Margaret Baird Paxton was born on 17 February 1902 at Drum Lodge, shortly after her parents and elder sister Jessie had returned to Scotland from Texas, where her father was a rancher. Two years later her younger sister, Isabel, was born and in 1907, the fourth sibling, Emily, completed the family. The Paxtons bought their long-term home, named Homelands, in 1908. As a young teenager, during the First World War, Margaret would have been involved in the Red Cross Work Party which was based in her home and co-ordinated by her mother. The piece below, from the 17 September 1914 Leven Advertiser, tells of an early consignment of gifts from the local group. By the end of the war, over 12,000 garments had been supplied by the work parties in Largo.
The Paxtons were involved in many charitable activities and supported several improvements to the district. For example, Mr and Mrs Paxton provided and equipped a hut to act as a social club for ex-servicemen in 1920 and funded a pitching and putting course at Lundin Golf Club in 1923. The Paxton ladies frequently ran stalls at fetes for various causes. The Royal National Lifeboat Institute was a cause that they supported regularly. Margaret was a frequent cast member in the productions of the Lundin Links Amateur Dramatics Group and was active in Largo S.W.R.I. One cause that was especially close to Margaret's heart, however, was the Girl Guiding movement. She was captain of Largo Girl Guides for many years, going by the name "Eagle Owl", and was for a spell Girl Guiding's 'Camp Secretary' for the whole of Scotland.
In 1926, Margaret's parents gifted the community a cottage for the residence of the Largo and Newburn District Nurse. The cottage stands behind the Parish war memorial (in a location chosen because it was as close as possible to the centre of the nurse's district). Robert Paxton passed away in October 1926 before the building was completed, so Mrs Paxton and her three daughters saw the project through to completion.
When the District Nurse's Cottage opened in March 1927, the Leven Advertiser (12 March) noted the sunny southern outlook towards the Bass Rock, the telephone which was installed "so as to facilitate communication with doctors and patients" and the way in which the nurse's rooms had "been furnished with a completeness and comfort which leaves nothing to be desired." The report continued "the forethought and care which Mrs Paxton and the Misses Paxton have lavished on the cottage are evidence of how much it has been a labour of love to them". Two small gardens were laid out - one for the nurse and the other for the caretaker. The nurse's garden was tended by the Largo Girl Guides, under Margaret's direction.
Margaret was very close to her sisters, so when elder sister Jessie set up a pioneering nursery school in Methil in 1935, Margaret supported her. Having gained experience in the nursery, Margaret was inspired to take action to meet another great need - for residential accommodation for children. She set about planning a children's home. Such a home would be for those requiring full-time care, perhaps because their parents were ill or because they had been rendered temporarily homeless.
Margaret enlisted the help of a large committee to support her plan and in due course an Executive Committee (see above) was set up to administer the business of the home. Upper Largo's Dr William Eggeling acted as honorary medical officer. A large dwelling close to Homelands had become vacant, called Aithernie House (today known as the Old Manor Hotel). This was owned by Silverburn's Sir David Russell. Aithernie had four public rooms (all facing south), ten bedrooms, three bathrooms, electric light, modern central heating and a wash house with laundry. The map below shows how close Aithernie was to Homelands.
In December 1936, Margaret wrote to Sir David Russell to say that she was "very anxious to start a children's home in Largo" as "there is no place in Fife to which necessitous children may be sent and there is a very great need for such a home". She stressed that she had "come across some very deserving cases recently". The initial plan was to accommodate up to 36 children. The first year's expenses were covered by friends of the Paxtons, and the hope was that wider public support would be secured once the home was up and running and could demonstrate its worth.
In turn David Russell wrote to his lawyer enclosing the letter from Margaret Paxton. In it he emphasised that he had known the Paxtons for many years and found them to be reliable. He also referenced Jessie's good work with the Methil Nursery. He closed by saying that with regard to the proposition "he was inclined to consider it favourably". Soon afterwards, all was signed and sealed. The 11 September 1937 St Andrews Citizen below tells of the imminent opening of Fife Children's Home.
Six months after opening, there were twenty children in residence between the ages of 2 and 11, along with six staff (Miss Paxton, her assistant, a cook and three nurses). Margaret and her assistant Miss M. Scrymgeour Wedderburn were voluntary workers. Below are descriptions of some 'typical cases' at that time.
Above is a photograph of some of the early residents of the children's home. Meals were taken outdoors, when possible, to get the benefit of fresh air and sunshine. The benches and tables were no doubt hand-made by local people and the children's bibs hand-made too. One of the glasshouses in the Aithernie garden can be seen. The grounds would have been carefully nurtured over many decades and at one time would have produced a great variety of produce.
