Sunday, November 22, 2009

The McMillan Sisters and Rudolf Steiner in Deptford

McMillan Street, Rachel McMillan Nursery School and Children's Centre, and Margaret McMillan Park in Deptford all mark the long term influence of the McMillan sisters on this part of South East London.

Margaret (1860-1931) and Rachel McMillan (1859-1917) grew up in Scotland before moving to London in the 1880s, where they became active in the socialist movement. They met William Morris, the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, and the Paris Communard Louise Michel, and were involved in supporting the 1889 London dock strike.

Margaret McMillan

In 1910, Margaret helped establish a pioneering child health clinic (called the School Treatment Centre) in Deptford Green, later moving it to Evelyn House (353 Evelyn Street). In 1911, the nursery started on a small scale in the garden of Evelyn House, where there was also a 'night camp' for children over eight years of age while little children were received in the day time. In 1914 the 'camp' moved to a shelter on London County Council land on the Stowage site where the Rachel McMillan Nursery School stands to this day. In the war it was mainly used by the children of munitions workers. New buildings were erected on the site in 1917, with further buildings opened by Queen Mary in 1921. Rachel died in 1917, and so Margaret named the Nursery School after her. Margaret continued to have some involvement in it until her death in 1931.
Rachel McMillan

In the early days it was known as an open air nursery school, as there was a strong emphasis on playing, learning and sleeping outside. Although sleeping outside passed from fashion, outdoor play remains at the heart of the nursery schools movement which Margaret McMillan helped inititate.

Margaret McMillan’s writings on childhood criticised schools for just preparing working class children for unskilled work. At a time of rigid discipline she opposed corporal punishment and stressed the importance of free play. In Deptford she tried to put into practice her vision of the school as 'a garden city for children', with children playing, learning and sleeping outside. Her description of children sleeping under the stars has an almost mystical quality: ‘sleepy eyes looked from their pillows at points of starry fire in the indigo blue depth; the night wind cooled their little heated bodies, and a primrose dawn called them awake. Will these children ever forget the healing joy of such nearness to the earth spirit as is possible even in Deptford?’ (quoted in Steedman).

The nursery and the clinic were both practical efforts to answer the question McMillan herself posed: ‘We all hate the poverty – and the riches – of capitalist society. But the real poverty goes deeper than wages. It is in the starved, cramped, diseased bodies and minds: the eyes that do not see; the ears that do not hear: how can we change them?’ (quoted in Steele, 1999).

Rudolf Steiner visits Deptford

McMillan's progressive ideas about children and education were shared by the Austrian thinker Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). In August 1923, Steiner visited the nursery school in Deptford at the invitation of Margaret McMillan. He described this visit at the time:

'Today I was able to accept her invitation to visit the nursery and school established by her at Deptford, London. Three hundred of the very poorest population, from the ages of two to twelve, are wonderfully cared for there by her... one sees at work in the various classes youngsters who are spiritually active, happy in soul, well-behaved and growing healthy in body. It is an equal pleasure to see these children at play, to see them learning, eating and resting after meals'.

Mentioning that some of the older children were performing a Midsummer Night's Dream, Steiner remarked: 'The institution lies near the spot where once upon a time the court of Queen Elizabeth stood, who herself lived at Greenwich nearby. Shakespeare apparently acted for the royal household almost in the identical place in which his works are now being so delightfully interpreted by these little ones' (quoted in 'Rudolf Steiner speaks to the British: lectures and addresses in England and Wales', Rudolf Steiner Press, 1998).

Rudolf Steiner

As well as an educationalist, Steiner was an occultist with his own doctrine of Anthroposophy combining elements from Theosophy, esoteric Christianity, and Rosicrucianism. This spiritual side of him seems to have appealed to McMillan, judging by her account of his visit to Deptford. She wrote to her friend Margaret Sutcliffe: 'He came here and everything seemed new and wonderful as he entered the room... The whole world is a whispering gallery to him, and vibrations reach him for which we have no name'. She later recalled 'how in walking with her round the school he kept telling her, very concretely, of the spiritual presence of her sister Rachel with whom she had begun this work - whose death not long before had been a very heavy blow for her' (according to George Adams, cited in 'A man before others: Rudolf Steiner remembered', Rudolf Steiner Press, 1993).

Steiner's educational ideas are still applied in the Steiner-Waldorf schools, the first of which in the UK opened in Streatham Hill in 1925. And judging by a conversation I had recently with a Brockley allotment gardener, his biodynamic agriculture ideas are being applied in South East London to this day.

Margaret and Rachel McMillan are both buried in Brockley Cemetery.

Sources other than those already referenced: Jess Steele (ed.) The Children can’t wait: the McMillan sisters and the birth of nursery education (London: Deptford Forum, 1999); Carolyn Steedman, Childhood, culture and class in Britain: Margaret McMillan, 1860-1931 (London: Virago, 1990).

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Margaret McMillan

When in Bradford set up the Clarion Cinderella Club (to help the educate and feed the poor)and also importantly develop the first free school meals service.

She was truly a great women and deserves much greater recognition

Adrian said...

and her connection with South East London lives on.. children at Edmund Waller Primary in New Cross now have two separate week-long visits during their time at the school to the Margaret McMillan House Field Centre in Kent, and seem to have the time of their lives.

Anonymous said...

couldnt we do more about Margaret McMillan in Lewisham

now come on you "progressive" councillors