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In August 1918, the wartime coalition government led by David Lloyd George passed the Maternity and Child Welfare Act, a landmark piece of legislation which arguably came about because of national campaigns by the Women’s Labour League and the Women’s Co-operative Guild. The issue was a current one. Three years earlier, Margaret Llewellyn Davies’s book Maternity shed remarkable light on the challenges that faced working-class women during pregnancy and in the years before infants started school. Infant mortality rates were shockingly high, especially in South Wales. In 1914, on a speaking tour of the Swansea Valley, Marion Phillips, general secretary of the WLL, had warned her audiences that:

Their county of Glamorgan had the second highest infant mortality rate in England and Wales. About 170 infants in every 1000 born died before becoming one year old. Glamorgan was not an ill-paid county. Wages were fairly good; on the whole the working man was able to make more money than in most others.

So what was the issue? Housing, yes, and it’s worth adding quickly that many of us still live in houses that were seen as unfit for purpose a century ago. But equally (to take up Phillips’s speech once more):

People are so indifferent […] and had so small a sense of their responsibility towards the children. […] In some cases, elementary teachers had as many as 90 children in one class. That was not good enough.

The 1918 Act was intended to deal with the root causes of those shocking statistics. It allowed for the appointment of health visitors, the establishment of ante- and post-natal clinics, state-funded resources for midwives, subsidies to areas that would not otherwise be able to afford the services of a midwife, better provision of maternity services in hospitals, provision of milk and infant foodstuffs, and so forth. It was to work in tandem with the 1918 Education Act which provided for the establishment of nursery schools by local authorities to ease the burden on mothers. The latter fell victim to government cuts introduced in the 1920s and led to years of struggle – which forms my theme here – to bring about nursery education in England and Wales.

I shalln’t go into great detail here about Margaret McMillan and her campaigns in Bradford or Rachel McMillan and her nursery in Deptford in London, or continental ideas from Montessori and Froebell, but suffice it to say that by the time local authorities  in South Wales really start to deal with the question of early years’ education they were entering into a field that had already established practical and intellectual foundations. What we see in this period, then, is a series of different attempts to develop nursery education – and for different purposes. On the one hand relieving the burden of mothers, enabling them to go to work; and on the other firmly focused on the welfare of the child, and the inculcation of democratic values and ideas about citizenship from a very, very young age. This involved philanthropic initiatives and the state.

A good example of philanthropic intervention to enable mothers to go to work actually stood a few minutes’ walk away from here in Trinity Place, near the old town library. Known as the ‘Mothers and Babies Welcome’, it opened originally in the High Street in 1911. It took an interventionist approach, providing dinners and training for young mothers and schoolgirls of the upper standards of primary education – classes in “Mothercraft” covered sewing, cookery, and home health. All of which was recognised by the Education Authority as a legitimate school subject and the girls sat examinations based on their practical lessons (which in those days used live babies!). As the local newspaper proudly boasted in 1913, ‘Swansea has once again been the first town in Wales to teach the importance of the care of the baby as part of a schoolgirl’s lessons’. Most of the money to run the centre came from the Mond family – Sir Alfred Mond being the town’s member of parliament – with Lady Mond taking an active role as President. Otherwise it was funded by donations and a small fee to use the centre’s services for those that could afford it. In 1913, they employed Nurse Jarrett as a nurse-midwife. A second nurse – Nurse Bragg – employed in 1914 went to serve in the RAMC in 1915.

In 1916, the Welcome moved to Trinity Place and opened as a crèche and day nursery. Here is the motivation:

The committee are adding to the working forces of the Empire by freeing mothers for outside employment. In the future mothers will have to be the bread winners in many cases and this is truly women’s work to see that the new generation gets a fair start in life. Human lives were never more precious than at present.

The crèche imposed its own standards on the children who attended. There was a fee, of course, of 4d a day or 1/8 for the week for a single child or 3s a day or 1 shilling 4 pence ha’penny a week for each child of a family. And then there was the matter of ‘children suffering from any disease, or in a dirty condition, are not admitted’. But it is possible to be too critical of philanthropic intentions. In October 1916 a journalist from a local newspaper here in Swansea went along to the crèche to see what it was like. What’s clear from his report is that although the crèche was opened to enable women to go to work, it took its responsibilities to child welfare seriously as well. Let’s listen in.

One tiny little mite who looked very bad and cried querulously, has to have egg beaten up in water, and half milk and half barley water. A little pair of socks was advocated as an aid to digestion. The next baby looked all right. He had gained three-quarters of a pound since last week. “But you are too white – too white!” Miss Jarrett soothingly told the baby, and the doctor advised: “keep him out in the fresh air as much as possible. So long as he wears warm socks, he’ll be alright”.

