The YWCA takes pride in being the oldest women’s organisation in Singapore, with a history which reflects the social history of Singapore from the 19th century.

The YWCA movement originated in England in 1855. Two women, Lady Kinnaird and Emma Robarts, had a shared vision of an association that would cater for the physical, moral and spiritual welfare of young women working in London. The first YWCA was thus formed in England.

The YWCA in Singapore was founded in 1875 by Miss Sophia Cooke, an English missionary from the Society for Promoting Female Education in the East, sent to Singapore.

A woman with strong and progressive ideals, Miss Cooke believed that women needed to be educated so that they could improve their status. She was concerned with the lack of education for women in Singapore and wanted to organise educational classes for them.

Starting with a committee of 5 women who were interested in helping other females, the first meeting of YWCA was held at 134 Sophia Road, a building surrounded by jungle. The committee began a literacy programme for women, which later expanded into Singapore’s first lending library.

The YWCA continued Miss Cooke’s work throughout the late 19th century up to the present day, and was a pioneer in serving the needs of women and girls.



By 1906, the YWCA had expanded and numbered 160 members. The Association rented a house in River Valley Road to provide accommodation for young women working in the city.

This was the first hostel operated by the YWCA and replicated the services offered by the one in England – offering safe shelter to female travelers and working women. This provision of safe accommodation continued throughout the decades, and still prevails today in the form of the Fort Canning Lodge.

In 1913, YWCA rented a house in Dhoby Ghaut but as membership grew, bigger premises were required. In 1914, YWCA purchased a plot of land at 8 Fort Canning Road for $10,000 to set up a hostel for women and a permanent base for its fast growing membership, which had grown to 300 women. This was quickly followed by the opening of an annex at the Fort Canning Road premises in 1917 to expand the accommodation facilities. Classes in shorthand, typing and first aid were offered to women.

By 1918, the membership had grown to 418 members. A plot of land in Penang Road was leased from the Government. The YWCA provided recreational activities for women and started the first women’s sports club in Singapore. In 1925, the organisation sponsored Singapore’s first ladies’ hockey match.

In the early years, it was the expatriate women who provided leadership for the Association – wives of pastors and bishops who were motivated by their Christian love to serve the YWCA.  One prominent lady who served as the President of the YWCA from 1921 to 1924 was Lady Ella Guillemard, wife of Sir Laurence Nunns Guillemard, the Governor of the Straits Settlements. Although many women already had heavy commitments in other areas of Singapore society, they did not ignore the needs of the less fortunate. The leadership also had foresight in realising that it was necessary to groom local women to take over the reins of leadership in the YWCA.

As a result, Mrs Loh Poon Lip, a well-known social worker, became the first local Singaporean woman to hold the Presidency of YWCA. She led the Association from 1947 to 1950. When the Government took back the land in Delta Road which was originally allocated for the use of the YWCA, Mrs Loh and Mrs Goh Kok Kee, a member of the YWCA General Committee, made the decision to accept a plot of land in Outram Road from the government, as well as a donation of $125,000 to build the building at Outram Road. The foundation stone of the Outram Road Centre was laid on 19 September 1956.

There were many other women who had devoted the best part of their lives in service to the YWCA. One was Mrs Helen Tan who served for 21 years with the YWCA from 1948 to 1969, and who considered those years as the best years of her life. Her interest in the Association’s work resulted in her being appointed Programme Secretary shortly after joining as a volunteer, and she became the first  local General Secretary in 1952.

Constantly aware of the importance of serving the needs of women, the YWCA acquired a site at the waterfront in 1923 and set up the Raffles Quay Centre.  From the Raffles Quay Centre, YWCA operated its first restaurant, an Employment Bureau for working women and a Travellers’ Aid society to help women travellers. As more local women joined YWCA, the first Chinese-speaking General Secretary was appointed.