Samuel Dyer

Singapore Infopedia


Samuel Dyer (b. 20 February 1804, Greenwich, England–d. 24 October 1843, Macau) was a missionary to the Chinese with the London Missionary Society (LMS). He devoted about 15 years to missions in the Straits Settlements, first in Penang (1827­­35), then Malacca (183539) and finally Singapore (184243). During his time in the Straits Settlements, he established schools for boys and girls (for the latter, with help from his wife, Maria) and produced a fount of movable Chinese metallic types for printing.

Early life and the call to missions
Dyer was the fourth son of John Dyer, Secretary of the Royal Hospital at Greenwich.1 In 1820, his family moved to Paddington, where his father assumed the post of chief clerkship of the Admiralty, and the Dyers attended the Paddington Chapel, where Reverend James Stratten ministered.2 Dyer was converted to Christianity under Stratten and served faithfully as a Sunday school teacher at the chapel.3

Home-schooled till 12 years old, Dyer then studied at a boarding school in Woolrich and eventually pursued law at Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge.4 However in his fifth term in 1823, Dyer terminated his studies to heed the call to missions, despite the prospect of a scholarship.5 Prior to this, Dyer had been deeply impressed by a pamphlet titled Memoir of Mrs. Charles Mead of the London Missionary Society in Tranvancore, Kerala, India, which he had chanced upon in his father’s study.6 With his father’s approval, Dyer returned to London and joined the LMS in 1824 to be trained as a missionary.7 Dyer studied theology at the LMS academy in Gosport, Hampshire, under Dr David Bogue in 1824, and thereafter learned the Chinese language at the LMS academy in Hoxton in 1826.8 During this time, Dyer also studied the language under Reverend Robert Morrison (the first Protestant missionary to China), and printing under Dr Henderson.9 By then, it was evident that Dyer’s desire was to reach the Chinese. 

On 20 February 1827, the 23-year-old Dyer was ordained as a missionary by Stratten at Paddington Chapel.10 Thereafter, he married Maria Tarn, eldest daughter of Joseph Tarn, one of the directors of the LMS.11 As the Chinese ports remained closed to trade till the end of the First Opium War (August 1842), one way to reach the Chinese was through addressing the large population of Chinese immigrants in the Straits Settlements.12 Hence the couple headed for the Straits Settlements on 10 March 1827.13

Missionary life in the Straits Settlements
The couple were initially headed for the Malacca mission but settled in Penang in August 1827, because of the shortage of workers.14 The couple established Chinese schools learned the Hokkien dialect to reach out to the boys and girls separately.15 Maria was particularly concerned about girls sold into slavery.16

Dyer wanted to produce an inexpensive system of movable Chinese metallic types for printing Chinese Christian literature.17 Reducing the size of printed Chinese characters would reduce the number of volumes in a Chinese bible, making it more portable.18 The task was challenging in many ways. The printing of punches for the Chinese language (which contains about tens of thousands of characters) would require significant labour and cost.19 There was also no past experience that Dyer could learn from. Moreover, the head missionaries were already satisfied with the existing method of printing from wood blocks.20 Resourceful and determined to succeed, Dyer assessed the existing printing methods and the types required to print Chinese Christian literature, and devised a feasible printing press comprising Chinese punches that would suffice for missionary operations.21 He had a simple outhouse set up against the wall of his own dwelling to store the machine for striking matrices. The outhouse was a foundry for tempering punches and casting types, and the place where he would examine the punches that were produced.22 By the time of his death in 1843, Dyer had produced over 3,000 metal units that were common parts of Chinese characters, so the units could be used in multiple combinations in printing.23

After eight years in Penang, the Dyers resettled in Malacca in October 1835 at the instruction of the LMS.24 In Malacca, Samuel and Maria continued to manage the mission schools and the printing press, which was by then in full operation.25 Later, Maria fell ill, and the Dyers returned to England in May 1839 on furlough.26

