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Ada Mary à Beckett (1872–1948)

by Julie Marginson

This article was published:

Ada Mary à Beckett (1872-1948), educationist, was born on 18 May 1872 at Norwood, South Australia, elder daughter of Henry John Lambert, Presbyterian minister, and his wife Helen, née Garrett. She was educated at the Advanced School for Girls, Adelaide, and the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1895; M.Sc., 1897) where she was awarded the Wyselaskie scholarship in natural science (biology) and the final honours scholarship in biology. She resided in Trinity College Hostel (Janet Clarke Hall) for five years and was Annie Grice Scholar in 1892-93. Later she was a founder of the Victorian Women Graduates' Association and chairman of the Janet Clarke Hall Committee in 1923-26 and 1928.

Ada Lambert began teaching science in 1893 at Merton Hall (later Melbourne Church of England Girls' Grammar School). By 1900 she had done some teaching at seven girls' schools in Melbourne and Geelong, and at the Working Men's College. She had also demonstrated in biology at the university but assumed more senior duties in 1898 when Professor (Sir) W. Baldwin Spencer was overseas and in 1899, just before and for some months after the death of Professor Sir Frederick McCoy, she relieved T. S. Hall of his lectures. Her appointment as demonstrator and assistant lecturer in biology during Spencer's central Australian anthropological tour in 1901 was the basis of her claim to be the first woman appointed to lecture at the University of Melbourne.

On 19 February 1903 at Sandringham Presbyterian Church she married Thomas Archibald à Beckett, solicitor, eldest son of Sir Thomas à Beckett. In 1912, two years after the birth of her third son, she resumed teaching, mainly at Melbourne Church of England Girls' Grammar School; during World War I she also demonstrated in biology at the university. When Scotch College introduced the subject into its final-year courses in 1921, Ada à Beckett joined the staff full time, as head of the biology department; she retired in 1937. Remembered as a very competent teacher and a good but not stern disciplinarian, with a 'dignified and commanding personality' and clear, decisive speech, she made significant impact on her pupils, a number of whom entered medicine or allied professions.

Ada à Beckett's extensive involvement with the kindergarten movement and the education of pre-school children began in 1908 when she was elected a foundation vice-president of the Free Kindergarten Union of Victoria; she was president in 1919-39 and a life-president thereafter. She was prominent in establishing the Kindergarten Training College, Kew, in 1916, contributing significantly to the design of courses; she lectured in physiology and hygiene in 1920-23 and was president of the college council in 1926-39. In 1936 she founded the Australian Association for Pre-School Child Development which established the Lady Gowrie model pre-school centres. She was closely involved in creating a community centre on the Housing Commission estate at Fishermen's Bend; the kindergarten established there in 1942 was named after her. Her undoubted abilities as an educator, her 'unique flair for organization', and her position in Melbourne society all contributed to her success. She was appointed C.B.E. in 1935.

Ada à Beckett was active in many women's organizations including the National Council of Women; she was president of the Lyceum Club in 1926-28 and a life member of the Victoria League. She died of cancer at her home in East St Kilda on 20 May 1948 and was cremated at Springvale. Widowed in 1930, she was survived by three sons of whom Edward Lambert was a Test cricketer. A portrait by Charles Wheeler hangs in the Institute of Early Childhood Development, Kew.

Select Bibliography

  • Argus (Melbourne), 18 Feb 1927, 20 May 1948
  • Age (Melbourne), 20 May 1948
  • registrar's correspondence and related records (University of Melbourne Archives).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Julie Marginson, 'à Beckett, Ada Mary (1872–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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