This is a chapter from Julian Cohen's forthcoming book, 'Surely not in Buxton', which will be published by Buxton Civic Association later this year.
'I’ve lived in Buxton for over 22 years. I am a football fan, follow my local team. Buxton, and go to quite a few home games. I am also very interested in local history and, especially, the more hidden aspects that people may not know much, if anything, about.
So it came as a great surprise to me to discover that Frank Soo, the only man of Chinese heritage to ever play football for England, was born within a few hundred metres of where I now live. In fact, I’d never even heard of Frank Soo until I recently went to an excellent talk about him, by Alan Zheng-Phoon Lau, chairman of the Frank Soo Foundation, that was organised by Buxton Football Club.
More about the Foundation later but let’s start by finding out about Frank Soo.
We need to go back to the early 1900s and Frank’s father, Quan Soo, who sometimes used the Anglicised name of Jack. He was born in Canton, China in about 1884, became a merchant seaman and later settled in Manchester. In 1908 he married Beatrice, a local English girl, and within a few years they moved to Buxton.
No one is sure exactly why they came here but we do know that there was a lot of racism aimed at Chinese people in the early 1900s, especially in urban areas – the usual stereotypes of, ‘they are taking our jobs and our women’ and, ‘they are all involved in selling drugs and prostitution’. So, probably seeking a quieter life, especially as many people frowned on a Chinese man marrying a ‘white’ Manchester woman, Quan and Beatrice arrived in Buxton and lived here from at least 1912. They lived at 17 Victoria Terrace, near where today Fairfield Road meets Lightwood Road.
On 8th March 1914, Beatrice gave birth to Frank, at their home on Victoria Terrace. They already had an older son, Norman.
These days, there is no number 17 Victoria Terrace and only numbers 10, 11 and 12 exist. From looking at old maps of Buxton, you can see that Lightwood Road was previously called Hogshaw Lane. It seems that the houses have been renumbered and, what was once number 17 Victoria Terrace, is now number 11 Lightwood Road. This was confirmed for me by the couple who currently live at number 9 Lightwood Road. They told me that their house used to be number 16 Victoria Terrace and that number 17 was the house next door. Number 17 is the house pictured below, as it is today. The way it looks makes me think it might have once had a shop front.
We don’t know a lot about Quan and Beatrice Soo and their life in Buxton, but we do know that Quan, as with many other Chinese people at the time, was a laundry worker. The large number of hotels and boarding houses that then existed in Buxton meant there was a high demand for laundry businesses here. Despite the small size of the terraced house, in which Quan and Beatrice lived, Kelly’s Directory of 1912 lists a laundry service called, ‘Jack China’s’, operating from 17 Victoria Terrace.
The current owners of number 9 Lightwood Road (or what was 16 Victoria Terrace) told me that their basement was once open to the basement next door, in other words open to 17 Victoria Terrace. (I could not go down to take a look because the stairs have collapsed). They also said that they suspected that there had once been a number of sinks in the basement and that it may have housed a laundry. The house next door, where Frank was born, is rented out and when I talked to the owner he did not know anything about the history of his property.
The houses are built on a slope and, if you go around the back, you can see that the basements have their own windows and doors on to the land behind, which drops down to a stream. It is possible that these houses had running water in the early 1900s but the stream could have been an ideal source of water for someone running a laundry.
I have also discovered that, in 1921, after the Soos had left Buxton, the Census showed a Ling Lee (born in Canton, China in 1894) living with his wife, a Mary Ling, at 17 Victoria Terrace. And Ling Lee’s occupation? You’ve guessed it – laundry man.
I think we can assume that, when they were in Buxton, the Soo’s kept their heads down and were a law-abiding, quiet and very hard working couple, as was the case with most Chinese families. Many immigrant communities formed informal networks with people of similar heritage elsewhere, so when the Soos did move, they may well have passed on their laundry business to another Chinese family.
The Soo’s did not stay long in Buxton. By June 1918, they were living in Sheffield and by 1920 they had moved on to Liverpool, where for many years they ran the ‘Jack Soo’s Laundry’, in the West Derby area.
So Frank Soo only lived in Buxton for the first four years of his life, from 1914 to 1918, almost the entire duration of the 1st World War. But what about his football career?
As a teenager Frank was playing, and excelling, as a very skilful wing-half in local Merseyside leagues. He was scouted by both Everton and Liverpool but somehow they did not sign him. Some people say this was due to him being of Chinese heritage. Instead, Stoke City signed him in 1933. He quickly became one of their star players in a team that included Stanley Matthews, playing almost 200 games for them and becoming team captain in the 1938/39 season.
In 1938 Frank married Beryl Lunt, who was known by her middle name, Freda. He was very popular with both supporters and his fellow players. In fact, Frank was then a household name, often with photos and articles about him in the newspapers.
One of his neighbours said that Frank was, ‘always immaculate, sleek black hair, he had the Brylcreem look. He was very softly spoken, a very nice man.’
Frank was known for his good looks and was nicknamed ‘The Smiler’, because he often had a beaming grin, as shown in the photo opposite. And Frank and Freda were sometimes portrayed as the perfect couple, even though the newspapers nearly always referred to his Chinese heritage.
