Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mary Ann Eliza Agnew (1857–1940)

by Susan Grieshaber

This article was published:

Mary Ann Eliza Agnew (1857-1940), kindergarten teacher, was born on 6 November 1857 at Openshaw, near Manchester, England, daughter of Hugh Agnew, chain maker, and his wife Eliza, née Byrom. Beginning her career as a pupil-teacher in November 1870, Mary attended Liverpool Training College from January 1876 to December 1877 and was headmistress of St Francis' Girls School, West Gorton, Manchester, from 1878. She arrived in Queensland in August 1890 and joined the Department of Public Instruction as a teacher at Ipswich North Girls' and Infants' School on 22 September 1890, though suffering a bout of typhoid fever that year.

On 10 August 1891 Agnew was appointed kindergarten instructor and began to introduce the methods of Friedrich Froebel to female teachers in Brisbane and suburbs. The lessons included a series of teaching sessions involving young children with the teachers observing. Her letters to the inspector-general David Ewart raised issues such as which Froebelian 'gifts' should be used, the extent to which kindergarten should form part of the curriculum of infants' schools, the amount of time to be spent on it and the introduction of kindergarten techniques to other schools. She stressed that young children could not spend long periods of time each day engaged in 'dry intellectual work'. Due partly to financial constraints during the depression, however, the number of children undertaking kindergarten work was reduced and Agnew's position was abolished from 1 July 1893, when she returned to classroom duties at Brisbane South Girls' and Infants' School, although the department continued to call on her advice generally. In 1903 she was appointed part-time kindergarten inspector. Her reports indicated that the kindergarten work then being undertaken was based on a fundamentalist interpretation of Froebel's ideas. It was not until the appointment of R. H. Roe as inspector-general in 1909 that further efforts were made to bring the infants' schools up to a suitable standard. Agnew was granted extended leave in 1909-10 to visit kindergartens in Europe.

On her return, concerned about the antiquated methods and equipment in Queensland's infants' schools, she recommended and was appointed to a committee to investigate infant education. After a conference in July 1911, the committee's report, which she wrote, influenced departmental policy on infants and kindergarten work for the next few years. Though restricted to larger schools, use of kindergarten methods increased during and after World War I. From 1910 Agnew was stationed at Dutton Park Girls' and Infants' School as head teacher. She retired in 1920 and thereafter lived at Ingleston, Wynnum South.

Miss Agnew died at Mater Misericordiae Hospital, South Brisbane, on 14 June 1940 and was buried with Catholic rites in Nudgee cemetery. Despite her efforts, kindergarten method had remained fundamentalist in her first twenty years in Queensland and it was only in the last years of her career that her pioneering work in pre-school education began to be implemented.

Select Bibliography

  • 34th Report of the Secretary for Public Instruction for the Year 1909, Parliamentary Papers (Queensland), 1910, vol 2
  • Links, no 4, 1982, p 14
  • S. Grieshaber, ‘Preschool Pioneer’, in G. Logan and T. Watson (eds), Soldiers of the Service, vol 1 (Qld, 1992), p 72
  • Unicorn, 20, no 2, June 1994, p 73
  • Memo, General Inspector David Ewart to Undersecretary J. G. Anderson, 10 March 1903, A/15943 and Register of Teachers (female), 1860-1903, EDU/V21 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

Susan Grieshaber, 'Agnew, Mary Ann Eliza (1857–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


6 November, 1857
Openshaw, Manchester, England


14 June, 1940 (aged 82)
South Brisbane, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.