St Margaret's School

Singapore Infopedia


St Margaret’s School is the oldest girls’ school in Singapore.1 It was founded in 1842 by Maria Dyer of the London Missionary Society, who had sought to provide a home and education for young girls who would otherwise be sold to rich families as domestic servants.2 The school was originally known as the Chinese Girls’ School and later renamed as CEZMS School after it was taken over by the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society in 1900. It was again renamed in 1949 as St Margaret’s School after Queen Margaret of Scotland.3 The school began in a shophouse on North Bridge Road and has since moved several times and split into two separate premises, on Wilkie and Farrer Roads, for the primary and secondary levels respectively.4

Founding and early years
In 1842, Maria Dyer and her husband Samuel Dyer, both missionaries of the London Missionary Society, stopped over in Singapore while on their way to China. Maria was shocked to see young girls being sold on the streets of Singapore to become bonded domestic servants to rich families. She decided to help these girls – who were known as mui tsai (“little sister” in Cantonese) and predominantly Chinese – and sought permission from then Governor of the Straits Settlements Samuel George Bonham to start a school run by her missionary society, which would house and educate these girls.5 The school was officially opened in 1842 and became the first girls’ school in Singapore. It operated out of a shophouse on North Bridge Road and offered a curriculum that was both spiritual and practical for the girls. In addition to the usual subjects taught at other missionary schools such as English and Christianity, practical skills such as sewing and cooking were also part of the girls’ education.6

After the death of her husband in 1843, Maria left Singapore for Penang the following year to take over the Chinese Girls’ School there. Miss A. Grant, a representative of Britain’s Society for Promoting Female Education in China, India and the East, took over the running of the school following her arrival in Singapore in July 1843. In 1845, the school officially came under the care of the society that Grant represented, after the London Missionary Society decided to focus its efforts in China.7

In 1853, Sophia Cooke succeeded Grant as head of the school. By this time, the school had around 20 students. An energetic missionary and experienced teacher, Cooke went about her duties with such enthusiasm that the school was often referred to as “Miss Cooke’s School” during her 42-year tenure as principal.8 The school relocated several times in the 1850s, from its founding site on North Bridge Road to River Valley Road and then Beach Road, on the site where the Raffles Hotel now stands.9 The school finally secured a permanent location at 134 Sophia Road in 1861.10 By this time, the school was officially known as the Chinese Girls’ School.11

The school began to gain a reputation for cultivating good Christian wives with practical domestic skills. Chinese men from China, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) who had recently converted to Christianity would approach the school in search of a suitable bride.12 The girls were married off from as early as 13 or 14 years old; although little premarital advice was given, most of these arranged marriages were said to be successful as the suitors were carefully screened by the school. The arranged marriages took place so frequently that Cooke bought a wedding dress to be kept as school property for loan to girls who were getting married.13 The school continued to play the role of matchmaker and arranged the girls’ marriages right up to the 1930s.14

The Chinese Girls’ School was home to some 49 girls by the time of Cooke’s death in 1895.15

CEZMS School
The Church of England Zenana Missionary Society (CEZMS) took over the running of the school in 1900 and renamed it after the society. The school continued to grow and had 62 students by the beginning of 1901.16 Three decades on, by the 1930s, there were about 300 pupils, the majority of them Chinese. The European missionary staff stayed in the school with the students, while the local staff lived off-site.17

During the interwar period, the school started to modernise with the times. Elsie Thackrah, principal from 1928 to 1930, set up a science laboratory in the school and began training the girls in fields such as business, nursing and teaching.18 In addition to revising its curriculum, the school was also under pressure to improve the standard of its educators. To avoid closure due to a lack of funds, Jessie Kilgour, principal from 1938 to 1948, sought grant-in-aid from the municipal Education Department in 1938. The department agreed to give funding under three conditions: a graduate was to be added to the teaching staff; existing teachers had to take teacher training courses; and non-Christians had to be accepted on the staff if they were qualified. The school accepted the conditions and thus became a grant-in-aid school in 1939.19

Three of the school’s buildings at its Sophia Road site were destroyed during bombing raids by the Japanese when they invaded Singapore in February 1942. Classes continued in the school despite disturbances caused by the subsequent Japanese Occupation (1942–1945). After the war, the students were divided into the pure science, sub-science and arts streams, while humanities was optional due to the larger student cohort.20

St Margaret’s School
In 1949, then bishop of Singapore, Reverend John L. Wilson, renamed the school St Margaret’s School after Queen Margaret of Scotland.21 Due to the rapidly expanding student body, Norah Inge, principal from 1948 to 1957, began to plan for a separate secondary school for St Margaret’s.22 The idea came to fruition in 1960 when St Margaret’s Secondary School opened at a swampy site on Farrer Road; the plot had been purchased two years earlier by the archdeacon of St Andrew’s Cathedral, Robin Woods. The secondary school had an initial enrolment of about 300 students.23 Government grants, funds raised by women missionaries from the American Episcopal Church as well as donations from various organisations all contributed to the building fund for the secondary school.24

In 1974, St Margaret’s students – both primary and secondary levels – began donning their characteristic green polka-dot dress with a plain green tie. It was designed by Lim Kah Pheck, an art teacher at the secondary school, to replace the uniform worn by pupils since 1946 – a green pinafore (later replaced by a green dress) over a white blouse, which did not distinguish the school’s students from those of other schools.25

