“We arrived on a stormy night in November. Coming out from the entrance of the Midland station, we saw, in a swuther of rain, the shining statue of Richard Oastler standing in the Market Square, with two black and bowed little mill-workers standing at his knee.
Next morning we awoke in a new and quite unknown world. It was a Sunday, and the smoke cloud that usually enveloped the city had lifted. Tall dark chimneys reaching skywards like monstrous trees, made dark outlines against the faint grey of the sunny morning. On weekdays these big stone monsters belched forth smoke as black as pitch that fell in choking clouds.”
That’s Margaret McMillan describing her arrival in Bradford 1893. She made the journey that I took regularly when I lived in Bradford from the station over to Manningham Lane. She turned left just after Toys R Us to get home, I turned right. There aren’t many of the cobbles she would’ve walked over left, but there are some. Bradford is one of those cities whose history is close to the surface. The chimneys don’t belch much any more but they still cast their shadows. Richard and his mill kids still stand by the market. Kids still struggle to pay attention in class cos their bellies are empty but they do get a free school meal once a day if they need it. That's down to Margaret.
Margaret couldn’t exactly be described as a teacher. Her decision to dedicate her life to education was strategic - she was a socialist waging a war on inequality.
“Outside (as well as in the homes of those in the camp) stalks the spectre of famine… No camp-school is worth anything that has not as its goal the making of such things impossible tomorrow.”
Margaret was a founder member of the Independent Labour Party, but saw many of the barriers to a fairer world play out in the lives of children. From her own experience she could see that education could be liberating, but children couldn’t learn if they were starving, or suffering from a lack of basic healthcare. So she lobbied the state for free school meals in Bradford and set up school clinics and baths. Working on this led her to see that prevention was also vital so she set up ‘night camps’ in Deptford where kids got fresh air and restful sleep. When this idea proved successful, she started an open-air nursery and then a school combining the health giving properties of outdoor life with a radical new pedagogy of nurture that impressed even sceptical state inspectors. But a single project couldn’t help everyone. Heart breaking at having to turn people away, Margaret shifted focus again. She lobbied tirelessly for the state provision of nursery schools to give poor children a solid foundation for their development. In the last years of her life she set up a teacher training college to improve the quality of teaching across the country. It was the first college to extend the training period from two years to three, and prioritised giving students experience in the classroom - decisions driven by her conviction that teaching was an important job requiring quality insight and experience.
As someone whose career path has followed a meandering and at times obscured logic, Margaret's life story is a source of inspiration. Praxis as a lifestyle choice. See a problem, work at it. Let it change you. From that new perspective, you see another problem. Work at it, let it change you. Let your values lead the way.
“The work seemed to be always opening out and finding a way for itself, almost, as it seemed, without our design or desire. Like a tiny streamlet it found its way.”
Ellie Julings @ellietrees
The Life of Rachel McMillan by Margaret McMillan. J.M. Dent and Sons, London (1927)
Margaret Macmillan: Portrait of a Pioneer by Elizabeth Bradburn. Routledge (April 1989)