 337.
7. Sheppard, Singapore 150 Years, 144; Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 262; John Bastin and Julie Weizenegger, The Family of Sir Stamford Raffles (Singapore: National Library Board and Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2016), 95. (Call no. RSING 959.57030922 BAS)
8. Sheppard, Singapore 150 Years, 135.
9. “Correspondence,” Singapore Chronicle and Commercial Register, 26 May 1831, 3; “Local,” Singapore Chronicle and Commercial Register, 3 June 1837, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Mildred Archer and John Bastin, The Raffles Drawings in the India Office Library (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1978, 20–21 (Call no. RSING 741.959 ARC); Sheppard, Singapore 150 Years, 144.
11. National Archives (Singapore), Singapore 1822–3; Survey Department, Singapore, Map of the Town and Environs of Singapore, 1836, map, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. TM000037); Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 260, 262, 337.
12. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 406; John Henshaw Belcher, Around the World: A Narrative of a Voyage in the East India Squadron, under Commodore George C. Read, vol. 2 (New York: Charles S. Francis, 1840), 143–44.
13. “Page 3 Advertisments Column 1: For Sale,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 14 April 1859, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 262; “Unknown,” Straits Times, 27 July 1974, 14 (From NewspaperSG); “Sophia Blackmore,” Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations, accessed 18 November 2016.
15. Survey Department, Singapore, Map of the Town and Environs of Singapore; Archer and Bastin, Raffles Drawings in the India Office Library, 20–21; Sheppard, Singapore 150 Years, 144.
16. Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations, “Sophia Blackmore”; St. Margaret’s School, Great is Thy Faithfulness: The Story of St Margaret's School in Singapore (Singapore: St. Margaret's School, 2002), 24, 27. (Call no. RSING 373.5957 SAI)
17. “Untitled,” Straits Times, 8 August 1974, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “Our Milestones,” Trinity Theological College, accessed 18 November 2016.
19. “Our History,” Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, accessed 18 November 2016
20. Trinity Theological College, “Our Milestones”; Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, “Our History.”
21. “Our Heritage,” Methodist Girls’ School, accessed 18 November 2016.
22. “Milestones,” The International Hotel & Tourism School (Singapore), accessed 18 November 2106; “Heritage and Milestones,” St Francis Methodist School, accessed 18 November 2016; Ministry of Culture, Singapore, Singapore Guide and Street Directory 1991 (Singapore: Ministry of Culture, 1991), map 26 (Call no. RSING 959.57 SSD); Ministry of Culture, Singapore, Singapore Guide and Street Directory 1998/99 Edition (Singapore: Ministry of Culture, 1998), map 359. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SSD)
23. “Our History,” St. Margaret’s Primary School, accessed 18 November 2016.
24. Jeremy Koh, “School of the Arts Moves into $145M Campus,”Today, 5 January 2010, 6; Rennie Whang, “Location ‘Elevates Mount Sophia’s Cachet’,” Straits Times, 18 October 2014, 2.(From NewspaperSG)
25. Michelle Low, “Nafa Will Have to Give Way to MRT Project,” Business Times, 6 March 1996, 3; Eisen Teo and Judith Tan, “Old Girls Fight to Save Old School,” Straits Times, 23 October 2011, 25. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Cathay Building, 1941: General View, 1939, photograph, Chung Shui Ken collection, National Library Board; “Former Cathay Building (Now The Cathay),” National Heritage Board, accessed 27 February 2017; “Next Change – Cathay to Become Retail Complex,” Straits Times, 17 May 2003, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
27. H. W. Firmstone, “Chinese Names of Streets and Places in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula,” Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 42 (February 1905): 115, 128–30. (Call no. RQUIK 959.5 JMBRAS)
The information in this article is valid as at November 2018 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.