In February 1842, the Dyers returned to the Straits Settlement to live in Singapore.27 The printing press was moved from Malacca to Singapore.28 Dyer managed the printing and bookbinding business and a type foundry that could print in English, Malay and Chinese.29 He also distributed tracts on Chinese junks, went from house to house in the evenings preaching the gospel, conducted Hokkien services, and worked on translating the Gospel of Matthew into the Teochew dialect.30

Last days
Dyer died on 24 October 1843, on the eve of news that China was opening up its ports.31 In view of this development, the LMS missionaries had gathered for a conference in Hong Kong in August 1843, and Dyer was appointed the conference secretary.32 Dyer fell ill on his return journey and died in Macao.33 He was buried that same evening in Macau, next to the grave of Robert Morrison and his son.34 Dyer’s children followed their father’s footsteps in Christian service.35

Irene Lim

1. Evan Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer: Sixteen Years Missionary to the Chinese (London: John Snow, 1846), 2. (Microfilm NL2933)

2. Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 3–4.
3. Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 4.
4. Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 3, 15.
5. Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 15–16.
6. Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 23–24.
7. Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 20, 25.
8. Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 25, 40–41, 43.
9. Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 42, 45, 54.
10. Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 45.
11. Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 52.
12. Kao Chen, “Defeat in Opium War a Cruel Lesson,” Straits Times, 31 December 1999, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “A List of the Protestant Missionaries to the Chinese,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 13 March 1845, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 45.
14. Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 57–58.
15. Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 67, 73.
16. Sylvia Toh Paik Choo, “6 Feisty Women Grace New Wall of Fame,” Straits Times, 23 October 2005, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Leona O'Sullivan, “The London Missionary Society: A Written Record of Missionaries and Printing Presses in the Straits Settlements, 1815–1847,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 57, no. 2 (1984): 64. (Call no. RSING 959.5 JMBRAS)
18. O'Sullivan, “London Missionary Society,” 64.
19. O'Sullivan, “London Missionary Society,” 64–65; Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer,, 82.
20. Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 81–82.
21. Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 88–94.
22. Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 82–88, 102–3.
23. O'Sullivan, “London Missionary Society”; Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 141.
24. Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 116–17.
25. Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 205–6.
26. Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 205.
27. “Missionary Work in Singapore,” Straits Times Weekly Issue, 20 January 1890, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 222.
28. Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 243–44.
29. Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 258.
30. “The Free Press,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 9 November 1843, 3 (From NewspaperSG); Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 228–29, 240–41.
31. “The Free Press”; Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 250–52.
32. “The Free Press”; Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 250–52.
33. “The Free Press”; Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 250.
34. “The Free Press”; Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Dyer, 256.
35. Gerald H. Anderson, ed., Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions (New York; Macmillan Reference USA, 1998), 192. (Call no. RUR q266.00922 BIO)

Further resources
Cecil K. Byrd, Early Printing in the Straits Settlements, 1806–1858 (Singapore: National Library, 1970). (Call no. RSING 686.2095957 BYR)

Ronnie Leona O'Sullivan, A History of the London Missionary Society in the Straits Settlements (c.1815-1847) (London: University of London Library, 1990). (Call no. RCLOS 266.0234105957 OSU)

Allington Kennard, “Press Pioneers and the 'Sensitive Issues' of the 1800's,” Straits Times, 26 July 1971, 22. (From NewspaperSG)

The Late Mr Foo Teng Quee,” Eastern Daily Mail and Straits Morning Advertiser, 9 April 1906, 3. (From NewspaperSG)

Alexander Wylie, Memorials of Protestant Missionaries to the Chinese: Giving a List of their Publications, and Obituary Notices of the Deceased, with Copious Indexes (Taipei: Cheng Wen Publishing Company, 1967), 51–54. (Call no. RCLOS 266.40951 MEM)

The information in this article is valid as of August 2021 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.

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