Ellen Terserus was a teacher and vice principal, later owner of the private girls’ school Nya Elementarskolan för flickor (Ahlströmska skolan) together with the school’s founder Anna Ahlström.
Ellen Terserus was born in Gothenburg and grew up with her parents Elow and Elise, née Engel, and her siblings Ebba, Eskil and Edith. Ellen Terserus belonged to the first generation of academically educated women. She studied abroad at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland. There she took her Lady Licentiate of Arts and then did her teaching probation year in Cambridge. During her years abroad, she also made important pedagogical study trips to Belgium, Germany, Austria, Holland and America. She allowed herself to be inspired by new pedagogical thinking.
When she moved back to Sweden, she served as a teacher at most of the girls’ schools and coeducational schools in Gothenburg and Stockholm during the years 1892—1907. She was for example in at the start of the radical pioneer school Göteborgs Högre Samskola in 1901. In the young staffroom were to be found among others Emilia Fogelklou, and Ellen Key was a recurring lecturer at the school. Ellen Terserus worked in Gothenburg at Mathilda Hall’s school for girls (founded by Mathilda Hall), August Wijkander’s school and the Chalmers technical teaching institution (the present Chalmers University of Technology). In Stockholm, she worked at Statens normalskola för flickor in 1907. Other assignments that may be noted are her membership of the pedagogical jury during the World Exhibition at Saint Louis, USA, in 1904. From 1907, Ellen Terserus was also the secretary of the national women’s association Svenska Kvinnors Nationalförbund. The year 1907 was significant for Ellen Terserus’ continued professional career. She was namely offered an appointment at the girls’ school Nya Elementarskolan för flickor in Stockholm that had been founded by Anna Ahlström in 1902. In a letter from 1907 that has been preserved, she thanked Anna Ahlström for the offer and wrote that she would be happy to support the school project, with the hope that their cooperation would be to their mutual satisfaction. With her interest in innovative pedagogical ideas, Ellen Terserus could not have landed in a better place.
At the turn of the century 1900, there was great interest generally in pedagogical innovation. This meant new opportunities for first and foremost middle-class women who broke prevalent conventions and started their own school projects. Anna Ahlström, Sofi Almquist and Anna Sandström all started their own girls’ schools. As in most other countries too, girls did not have access to the grammar schools. The discrimination against women opened the way for new pedagogical thinking; they were not limited by the institutional framework that existed in the established educational system. This did not only concern the formation of the pedagogical programmes, but the renewal was even materialised in the construction of their own school buildings.
The cooperation between Ellen Terserus and Anna Ahlström worked extremely well and after two years’ duty at the school Ellen Terserus was appointed vice principal and in 1916 they were both registered as owners of the school. When Ellen Terserus was appointed in 1907, Nya Elementarskolan för flickor was granted state funding, which was a significant sign of quality since it usually took a long time to be granted. The school expanded rapidly and was in need of larger premises. Anna Ahlström had had plans to build their own school building right from the start, but on account of the first world war, the project was delayed and its realisation was postponed. In 1926, the school building was at last completed, in a prominent position at Kommendörsgatan in the upper-class district of Östermalm in Stockholm. The school was a palatial stone building with six floors and a long main façade decorated with columns. At that point in time, the couple had also found each other on the private level, and like many other women they chose to live together instead of entering into a conventional marriage with a man. Their first shared flat was in Sibyllegatan, but in time they moved to a bigger flat opposite the school building. In this luxury flat, the couple sometimes had tea parties on special occasions to which colleagues and pupils from the school were invited.
The premises in the school building were at first sparingly furnished, but in time they were to be decorated with the couple’s art works, purchased on their shared summer travels in Europe. In the entrance hall, the pupils were met by an open fireplace and from the ceiling hung chandeliers in gilded wood. The principal’s office was one floor up and there the couple each had a writing desk. The school building and ”Tersan” and ”Ahlan”, as they were called by the pupils had the capacity to offer an education to one thousand pupils at a time. There was a broad-minded and friendly atmosphere at the school without the teachers allowing the quality of teaching to decline on that account. The teachers were hand-picked, and when considering employment, personality was an important factor. Ellen Terserus was a linguist who taught English and German, and she is described in the source materials as a strong-willed and astute person. And despite the fact that she had an injured leg, she made no fuss about her evident pain but walked with a straight back and a stick. It was easy to make her laugh. Ellen Terserus was a much-liked teacher and after her travels in America she was able to speak with an American accent, which her pupils sometimes persuaded her to do.
Until the 1930s, Ellen Terserus and Anna Ahlström had unrestricted power over the school but at the ages of 63 and 67 respectively they retired. In practice, their influence over the school was considerable even after that. In the 1930s, the couple started the foundation ”Anna Ahlströms och Ellen Terserus Stiftelse”, that was to be the trustee that administered the school’s capital after their deaths.
The municipal take-over of schools in the 1930s marked the end of most private girls’ schools and coeducational schools since the formal obstacles to girls entering the grammar schools were removed. However, with pressure from Anna Ahlström through letters, their school retained its state subsidy. With other leadership, it continued as a girls’ school right up until 1970, when it went coeducational. After that it was called Ahlströmska skolan and survived until 1995 when it was closed down.
Ellen Terserus died in 1943 closely followed by Anna Ahlström. She had by then run and formed the Nya Elementarskolan för flickor for almost four decades, side by side with her life partner. Ellen Terserus is buried in the Eastern Cemetery in Gothenburg.