At the beginning of the 20th Century, prior to the two World Wars, a number of small Prep and Boarding schools thrived around the Ramsgate, Broadstairs and Margate areas in the bulge of Kent. This was still in the era of the Raj when parents (with aspirations that their offspring might help run the Empire) would use the British Prep and Boarding School system to ensure entry into the Overseas Civil Service. They, in turn, sent their children home from afar to benefit from a British education. As well as being a popular holiday venue, the coast of East Kent was conveniently accessible by rail from the ports of London and Dover for expatriate parents returning by steamer and wishing to visit their children during annual leave.
The Brownes at Northumberland Lodge
The school to which Airthrie owes its origins was started in in this area during the First World War - by a lady called Mrs Browne. Known as 'Aunty Browne' to her pupils, she began to educate the sons and daughters of gentlefolk after the death of her husband, in the First War. The mother of four children herself - two sons and two daughters - she was a courageous lady, who, like many other war widows did not wish to remarry, but instead dedicated her life to the care and education of others. Helped by her daughters, Joey and Sybil, demand for Mrs Browne's services grew and she soon realised the need for a larger house than her own in which to accommodate her charges. Borrowing heavily, Mrs Browne acquired Northumberland Lodge, Northdown Road, in the Cliftonville area of Margatet.
The lodge was a double fronted detached house so provided four dormitories, one with eight beds and three with four. There were also three single rooms and a tennis court in the garden. This enabled her to cater for ex-patriot as well as day pupils.
During this time Mrs Makins-Smith, the great grandmother of Stephanie and James Boyd, who joined Airthrie in 1984, placed her three daughters under the care of Mrs Browne. Located in India due to her husband's work, she had scoured the South coast of England for a suitable school for her three girls, finally discovering Northumberland Lodge in 1932. Mrs Makins-Smith had then spent three months living in Kent so as to be close at hand should any problems arise with her children's new school. Her doubts were soon assuaged and she returned to India while the girls spent the next five and a half years happily at Northumberland Lodge - both during term time and holidays. To such young girls, the Brownes and the Lodge became home. Having lost her husband, in the mid-thirties Mrs Browne also lost one of her two daughters (and assistant) Sybil, who died of acute appendicitis, but she continued with determination and the help of her remaining daughter Joan (Joey).
At Northumberland Lodge the school thrived and soon gained an excellent reputation. Having paid off the building society loan, Mrs Browne had almost freed herself from her debt when the advent of the Second World War spelt disaster for the thriving institution. From having a full school with every place taken at the end of the Summer Term 1939, the school was left virtually empty in September. During the early stages of what later came to be known as the Battle of Britain, bombing raids destroyed nearby military establishments including early warning Radar and Acoustic stations As the area of Eastern Kent increasingly became vulnerable to attack from air and became known as 'Hell's Corner'. As people rushed to leave Margate, the threat of bombs and of invasion which was feared all along the coast, Mrs Browne was placed in a quagmire of debt from which she would never recover, despite the future popularity of the school.
Fortunately, the Makins-Smith family were able to come to the rescue. In 1937 her girls had left Northumberland Lodge. Mr Makins-Smith had retired, and the family had moved to Cheltenham in order to place the girls at the nearby Cheltenham Ladies' College. At the advent of the war, Mrs Makins-Smith, remembering the zeppelins of the First World War and anxious for the Brownes, wrote to them offering her assistance. Her offer was grasped with both hands and Mrs Browne, courageous as ever, sent a telegram back simply saying 'Find me a house!'
"Find me a house"
So it was that Joey travelled to Cheltenham and together with Mrs Makins-Smith began the search for a suitable building in which to relocate. Several were looked at, including one on the Shurdington Road, but Airthrie House, a double-fronted stucco house, built in 1883 as one of a row of spec-built villas was soon settled upon. Mrs Browne remained in Margate until she could arrange to have all their things moved - no easy task with the rest of the town evacuating also - but soon the Browne's were settled in Christchurch Road evacuating with them not only their belongings but also a few small boys from Margate who boarded with them until the war was over.