Founder of St Margaret’s School, the first girls’ school in East Asia
Maria Dyer was a British Protestant missionary and pioneering educator who, together with her husband, set up schools throughout the Straits Settlements. In 1842 she founded the Chinese Girls’ School in Singapore, which was the first girls’ school in East Asia. It is now known as St Margaret’s School.
Maria was the eldest daughter of Joseph Tarn, one of the directors of the London Missionary Society. Aged 24, Maria married Samuel Dyer, a missionary bound for the Straits Settlements under the charge of her father’s organisation.
The Dyers arrived in Penang in 1827 where they quickly set to work establishing schools for local children. Both immersed themselves in learning the Hokkien dialect and over the next eight years they opened four Hokkien schools, educating scores of students.
The couple then moved to Malacca, where they continued in their quest to spread Christian values through the fostering of education. They stayed in Malacca until 1839, when Maria fell ill and they returned to England.
But in 1842 the Dyers returned to the Far East, this time settling in Singapore.
One of the sights which most struck Maria in her new home was that of impoverished young girls, known as mui tsai, being auctioned as slaves for the wealthy.
Horrified, she resolved to take action. With the approval of the London Missionary Society, Maria secured permission to start a boarding school for 19 homeless girls in a small shop-house on North Bridge Road.
The school opened in 1842 and took in all needy girls, including orphans, regardless of race. The girls were taught English, the principles of Christianity, and how to be good homemakers in preparation for marriage. For years it was the only girls’ school in Singapore. This was a time when it was thought there was no need to educate girls.
Maria’s own personal life had its share of sadness. Of the five children she had with her husband Samuel, just three survived beyond their first three years of life. In 1843 Maria’s husband succumbed to illness.
Coinciding with news that ports in China had opened to trade, the London Missionary Society withdrew their missions from the Straits Settlements. Maria and her three children moved to Penang in 1844. The following year she married independent missionary John George Bausum.
But a year later Maria died, leaving behind her three orphaned children and her new husband.
Missionary who devoted her distinguished Talents during the last 19 years of her life
to the extension of Christ's Kingdom among the Chinese females in the Straits
Epitaph on Maria's tomb in the Protestant Cemetery in Penang