Margaret McMillan

Margaret McMillan – School Dinner Pioneer

by Jim Coulson

Did you know…

The first school dinners in Britain were cooked on the boilers that heated the baths at Green Lane Primary School in Bradford?

A Scottish-American woman who was educated in Germany swooped into Bradford as the 19th turned into the 20th century to revolutionise the way we educate and look after our children. It almost sounds like the set up to a bizarre joke, but it is entirely true and absolutely fascinating. The star of the story is Margaret McMillan who, along with her sister Rachel, dedicated her life to travelling around the country and lobbying for the rights of children.

Margaret McMillan
Margaret McMillan


Margaret was born in Westchester County, just outside of New York City in 1860. The daughter of Scottish immigrants, she crossed the Atlantic to live in Inverness with Rachel and her mother following the death of her father and one of her sisters from scarlet fever. After a spell in Germany, she returned to the UK, joining Rachel in London, and exploring Christian socialism. The sisters became involved in the London Dock Strike of 1889 and then headed up north to base themselves in Bradford.

It was during this period that Margaret began to tour the industrial towns of the north, visiting poorhouses and speaking at meetings to call for improvements to the welfare and living conditions of children in poverty. One obituary of McMillan reported that she had to work hard to persuade the crowds that there was any problem with the way that kids were treated at all.

“The textile operatives were not then sentimental about the young,” it read, “Lancastrian fathers and mothers had themselves gone as children ‘to th’ Mill’ and were inclined to attribute numerous excellences of mind and character to that early beginning.”

McMillan extolled the virtues of education, still a newfangled concept for the working classes at the time and was a keen believer that health and nutrition were hugely important to the wellbeing of the next generation.

In 1892, Margaret and Dr. James Kerr, Bradford’s school medical officer, went into the city’s schools to carry out the first ever medical inspection of primary school children in the UK. This was particularly forward thinking for the time, but entirely necessary. Bradford had grown exponentially during the Industrial Revolution, but with the increase in activity in the city’s mills came overcrowding, pollution and abject poverty.

Their resulting report highlighted health issues in the children and the pair made a series of recommendations, including the introduction of regular health inspections, the installation of baths in schools, increased ventilation and the implementation of free school meals.

At the time, only the workhouses would provide food to the poorest kids, but that would consist only of a stale bread bun, a banana and a glass of milk, watered down to make it go further. There were some Cinderella Clubs (the Bradford branch being the only remaining one today) that provided some sustenance too, and this was the inspiration for the push to provide school dinners. McMillan was vocal in her opinion that, if society was going to compel children to attend school, it should therefore feed them whilst they were there.

Looking back in later years, she recalled “the condition of the poorer children was worse than anything that was described or painted. It was a thing that this generation is glad to forget. The neglect of infants, the utter neglect almost of toddlers and older children, the blight of early labour, all combined to make of a once vigorous people a race of undergrown and spoiled adolescents; and just as people looked on at the torture two hundred years ago and less, without any great indignation, so in the 1890s people saw the misery of poor children without perturbation.”

Margaret was elected to the Bradford School Board in 1894 and started to put the wheels of her grand plans into motion. The problem was that much of this was not only uncharted territory, but also illegal. Councils were prevented from intervening in such ways, which led to McMillan and colleagues including Fred Jowett, a socialist councillor who would become MP for Bradford West, launching a campaign to change the law.

It took more than a decade, but in 1906, the year Jowett was elected to parliament and used his maiden speech to highlight the cause, MPs relented and agreed with McMillan’s findings that children needed to be properly fed in order to learn. The Education (Provision of Meals) Act 1906 allowed local authorities to run a free school meals service for the first time.

And, fittingly, it was Bradford that led the way. Marian E Cuff, Superintendent of Domestic Subjects for Bradford Council, set to work in 1907 developing recipes with the correct levels of nutrition required for the city’s poorest kids. Following her study, and after witnessing the extraordinary results, the authority extended the scheme across the whole district.

The first school dinners in Britain were cooked on the boilers that heated the baths at Green Lane Primary School in Manningham. From there, they were delivered around the other schools in the city, bringing much needed sustenance to a whole generation.

After her success in Bradford, Margaret McMillan continued to campaign on behalf of children. She argued for a broader education that would allow kids to aspire beyond a life of unskilled work. Margaret and Rachel opened a school clinic in east London, and a night camp for children of the slums of the capital, which allowed them to wash and pick up clean night clothes.

They also opened a nursery, which became the first to gain local authority funding in 1917, as well as writing extensively on the best practices for looking after preschool children. After Rachel’s death, Margaret established the Rachel McMillan College in Deptford to train nurses and teachers.

It seems strange that the story of Bradford inventing school dinners is not better known, but the city should be proud of its achievements. Even though something needed to change, that was the case in so many cities at the time, but few did anything about it until Bradford led the way. The presence of Margaret McMillan and her passion for fair treatment for children, combined with her drive to make real, positive changes to the world meant that something the establishment may have preferred to sweep under the carpet became a major issue and the government had to take action.

So, there you are, when you think of school dinners, don’t just recall the lumpy tapioca of your youth. Think about the real, huge social advancement that they represent. And pink custard. Don’t forget pink custard.