When Bradford was at the forefront of education reform

"How can we educate dirty and ailing children?"

Mark Cantrell on a woman's struggle to give working class children a healthy and educated start in life, back in the days when they were seen as little more than 'fodder' for the mills

STRANGE to think that it was a period of bitter industrial turmoil that indirectly brought Margaret Macmillan to Bradford, where she did much of her pioneering work in child education.

The early 1890s was the period of New Unionism that saw fierce clashes between employers and workers. Riots, bitter strikes and outbursts of violence did not leave Bradford untouched. After a lengthy dispute at Lister's Mill, the Riot Act was read out from the steps of City Hall and troops were called in to pacify the city centre.

One such street that survives from that dramatic time is the narrow Ivegate - where troops with bayonets charged the retreating strikers. Anyone who has ever been down Ivegate can surely imagine the terror of such an event.

From this momentous period, the Independent Labour Party was formed and in 1892 they invited Margaret Macmillan to lecture their members in the city.

Coming from an affluent background, she was born in New York in 1860. After the death of her near-bankrupt father, her family returned to Aberdeen where they were treated as the poor relations. Margaret became the "mother" figure after her own mother descended into "a gloom of melancholy."

She trained as a teacher and toured Europe. On her return she became the companion of a wealthy socialite, Lady Mieux, described as a "fiercely pro-Tory Tart". This Lady promised Margaret a prosperous future and fine acting career.

Since Margaret was a committed Christian Socialist, it seems bizarre that she gained such employment. She recalled her own worries over declaring her politics, but such worries proved unfounded. By all accounts Lady Mieux was delighted; promising that after a while together, Margaret would be cured of her affliction. It is also likely that this fine benefactress gained a certain mischievous delight by consorting with a "Red".

If this was so, she certainly lived to regret it. In her spare time Margaret mixed with a wide range of exiles who flocked to London at the time, as well as other politically active individuals. Kier Hardie, Beatrice Webb, Bernard Shaw, and the anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin were frequent associates.

Eventually she introduced the "Vierge Rouge" of the Paris Commune to Lady Mieux, who subsequently invited both women to a dinner party, doubtless in order to delight in showing off her revolutionary chums. However, things did not go to plan. The guests were horrified by the "revolutionary fervour" of the conversation, and the good Lady was reduced to a screaming fit.

"Go!" she later declared. "You may blot me from your memory."

Thus Margaret and her Lady parted company, just in time for the invitation to lecture in Bradford - the "Socialist Rome" as it was then known in left-wing circles.

On their arrival at Forster Square Station, Margaret wrote: "We saw in a shower of rain the shining statue of Oastler standing in Market Square with two little black and bowed mill-workers at his knee. Lord Shaftesbury had unveiled it in 1869, and it stood there - a tragic avowal of things that still went on."

Much of what she saw in the city appalled her: many children were dirty, vermin infested, hungry and stunted. Arriving only to give a few lectures, these sights compelled her to stay.

In 1894 she was elected as the Independent Labour Party (ILP) member of the Bradford Board of Education. She was the youngest member ever to join, and the first woman. She remained with the Board until 1902, and through all that time she fought to improve the quality of education for the children of industrial workers.

"How can we educate dirty and ailing children?" she asked the Board. First and foremost, Margaret believed that if a child was to benefit from education, then that child must be healthy. Many of her battles were conducted not just to improve education, but to fight the neglect that withered young minds before they could even form.

Life for the children in the industrial slums was extremely poor. Low-quality food at home, unhealthy conditions, inadequate or non-existent facilities for keeping clean, and parents working long shifts at the mills. In fact, many of the children themselves were condemned to long shifts of work.

This was known as the "half-time" system, whereby children were required to work for six hours before attending school. Margaret opposed this practice.

In 1897 she gained one of her first victories for deprived children, when the Wapping Street School opened the first school baths in the country.

"I recall the jeers which greeted her first demand, as member of the School Board, for baths," a former colleague said. "First derision, then anger at her persistence, then examination and finally proud acceptance."

This was but one of many of the "mad" schemes she fought to bring into reality, gained through determination, conviction and love of children.

Medical inspections became another success, when the city appointed its first Inspector for schools. The rest of the country would follow 13 years later, and they portrayed a harrowing account of life for working class children. During one inspection of 300 children, the inspector discovered that a third had been sewn into their clothes and not removed them for six months. Many were infested with lice, they were under-grown and in poor health.

After establishing the link between health and performance at school with the food children received at home, Margaret succeeded in introducing kitchens to provide the first - free - school meals. These were carefully balanced to provide a minimum nutritional standard that would improve the children's health.

Other improvements followed: she replaced long benches with tables and chairs. Buildings were poorly contrived and badly lit with poor ventilation. Echoing modern concerns, they were also badly overcrowded. She fought to change all of this, liberating the children from "fort-like" schools, and allowing them outside for walks in the green surrounds of a park.

What she is best known for, however, is the Open Air Nursery Movement, which she founded with her sister Rachel. The first was opened in Bradford. London followed. These gained widespread recognition for the good they achieved, and soon nursery schools swept the country, after the 1905 Education Act empowered local authorities to establish them.

A far cry from the stereotyped Victorian teacher, Margaret advocated play, freedom and a lively, talkative atmosphere in the classroom. During visits to her nurseries, she would often spend hours sat on rugs playing with the children.

She is described as a dreamer, who found practical solutions to make her dreams real. Yet the things she dreamed are simple by today's standards, even though she was the champion of the very things we take for granted. In her day, however, they were Revolutionary (Yes - with a capital 'R').

It says a great deal about her tenacity that she won these gains for the children. After all, they were mill-workers' "brats". What need had they for an education, when they were destined for a life in the mills anyway? Yet to Margaret, education was a thing of value in itself. In that respect, she was typical of a whole generation of socialists and early trade unionists.

Margaret Macmillan died in March 1931, leaving a lasting legacy not just in Bradford, but in London and the rest of the country, where all children benefited from improved educational prospects.

In 1960 a commemorative plaque was placed on the house at 49 Hanover Square, Manningham, where she lived during her time in Bradford. It was inscribed, simply: "All children are mine."

First published in Old Yorkshire Magazine #7 Autumn 1998.

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