Sophia Blackmore was born on October 18, 1857 in Goulburn, New South Wales, Australia. She was one of eight children in a devout Christian family that had migrated from London in the 1850s. Her father was a solicitor while her mother’s family was associated with well-known missionaries such as Robert Morrison, Robert Moffat and David Livingstone.
A chance meeting with a visiting American Methodist evangelist, Isabelle Leonard, influenced Blackmore to become a missionary. However, at that time, the Australian Methodist church did not send single females as missionaries overseas. Undaunted, she left for India with Leonard on December 10, 1886 after setting her heart to serve in China.
While on transit in Madras, Blackmore met Reverend William Oldham who was there for a conference. Oldham was at that time serving in Singapore and had just started an Anglo-Chinese School for boys. Seeing the need to educate girls as well, he wrote an urgent letter to the Methodist Episcopal Church in America requesting for a woman worker. The encounter with Oldham led to Blackmore’s decision to join the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the American Methodist Episcopal Church. In preparation for her future work in Singapore, she took up Malay lessons from a family in Moradabad which had previously lived in Singapore.
She arrived in Singapore on July 16, 1887 and, within a month, on August 15, she had opened the Tamil Girls’ School after a request from several Indian businessmen to educate their daughters. They provided the necessary funds, desks, benches, blackboards and other furniture. A Rama Krishna Row provided rent-free a shophouse on Short Street as the school premises.
Blackmore described her pupils as “nine little girls, with earnest black eyes and smooth hair, dressed in their best silken garments and adorned with much jewellery”.Twenty years later, she would write in the Malaysia Message of this moment, “Those rows of little girls, each one so dear, that had been counted and recounted, visited and revisited, were the most important company in all mission field, just as they were, whatever the years might bring forth.” This was the humble beginning of the future Methodist Girls’ School which grew steadily over the years. The school later moved to a little chapel called the Christian Institute before moving to Mount Sophia in 1925. In 1992, it was relocated to Blackmore Drive.
A similar request to educate their daughters came from the Chinese businessmen. Tan Keong Saik, a wealthy retired Baba (Straits-born Chinese) merchant, requested Blackmore to tutor his daughters in his home. However, many mothers had little interest in female education as their mindset was “we do not want our girls to ‘makan gaji’ or earn their livelihood.” It was the norm for husbands to be the breadwinners while wives managed the household. However, Blackmore made frequent and friendly visits to the Straits Chinese homes and her hard work paid off. She would sometimes make 800 visits in a year. Her good command of Baba Malay, a form of the Malay language spoken by the Straits-born Chinese, made communication easy.
In August 1888, Blackmore started the first school for Chinese girls in Singapore in the rented front room of a house in Cross Street, Telok Ayer, belonging to a local lady called Nonya Boon (Nonya or Nyonya referred to Straits-born women; the men were called Baba). It was called the Anglo-Chinese Girls’ School initially and there were eight little Chinese students. Emma Ferris became the principal from 1892-1894. As the enrollment grew, a generous American donated a building along Neil Road for the school which eventually became Fairfield Methodist Girls’ School in 1912.
On May 1, 1890, Blackmore started a boarding home for girls at a bungalow in Sophia Road. It was called Deaconess Home as it was home to many single lady missionaries and teachers. The need for a girls' home arose from Oldham’s request to accommodate the sister of a male student at the Anglo-Chinese Boarding School. Soon, the home moved to a more spacious place at Wilkie Road due to the growing number of residents who consisted of not just school girls but also runaways, abandoned girls and orphans. It was a sanctuary for these girls who would be educated in a Christian home environment. Many later became wives, teachers, church workers and professional women. By 1911, the number of girls residing at the home had grown to 100. It was renamed Nind Home after Mary C. Nind, the first corresponding secretary of the Minneapolis Branch of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, to “whose interest, work and prayers we owed so much.”
Blackmore had been actively preaching in Baba Malay to the girls from Nind Home on Sundays. In 1894, she started a Baba church for the Straits Chinese headed by Goh Hood Keng, a Baba Methodist preacher, with six members and 16 probationers (members under probation). The numbers grew rapidly when she was also involved in open air preaching and from her regular visits to the Straits Chinese women in their homes. The Sunday School was very popular and soon attracted hundreds of children (at one time, over 800). The stories of Jesus related in their lingua franca were a big hit. In 1901, the church moved to the Christian Institute at Middle Road and finally to Kampong Kapor. Its name later changed from Straits Chinese Methodist Church to Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.
Blackmore also translated many hymns into Malay and published a Baba Malay Christian periodical called Sahabat (“Friend”) meant for women and which was widely popular in Malaya. This ministry was aided by William Shellabear, a Methodist missionary and Malay scholar, who started the Methodist Publishing House.
After serving in Singapore for 40 years, Blackmore left on January 28, 1928, and retired in Australia. She passed away on July 3, 1945 at the age of 88.
On March 14, 2014, Blackmore was inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame for her “fine records of difficult and useful work done, and a memory of personal influence, character, and example which has been of very great value in this era of changing traditions and ideas among our Asiatic communities in the Straits.”
- ^ “The school that Sophia built”, The Straits Times, July 15,1987, 1, accessed January 6, 2021,https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19870715-220.127.116.11
- ^ Sophia Blackmore in Malaysia Message, March-April 1918, 139-140.
- ^ Ho Seng Ong, Methodist Schools In Malaysia, Their Record and History (Petaling Jaya: Board of Education of the Malaya Annual Conference, 1964), 134.
- ^ Ernest Lau, From Mission to Church (Armour Publishing Pte Ltd., Singapore, 2008), accessed January 6, 2021, https://www.trac-mcs.org.sg/images/pdf/boardofministry/Sophia%20Blackmore.pdf.
- ^ Sophia Blackmore in Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame, accessed January 6, 2021, https://www.swhf.sg/profiles/sophia-blackmore/
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