Tag Archives: Deptford

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.


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;
  • 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.


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.


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.



Anti German Attacks in Deptford in World War 1

There were around 53,000 German’s living in Britain at the outbreak of WW1, while many of those in London attempted to return to Germany in the first few days of the war, routes out soon dried up.

Many with English wives, husbands, families or businesses stayed in England. The Alien Restrictions Act was hastily passed through Parliament on 5 August and required all Germans, Austrians and Hungarians to register with the police – it is estimated that over 40,000 Londoners had to register (Jerry White ‘Zeppelin Nights’ p70).

There had been some limited violence and protests against Germans from the outbreak of the war, including a 5,000 strong demonstration outside a butchers on the Old Kent Road.

However, it was in Deptford where attacks became much more widespread and violent; several German businesses were attacked from Saturday 17 October to Monday 20 October 1914 – this included bakers, butchers, a confectioner and an Austrian owned pub. In total, around 5-6,000 men, women and children were involved.

The initial attacks started after pub closing time on 17 October, and it was a butcher’s that initially had its windows smashed combined with shouts of ‘Down with the Germans, We Want no Germans here!’. A pub, the Prince Regent at 82 Deptford High Street, now a Barclays (below, left), and dozen shops with foreign, not necessarily German, names were smashed and often looted with bread, meat and many personal possession looted. Many of the victims were naturalised, second generation immigrants who had become British Nationals.

The Mirror, quoted in Bulman, Hegarty and Hill, suggested that the first shop to be attacked was a butchers called Peseti – the name may be incorrect as there appears to have been no butcher of that name on the High Street, although there was one called Pfisterer (at 209 – above right). This was followed by two more butchers Arold (at 79 – below, right) and Riegler (at 55 – below, left) – whose family lived above the shop and had to take refuge with neighbours during the attacks (see comment from Hilary Baker below).

One of the shops on Deptford High Street that was attacked was a bakers run by J Goebel was invaded by around fifty rioters, and the family home above the shop was vandalised. They tried to throw a piano out of the window, although this backfired as it blocked their escape leading to eighteen rioters being arrested.

It took the police nearly three hours to bring things under control but it required help from soldiers from the Royal Army Medical Corps who were billeted in Deptford, and it was not until 3:00 am until everyone was cleared from the scene. There were 21 arrests, three of which were women.

Violence started again on the Sunday with a corn dealers being set on fire.

The immediate trigger in Deptford seems to be the arrival of 800 Belgian refugees from the front – who were housed at Carrington House – one newspaper report (picked up in New Zealand) described the Belgians as having been ‘dumped’ and with British casualties already occurring it was enough to light a powder keg. Another report suggests that around a hundred of the previous residents of Carrington House had been evicted to make way for the Belgian refugees, and those evicted had made their way to the Prince Regent, whose German landlord had apparently started a rumour that two British battleships had been sunk. as well as news from the front of the fall of Antwerp.

While the violence was the first major outbreak of this nature in London, over the previous days there had been attacks in Aberystwyth, Saffron Walden, Keighley and Peterborough.

There were also attacks at Lee Green and in Catford on 17 and 18 October – in total around 60 arrests were made following the attacks in South London.

These were dark days for the German population of South London and reflect badly on Deptford with local people turning on their neighbours.

The immediate aftermath of the events in Deptford was a decision by the Home Office to resume internment of Germans and Austrians, although with the influx of Belgians at the same time space quickly ran out. There was a reciprocal arrangement with the German government for the repatriation of women, children, men not of military age along with doctors and priests – around 8-9,000 were repatriated through these means.

More general internment of Germans began in May 1915 following the sinking of the Lusitania. One of the main camps used in London was Alexandra Palace. Frederick Riegler, the butcher from 55 Deptford High Street was one of those interned, he ended up at Knockaloe on the Isle of Man until his release in 1919, with the rest of his family deported, it is hard to imagine what threat to national security that he or any of his family posed (See comment from Hilary Baker below.)

The war resulted in a dramatic reduction in the numbers of Germans in London, in the old London County Council area there were 31,254 Germans and 8,869 Austrians in 1911, by 1921 the numbers had fallen to 9,083 and 1,552 respectively (Jerry White ‘Zeppelin Nights’ p92). As for the German businesses most seem to have been taken over by English owners; Goebbels the bakers at 111 Deptford High Street where there was an attempt to throw a piano out of it, was taken over by a small chain of bakers, H Johnson and Son. Not all the Germanic traders left the area though, the landlord of the Prince Regent, Abraham Mandel, continued there until at least 1921.

