Founded in 1887, the Methodist Girls’ School (MGS) is among the oldest and most established schools in Singapore. Barbara Quek, a former MGS student, shares with us the history of the school and memories that left a deep imprint on many who passed through its doors.
The maypole dance, traditionally performed on Sports Day at 11 Mount Sophia. Courtesy of Methodist Girls’ School.
Memory is a way
of holding onto the
things you love,
the things you are,
the things you never
want to lose.
It was a sentimental Sunday on 3 June 2012 when MGS and the Alumnae Association jointly held an Open House Day and Remembrance Ceremony to bid a final farewell to their former school site at 11 Mount Sophia.
The occasion was a bittersweet homecoming experience for the hundreds of old girls and their families who congregated in the packed hall at the basement area of the former Ellice Handy Building. Since the relocation of MGS in 1992 to 11 Blackmore Drive, succeeding occupants of 11 Sophia included churches and other schools before it was leased to Old School
(http://www.oldschool.sg/) in 2007. This unprecedented gathering of the MGS family was prompted by the expiration of the lease for Old School at the end of June 2012. It marked the closing of a chapter in history as the site made way for redevelopment plans under the 2008 Master Plan of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).
Originally known as Bukit Seligi, or Seligi Hill, Mount Sophia was also called Sophia Hill. Seligi is the nibong palm used locally in flooring and fishing stakes. One might casually assume that Mount Sophia Road was named after the school’s founder Sophia Blackmore – much like the naming of Blackmore Drive. However, this affiliation of place to person is mere coincidence as the name “Mount Sophia” was in use prior to Sophia Blackmore’s arrival in Singapore. The hill was in fact named in honour of Lady Sophia, the second wife of Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, by Captain William Flint, Raffles’ brother-in-law. “Sophia” was also the middle name of Flint’s daughter, Mary Sophia Anne.
The impending loss of the former school site, a significant historical landmark perched on a hilltop overlooking bustling Orchard Road, ignited debate across various social media platforms. Former school sites conserved for heritage and commercial use, such as the former St Joseph’s Institution on Bras Basah Road or the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus at CHIJMES, might have given some hope for a similar fate.
The school’s history can be traced back to 1887 when Sophia Blackmore, an Australian missionary, came to Singapore on a personal calling to provide girls with an opportunity for education. MGS had a humble beginning as the Tamil Girls’ School at a rent-free shophouse on Short Street. The school began with a pioneer batch of nine Indian girls, whose businessmen fathers wanted them to be brought up as young women of worth to society. Nonya, Chinese and Eurasian girls also enrolled over time. The school relocated to Middle Road while awaiting the completion of a larger building on Short Street. Then, increased student numbers and space constraints necessitated the move to Mount Sophia where it remained until 1992. Overcrowding and new school demands eventually led to another shift to its current campus at Blackmore Drive.
From the 1960s to the 1990s, before the implementation of Direct School Admission, most MGS girls enjoyed a full 10-year stint at Mount Sophia from primary school through to secondary school. Set up as a mission school, the Christian education continues to be the hallmark of MGS. An old girl from the last batch of Senior Cambridge girls to graduate in 1941 before the Japanese Occupation remembered how she had carefully glued a “yellowed with age… cyclostyled paper” printed with the old prewar school song to the last page of her old chapel book, The Abingdon Song Book. The red-covered Hymnal for Youth (1941) was synonymous with worship service at Mount Sophia from the 1960s to the 1980s. This was replaced by a new Y-generation hymn book when the former went out of print.
Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of city streets, a tranquil hilltop haven that once overlooked Eu Tong Sen’s majestic Eu Villa and the treetops of the Istana, MGS Mount Sophia was a “lovely collection of quaint old buildings, ranging from bricked bungalows and colonial structures with high ceilings, sweeping staircases and long verandahs to 1950s style classrooms with French doors covered in green glass, and bare cement floors”.
Aerial view of the historical school site at 11 Mount Sophia. Courtesy of Methodist Girls’ School.
Taking its pride of place at Mount Sophia is Olson Building, the oldest in the cluster, the “only one grand dame” that is “to be retained and integrated with new developments in the future”. Named after one of the school’s former principals, Mary Olson, this “old girl”, constructed in 1928, has been earmarked for conservation. Responding to queries on why the 84-year-old Olson Building was so special, URA spokesman explained that it was “selected because of conservation merits such as a high-pitched tiled roof, elegant geometric masonry corbels (stone brackets), moulded concrete lattices and concrete louvred vents – all visually interesting and suited to a tropical climate”.
