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Story: Soper, Eileen Louise

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Soper, Eileen Louise


Journalist, writer, Girl Guide commissioner

This biography, written by Dorothy Page, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Eileen Louise Service was born in Sydney, New South Wales, on 14 December 1900, the eldest of six children of Edwin Curwen Service, a chemist's assistant, and his wife, Olga Louise Varcoe, both of whom were born in England but brought up in New Zealand. Eileen Service's early years were spent in England; she was nine when the family returned to Invercargill, where Edwin worked in various occupations before becoming an accountant. Her schooldays were happy; fondly recalled in her memoirs, they included holidays in the country, as well as at Stewart Island. Her last year at secondary school, so broken by illness at home as to prevent her working for a place in the upper sixth form, ended with a serious bout of influenza. She taught, unhappily, for a year at a small private school in Invercargill, until the family's move to Dunedin enabled her to enrol for a BA at the University of Otago.

In 1924, newly graduated but unable to find a local teaching position, she wandered into her vocation in the new position of lady editor of the Otago Daily Times at a modest 30 shillings a week. Under the pseudonym 'Phillida', her concept of 'Notes for Women' was ambitious: articles about women's power for good, accounts of great women of history, reviews of books by and about women, poems and stories by women contributors. Her editor, however, wanted jottings on which society women were in or out of town, what private parties they attended and what they wore: 'chit-chat', he told her firmly. Transferred after a year to the weekly companion paper, the Otago Witness, as associate editor, Eileen Service had more freedom. For eight years she reviewed books of her choice and had responsibility for the children's page, as Dot of 'Dot's Little Folk'. When in 1932 hard times caused the closure of the Witness and Service returned to her former position at the Otago Daily Times, she took 'Dot's Little Folk' and the reviews with her.

Eileen Service was prominent in the social and cultural life of Dunedin. In the 1920s, with her two talented sisters – one the music editor of the Otago Daily Times, the other preparing to study physiotherapy overseas – she studied revived Greek dance, joined the literary circle that met at writer Edith Howes's home, and became president of a flourishing Otago Business and Professional Women's Club, which attracted outstanding speakers. She found an outlet for her creative talents in drama, mime and dance, and in the varied activities of the Otago Women's Club. Annual tramping holidays took her regularly into the remote unspoiled areas of west Otago, especially the Hollyford and Greenstone valleys, and sometimes as far as Milford Sound.

On 14 February 1938, at Dunedin, Eileen Service married the new professor of chemistry at Otago University, Frederick George Soper. She continued for a few weeks in her role as lady editor, and with her club activities, but there were two step-children to adjust to and soon the demands of war. Frederick's wartime responsibilities as deputy director, chemical, of the Defence Scientific Advisory Committee took him away from home a great deal. In 1941 Eileen accepted the position of Otago provincial commissioner for the Girl Guides Assocation, a post she filled until 1954 and which involved numerous visits of inspection throughout the province.

In 1946 the couple made the first of many overseas trips, Frederick as one of four New Zealand scientists selected to attend the Royal Society Empire Scientific Conference in London, and Eileen as one of two New Zealand delegates to the Eleventh World Conference of Girl Guide Commissioners at Evian-les-Bains in France.

Immediately on her return she wrote the first of her five books, The Otago of our mothers, a graceful and readable social history, 'winnowed from a mass of diaries, letters and reminiscences'. The first of the Otago centennial histories of 1948, it sold well, providing royalties that went towards the production of others in the series. She later used her research as background for an attractive children's novel, Young Jane, about a 10-year-old girl living in a remote area of Otago in the 1860s.

As Frederick's career flourished, university-related activities assumed greater importance. Eileen Soper became the first president of the new Otago University Staff Wives' Association in 1948. In 1950 Frederick Soper was made a CBE for his war work, and the following year Eileen accompanied him when he led New Zealand's delegation to a UNESCO meeting in Paris and represented the University of New Zealand at the fifth centenary celebrations of the University of Glasgow. In 1953 he was appointed vice chancellor of the University of Otago, beginning a decade when, based at University Lodge, Eileen acted as hostess for the university, a role for which her calm, dignified elegance fitted her perfectly.

The landscape of southern New Zealand had always been important to Eileen Soper and in retirement she and her husband continued to live in view of Otago Harbour. There was now time for writing. In 1969 the first slender volume of her memoirs, The green years, appeared, followed in 1971 by The month of the brittle star, based on a childhood holiday at Stewart Island, and two years later by the second volume of memoirs, The leaves turn. Retirement was long and peaceful. Frederick Soper died in 1982, and Eileen Soper on 24 October 1989.

How to cite this page:

Dorothy Page. 'Soper, Eileen Louise', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4s37/soper-eileen-louise (accessed 21 July 2024)