As for the 250,000 Belgians whose arrival as refugees seemed to have triggered the events in Deptford, most returned home after the war, encouraged by the British Government. There is an interesting article on the BBC website about the lack of long term impact of their stay despite them being one of the largest ever influxes of refugees.

Rolla Richards – The New Cross Post Office Bomber

There was an explosion at around 10:15 pm on Tuesday 14 August 1894 at the then Post Office at 177 New Cross Road – today a nondescript shop front.20140305-193227.jpg

A man was seen passing the Five Bells pub, about 30 metres from the Post Office, carrying a small parcel, then hurrying away down Hatcham Park Road soon after and followed by a small explosion at the Post Office. It caused ‘considerable noise which greatly alarmed those in the immediate vicinity.’ (1)20140305-193116.jpg

At the Post Office, the police had found the remains of a tube upon which were written (2)

In memory of Ravachol, Vaillant, Bourdin, Polti, Santo.  Vive L’Anarchie.

All were well known anarchists who had died or been imprisoned as part of their activities – Bourdin had blown himself up, probably unintentionally in Greenwich, this was covered in Running Past in 2014; Vaillant had been responsible for the bombing of the French Chamber of Deputies.  So it was rather odd that it was reported that ‘the authorities do not entertain the theory that the explosion was the work of Anarchists.’ (3)  Some press reports though did make the clear and obvious linkage – referring  to it as an ‘anarchist outrage’ (4).

This wasn’t the only Post Office explosion in south east London in the 1890s – there was another in Lewisham High Street in January 1896. The small post office ‘filled with smoke and the smell of gunpowder was noticeable.’ While fittings were damaged by the ‘sardine tin shaped bomb’, there seemed to be no structural damage.  The perpetrator was described as a ‘dastardly scoundrel’ and the Illustrated London News hoped that a ‘heavy punishment would be meted out to the bomb ruffians’ (5).  There was no mention of anarchists at all on this occasion, despite press reports linking it with the New Cross bombing.

This approach continued after the forensic results were made public – when it was reported that ‘The authorities at first thought that the outrage was the work of an anarchist. They now believe that it was committed by some imbecile or other irresponsible person.’ (6)

This official line didn’t seem to help the police with their inquiries, there was a further attack on a Post Office on Trafalgar Road in East Greenwich in January 1897, which seems to have received little publicity at the time (7).  However, it appears that the police started to infiltrate the relatively large Deptford anarchist group who met at Deptford Broadway – their meetings occasionally got mentions in the left leaning Reynolds News (8).

These meetings led the police to a watchmaker, Rolla Richards (the court reports incorrectly call him Rollo), who had been heard talking about effectiveness of different explosives in late January 1897 and they raided his home at 136 Edward Street in Deptford.

Richards1Gunpowder and various other bomb making equipment was found at Edward Street (pictured, left (9) and Richards was charged with ‘Feloniously causing an explosion by gunpowder on August 14th, 1894, likely to endanger life.’ Initially he was changed with all three explosions but the Old Bailey record only covers the New Cross Road charge, although it notes that ‘There were two other indictments against the prisoner for similar offences.’.

Richards was linked to the New Cross explosion by pieces of card and paper from the parcel bomb, more of which was found at Edward Street A handwriting expert identified some of the surviving fragments of writing which were quoted above as being in the ‘hand’ of Richards,

It was clear from his trial that Richards had some mental health issues and/or some learning disabilities – he was described several times  during the trial as ‘eccentric’ and was ‘confined as a lunatic for nine months in 1883-84 in the Greenwich Infirmary.’


Richards, pictured above from a sketch at his trial (10), was sentenced to seven years hard labour, which according to 1901 census records he spent at Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight – where he was described as ‘feeble minded.’

He was released on a conditional licence in 1903. He seems to have moved to the Bromley area on release, he married Emma Jane McNeale there in 1904.  They were living in Melrose Road in Biggin Hill in 1911, although neither were working, in previous censuses this would have been described as ‘living on own means’.