If you’ve ever wondered why elderly relatives were always concerned about the state of your socks, now you know!

But there is a serious point here about the very strong belief in the virtues of fresh air. Open-air schools had been opened at Pwllheli in 1914, Aberdare and Prestatyn in 1915, across the border in Bristol there were two schools – one in Knowle opened in 1913, the second opened as part of the University Settlement at Barton Hill in 1914. The idea came from recognising that in poor quality housing there was often poor air circulation and this provided ample conditions for the spread of disease.  So it’s no surprise that the intervention of the Save the Children Fund into the field of nursery education in the 1930s gave rise to what they called emergency open-air nurseries. They were intended to be set up in the poorest parts of the country, those designated by the government as ‘Distressed Areas’. The SCF’s special committee attracted a fascinating range of high profile women including Katherine Bruce Glasier, Nancy Astor, Ellen Wilkinson, Ethel Snowden, the writer Winifred Holtby, and the entertainer Vera Brittain. And in Wales the campaign also involved many of the most significant women activists from the Labour Party and Communist Party including Elizabeth Andrews, Minnie Pallister, Mavis Llewellyn, Myra O’Brien, Dora Cox, Mary Hartshorn, and Rose Davies. Several of them teachers.

What we see in the interwar years, I would argue, is a continuation of the earlier generation of women’s Labour activism. The Emergency Open-Air Nurseries Committee may have been bankrolled by Nancy Astor, Conservative MP for Plymouth, but the SCF itself was politically more complex than that. Moreover, what’s important in terms of child welfare – and important in terms of Labour’s approach to this subject – is that these were schools for infants not crèches or ‘mothercraft’ classes focused on maternal welfare. They were not run by a nurse-midwife like the Swansea Welcome, but were connected with educational policies and ideas. Staff employed at the open-air nurseries operated by the SCF in the 1930s were trained early years specialists, often qualified from the Margaret McMillan Training College in London. For all that they were run by a charity, they paralleled the state with the goal of being adopted by local education committees. Most were.

We can also see Labour’s influence through local government and the provision of early years education in two ways: through extension of the school entry age downwards to 3, as took place in Pontypridd and Risca, for instance, and through the construction of nursery schools.  The alternative was a local authority-run nursery, but most councils struggled to afford these in a period of economic constraint. Nevertheless, nurseries were opened in the Rhondda, in Swansea, and in Cardiff, by 1940. Bristol also had a considerable network of nurseries by the same time. The nursery in Swansea was opened on 7 May 1936 by Katherine Bruce Glasier, just to underline the consistency of activism and association with the Labour movement. Twenty years after the town’s crèche had been opened, bankrolled by Lady Mond, here was the Labour-run local authority formalising the principle of state-run early years education in Swansea. An important change in the relationship between the state, child welfare, and education, that deserves to be explored further.

And, if I may finish on this point, citizenship. The purpose of the nursery schools established by the Save the Children Fund, on the one hand, and by Labour-controlled local authorities on the other, was to inculcate a particular set of democratic values in the children who went there. This can be seen even in the wooden blocks that they played with, the fact they were taught “proper” methods of self-hygiene and cleanliness, and given regular planned meals. Planning, indeed, was an important feature of early years provision, as it was to become during the Second World War and, famously, during the post-war Labour government. The democratic values instilled in children here in Swansea or in Pontypridd or Dowlais were in keeping with the morals and ethics of South Walian social democracy. Just as trade union politics and parliamentary representation were guided by fealty to social democracy, social and economic justice, so too were emerging aspects of the interwar welfare state like the nursery.

There is much more that can be said of the relationship between social democracy as it existed in parts of Britain such as South Wales, gender, women’s activism, citizenship, and child welfare, not least because it sheds enormous light on the fact that this Labour Country was not simply built by miners and other men. It was what Elizabeth Andrews meant when she wrote, in October 1924:

It is the work of women, mothers and teachers, to create the right impression to the mind of the child. The first step is to see that the children of today get no Toy Guns, Toy Pistols, Toy Swords, no dressing them up in soldier clothes, no picture books about War and all its glories – we know what War is and all its horrors.


The call comes to us today, especially as women, by helping to create the new mind and making the world free from War. We shall save the lives of the boys of today when they become the men of the future, we shall prevent broken hearts of mothers, fathers, wives and sisters. We shall prevent the breaking of human lives and the shattering of human flesh, and thus hand down to the next generation a foundation whereby they can build on, where reason shall reign supreme.


The above is an edited version of a paper I gave at the History of Child Welfare conference at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea on 2 August 2016. Organised by Dr Lesley Hulonce, the conference marked the publication of Lesley’s revolutionary new book Pauper Children and Poor Law Childhoods in England and Wales, 1834-1910.