Share this story Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

The story of Kindergarten pioneer Lileen Hardy


Susan Gardner celebrates the achievements of Edinburgh's Lileen Hardy, a remarkable woman who dedicated her life to improving the lot of some of the city's poorest children.

Lileen Hardy (1872-1947) was a pioneer of the Kindergarten movement who dedicated her working life to improving conditions for some of the poorest children in Edinburgh. Although she was just one of many women involved in philanthropic work in the early 20th century, she made a lasting impression and her educational theories are still quoted as examples of best practice today.

Join the History Scotland community  
Follow us on facebook
Follow us on twitter
Sign up for our free e-newsletter

Discover History Scotland magazine

Miss Hardy was one of a growing number of middle class women obliged to earn a living. She trained as a kindergarten teacher at the Sesame House for Home-Life Training in London in 1899 and must have been inspired from then on to set up a kindergarten of her own. In order to earn some money, she moved to Edinburgh to work as a governess for the family of the Rev. Alexander Whyte and his wife Jane.

The work begins

Living in Edinburgh, Miss Hardy would have heard about the Free Kindergarten which opened in the Canongate in 1903 – the first of its kind in Britain. The Canongate was an over-crowded and run-down area of Edinburgh’s Old Town, once home to the gentry but, by the early 1900s, a neglected slum. Whilst most of the adults were in employment of some kind, and older children were at school, toddlers were often left to fend for themselves. It was the plight of these small children that led to the establishment of the Free Kindergarten.

With the help of Father Albert Laurie, Rector of Old St. Paul’s Church in the High Street, Miss Hardy established a second kindergarten in the Canongate. The Rector, who was very active in helping local families, arranged for the use of the church’s mission hall and even selected the children to attend. ‘He chose the best families for a beginning, and though the people are very poor, the children are mostly clean considering the circumstances’ (1). St. Saviour’s Child Garden opened on All Saints’ Day, in November 1906 with just three children.

An all-encompassing project

For almost a year Miss Hardy ran the growing nursery single-handedly and was sorely in need of help. She was aware that she couldn’t provide professional training but believed that working with the children would be a valuable experience. ‘A kindergarten is an ideal field for a woman’s self-development. In no branch of the world’s work is there anything more satisfactory, or encouraging, or beautiful, or which evokes more from a woman and enables her to give more of herself.’ (2)

She certainly devoted a huge amount of her own time and energy, even living on the premises when the nursery moved to a building of its own in 1908. She said, ‘I want the house to be a home, theirs and mine, and it will be much more possible there than in the Mission Hall. They shall do housework for me, and see something of the way in which a lady lives.’ (3)

Another advantage of the new house was that it had a sheltered garden with an open view to Salisbury Crags. Here the children could grow plants and flowers, keep pets and play games. Miss Hardy was given advice on designing the garden by Professor Patrick Geddes, the town planner and sociologist.

She may have met him through her former employers who were part of the circle involved in his many projects, such as the Edinburgh Social Union. These connections were very useful for raising awareness of the kindergarten and appealing for funds.

The Diary of a Free Kindergarten

One fund-raising project was the publication of The Diary of a Free Kindergarten in 1912. This was based on letters written by Miss Hardy to friends and supporters describing the daily routines of the children, outings and celebrations and her impressions of their behaviour. The foreword was written by Kate Douglas Wiggin, the American educator (and author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm).

Earlier, in 1909, Miss Hardy produced a hand-made publication called The History of a Slum Child. The story of a fictional child, intended to prick the consciences of those more fortunate, it begins ‘This is the story of “a nameless lassie” nursed by her unhappy mother’s unhappier mother.’ (4) Lileen Hardy’s passionate belief in the need to care for these children shines through in her appeal –

            “To those who love the nation, who wish Scottish grit & fibre to last, who think of the generations to come, who are lovers of children. Those human documents gathered on the spot – without arrangement – haphazard – as the chance came, on an ordinary day in the Canongate of Edinburgh, are presented for consideration (yes! and for humbling and shame!) in the hope that an experiment, not made with chemicals in bottles, but with the bodies and souls of posterity, may be furthered and, if the mercy of God permit, fulfilled.” (5)

The kindergarten movement did flourish in Edinburgh with another three opening by 1913 and a further nine by 1937. Lileen Hardy stands out amongst them all in her single-minded devotion to the neglected children of the Canongate, living in their community, befriending their parents and families and demonstrating a better way of life by personal example. She remained in charge of St. Saviour’s Child Garden until she retired in 1927.

1 – 3 The Diary of a Free Kindergarten, 1912

4 & 5 The History of a Slum Child, 1909

Susan Gardner is a curator at the Museum of Childhood.

St. Saviour’s Child Garden is featured in the new gallery at the Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh, Changing Childhood.

Museum of Childhood, 42 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1TG; tel: 0131 529 4142; website.


Back to "Scottish history" Category

09/03/2018 Share this story   Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

Recent Updates

Anne of Denmark - mother of King Charles I - was born - On this day in history

Anne of Denmark, mother of King Charles I, was born on 12 December 1574.

Ten things you might not know about the Jacobites in the 1745 Rising

From the presence of gunmen at the Battle of Culloden, to the colours of the tartan worn by participants in ...

Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh died - On this day in history

Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh died on 10 December 1928.

Malcolm IV King of Scots died - On this day in Scottish history

Malcolm IV, King of Scotland, died at Jedburgh on 9 December 1165.

Other Articles

Mary Queen of Scots was born - On this day in Scottish history

Mary Queen of Scots was born at Linlithgow Palace on 8 December 1542.

On this day in history - Saint Columba, founder of the monastery at Iona was born

Saint Columba, founder of the monastery at Iona, was born on 7 December 521AD.

History Scotland's exclusive interview with Mary Queen of Scots director Josie Rourke

Josie Rourke, director of Mary Queen of Scots, talks to History Scotland about the challenges of portraying ...

New research reveals early Scottish migrant had brown eyes and black hair

The digital reconstruction of Ava, a skeleton buried more than 4,000 years ago in Achavanich in Caithness, ...