Constructed in 1928, Olson Building is the only building out of the six to be conserved. Courtesy of Methodist Girls’ School.
The story of MGS at Mount Sophia is incomplete without some tribute to Nind Home, a boarding house for girls built by the Methodist Mission, and where Sophia Blackmore had worked and stayed. In a memorable speech at the dedication service for the opening of the Ellice Handy Building, the late Mrs Ellice Handy shared that the top of Mount Sophia first belonged to Nind Home, “a happy family of nearly 100 girls, sometimes more, and we came from all races… Those were happy days when there was little pressure and plenty of leisure”. Nind Home became a part of MGS but was demolished after the war in 1947 when the structure was deemed unsafe. Built in its place was the Sophia Blackmore Memorial Hall.
Nind Home in the 1890s (left) and the Sophia Blackmore Memorial Hall. Courtesy of Methodist Girls’ School.
With the completion of the Kenyon Building named after another principal, Carrie Kenyon, in 1933, MGS started a two-session school. Before its demolition in the late 1970s, this eight-classroom block at the foot of Mount Sophia leading down to Adis Road claimed its fair share of ghost stories – especially those of haunted toilets. The sturdy monkey bars, swings and see-saws were dearly missed when it was subsequently pulled down to make way for a new multistorey primary school complex. More memories include picking bright red saga seeds in the playfield behind this old Kenyon block.
“I remember being told that at 12 midnight one would hear ‘noise’. Never one to believe such myths and tall stories, I would stay behind in school for campfires overnight and other events past midnight without giving it much thought. One night, I actually heard feet shuffling and desks being moved! Later I was told that the low brick wall in front of the main entrance where the MGS signage stood was the site of a grave. That really kept me on my guard each time we had Girl Guide camps! This story about ghosts and burial grounds at Mount Sophia was not without some history. The Japanese took over Nind Home and made it their Headquarters during the Occupation years. During that time, MGS was used to house prisoners and it was possible that those who died were buried nearby. This might account for the strange going-on at midnight!”
Mrs Anna Tham, 1951
The Japanese Occupation (1942–45) brought schooling to a halt. MGS was renamed Mount Sophia Girls’ School and recorded its lowest attendance of 15 students and a teaching staff of seven in 1944.
A new horizon awaited postwar MGS in 1945 when the school was reinstated and Mrs Handy became the principal, a position she helmed from 1946 to 1957 during her 51 years of service. The appointment was a historic milestone as she was the first MGS student as well as the first Asian and local principal of the school. She had a tall order to see through: the rebuilding of the school after bombs had destroyed some buildings. The sprawling site was scarred by war, dotted with fox holes and lined with slit trenches. Under her dedicated guidance, the Mary Nind Wing was built which housed secondary classes in 1952, followed by the Sophia Blackmore Memorial Hall a year later. The building programme was completed in 1955 with the Louise McKee Wing, a tuck shop extension and caretakers’ quarters. Mrs Handy had lasting memories of this journey because “MGS is very dear to me, especially this hilltop on which MGS has finally established itself after many moves in her lifetime”, when “MGS was all in one place now on Mount Sophia”.
The old buildings and serene setting of those schoolgirl days occupy a special place in the hearts and minds of those who were educated there. The old prewar buildings possessed much character, as Vivien Goh recalled in an interview. A music teacher by training and profession, she studied at MGS from the mid-1950s to the 1960s. She remembered that classes for Primary 1–3 were held in the Kenyon Building at the foot of the hill, moving up to the Olson Building for Primary 4–5, and finally elevating to higher-ground classrooms for Primary 6 and secondary levels in the Louise McKee Building. Ms Sim Ee Min, a horticulturalist who studied there in the 1970s, observed that the buildings were located in a seemingly hierarchical way such that they represented a progression through different academic levels. Ms Goh also remembered lessons in eurhythmics, and how MGS had nurtured her love for music, singing as well as instruments like the piano and violin. To this day, music is central to the MGS culture and the life of the school.
