Lillian de Lissa

Lillian Daphne de Lissa (1885-1967), educator, was born on 25 October 1885 at Darlinghurst, Sydney, daughter of Julia (born Joseph) and Montague de Lissa, merchant; they were Jewish. Lillian was educated at Riviere College, Woollahra, and became an accomplished pianist. On seeing the transformation of slum children by the Woolloomooloo free kindergarten, she dedicated herself to the education of young children. In 1902 she entered Australia's only kindergarten college, in Sydney, under Chicago-trained Frances Newton. She gained her diploma brilliantly and in 1905 accompanied Newton to Adelaide to give kindergarten demonstrations organised by the Rev. Bertram Hawker. The Kindergarten Union of South Australia was subsequently formed.

Next year de Lissa became director of the first Adelaide free kindergarten, Franklin St, in a west-end city cottage, and for a year she lived next door. Her compassion was tempered by a sharp intellect. She attracted mothers and children and also intellectuals and philanthropists by her appealing personality and effective work, based on Froebelian principles. She encouraged the full development of each child's faculties: 'We are concerned more with helping children to be than to know'. She made home visits, conducted mothers' and, at their request, fathers' meetings, and was assisted by young women volunteers before persuading the Kindergarten Union to initiate teacher training. In 1907 she became principal of the Adelaide Kindergarten Training College, setting its directions for decades ahead, and director of the Union.

In 1909 de Lissa was on the foundation committee of the School for Mothers with Dr Helen Mayo (q.v.) and joined the Women's (Non-Party) Political Association under Catherine Spence's (q.v.) presidency. Believing in the vital importance of the child's early years, she fought passionately and publicly in 1910 to save the Kindergarten College from absorption in the state Education Department, which she regarded as rigid and bureaucratic. Her evidence to the 1912 royal commission on education ensured the College's independence and continued government financial support for the Union. In 1911 de Lissa's visit to Perth resulted in the establishment of the Kindergarten Union of Western Australia.

In late 1913 de Lissa travelled to Rome at Rev. Hawker's expense; she gained the Montessori diploma and visited European experimental schools. At an English education conference she impressed 'New Educationists' who invited her to open the first English college for teachers of young children. She agreed, but first returned to Adelaide in 1915, introducing some Montessori methods into the kindergartens and the College. She also persuaded a wealthy citizen to give substantial North Adelaide premises for the College.

Lillian de Lissa became foundation principal of Gipsy Hill College, Surrey, in 1917. The following year she married businessman Harold Turner-Thompson; they were later divorced. A founder of the Nursery School Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, she wrote and lectured widely, including a six-months' tour of the United States in 1943. The quality of her influential work, she acknowledged, was firmly based on her Australian experience. After retiring from Gipsy Hill to a country cottage in 1946 she continued advising on early childhood education.

In 1955 Lillian was welcomed back to Adelaide for the Kindergarten Union's golden jubilee; she visited kindergartens and addressed meetings with her customary verve and insight. She died at Dorking, Surrey, on 16 October 1967. The Lillian de Lissa postgraduate scholarship and the De Lissa Institute of Early Childhood and Family Studies in the South Australian College of Advanced Education are named for her.

Helen Jones

Helen Jones 'The Acceptable Crusader' Melbourne Studies in Education 1975.