On the map and in such archival records, Mount Sophia shows up as the name of a street and of a hill in the Rochor area of Singapore. Topographically, it is part of a series of hills that includes Mount Emily to the north, as well as Fort Canning further down south. Bounding Mount Sophia are Sophia Road, Mount Sophia (the road), and Adis Road; the three roads skirt the foothills to trace a teardrop loop. The drive is a gentle bend uphill, and for those who are inclined to go on foot, a flight of steps, accessible from Handy Road, offers a steep, straight-up hike. Although the original staircase has since been rebuilt, it is still fondly called ‘The Hundred Steps’.
In its earliest documentation, Mount Sophia was known as Bukit Seligi, bearing the name of the local nibong palm — a tall, slender species distinctive for its rather alarming thorn-covered trunk. It was not until the colonial period that the hill was given its western name: first as Flint’s Hill — after Captain William Flint, the colony’s first Master Attendant who lived on the hill; then renamed Mount Sophia by Flint—in honour of Singapore founder Sir Stamford Raffles’ second wife, Lady Sophia Raffles, and Flint’s own daughter, Mary Sophia Anne. Flint grew spices on the hill for years.
The hill was later sold to Charles Robert Prinsep, who also owned the adjacent Bukit Cawa (the present Mount Emily). Prinsep was a nutmeg mogul and cultivated plantations on his hills. His estate extends all the way to what is today’s Istana grounds. Mount Sophia’s elevation above lowland flooding and its proximity to the genteel neighbourhood of Orchard Road made it an ideal address for the well-heeled. During Prinsep’s time, grand mansions were already erected on the hill. Theodor August Behn and Valentin Lorenz Meyer (of Behn, Meyer & Co, which, in these early days, traded in tropical produce such as coconut oil and pepper) were some of the listed hills residents in 1842.
Through the 1860s, as the colony population grew, Prinsep started to parcel the land out for sale. By the early 1900s, many more houses had sprung up on the hill, as can be seen in town maps from that time. Likely the most elaborate mansion there was the Eu Villa, the family mansion of Eu Tong Sen built in 1913. Located halfway up the hill, the lavish property was so large it kept five watchmen and a pack of thoroughbred Alsatians, Mastiffs and Great Danes on guard. The villa boasted of a dining room that could seat over a hundred guests; as well as a ballroom that was as big as Raffles Hotel’s and that overlooked just two of Eu Villa’s many tennis courts. The residence has been described as ‘magical’ and ‘castle- like’ in accounts — its fairy-tale status sealed in popular imagination when the villa was sadly demolished in the 1980s.
Over the years, the area was also home and social ground for various communities. In particular, many Sikh and Jewish families settled there. Traces of their lives can still be seen in some of the community buildings that pepper the hill and its surrounds today. Landmarks featured on heritage and interest tours include Sophia Flats. Standing at the entrance of Mount Sophia, this 1930s building was where Jewish immigrant Frank Benjamin had lived in and set up his first office after the war. Not far away, the David Elias building bearing the six-pointed Star of David bas- relief on its façade also reflects the heritage of its Jewish owner.
Mount Sophia was gazetted on 1 December 2003 as Mount Sophia Conservation Area, serving as a physical link between the Civic District and the Little India Historic District.