A little more Rillington history….

Local history is never just a matter of digging up the story of one place. Rillington, as much as anywhere else, has been shaped by changes in everything from agriculture to education. Every now and again someone from Rillington returns the favour and becomes part of something that changes the world. This is a brief appreciation of Margaret Macdowall; Rillington resident and pioneer educator of children with learning difficulties.

(Sarah) Margaret Macdowall was born in Thornton Dale on July 20th, 1862 and baptised at Ellerburn on August 28th. She was the daughter of Rev. William Macdowall, who came from Woolmet in Scotland and Sarah Oglesby of Skipton. In 1864 William became Vicar of Rillington and the family moved to the Vicarage, now called Greenbanks. By the time of the 1871 census the family included the Vicar and his wife, five daughters (including Margaret and her younger sister, Lucy Octavia) and two servants.

Its likely that Margaret’s childhood in Rillington wasn’t the best time of her life. She survived a variety of ailments including typhoid and rheumatic fever which left her with permanent health problems. Its possible that her father also suffered poor health; his handwriting is the most illegible of any Rillington vicar and he finally retired in the 1890s after losing his eyesight.

By 1891 Margaret was unmarried and her father was approaching retirement. Rural vicars with large families rarely have much money to spare so Margaret was out earning her keep as a ‘lady help’ in the home of John Wordsworth, vicar of Gosforth in Cumberland. The Wordsworths had an infant son, Henry, who had an intellectual disability and Margaret became devoted to his care. Eventually Henry was admitted to the Royal Albert Hospital in Lancaster and through him Margaret met Dr George Edward Shuttleworth, the Medical Superintendent. Shuttleworth was impressed with both her personality and teaching skills, they developed a long and fruitful professional relationship.

Its worth making a few comments about the Royal Albert. In 1870, a time when there was scant distinction made between metal illness and intellectual impairment, this institution was set up by Dr Edward Dennis de Vitre with the specific aim of providing education and training to children with intellectual disabilities in the hope that they would be able to go back into the community and lead useful lives. Dr Shuttleworth was an equally progressive thinker and he gathered a group of teachers and students, including Margaret, who would work with the children, develop new teaching methods and go on to open their own schools and train the next generation of teachers.

By 1911 Margaret was Proprietress of her own school at Ealing, loyally supported by her sister, Lucy Octavia. After the First World War she moved to Avonhurst, at Burgess Hill in Sussex. In the meantime she was writing a book to guide future generations of teachers; ‘Simple Beginnings in the Training of Mentally Defective Children.’

It must be acknowledged that from a twenty-first century perspective some of the terms used in Margaret’s book to describe the children would not be acceptable nowadays. However the reader is struck by her unshakeable belief that every child has a right to as much education and personal development as possible. Starting with personal hygiene and dressing she describes multi-sensory approaches to teaching that include music, cooking and handicrafts. She describes in great detail the way the teacher should chat to the pupil throughout each task, asking questions and eliciting responses. She also describes a variety of teaching aids including large, flat, wooden needles, paired with cubes of wood with holes, used to develop manual dexterity.

Margaret died in 1930 and a new edition of ‘Simple Beginnings’ was published as a memorial. The fact that she, Dr Shuttleworth and all their colleagues were ahead of their time is illustrated by the fate of the Royal Albert Hospital which was made into a colony for adults with intellectual impairment in the early 20th century and much of its training activity discontinued. However trained and motivated teachers were now out there and things began to change although it is arguable that society still has some distance to go.