The story of the private Soderberg school is one of the most fascinating that we have discussed on Simply Whitstable. This is not because it was a major establishment. In reality, it provided education for just a small group of children. It isn't because it had lavish facilities. In fact, it was located in the cramped confines of an unremarkable residential property in Nelson Road. It isn't because it catered for the elite of society. It seems likely that it was attended by pupils from relatively modest "lower middle" or "upper working" class pupils.
The real fascination concerns its charismatic owner, its origins in the early days of local education and the fact that it continued long enough to creep into the living memory of our senior readers. Furthermore, despite the fact that the school is mentioned in many books, there are still some questions that remain unanswered. Hopefully our article will prompt some clear cut answers from our readers.
Let's take a look.
The Owner - Effie Soderberg
Early History of Effie...
In tracing the history of Effie Soderberg, we are indebted to Brian Eames who has been researching the subject after discovering that his father attended the school in the late 1920s. Brian has made a wealth of material available to us.
Brian discovered that Effie was born circa 1875. An obituary (published in a newspaper) tells us that she moved to Whitstable in 1882 with her grandparents and parents. She was then approx 7 years old and her grandfather (George Measday) had just retired after serving 25 years as a missionary with the London City Mission. Her father was Swedish by birth and served much of his life in the merchant navy - particularly in the Pacific.
The 1901 census documents her as living with her parents at 36 Canterbury Road and records her father as being 'at sea' on census night. At that time, Effie was '26' and she had already embarked on a career in teaching as her occupation is recorded as ''assistant mistress, infant school'. She was not the only family member to pursue a career in education. Apparently, her brother, Percy, was also a well known teacher in Whitstable.
It seems Effie may have had little contact with her father. Although he retired in 1917 and joined the family in Whitstable, he died just a year later.
What of Effie's early teaching career? Well. we cannot be sure where she worked at the beginning of the twentieth century but we can have a stab at possible answers. Cliff Court's book "Around Whitstable in Old Photographs" (page 123) states that, prior to starting her own establishment, Effie worked at the local Board School. If you have read our history of the Whitstable Junior School, you will know that the Board Schools were so called because they were administered by a local School Board and they were the forerunners of the modern State Education system. At the outset, there were three Board Schools in the town - Boys, Girls and Infants. All opened in 1877 and shared the Oxford Street site of the modern day Whitstable Junior School. In 1879, the town gained another Board Infants School in Albert Street.
If Effie was indeed a Board School teacher, she may have worked at either of these two Infant Schools. However, if she did, she may not have been there long because her obituary makes no mention of it. In fact, it describes her as working for many years at the rival St Alphege Church of England School before transferring to the kindergarten unit of Westmeads Infants.
Some confusion may arise here because the Albert Street Board Infants School relocated to Cromwell Road in 1904 and became the Westmeads Infants of modern times. However, by then, the old School Boards had been replaced by the Kent Education Committee and, technically, Westmeads was never a Board School. The modern term at that time was "Council School" but, out of pure habit, many local people continued to use the term "Board School". In fact, the term "Council School" was also used long after such schools became known as "State Schools"!
Brian has also discovered that, by 1923, Effie had become 'self-sufficient' and her private addresses were given in the Blue Book Index as....
The name Seasalter Place has been lost in the mists of time... but I am sure that, one day, one of our readers will be able to pinpoint its location and current name!
Soderberg School Origins, Name and Location
We cannot be certain when or why Effie chose to leave mainstream education and start her own private establishment. However, we can have a stab at an approximate date.
Brian has located a newspaper advert for the Soderberg School, dated 12 May 1928. This confirms the location as 106 Nelson Road and describes Effie as the "Principal". The school is also recorded in the Blue Book Index of 1928 and Kelly's indexes of the 1930s. The addresses are given as follows.....
A number of interesting points arise from these details. The obvious one is that, whilst many of us talk about the Soderberg School, the official title was actually "The Argyle School". However, don't go dashing off to locate the buildings as there is a problem.
Whilst the No 9 entry is correct, Brian has discovered that the 1928-33 address simply doesn't tie in with the current day street numbering. Somewhere down the line, Nelson Road was renumbered - with No 106 becoming No 12. This property is almost opposite No 9 and we suspect that the school relocated a short distance across the road some time around 1934.
This might explain why some books give 1934 as the start date of the school whereas the index entries suggest that Effie commenced her private enterprise no later than 1928. In fact, we have reason to believe that it commenced even earlier than that... and that Nelson Road was not its first address. Take a look at this message from Ian Johnson received back in 2006....