The piece above is from 19 February 1938 Fife Free Press. The work of both Jessie and Margaret Paxton was innovative and was followed with great interest. Of course, in the 1939, the outbreak of war brought new pressures on both ventures. At Fife Children's Home there were new reasons for children requiring assistance, as fathers were called up to join the armed services. One example was a widower with six children who went to serve in the Navy on a minesweeper. Three of his children went to stay with grandparents, while three came to reside at Aithernie. Two refugees from Austria, aged 2 and 4 also came to the home. Their fees were paid by two members of the home's committee.
In July 1940 another brochure was created to highlight the work of the home in the hope that further support would be forthcoming from farther afield. Below is an extract from this brochure. While daily life had continued much as before, gas mask drills and air raid precautions were now required.
1941 proved to be a difficult year for Margaret. The headline above, from 6 August Leven Mail, reports on the Annual Meeting of the committee. The clear message was that the home may have to close if not better supported. In the October of the same year Margaret's mother, Margaret, died at Homelands aged 78. Unsurprisingly, all those circumstances combined, took their toll on Margaret's health and in 1942 she had to spend some time in a nursing home to recuperate.
The sixth AGM for Fife Children's Home took place in 1942. The health of Miss Paxton was referenced, as were the direct and indirect impacts of the war. Ongoing challenges included food rationing, meeting blackout requirements and air raid precautions, staffing shortages and financial issues. While day nurseries were eligible for a war-time grant, the home was not. Yet somehow the home continued to function.
However, early in 1943 the home had to close for a six-month period. This had come about because Margaret had suffered a breakdown, having had do the cooking and attend the children at night, on top of her usual role as superintendent, due to staff shortages. In July 1943, Fife County Council made a grant of £100 to Aithernie Home and it was able to reopen. At the seventh annual meeting a few weeks later, Margaret expressed her regret at the circumstances which had necessitated the closing of the home. Now, however, the home was full up and had a long waiting list. Thirty-eight cases had been dealt with during the year, nearly all being the children of service men. The health of the children had been good and they had been vaccinated against diphtheria.
At the eighth annual meeting of the subscribers to Fife Children's Home in 1944 it was once again noted that Miss Paxton's health had not been so good. It was likely that Margaret continued to be overworked and was unable to give herself the time she really needed to rest and recover from earlier ill health. There had also been "very serious staffing issues". Above is an advert from 1944 for a cook for the home. Nevertheless, splendid work had been done with a considerable number of children benefitting from a stay. The war was still ongoing and sadly two key committee members had died during that year - ex-Provost Barron of Leven and Mrs Rowand of St Andrews.
The ninth annual meeting took place in 1945. In the summary of the year, it was noted that several valuable subscribers had been lost by death and that staffing difficulties persisted. There were a few vacancies on the General Committee. Seventy children had been cared for over the year, with the waiting list remaining long. The "absence of so many men overseas had produced a very serious social problem" and many mothers found themselves having to work. The clipping below from the 12 September 1945 Leven Mail shows some of the year's highlights. An insight into the support given by local people was also given when Margaret described a "constant supply of vegetables" from Mrs Fleming and the "many friends who darn and re-foot socks and make and mend the clothes" as well as knitting, sending food and holding fundraising events.
In 1946, after nine years of operation, the home had to close for good. Miss Paxton was no longer physically fit enough to carry out the superintendent role and repeated efforts to find a successor proved fruitless. When it became clear that the home would not continue, David Russell made plans for Aithernie to be used as a convalescent home for his workers. During its years of operation, Fife Children's Home, had cared for between 500 and 600 children between the ages of 2 and 10 years.
Efforts to restart a home at a different location did not come to pass, and by 1949, all of the assets of the original home had been legally transferred to the Methil Nursery run by Margaret's sister Jessie. The funds were to be used to give summer outings to the nursery pupils or for sending delicate pupils for a holiday in the country. Cots, bedding, furniture, etc also became the property of the Methil nursery. Meanwhile, Margaret left Scotland and relocated to Suffolk to begin a new chapter of her life. Ultimately, Margaret lived in Cambridge, and it was there that she died in 1966, four years after her elder sister Jessie.
Many today still remember the assistance given by the home at Aithernie to a sibling, a parent or to themselves. Margaret's initiative benefitted hundreds of children. Her determination saw the home survive the war years when new pressures affected families. Although circumstances conspired against the continuation of the home in the end, Margaret could not have given more to the cause that was so close to her heart. The good work of Margaret and her sisters deserves to be remembered for a long time to come.