“The girls in my class were studious and well-behaved. We would sit there quietly, hearing loud chatter and shrieks of laughter coming from the classes down the corridor. Even so, lessons were not the main thing. MGS was mainly about friends and the ups and downs of friendship. Friendships forged through the many years we spent growing up together. Friendships founded on common experiences – sliding in our bloomers down the smooth concrete slope by Olson Building… Ah Eng, the school peon, setting out bottles of Magnolia milk in pails of icy cold water every recess… quenching our thirst at the tuck-shop with the lurid yellow 5 cent drink (which contained the occasional pineapple chunk)… the whole class brushing our teeth by the drain… struggling to stay awake at chapel… bounding down the 100 steps… the fond jokes we shared about teachers and the hilarious antics by the cheekier girls in our cohort – the many shared experiences remembered and recounted over the years. MGS is about friends and the memories we share.”
Ms Yeoh Chee Yan, 1976
The memories of former school girls recall rich images of unforgettable experiences – especially the slippery concrete slope by the Olson Building, “polished smooth” by innumerable girls who slid – and also ran – down this unique slide in their bloomers and skirts, sometimes without shoes. It was a favorite pastime at every recess that elicited squeals of laughter and occasional screams in front of the staffroom. Every true-bred MGS girl who passed through the gates of MGS at Mount Sophia also remembers the well-trodden “Hundred Steps” behind Cathay Building. This famed flight of steep steps with no known origins was an integral feature of the school grounds. Exactly one hundred steps, they brought back happy days of “bouncing down the steps to, perhaps, a film show [at Cathay Cinema]… part and parcel of life in MGS”, even though “few passers-by know about this picturesque footpath”. It was the convenient ‘backdoor’ to Handy Road and even truancy at times. When asked what were the most abiding memories of her schooldays in MGS, Kelvyna Chan from the class of 1972, now principal of Anglo-Chinese Junior College, was quick to highlight the 100 steps leading up to Mount Sophia, because that “was my daily challenge. If I can overcome the 100 steps every morning at 7am, I can overcome anything”.
The “Hundred Steps” from Mount Sophia to Handy Road. Courtesy of Methodist Girls’ School.
Linda Lim, class of 1966, recalled physical education lessons that included practising English folk dances to recorded music and the maypole dance. She wrote a vivid account of her school days in MGS with her group of friends called the Nuttes. Excerpts from her memoirs were published in the Fellowship 2010 newsletter, “Vignettes of an MGS life”, in which she shared anecdotes of primary school, recess, sports day, school plays, the kacang puteh man and toilets suspected of being haunted by the Orang Minyak, or “oily man”.
MGS girls enjoying a folk dance. Courtesy of Methodist Girls’ School.
Gone are the days of school life at Mount Sophia, but relics of the past are vivid reminders of this precious heritage. Some of the artefacts housed within the MGS Archives Room at Blackmore Drive include a pair of old wooden speakers that were part of the public address system hanging from the front of each classroom, the dignified school bell, an archaic desk and chair, the metal printing block on which the school song was engraved, as well as an old hefty office safe. Handicraft works and other memorabilia have been preserved and safe-kept by Mrs Anna Tham, MGS’s longest-serving principal of 17 years. Though retired, she still returns to the school to tend to these treasures and to mentor the girls in various co-curricular activities.
Old desks and chairs of bygone days (1950), a set of which is housed in the Archives Room at Blackmore Drive. MICA Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.
Spanning approximately 140,000 sq ft, the 11 Mount Sophia site was acquired in 1996 for the development of the North East Line. This leasehold state property was creatively used by Old School which retained the original facade of the six low-rise buildings and their accompanying stairways and walkways. Old School tenants included artist Chua Ek Kay, fashion boutique Comme des Garçons, a Paris-based Japanese fashion label. Its owner Mr Theseus Chan had coined the much-loved place name “Old School”. It was a natural meeting venue for MGS reunions and get-togethers. Old School was given an initial two-year lease which was extended yearly to 2011, and finally to June 2012, when the area was rezoned for residential use.
Old School, located at the former site of the Methodist Girls' School. Courtesy of Old School.
