John Polglase – our first member

When Dr James Thoburn organised our first Methodist church on Monday, Feb 23, 1885, John Polglase was the only one of the three British Wesleyan laymen who qualified to attend the meeting, who was present. He was thus the first member and official of the Methodist Church in Singapore.

JOHN POLGLASE was born on Jan 3, 1854. A Cornishman and a hatter by trade, he was brought up in a strict Methodist family in Cornwall, England, and later became an accountant by profession.

Why he chose to migrate to Singapore is not known, but he first worked as a bookkeeper at Robinson’s in the early 1880s, but joined the Singapore Municipality as Assistant Secretary to the Commissioners in 1882 and then Secretary in 1892, a post he held until he retired in 1920, passing away in England on Jan 25, 1933.

Older Singaporeans may remember the Polglase Bridge which was named after him and situated at the junction of Stamford Road and North Bridge Road, diagonally opposite the former Capitol Cinema.

When Thoburn and his team arrived in February 1885 to hold evangelistic meetings, Polglase’s position in the Municipality influenced the Chinese Commissioner to give the casting vote to allow Thoburn to hold his evangelistic meetings at the Town Hall where he preached with dynamic effect. These took place nightly for the next two weeks, after which Thoburn was ready to organise a local congregation.

At the first local conference, it was Polglase’s positive attitude that showed his commitment. Since he was the only electable layman present at this first meeting, Polglase was, as Oldham put it in his book, “elected to all the offices to which laymen were eligible in the church”, including Sunday School Superintendent, trustee, steward and church treasurer.

When it transpired that he would be expected to raise the pastor’s salary, he did not back out but looked at Oldham and then Thoburn and said: “I think they (Mr and Mrs Oldham) can live on seventy until it became the Malaysia Mission in 1894, with support from the Methodist Missionary Society in New York.

We read in an early advertisement that as Honorary Secretary of the Board of Trustees, it was he who called for tenders to put up the first Methodist sanctuary at the junction of Coleman Street and Canning Rise. It took approximately 10 months to build and was ready by Oldham’s birthday on Dec 15, 1886.

It was a splendid chapel of which a scale model is displayed in the Singapore Methodist Church Archives. It served the congregation, and the ACS as a multi-purpose hall, until it moved to its new sanctuary at Fort Canning in 1908, renamed Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church.

As a one-man organiser and facilitator in the early days of the Mission and, for the 35-year association with the Mission, he was a very active member of the “English” Church, so called because it conducted its services in English and served the Eurasian and European community.

He was twice elected as lay delegate to represent “Malaya” at the General Conference in the United States in Los Angeles in 1904 when Oldham was elected Bishop of this area, and again in 1912 in Minneapolis, an occasion which was memorable on two counts. The first was that Polglase had dashed across Southern Europe in order to catch the ill-fated Titanic – and missed it – a disappointment that proved to be a blessing in disguise. The other was his opposition to Bishop Oldham giving up the episcopacy to become Secretary of the Mission Board in New York, an influential position. In the end, Bishop Oldham did not dissuade Polglase from resisting the move, and accepted the decision of his Episcopal colleagues.

An interesting aspect of Polglase’s life was his family. He married a local woman by the name of Lucy Smith with whom he had six children, one of whom died young.

The eldest, Herbert, attended ACS and later joined the Government Civil Service as Accountant in the Government Monopolies in Singapore, and later became Auditor-General based in Kuala Lumpur. The fifth, Ernest, was a government architect who helped to design many of the railway stations, including the Kuala Lumpur station, and later practised in Penang.

Arthur, the middle son, worked in a company that later became known as the Cable and Wireless Company, while Dorothy, the youngest, whose baptismal record shows that she was baptised on June 16, 1895, taught at ACS from 1917 to 1921.

A visit to the Methodist Archives by her son, Ian McLeod in 2005, and by her daughter, Denise and family in 2007, helped to enrich our memory and appreciation of John Polglase as we celebrate the 125th anniversary of The Methodist Church in Singapore.

By Earnest Lau

The MCS Archives and History Library is open from Monday to Friday from 9 am to 5.30 pm except during lunchtime from 12.30 pm to 1.30 pm.
Tel: 6478-4775.

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