Margaret and Rachel McMillan – for whom we are named

They were born in the USA, but came over to Scotland when Margaret was about 5, after her father died. Margaret spent some time studying music and languages in Europe, with a view of becoming a governess. Meanwhile, after the elderly relatives died, Rachel moved down to London, and soon Margaret joined her. Together they started attending socialist meetings, meeting such people as William Morris, and they also became involved with the Fabian Society. It wasn’t long before they moved from becoming spectators to workers for the socialist movement, and they began to address meetings, they sold political papers and Margaret held singing classes for mill girls, who, apparently, often jeered at her and called her a toff!

In 1893 the sisters left London for Bradford, where they joined the Independent Labour Party. Margaret relied on Rachel to keep her while she wrote articles and lectured on a voluntary basis. In 1894 she was elected onto the Bradford School board, and she was greatly disturbed by what she observed – the neglect and preventable illnesses of the children made her embark on the task of improving conditions for school children, including washing them (‘how can you educate a dirty child?’) and writing pamphlets about hygiene for parents, to campaigning for school medical inspections, school clinics and school meals.

Margaret McMillan

In 1902, after the Conservative Government abolished School boards and put their duties into the hands of urban, district and county councils – to which women could not be elected, Margaret left Bradford and joined Rachel in London. They lived in Bromley, and Margaret gained employment as a lecturer with the London Ethical Society. It was during this time that Rachel strayed into Deptford on a walk and discovered the extreme poverty there – ‘stained and tumbling walls, the dark and noisy courts, the crowded rooms, the sodden alleys all hidden behind roaring streets. Women who care no more. Girls whose youth is a kind of defiance. Children creeping on the filthy pavement, half naked, unwashed and covered in sores.’

And soon Margaret saw the conditions for herself when she was appointed manager of 3 Deptford schools. Overcrowding was a terrible problem, with families (with an average of 5 children) often all sleeping in the same bed at one end of their one room tenement, and as the causes of infant mortality were poverty, malnutrition, overcrowding and lack of sleep, it is no wonder that approximately one in five children born in Deptford died before they were one year old.

As manager of her schools Margaret concentrated on the education and developmental health of young children and their relationship to home life. But in 1905 the Education code stated that under-fives should not be allowed in infant schools, and thus all those very young children who had been going to school – the 3-5’s – ended up playing in the gutters, very often with no adult input because parents were working.

Margaret realised increasingly that health had to come before education with these poor families, and to cut a long story short, she managed to open a clinic to treat the basic problems – fleas and other ‘vermin’, ear syringing, eye examinations and skin ointments etc. In 1911 she and Rachel started the ‘Girls’ Night Camp’ where girls came and stayed overnight in simple beds under basic shelters. Margaret was convinced that fresh air, exercise and good nutritious food would improve their health in a way that the clinic could not. The girls’ ages ranged from 6 – 14 and there were sometimes as many as 17 girls sleeping in camp. The principle was to get them out of cramped and badly ventilated bedrooms, not, in any way, to replace their homes – as Margaret said, it was ‘an open-air residential school, that does not separate the child from her home’. Soon a boys’ camp followed, but Margaret was convinced the effects of the camp were too late for these children – so she started an experimental ‘Baby’ camp, which Rachel gave up her job to help run, and this became the Rachel McMillan Open-Air Nursery School, the seed from which other nurseries could grow.

Margaret developed very precise opinions about the best layout of the buildings so that ‘once inside the child comes under the influence of the great healers, earth, sun, air, sleep and joy.’ The gardens were very important, and, in her opinion, ‘the buildings should face south or south east, and in order to have this, the line of the rooms or shelters must be straight, the walls at either end shaped in butterfly form to catch all the sunshine possible.’ Roof lights and movable walls ensure that there is maximum light and access to the outdoors and fresh air all year round.

McMillan Nursery School

Margaret said, in 1918, when it became statutory to have Nursery schools – preferably open air, that ‘ a garden grown humanity cannot be as the humanity of the grime and of the street. It will have spent its first cycle in a place where living things are taken care of so that at least they spring up into things of beauty and colour and perfume. Those who do all this culture work will be cultured. The little gardeners themselves, not the flowers or the vegetables or the trees, will be the glory of the garden.’

Alex Hallowes



McMillan M (1919), The Nursery School, London, Dent and Sons

Trueman H et al, (1999), The Children Cant Wait, London, Deptford Forum Publishing