I RECENTLY wrote about Sir Henry Mitchell, champion of tertiary education in Bradford. Sir Henry Mitchell House is just up from the National Science and Media Museum. Before you reach it, you pass Margaret McMillan Tower. Today’s story is about this champion of early years education.

Margaret McMillan had an unlikely background for building such a reputation. Not only was she one of the earliest women, and Socialists, to make their mark in the city, she was American by birth, brought up in Scotland and lived in Bradford for just nine years. Rarely has anyone had such an impact on city life over a relatively short time.

Her Scottish parents having emigrated, Margaret was born in New York in 1860. When her father died, her mother returned to Inverness with Margaret and her other daughter. Margaret became a governess. Living a bourgeois life in rural England, she developed interest in Socialist thinking and realised the place to be was Bradford, well-known as a centre of socialism. She’d been invited to speak here in 1892 in the new Labour Church. Her contribution must have been persuasive. Fred Jowett (later the city’s first socialist MP) urged her to settle in Bradford. Soon after, the new Independent Labour Party was founded in the city.

A charismatic speaker, Margaret captured the hearts of audiences and was urged to stand for the Bradford School Board, which became the platform for many innovations she introduced. Although lacking experience as an administrator, she quickly grasped the importance of the early years. Elementary education had been established in Bradford since the 1870 Elementary Education Act, but no thought was given to how children really learnt. She realised that many were held back because they came to school hungry and unwashed. She campaigned for school baths; three schools introduced them. She promoted the need for medical inspection of children; Bradford was the first authority in England to carry this out. She tackled the ‘half-time’ problem - children who worked in factories and attended school. She advocated open-air schools to improve ventilation and secured a wage increase for school caretakers.

Perhaps her most important reform was free school meals. She saw from medical inspections that children were under-nourished; the city’s most serious health concern. Hungry children could not benefit from education, yet schools were powerless. With Fred Jowett, a pioneer of ‘municipal socialism’ for improving the lives of working people, she fought to ensure that schoolchildren didn’t go hungry. When School Boards were abolished in 1902, Margaret and her sister left for Deptford, East London. Thanks to their efforts, Bradford became in 1907 the first place in England to provide free school meals.

In Deptford Margaret continued her works in education, publishing several books. In 1917 King George V introduced the Companion of Honour for outstanding achievements. In 1931 in recognition of her innovations in education, Margaret became only the fourth woman to receive the honour. She’s one of four public figures connected with Bradford to be honoured, with Frederick Delius, 1929, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, 1967 and David Hockney, 1997. Nine months later she died.

She was a role model for female pioneers in education. One prominent educationalist who was impressed was Miriam Lord who devoted her working life to McMillan’s ideals,in nursery school education and the open-air nursery school movement. Born in Bradford, her father a founder of the Independent Labour Party, she started as an untrained teacher at Belle Vue Girls’ Secondary School in Manningham. She later took a course in nursery school education and became Superintendent of Lilycroft Open-air Nursery School. The nursery school movement was in its infancy and Miriam’s school on Lilycroft Road was a showpiece of best practice, attracting visitors from around the world. Today Miriam Lord Primary School is in Bavaria Place, Manningham.

In 1956 Miriam gave the Margaret McMillan Memorial Lecture in the House of Commons. Recalling the passion in Margaret’s speeches on Sunday nights at St. George’s Hall, she said: “Those who had seen thereafter led changed lives. They discovered hidden depths within themselves.”

The Margaret McMillan College of Education opened in 1952, now integrated into Bradford College, successor to the Bradford Technical College founded by Sir Henry Mitchell. Margaret McMillan Tower and Sir Henry Mitchell House are now appropriately devoted to Bradford’s public services.

* Every Day Bradford by Martin Greenwood has a story for each day of the year about people, places and events in its history. Available online and bookshops including Waterstones and Salts Mill.