Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Simpson, Martha Margaret Mildred (1865–1948)

by Bruce Mitchell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Martha Margaret Mildred Simpson (1865-1948), kindergarten teacher and school inspector, was born on 3 May 1865 at Omagh, Tyrone, Ireland, daughter of George Simpson and his wife Mary, née Wilson. She apparently arrived in New South Wales only shortly before taking up teaching under the Department of Public Instruction in October 1886, as an unclassified teacher, in charge of a small school near Lake Macquarie. She was moved to Carrow Brook in 1887 and Tea Tree in 1890, received the basic classification when appointed to Tea Gardens in 1891, and thence was regularly promoted and transferred to larger schools at Woerden and Tamworth.

In 1906 Miss Simpson took charge of the kindergarten department of Blackfriars Public School, part of Alexander Mackie's new Teachers' College. She immediately had the fixed desks removed and the children sat on the floor until chairs, tables and other equipment were installed later in the year. Her enthusiasm for Froebel's kindergarten principles was encouraged in this period of extensive educational reform in the State, and in 1908 she became the lecturer when a special course was established at Teachers' College to prepare women kindergarten teachers. In 1909 her slim book of plans for kindergarten lessons was published as Work in the Kindergarten, based on the life and customs of Aborigines. Her aim was to follow the Herbartian principle of basing children's learning on familiar things: the Australian bush, its flowers, birds and insects; and the legends and stories of the Aborigines.

In 1911 news of Dr Maria Montessori's teaching methods reached Sydney and the minister of public instruction, A. C. Carmichael, cabled for her book and had it translated. Simpson read the book and in July 1912 submitted a well-balanced report on the Montessori method. Simpson's approach was that the new methods could supplement the already quite liberal kindergarten methods being used. With Carmichael's encouragement, experimental work in two classes was begun in August at Blackfriars and immediately attracted interest from educators. Simpson was despatched to Italy to study the method and in 1913 joined about eighty similar observers from most parts of the world. After reporting on the experimental work already being done in Sydney, she was warmly congratulated by Montessori, who pronounced this work to be 'the first and most complete experiment of her system outside of Italy'. Her report on the method, its impact in England, the Blackfriars work and practical advice on its implementation was published in 1914 in a well-illustrated forty-eight-page book. An abridged version appeared in Lone Hand in March 1914. Teachers came from all Australian States and New Zealand to watch the method in use. A Blackfriars teacher, Rachel Stevens, went to Western Australia to introduce it there. Harriet Dumolo and the Kindergarten Union were unconvinced by the Montessori method.

In 1917 Miss Simpson was appointed inspector of infants' schools, the first woman inspector in New South Wales. In 1920 she revisited England and the United States of America to study kindergartens. She tried to carry Montessori methods into bush and suburban schools, but by the time she retired in July 1930 enthusiasm had waned. However, her lecture on Montessori's influence was published in the Journal of the Institute of Inspectors of Schools in New South Wales (August and November 1930). A handsome, dark-haired woman, Martha Simpson wrote occasional verse. She died in Sydney on 7 June 1948 and was cremated with Church of England rites.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Turney (ed), Pioneers of Australian Education, vol 3 (Syd, 1983)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Aug 1913
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 29 Sept 1915
  • teachers' records, archives and information from School History Section, Dept of Education (New South Wales), Sydney.

Citation details

Bruce Mitchell, 'Simpson, Martha Margaret Mildred (1865–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/simpson-martha-margaret-mildred-8434/text14823, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 26 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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