Then, of course, from 1939 to 1945, came the 2nd World War and whilst some football matches took place, many were suspended. Frank signed up as an RAF engineer and worked on early radar systems that enabled pilots to land their planes safely in the dark. He also continued to play some team football and for the RAF. And he was in the full England national teams that played against Scotland, Wales, Ireland and France during the war.
In all, Frank made 9 appearances for England during the War years, including at Wembley Stadium, and was watched by crowds of between 30,000 and 133,000 spectators.
Unfortunately, these matches were not treated as full internationals and Frank never received an England cap. However, the England teams that he played in included famous players, such as Stanley Matthews, Tommy Lawton, Cliff Britton, Stan Cullis, Joe Mercer, Billy Wright and Frank Swift. Some of them can be seen in the photo of the England team below. Frank is on the back row, fourth from the right standing next to Billy Wright, who is in uniform.
I have heard a lot about all of these footballers over the years but, until recently, never a word about Frank Soo.
After the war, Frank left Stoke City and was transferred to Leicester City. He excelled there, as well, but was never called up for the England team again, despite many pundits saying he should be. Why? Frank’s age did not help, with him being in his footballing prime, aged 25 to 31, during the War years. He was also sometimes outspoken about footballer’s relatively poor wages and employment conditions. Also, his willingness to give interviews to the Daily Worker, newspaper of the British Communist Party, was frowned upon in some circles. However, the ugly head of racism has again been suggested as a reason, including a demeaning cartoon of Frank as a Chinese ‘coolie’ in a newspaper.
In the latter 1940s, Frank went on to play for Luton Town and Chelmsford City before hanging up his boots and becoming a football manager. As well as managing a few smaller teams in this country, such as St. Albans City and Scunthorpe United, he spent a number of years managing and coaching various clubs in Sweden, Norway and Finland, with some success, and also coached Padova in Italy. He even managed the Norwegian national team at the 1952 Olympics.
Being teetotal and a non-smoker himself, Frank was a hard taskmaster as a coach and manager and expected very high levels of fitness. This was not common amongst many footballers at the time, with some star players advertising not only beer, but cigarettes as well. This meant that Frank was not always popular with the players he coached and managed.
Frank and Freda had separated in the early 1950s. Freda died soon after in March 1952, from an overdose of barbiturates, aged only 36 years old. Some people think it was accidental but it seems Freda was very depressed at the time and may have taken her own life.
Until recently, people had assumed Frank lived alone after Freda died but more recent evidence has turned up showing that he became engaged to Liv Andersen in September 1952, and married her in June 1953 in Oslo, Norway. It seems that Frank kept their marriage, and the fact that they had a son together, a secret from most people.
Perhaps Frank’s personal life, and the way Freda died, contributed to the fact that, in his managerial career in the 1950s and 60s, he never stayed for very long with any one club, or in any one place, and gained a reputation for being a ‘wanderer’.
He retired from management and in the early 1970s was living in Malmo, Sweden, working as a security guard. Despite now being around 60 years old he was still very fit and trained each day. In 1975, he returned to England, by himself, and once again lived in the Stoke area.
By the 1980s, Frank had developed dementia, like many ex-footballers who had played with, and often headed, the heavy, laced, leather footballs of the time. Towards the end of his life he was not in a good way at all and cared for in a psychiatric hospital. Frank Soo died, aged 76 years old, on 25th January 1991 in Cheadle, Staffordshire.
Frank’s memory has been kept alive today by the setting up of a charity in his name, the Frank Soo Foundation. Their aims are to promote the story of Frank Soo, encourage and support East Asian people in this country to become involved in playing, watching, organising and coaching football and to develop positive community links. You can find out more about their work at their website: thefranksoofoundation.org.uk
In 2019, a new housing estate opened where the old Stoke City Victoria Ground used to be. One of the roads has been named, ‘Frank Soo Street’, in honour of Frank.
You can also find out more about Frank’s football career by reading Susan Gardiner’s excellent book, ‘The Wanderer: The Story of Frank Soo’. I have been in touch with Susan and she has kindly helped me to write about Frank Soo.
But we are not finished yet when it comes to Frank Soo and Buxton. Above is a report from the Staffordshire Sentinel of 27th April 1939. It is not very clear but, if you look carefully, you can see that Stoke City had just defeated Buxton 2-0, in a match at Silverlands. The attendance was 3,000 and the proceeds went to Buxton F.C. At the bottom of the report, Frank Soo and Stanley Matthews are listed as playing for Stoke.
Mike Barton, of Buxton F.C., informed me about this and that Stoke City also used Silverlands as a training base, around this time. Apparently, Frank Soo was part of the squad that received ‘fresh air’ training whilst taking the waters in Buxton. This was something other professional players came here for.
Mike is working with other people at Buxton F.C. to write a book about the history of the club. Definitely one to look out for!
What a sad ending to life it was for Frank in his last few years, but what an extraordinary life it had been. And it all began at 17 Victoria Terrace, Buxton. Today, that house has an advertisement for a local roofing contractor over the front door. Perhaps a blue plaque celebrating the birthplace of Frank Soo might be more appropriate. There must be something good in those Buxton waters of ours!'