McMILLAN, Rachel (1859–1917) & McMILLAN, Margaret (1860–1931)
Plaque erected in 2009 by English Heritage at 51 Tweedy Road, Bromley, London, BR1 3NH, London Borough of Bromley
Socialist Activist, Educationalist, Health Visitor
Education, Philanthropy and Reform
RACHEL McMILLAN 1859-1917 MARGARET McMILLAN 1860-1931 Pioneers of Nursery Education lodged here
The sisters Rachel and Margaret McMillan were pioneers of nursery education and health care for poor children. They were also active in the Labour movement. A plaque, commemorating both sisters’ work in promoting the physical and intellectual development of children, marks the house in Bromley where they lived from around 1895.
Rachel and Margaret McMillan were born respectively in 1859 and 1860 in New York State to Scottish parents. They moved to Scotland on the death of their father in 1865 and were educated in Inverness. Rachel then taught at a ladies’ college in Coventry but left to nurse her grandmother. Margaret, meanwhile, completed her education in continental Europe and embarked on a career as a governess.
Margaret published her first article in Christian Socialist magazine in 1889; she would soon join the Fabian Society and made her first speech on May Day 1892 in Hyde Park. After the sisters’ conversion to Christian Socialism, Rachel decided that she would support her sister’s budding political career. In 1893 they both went to work for the new Independent Labour Party (ILP) in Bradford, where Margaret would be elected to the School Board for the ILP.
Rachel shared Margaret’s interests in social welfare and returned to London to train as a sanitary inspector, qualifying in 1895. She then became a teacher of hygiene for Kent County Council, finding that children living in rural as well as urban poverty lacked proper health care and education.
The McMillan sisters set up the country’s first school clinic in Bow, East London, in 1908. This closed within two years, but paved the way for their clinics at 3 Deptford Road, Greenwich (1910), and at 353 Evelyn Road, Deptford (1911), which treated some 6,000 children a year.
In 1911 the McMillans’ continuing concerns about the health of children living in Deptford’s poor streets led them to start an experimental camp school, where girls could sleep overnight, in the back garden of 353 Evelyn Road, soon known as Evelyn House. A boys’ camp followed at 24 Albury Street, Deptford, which – with the addition of rudimentary shelters – became a school by day. There was also a camp in the graveyard of St Nicholas Church nearby, where boys bathed, cooked and grew vegetables, until objections closed it down.
In 1914, the camps at Evelyn House and Albury Street were moved to a new site in Deptford, which became a crèche for the babies and children of munitions workers during the war. This was replaced in 1917 with a new building, and provision for the open-air education of elementary school children. A decade later Margaret described the ‘garden school’ for 300 little children as one of ‘Colour and light and music, animals, and the sight of birds a-wing, or tame in the garden and pigeon cotes’.
The need for properly qualified teachers led to the establishment of a training college for nursery nurses and teachers, which Margaret started in 1918. A new Rachel McMillan Training College was opened in Deptford by Queen Mary in 1930.
By 1927, the expanded nursery school accommodated 350 children and provided for large classes to be taught all year round in the open air under shelters, built around a garden. The Medical Officer of Health for the London County Council noted that year that the school’s records showed ‘conclusively the beneficial results of the regime there, associated as it is with good food, fresh air, cleanliness and medical treatment on diseased and debilitated babies’.
The children were, however, selected and had to be ‘free from any serious defect in mind, any incurable or grave defect of body’ (Margaret McMillan, The Nursery School, 1919).
A plaque to Margaret McMillan was originally erected in 1985 on the Rachel McMillan College in Creek Road, Deptford. This was removed when the site was redeveloped in 2003. The plaque at 51 Tweedy Road was installed in 2009, recognising both sisters.
Rachel McMillan began to lodge at the house, then in Kent, in 1895, while working for the county council. Margaret joined her in 1902, earning her living by lecturing for the Ethical Society and Workers’ Educational Association. She continued to write, and books such as Education through the Imagination (1904) brought her to international attention.
Margaret had long argued that it was impossible to educate a hungry child and her work contributed to the passing of the Education (Provision of School Meals) Act in 1906. Both sisters led a deputation to Parliament in 1907, leading to the compulsory medical inspection of school children.
In their sitting-room salon at number 51 the sisters entertained London friends, who included leading figures from the ILP such as Albert Mansbridge, George and Bessie Lansbury, Margaret Llewelyn Davies, the Countess of Warwick, and the anarchist writer – and Bromley neighbour – Prince Peter Kropotkin. Their landlady, Miss Sarah Ilott, took a motherly interest in their career and welfare, and Rachel in particular was sad to leave in 1908.
The sisters then moved to Lewisham and eventually to Deptford, where Rachel worked full-time at their first nursery. After her death in 1917, this was named the Rachel McMillan Nursery School.
Margaret died in 1931 and is buried with Rachel in Brockley Cemetery.