A teacher and union activist, Nan McMillan was born in 1906 the sixth of 12 children in a working class family in Bermondsey, south London. Exceptionally talented, she won a Junior County Scholarship to St Saviour’s and St Olave’s Girls Grammar School. Political activity began in her teens when she campaigned for the return to parliament of Dr. Salter.
She was persuaded to borrow £20, then a considerable sum, from her secondary school’s fund to equip herself for teacher training college and was eventually to repay the debt from winnings in an international essay competition. She trained as a teacher at Furzedown College in London and, on graduation in 1926, she was offered a secondary school post, specialising in English. In 1927, she met David Capper, CPGB founding member, a lecturer who had just led a delegation to the fledgling Soviet Union. They met at a Labour League for Youth dance and began living together. The bar on woman teachers marrying would have meant her not only giving up her job but also her certificate of teaching, neither of which she would countenance. At a time when co-habitation was strongly frowned upon, she and David did exactly that; although Nan told her mother that they had married in secret. Fortunately, her headteacher was supportive of Nan and covered for her. When the bar on employing married women was lifted in 1947, Nan and David married, it was now too late to have children.
At the age of 23, she was a delegate to the national conference of the National Union of Teachers but then joined the National Union of Women Teachers in protest at its acceptance of unequal pay in the profession. She was to become NUWT’s President in 1940 and was the first Chairperson of the London Women’s Parliament during the war. She rejoined the NUT in 1955, when it accepted equal pay and was President of Camberwell NUT in the 1950s. In 1952, she was appointed to her first headship. In 1963, became President of London Teachers� Association and was a delegate over many years to NUT annual conferences. At the age of 59, Nan was appointed Head of the large and ethnically diverse Sarah Siddons Comprehensive School for girls in Westminster and spent six years there before retiring in 1971.
Nan retired from teaching in 1971 and moved to Dorset when David Capper died in 1974. She joined the local District Committee of the Communist Party and, during her long retirement, was involved in the Dorset Against the Cuts Campaign, CND, the Christchurch and District Women’s Group and her local Pensioners Group. Her energetic campaigning on a range of local and national issues attracted the attention of the local press, which ran articles on her life under headlines such as ‘Still campaigning at the age of 83’ and ‘Former head teacher who lived in sin!’ She was also sought out for television programmes such as ‘School Rules’ and ’20/20 Vision’s History of Education’. Nan died at the age of 96 in 2002.
Sources: Bournemouth Evening Echo, ? 20th 1995; Education for Tomorrow Autumn 2002 No75