The McMillan Sisters and their Open Air Nursery

One of the more interesting regular South East London Open House venues is the Rachel McMillan Nursery in Deptford; it is an open-air nursery that evokes a time of the pioneering health care already covered in the blog in relation to the ground breaking work done in Bermondsey by the Salters and then taken up by the then Borough of Bermondsey at Solarium Court.

The Open-Air Nursery School & Training Centre, set up by the McMillan sisters, Rachel and Margaret, opened in 1914. Their philosophy was that children learned by exploring and would achieve their full potential through first-hand experience and active learning.  They stressed the importance of free play, particularly with craft and water activities, and also outdoor play – providing large and varied external areas for this. Such views seem commonplace now, but were very different to the teaching methods generally used at the time.

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The new school consisted of a series of  ‘shelters’ which each had bathrooms,  there was a clear daily routine

  • The school opened at 7:30 am;
  • Most children were dropped off between 08.00 and 09.00 by their mothers on their way to work in factories – often taking on roles traditionally undertaken by men, who were then on the WW1 front;
  • Breakfast with porridge and milk at 9:00 am;
  • The mornings were spent doing hand work or playing in the garden (or in the shelter in poor weather);
  • Lunch 11.30 and 12 noon;
  • as part of the war effort;
  • The afternoon activities consisted of free play, music and games;
  • Tea at 4:00 pm; and
  • Collection of the children between 5:00 and 5:30 pm.

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Much of the early ethos remains at the nursery as the photographs above show. The nursery was filmed by British Pathé News in the 1939 (part of the footage was from a 1930 visit by Queen Mary – there is more on this later in the post).

So what of the journey of the sisters to Deptford?  Their parents were originally from Inverness but had emigrated to New York State in 1840, Margaret was born in 1860 and Rachel in 1859. They returned to Inverness following the death of their father and sister, Elizabeth, in 1865.

Their mother died in 1877 and Rachel remained in Inverness to look after her very ill grandmother.  Margaret left Inverness and trained as a governess.

In 1887 Rachel visited a cousin in Edinburgh, whilst there she heard a sermon preached by the Christian Socialist, John Glasse – about whom was written that he ‘gathered around him many ardent idealists, to whom he administered doses of Proudon and Marx … the faithful were favoured with the words of wisdom from the lips of Morris, Kropotkin, Stepniak and other distinguished visitors.’  Rachel was also introduced to John Gilray who gave her copies of Justice, a socialist newspaper and Peter Kropotkin’s ‘Advice to the Young’, and took her to a number of socialist meetings in the city.

The sisters’ grandmother died the following year and Rachel joined Margaret in London and both worked in homes for young girls. Rachel shared her Socialist views with Margaret and they attended political meetings where they met many of the important socialist and anarchist thinkers of the day including William Morris, Henry Hyndman, Peter Kropotkin – whose time in Bromley was covered in the blog a while ago – and Ben Tillet.

They became involved with the Christian Socialism that had first impressed Rachel in Edinburgh but also joined the Fabian Society, the Labour Church, Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation and later the newly formed Independent Labour Party (ILP).

The moved to Bradford in the early 1890s and became involved in campaigning to improve the physical, emotional and intellectual welfare of the poorest children through improvements to housing, free school meals and early medical inspections of school children.

The sisters returned to London in 1902 and remained actively involved in campaign for free school meals, which was enacted as part of the Liberal Welfare Reforms in 1906.  They lived at 127 George Lane in Hither Green for a while after their return to London – commemorated by one of Lewisham’s maroon plaques.

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The remained convinced about the need for medical inspections within schools and opened the first school clinic in Bow in 1908.  Margaret and Rachel McMillan opened another, the Deptford Clinic, in 1910 which served a number of schools in the area providing a range of services including General health checks, some dentistry, lessons in posture and breathing.

The McMillan Nursery followed a few years later, while Rachel died on 25th March, 1917.  Margaret continued the run the Nursery also serving on the London County Council and setting up a training college for teachers and nurses in Deptford,  the Rachel McMillan College. The College was opened by the Queen in May 1930 and captured by British Pathé News; it was taken over by the London County Council after WW2 and eventually became part of Goldsmiths College.

Margaret died the following year – her friend Walter Cresswell wrote a memoir of the sisters, remarking about them

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.

The sisters are buried in the same plot on the Brockley side of Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery – a peaceful location despite the proximity to Brockley Road.

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2 thoughts on “The McMillan Sisters and their Open Air Nursery

  1. fifepsychogeography

    Quite fascinating reading this and particularly regarding the Edinburgh connection with Rev John Glasse. There was a lot happening in Edinburgh in the 1880s through the activities of Patrick Geddes and The Edinburgh Social Union who promoted art and education and commandeered vacant city spaces to make into gardens. I think Glasse may also have been involved. Geddes was also a friend of Kropotkin and knew William Morris.

    Reply
    1. Paul B Post author

      The links to other leading socialist lights of the day were what drew me to their story, I thought that you might be interested in the Edinburgh links. I was less surprised about the links with Kropotkin – every left intellectual at the time in London seemed to turn up at his home in Bromley. As it was the anniversary of his birth today and I was running out that way I made a detour to Crescent Road too.

      Reply

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