The Richards  next door neighbour was William Nelson, a professional photographer, who captured Rolla Richards on film – he was, at best, seen as somewhat eccentric – as the photograph with a tricycle and a cat on his shoulder at least implies. The mental health problems that came out during his trial, in the 1901 census as well as the 1881 census where he was described as an ‘invalid ‘seemed to have re-surfaced in Biggin Hill.  Stories of him attempting to burn down the Nelson’s home have been passed down through that family’s history.

He died in 1929 in the Bromley area and someone of the same unusual name bequeathed £500 to provide bells and a clock for the tower of St Peter & Paul, Cudham.

The bequest was part of an estate valued at £1672. Where the money came from is a mystery.  As a watchmaker recently out of prison he is unlikely to have earned sufficient money to retire by 1911. He had married in 1904, his wife, Emma was a recent widow – her husband died in Greenwich in 1902, but as he was listed as a lighterman in the 1901 census, he is unlikely to have been wealthy.

It is much more likely to have been inherited from his father, William, who was listed as a widower living on his own means in the 1901 census, after being a Cooper in the previous two censuses. William died later in 1901.  If this is the case he too must have inherited the wealth, being a cooper is unlikely to be trade generating enough to retire on.


  1. Daily News (London, England), Thursday, August 16, 1894; Issue 15094
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Birmingham Daily Post (Birmingham, England), Thursday, August 16, 1894; Issue 11282.
  5. The Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times (London, England), Saturday, January 18, 1896; pg. 38; Issue 1808
  6. The Morning Post (London, England), Tuesday, February 25, 1896; pg. 3; Issue 38600.
  7. Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), Wednesday, February 3, 1897; Issue 8643
  8. For example – Reynolds’s Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, April 5, 1896; Issue 2382
  9. Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, February 7, 1897
  10. Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, April 11, 1897; Issue 2838

Census and other related data are from Find My Past.

Thank you to John Nelson for allowing me to use the photograph that his father took as well as filling in some of the details of Rolla Richards’ will and life in Biggin Hill.

In Search of the Battle of Deptford Bridge

The Point, on the edge of Blackheath,offers a fantastic panoramic view over London; the vista is edged by Battersea Power Station and Orbit, the red sculpture at the Olympic Park, with a horizon made up of Alexandra Palace, Hampstead Heath and, on a really clear day, the north-west suburbs beyond the Wembley arch. This all frames one of the best views of the cities of London and Westminster.

The height and views over the city give a strategic importance to Blackheath as a gathering point for rebels marching on London; this has been well documented in relation to the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. But much less well known was a gathering of Cornishmen on 16 June 1497. Led by a blacksmith from the Lizard Peninsula, Michael An Gof, and Thomas Flamank, a Bodmin lawyer, the Cornish had taken exception to a u turn on taxation that related to the tin industry by Henry VII to fund the a war against the still separate Scots.

15,000 Cornishmen had marched from the south west and had hoped to get support from Kentish Men; there had been rebellion from that county led by John Cade nearly 50 years before. There was no support forthcoming and the rebels returned initially westwards and after a skirmish outside Guildford headed back towards London ready to march on the City, hemorrhaging numbers as they went.

There were probably only 10,000 remaining by the time they camped at The Point, with some archers protecting the strategically important bridge over the Ravensbourne at Deptford a kilometre away.

The armies of Henry VII stormed the bridge at dawn the following day, and without any support the bridge was taken and the rebels routed on The Heath over the succeeding few hours – with estimates of between 200 and 2000 dead.

Whilst the Henry VII’s General, Lord Daubeney, was captured and then released by the rebels on the Heath; the same was not the case for Michael An Gof, and Thomas Flamank who were hanged, drawn and quartered and their heads displayed on London Bridge, although they were offered a degree of leniency as the drawing and quartering was allowed to happen after their deaths. An Gof’s last words were said to have been that he would have “a name perpetual and a fame permanent and immortal” – sadly his name and cause have been largely forgotten by history.

There is little remaining evidence of the Battle of Deptford Bridge, there is a plaque near the entrance to Greenwich Park which was erected on the quincentennary in 1997, and Daubeney Tower – one of the blocks on the Pepys Estate.

The actual location of the initial battle is not that certain as the Ravensbourne has been ‘channelised’ at this point and the exact location of the battle could have some distance from the current bridge.