Saint Felix School was founded in 1897 by Margaret Isabella Gardiner, whose youthful ambition was ‘to make a school where girls are treated like sensible creatures’. Following a Cambridge degree (as it would be now) a teaching post and a Headship, a legacy enabled Miss Gardiner to realise her ambition. She was offered a house in Aldeburgh by Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and there started a school with seven pupils (boarding and day). Numbers grew and Southwold had several large rentable houses. By 1898 Miss Gardiner was in ‘The Elms’ (now ‘May Place’) and the former Golf Links Hotel (now ‘Greyfriars’ and ‘Regency House’) became the School House. Various other properties were rented.
Miss Gardiner wanted permanence. Samuel Gardner (Chairman 1900-1931) helped form a limited liability company, and money was raised to buy a site in Reydon. The architect Arnold Mitchell’s first four boarding houses and a classroom block were completed by September 1902.
Ill health caused Miss Gardiner to resign in 1908. In 1909 the energetic and charismatic Lucy Mary Silcox became Headmistress. Numbers increased: in 1910 an Assembly Hall (the Gardiner Hall) and Library were built; the new Clough House in 1914.
Following the difficulties of World War I (shelling of the area and evacuation) the School continued to expand. A Science Block and Studio were added, and a Music Block planned. Centre Cliff Hotel in Southwold was acquired for a Junior School.
Miss Silcox retired in 1926. Into her place came the calm integrity of Ella Mary Edghill. The 1930s saw much building. A House (Bronte), a Gymnasium and Swimming Pool and a Sanatorium (now Saint George’s). The then Chairman, the Honourable Alexander Shaw (later 2nd Lord Craigmyle), donated the Chapel, built in memory of Samuel Gardner, and he later financed the Cloisters.
Succeeding Miss Edghill in 1938, Margaret Trail Williamson had immediate problems. At the time of the Munich crisis, trenches were dug in the field opposite. Centre Cliff was closed. By the time World War II began, there were nine air raid shelters. In the 1938 Christmas holiday the School housed 200 refugee boys from Germany and Austria (mostly Jewish).
The School was evacuated in May 1940: first to King Arthur’s Castle Hotel in Tintagel, then to Hinton St George in Somerset, until 1945 - a testing time for both Miss Williamson and the Chairman, Sir Ernest Gowers. The return to Reydon saw a helpful influx of new pupils, but buildings and grounds needed restoration. They had been occupied by the Army, and by the Navy from 1943. As H.Q. of the Eastern Command for D–Day landings, it had been visited by Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Montgomery.
Sound academic progress marked Miss Williamson's 20 years. There was an emphasis on the Arts, and many recitals were given by visiting musicians. Mary Oakeley continued the post–war recovery. The Sanatorium became a Junior School, and Bronte House, which had accommodated the juniors since 1945, reverted to its earlier role. A new San was built next to it. Miss Oakeley's pageants were memorable, as was her determination to integrate the life of the School with the local community. Her headship also saw more building: Dining Halls and Kitchen; new Laboratories and Art and Craft rooms; an upper storey to the Cloisters and two Squash Courts.
Mrs Anne Mustoe was the first Headmistress to have had a career outside the teaching profession. Her nine years of energetic growth culminated in the building of the Craft, Design and Technology Centre. Retiring in 1987, she cycled, solo and successfully, round the world! Her successor, Miss Margaret Claydon, was the first Headmistress who resigned, in 1991, in order to marry.
Mrs Susan Campion combined progressive ideas with a cheerful optimism, leaving in 1997, having overseen the building of a covered swimming pool. The School’s first headmaster, Richard Williams, is to be commended for his energy and determination. A first-rate Sports Hall and Theatre complex completed in 1999 concludes a fine range of buildings continued over nearly 100 years.
For a detailed history, see Bernard Keeling, Saint Felix School, Southwold and the Old Felicians, Pioneers in the Emancipation of Women since 1897 (available from the School).
Nancie Pelling, Southwold, June 1999
Saint Felix School became co-educational in 2002.
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