Ever since I first heard about her work with poor children and their education and physical welfare, I have been a great admirer of the pioneer of nursery education, Margaret McMillan, who with her sister Rachel made huge efforts to improve the lives of slum-dwelling children in Deptford, London and Bradford in Yorkshire during the 1890s and early years of the 20th century. (I am indebted to the Electric Scotland website for much of the biographical information and the photos of the McMillan sisters in this posting.)
In London in the late 1880s, Rachel and Margaret attended socialist meetings where they met William Morris, H. M. Hyndman, Peter Kropotkin, William Stead and Ben Tillet. They also began contributing to the magazine Christian Socialist and gave free evening lessons to working class girls in London. Margaret later wrote: “I taught them singing, or rather I talked to them while they jeered at me.” It was at this time that the two sisters became aware of the connection between the workers’ physical environment and their intellectual development.
The sisters continued to be involved in spreading the word of Christian Socialism to industrial workers and in 1892 it was suggested that their efforts would be appreciated in Bradford. Although for the next few years they were based in Bradford, Rachel and Margaret toured the industrial regions speaking at meetings and visiting the homes of the poor. As well as attending Christian Socialist meetings, the sisters joined the Fabian Society, the Labour Church, the Social Democratic Federation and the newly formed Independent Labour Party.
Margaret and Rachel’s work in Bradford convinced them that they should concentrate on trying to improve the physical and intellectual welfare of very poor children. In 1892 Margaret joined Dr. James Kerr, Bradford’s school medical officer, to carry out the first medical inspection of elementary school children in Britain. Kerr and McMillan published a report on the medical problems that they found and began a campaign to improve the health of children by arguing that local authorities should install bathrooms, improve ventilation and supply free school meals.
In 1902 Margaret joined Rachel McMillan in London. The sisters joined the recently formed Labour Party and worked closely with leaders of the movement including James Keir Hardie and George Lansbury. Margaret continued to write books on health and education. In 1904 she published her most important book, Education Through the Imagination (1904) and followed this with The Economic Aspects of Child Labour and Education (1905).
The two sisters led the campaign for school meals and eventually the House of Commons became convinced that hungry children cannot learn and passed the 1906 Provision of School Meals Act. The legislation accepted the argument put forward by the McMillan sisters that if the state insisted on compulsory education for all children it must also take responsibility for the proper nourishment of school children. In 1908 Rachel and Margaret McMillan opened the country’s first school clinic in Bow. This was followed by the Deptford Clinic in 1910 that served a number of schools in the area. The clinic provided dental help, surgical aid and lessons in breathing and posture. The sisters also established a Night Camp where slum children could wash and wear clean nightclothes. In 1914 the sisters decided to start an Open-Air Nursery School & Training Centre in Peckham. Within a few weeks there were thirty children at the school ranging in age from eighteen months to seven years. Rachel, who was mainly responsible for the kindergarten, proudly pointed out that in the first six months there was only one case of illness and, because of precautions that she took, this case of measles did not spread to the other children.
Rachel McMillan, who had long suffered from poor health, died on 25th March, 1917. Although devastated by the loss of her sister, Margaret continued to run the Peckham Nursery. She also served on the London County Council and wrote a series of influential books that included The Nursery School (1919) and Nursery Schools: A Practical Handbook (1920).
I knew that Margaret and her sister were heroines and pioneers of nursery education in this country. What I didn’t know about Margaret, however, is that she was visited by Rudolf Steiner during a visit to Britain in 1923 and he was also mightily impressed by her, according to this fascinating post on the Transpontine blog.
As a small but poignant footnote to this, while I was looking into the history of the Steiner school established by Miss Margaret Cross at Kings Langley in the 1920s (the only Steiner school in England visited by Rudolf Steiner), I came across in the school library an early edition of Margaret McMillan’s book Education Through the Imagination. Inside on the flyleaf Margaret McMillan herself had written a very warm dedication to “dear Miss Cross”. It’s good to think that a founder of Steiner education in this country was originally associated with an educationist of the greatness of soul and generosity of spirit such as Margaret McMillan.
In her later years Margaret McMillan became interested in the subject of nursing. With the financial help of Lloyds of London, she established a new college to train nurses and teachers. Named after her beloved sister, the Rachel McMillan College was opened in Deptford on 8th May 1930.
Margaret McMillan died on 29 March 1931. Afterwards her friend Walter Cresswell wrote in a memoir of the McMillan sisters: “Such persons, single-minded, pure in heart, blazing with selfless love, are the jewels of our species. There is more essential Christianity in them than in a multitude of bishops.”