Friday, 15 August 2008

The McMillan sisters and Deptford's slum children

1910: Rachel and Margaret McMillan established the Deptford Clinic. It provided dental and surgical help to children attending local schools. Believers in the value of outdoor life for children, they also provided night camps for boys and girls, where children could wash, wear clean nightclothes and sleep in the open air. Later, a garden nursery was opened.

Both sisters had been born in New York and raised in Scotland. They spent much of their adult lives in London; as christian socialists and campaigners for women’s suffrage, they were committed to working in deprived areas. Their particular area of interest was the health and education of young children, which they believed to be crucial to overcoming the effects of poverty. Before opening their pioneering clinics in Deptford, Bow and Peckham, they had already successfully campaigned for the provision of school meals, arguing that adequate nutrition was essential for children in compulsory education.

Rachel died in 1917. Margaret went on to found the Rachel MacMillan College in Deptford in 1930: she believed that nursery teachers should be properly trained, so the college offered a three-year course. (It later merged with Goldsmiths’ College). She also wrote books on education throughout her life.

Not only did the sisters change ideas on nursery education in Britain, but their work still has an impact on Deptford. The Rachel McMillan Nursery is still running today, while the former college site is now student accommodation but still has Rachel’s name.

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