Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Lillian Daphne de Lissa (1885–1967)

by Helen Jones

This article was published:

Lillian Daphne de Lissa (1885-1967), educator, was born on 25 October 1885 at Darlinghurst, Sydney, daughter of Montague de Lissa, merchant, and his wife Julia, née Joseph; they were Jewish. She was educated at Riviere College, Woollahra. Musically gifted, she became an accomplished pianist but, 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 the Kindergarten College, Sydney, and was influenced by the principal Frances Newton who had trained in Chicago. De Lissa graduated brilliantly and in 1904-05 was a kindergarten director; she then took a course in training teachers. In 1905 she accompanied Newton to Adelaide at the expense of Rev. Bertram Hawker, a philanthropist, to demonstrate kindergarten methods; their work led to the formation of the Kindergarten Union of South Australia.

Next year de Lissa became director of the first Adelaide free kindergarten, Franklin Street, in a cottage in the city's slums, where she was assisted by young women voluntary helpers. She used Froebelian methods and continually related theory to practice, regarding improved child welfare and education as the basis of social reform. She was not a practising Jew but applied general biblical moral precepts in teaching and encouraged the children to celebrate the major Christian festivals. She held extra classes for older children, arranged mothers' meetings and made visits where she gave informal instruction in hygiene and child care. Her compassion was tempered by a sharp intellect, while her personality, beauty, and logical claims for kindergarten principles attracted support for the Kindergarten Union. She persuaded it to establish the Adelaide Kindergarten Training College for teachers which opened in 1907 with eleven students; she was principal and also director of the union.

Modelling the two-year course on the Sydney curriculum, de Lissa taught the professional subjects; specialist lecturers included Professor William Mitchell, Dr Helen Mayo and Mrs Lucy Morice, secretary of the union and her close friend. The college flourished in spite of lack of funds and makeshift accommodation; in 1915 Robert Barr Smith donated a substantial house. From 1908 more kindergartens had opened, mainly in poor areas, using de Lissa's advice. Her visit to Perth in 1911 resulted in the establishment of the Kindergarten Union of Western Australia. In 1913 she began a successful evening course for Sunday school teachers.

In 1909 de Lissa was a foundation member and briefly a councillor, of the Women's Political Association, and a member of the first committee of the School for Mothers which met in the Franklin Street Kindergarten; next year she successfully led a crusade against a proposal to absorb the Kindergarten Training College into the University Training College, with herself as lecturer. The victory was confirmed by her evidence to a 1912 royal commission into education which resulted in continued government financial support for the union and consequent independence for the college.

At Hawker's expense and suggestion, de Lissa went abroad in December 1913 primarily to study Maria Montessori's methods in Rome. She gained the Montessori diploma and travelled widely to compile her report for the South Australian government, 'Education in certain European countries' (1915). At the first Montessori conference, organized by Hawker at East Runton, Norfolk, England, she was opening speaker. A group of 'New Educationists' invited her to open an English college for teachers of young children, but she returned to Adelaide in 1915, introducing some Montessori methods to the college and kindergartens, and instructing her successors. In 1917 she went to England and became foundation principal of Gipsy Hill College, Surrey, where she attracted English and overseas students.

In 1918 de Lissa married businessman Harold Turner-Thompson; by 1930 they were divorced. In 1923 she helped found the Nursery School Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, becoming first vice-president, then chairman of the executive in 1929-38; she stimulated the establishment of branches. She published Life in the Nursery School (London, 1939); the second edition was Life in the Nursery School and in Early Babyhood (London, 1949). She contributed to several books, published articles, spoke at conferences, arranged exhibitions and guided Gipsy Hill College through wartime difficulties and moves. In 1943 she lectured for six months in the United States of America, under the auspices of the British Ministry of Information and the Child Study Association of America, extending her tour in response to capacity audiences. She influenced the decision to have nursery schools included in the 1944 British Education Act.

Adaptable and farsighted, de Lissa continued to advise on early childhood issues after retiring in 1946 to her cottage and garden in Oxshott, Surrey. She was chairman of the Consultative Committee on Nursery-Infant Education in 1946-49. In 1955 she returned to Adelaide for the golden jubilee of the Kindergarten Union, addressing meetings and visiting kindergartens.

De Lissa died at Dorking, Surrey, on 16 October 1967. Her portrait (1953) hangs at Gipsy Hill and a major building, de Lissa Hall, was completed there in 1972. In 1971 the Lillian de Lissa Nursery School opened in Birmingham, established through an appeal in her memory. In 1979 the former Adelaide Kindergarten Training College became the de Lissa Institute of Early Childhood Studies within Hartley College of Advanced Education. A hall in the Hartley College is also named after her.

Select Bibliography

  • Gipsy Hill Training College for Teachers of Young Children, Prospectus (np, 1917)
  • H. Jones, ‘The acceptable crusader …’, Melbourne Studies in Education, 1975, S. Murray-Smith ed (Melb, 1975)
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1913, 3 (75)
  • Kindergarten Union of South Australia, Annual Report, 1906-17
  • Nursery School Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, News Sheet, no 11, Nov 1967
  • L. de Lissa papers (State Records of South Australia)
  • Kindergarten Union of SA, Executive Committee minute book, 1908-23 (State Records of South Australia)
  • Adelaide Kindergarten Training College, Council minute book, 1909-38 (State Records of South Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Helen Jones, 'de Lissa, Lillian Daphne (1885–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 13 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Turner-Thompson, Lillian Daphne

25 October, 1885
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


16 October, 1967 (aged 81)
Dorking, Surrey, England

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.