Meanwhile, the primary-school section remained on Sophia Road. In 1984, the primary school moved to a temporary premise, while the building at Sophia Road was being demolished and rebuilt. The primary school subsequently returned to a brand new five-storey building with modern facilities and amenities. The school was officially opened on 16 November 1987 and given the new address of 99 Wilkie Road.26 In 1997, the National Heritage Board marked the old site of St Margaret’s School on Sophia/Wilkie Road as a historic location.27 In 1999, the primary-school building began upgrading works under the government’s Programme for Improving Existing Schools (PRIME), and was completed in 2001.28

The secondary school on Farrer Road was demolished and rebuilt in 1998. Students spent two years at a temporary site at Commonwealth Avenue before returning to Farrer Road in 2000 upon the completion of the new school building.29 The homecoming celebrations were graced by James Hudson Taylor III, the great-great-grandson of school founder Maria Dyer. The new campus was officially opened by then Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan on 26 July 2002.30

A heritage centre was officially opened in 2007 at St Margaret’s Primary School to celebrate the school’s history through a collection of memorabilia such as old photographs, classroom desks and notebooks. To mark the occasion, former and current students mingled and shared stories of their time in the school.31

St Margaret’s Secondary School was accorded autonomous status by the Ministry of Education in 2009, which gave the school more funding and greater freedom in its administration of curriculum and student intake.32

School crest and motto
The school crest comprises a shield with a green background representing life, activity, creativity and growth. On the upper right corner of the shield is a white cross symbolising the school’s Christian mission. A white band runs diagonally across the shield, standing for purity in thought, word and deed.33

The St Margaret’s motto is “Charity, Patience, Devotion” – the virtues for which Queen Margaret of Scotland was known.34

Notable alumni
The alumni of the school include Singapore’s first Asian hospital matron and bestselling memoirist Janet Lim and former Nominated Member of Parliament Eunice Olsen.35

Fiona Tan

1. “School History,” St Margaret’s Primary School, accessed 2012.
2. “Our History,” St Margaret’s Secondary School, accessed 2014; Rachel Leow, “‘Do You Own Non-Chinese Mui Tsai?’ Re-examining Race and Female Servitude in Malaya and Hong Kong, 1919–1939,” Modern Asian Studies 46, no. 6 (November 2012): 1746–7, 1756–8. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
3. St Margaret’s Secondary School, “Our History.”
4. Tommy Koh et al., eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Heritage Board, 2006), 518–9 (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); St Margaret’s Primary School, “Our History”; Janet Lim, Sold for Silver: An Autobiography of a Girl Sold into Slavery in Southeast Asia (Singapore: Monsoon, 2004), 36. (Call no. RSING 940.547252 LIM-[WAR])
5. 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, 30 (Call no. RSING q373.5957 SAI); Lim, Sold for Silver, 36.
6. Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 518.
7. St Margaret’s School, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, 31–32; Deborah Colville, “UCL Bloomsbury Project: Society for Promoting Female Education in China, India, and the East,” 13 April 2011.

8. St Margaret’s School, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, 45–47; Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 581. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
9. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 461. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
10. St Margaret’s School, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, 49.
11. St Margaret’s School, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, 11, 45, 47.
12. Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 86 (Call no. RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS]); Chen Yihua 陈怡桦, “Sheng ma ge lie nusheng zhenxian pengren yang yang jing: Yuanfang qingnian shao xin lai qiuqin” 圣玛格烈女生针线烹饪样样精: 远方青年捎信来求亲 [St Margaret’s students expertise in sewing and cooking attracts marriage-seeking young men from afar], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, 20 August 1992, 34. (From NewspaperSG)
13. St Margaret’s School, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, 60.
14. Lim, Sold for Silver, 74–77.
15. St Margaret’s School, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, 49–50.
16. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 581. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
17. St Margaret’s School, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, 58.
18. St Margaret’s School, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, 54; Lin Jinmei 林金梅, “Sheng ma ge lienu xiao zouguo de lu” 圣马格烈女校走过的路 [Down memory’s lane with St Margaret’s School], Sin Chew Jit Poh, 26 February 1982, 44. (From NewspaperSG)
19. St Margaret’s School, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, 70–72, 75.
20. St Margaret’s School, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, 66, 69–70.
21. St Margaret’s School, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, 72; St Margaret’s Primary School, “Our History.”

22. St Margaret’s School, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, 76.
23. St Margaret’s School, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, 86, 89.
24. “Churchwomen Aid School Building Fund,” Straits Times, 10 December 1961, 11; “Millionaires Help School to Get New Building,” Straits Times, 15 July 1957, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
25. St Margaret’s School, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, 98.
26. St Margaret’s School, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, 90–91; St Margaret’s Primary School, “Our History.”
27. “St Margaret’s Still Wants to Produce Good Wives,” Straits Times, 18 November 1997, 40. (From NewspaperSG)
28. St Margaret’s Primary School, “Our History.”
29. Lim Seng Jin, “Oldest Girls’ School Moves to a New Site,” Straits Times, 30 May 1998, 66; Dawn Wong, “St Margaret’s Moves Back to New Home,” Straits Times, 3 December 2000, 29. (From NewspaperSG)
30. St Margaret’s School, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, 122–4.
31. “It’s My Uniform,” Straits Times, 1 September 2007, 58. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Ho Ai Li, “St Margaret’s to Become Autonomous,” Straits Times, 7 May 2008, 32. (From NewspaperSG)
33. “Our Crest and Motto,” St Margaret’s Secondary School, accessed 2014.  
34. St Margaret’s Secondary School, “Our Crest and Motto.”
35. St Margaret’s School, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, 36–37, 148; Leung Wai-Leng,  “ST Media Club Members Grill NMP Eunice Olsen,” Straits Times, 15 December 2004, 9. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as of 16 December 2014 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 resources on the topic. 



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