“Save Old School”
The “Save Old School” (SOS) campaign
(http://www.facebook.com/saveoldschool) was launched by MGS alumnae Carol Tham and Lim Li-Hsien in 2011 to lobby the government to conserve the Mount Sophia campus. The Facebook site garnered 5,406 likes on Founders Day 2012. This petition to the community called for the preservation of the existing structures with its slogan “Saving old spaces and places in Singapore”. The SOS page is filled with old photographs and anecdotal accounts. Architectural historian Lai Chee Kien of the National University of Singapore and Dr Kevin Tan, Ex-officio (past president) of the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS), noted that the MGS Mount Sophia site is “historically significant as one of the first few educational institutions for girls”. Conservation merits that were highlighted include “historical architectural type, structural integrity and demonstration of workmanship” – all of which the MGS site fulfils. Architectural conservation consultant Ho Weng Hin was part of a research team commissioned by the SHS to write a book on local architectural history that will include the two-storey Sophia Blackmore Memorial Hall, with its iconic clock tower and fair-faced facade. According to him, the 1950s was an important period of Singapore’s history and such buildings commemorate local history and are integral to social memories. He said that the building was significant as it was designed by a postwar pioneer local architect, Mr Seow Eu Jin. The URA has acknowledged Mount Sophia’s heritage, but maintained that it is not always possible to conserve and retain all old buildings and former school sites.
“The MGS motto is ‘To Master, To Grow, To Serve’. When I was in primary school, I asked a teacher, ‘Don’t we have to grow first before we can master and serve?’ As a little girl I couldn’t imagine mastering anything without first growing up. I remember receiving a glare and being told to shush. So I responded rather defiantly, ‘The school just made it this way to fit into the letters MGS!’ I received the appropriate punishment of that time: the Scotch Tape Over the Mouth. Like a Scarlet Letter, quite a few of us were ‘marked’ with a scotch tape over the mouth for various misdeeds, but most of us viewed it as a small badge of honour, and we would mostly be giggling in the corner and mumbling to fellow miscreants, exchanging opinions about whose mouth was more taped.”
Mrs Elaine Ng, 1981
“Many retired teachers were met with the cheers and hugs of old students. The obvious camaraderie and smiles of alumna who attended, and the rousing singing of the school song at the end is a great testimony to the strength of school ties, and how MGS at Mount Sophia had made such an impact on the lives of old students. It is sad that things have to move on in this direction, but one hopes that the spirit of Sophia Blackmore and her vision of the Methodist Girls’ School will live on despite the changes and developments that time brings in its wake.”
Ms Sim Ee Waun, 1984
Hall of Fame
All schools laud outstanding students who have done the school proud in various ways, and MGS is no exception. Among the luminaries in the MGS hall of fame are personalities such as the late Madam Kwa Geok Choo, wife of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who graduated from MGS in 1936; playwright and Professor of Law at the National University of Singapore Eleanor Wong; national swimmer Pat Chan; and acclaimed Singapore Symphony Orchestra violinist Lynette Seah.
Memories Live On
At 6pm on 3 June, the school flag was marched in proudly by a colour party led by Mrs Tay Poh Imm, President of the Girls’ Brigade in Singapore and a teacher at the school since the 1970s. Addressing the crowd of more than 500, including one in her 90s and a few in their 80s, MGS Management Board Chairman Mrs Fang Ai Lian gave a short recollection of her school days there. Reverend Dr Tony Chi who presided at the commemorative service recalled his past connection to the school at Mount Sophia as the school chaplain. In closing, he offered a thanksgiving prayer and said a benediction after a rousing rendition of the school anthem which was particularly meaningful and poignant that day, especially when the chorus of voices came together with:
Down through the years our memories will keep a loving place, of friendships made and pleasures shared, and lessons learnt apace...
The school song was first sung in 1949.
Recalling the solemn and somewhat wistful end to the formalities of the day, Barbara Chee, President of the MGS Alumnae Association, reflected, “Tears were shed when the school flag was marched out and a feeling of nostalgia tinged with sadness hung in the air for a few moments.” On a more positive note, she noted that these “special memories of our school days at Mount Sophia… will remain in our hearts forever regardless of what happens to the buildings in the future”.
At the reception that followed, former MGS girls met and mingled, as they walked down memory lane to relive some of the best times of their school life there. Armed with cameras, many took parting shots of memorable landmarks. Class photos from the 1940s to 1992 projected in a slide show, and a video clip of two alumnae flashed back scenes of the past.
MGS Mount Sophia has left a loving legacy of school life experiences. Braving the tide of changes, MGS will continue to “lift high her banner” in the march of time to live up to its motto “to master, to grow, to serve“.
Barbara Quek is a Senior Librarian from the National Library Heritage Division. She worked in the SAFTI Military Institute Library from 1995 to 2006. Prior to that, she was an assistant editor for Pointer and the editor for Pioneer magazine in the Ministry of Defence. She co-authored the research paper “The Value of Print Literacy in the Education of Young Children in Singapore”, which was published in The International Journal of the Book, Volume 1 (2003).
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