This would explain the origins of the name "Argyle School" and push the establishment's "start date" back to at least 1926 when Effie was living at Essex Street or Seasalter Place. The Church Hall may have been a temporary home for the school while she sought permanent premises with "live in" accommodation. By 1928, she had been successful in her search and relocated both the school and her private residence to 106 Nelson Road.
An Early School Photograph
One of Brian Eames' key interests in the subject concerns the photograph below. If anyone can supply names or other details that might help us with the date and location, we would love to hear from you!..
Brian's father is the little chap on the far right of the front row. Brian believes the photo was taken circa 1927/28 and that would make it the earliest photo I have seen of the school.
Miss Soderberg is the lady on the extreme right and, in 1928, she would have been in her early 50s. It is tempting to suggest that the location is Effie's first Nelson Road addresses - the old No. 106 (No 12 in modern numbering). This would tie in with Brian's father's description that the school was on the left looking from Oxford Street. However, the building in the background looks extensive and the windows are set quite high in the walls. That doesn't necessarily fit with a terraced property in Nelson Road.
Is it possible that the location is actually the school's very first site - at the Methodist Hall in Argyle Road? That would place the date slightly earlier than 1928 and bring Effie's age down to 49/50 at the time. As we have members of the Methodist congregation amongst our readership and those windows may still be visible in the modified Methodist Hall of today, we may yet get an answer!
The photo suggests that Effie employed an assistant or second teacher in the late 1920s (see the lady on the far left of the back row). Brian believes that it might be a "Miss Sutton" and Ian Johnson has been able to confirm that there was indeed a Miss Sutton associated with the school around that time....
Next Stop.... Cliff's Book
If you have a copy of Cliff Court's fascinating "Around Whitstable" book, take a look at page 123 (ISBN Nos 1840151935, 0750903988, Alex Sutton Publishing Phoenix Mill, Strood Gloucester). This contains another school photo taken "in the 1930s". The date is consistent with Brian's picture as it features a slightly older Effie Sodeberg and a maturing Miss/Mrs. Sutton.
So far, things seem to hang together... but we are about to hit some choppy waters and we may need the help of our readers!
Now to Ivan's Photos... and a Problem
When we discussed the school back in a Chat Column back in 2006, we included the shot below - kindly supplied by Ivan Knowles.
The question is.... Is it the Soderberg School?
After careful study, I was tempted to say that it is. Standing on the far right of the back row is an elderly lady teacher. At first glance, it looks like Miss Soderberg and, after overlaying the photos below, I feel there is very close match...
However, if it is Miss Soderberg, it would have to be much, much later than both Brian's 1927/1928 photo and the "1930" shot featured in Cliff Court's book. Miss Soderberg appears to be very much older and the children's clothes are far more "modern". (eg All are wearing sandals or low cut shoes whereas some are wearing boots in Brian's photo). It all points to a late 1940s scene when Effy would have been in her seventies.
However, there is a curious problem. The young lady standing fifth from the right in the middle row is Ivan's aunt. She was born in 1920 and would probably be no older than 10 at the time. That would place the photo in the late 1920s or early 1930s.... and create some inconsistency with the other photographs.
One of our readers, Phil Neame, has also expressed doubts about the link between the photographs.
So, Ivan's photo remains a mystery. Can anyone identify any of the faces and help us toward a specific date?
Soderberg: The Final Years
As yet, we do not know too much about about Miss Soderberg's final years.
Kelly's Index records the school at 9 Nelson Road until 1939. By then, Effie would have been 66 years old and due some well earned retirement. The onset of war effectively put an end to the flow of official records.... but did it also curtail Effie's teaching career and result in the closure of the establishment itself?
Well, despite the fact that the Argyle School disappeared from the official radar at that time, the answer is an emphatic....."No!". Phil Neame provides some first hand evidence of the extended history of the establishment....
In fact, the establishment may well have lasted until 1949 as Effie's obituary states that she continued teaching into her 75th year! Effie eventually passed away on Nov. 5th 1950 at the age of 76 after a short illness .
Tribute to Effie
Effie Soderberg's life is celebrated on a head stone in Whitstable cemetery.... and in the memories of many of of our senior readers. She was one of the pioneers of education in the town and devoted more than 50 years of her life to her chosen vocation. Even half a century later she is still remembered by many local people.
I always feel that it is important to make a difference. When people discuss your life and work 50 years on, you have done just that.
We would like to thank Brian Eames, Phil Neame, Ian Johnson and Ivan Knowles for making this article possible.