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Margaret Jane (Greta) Lyttle (1875–1944)

by Desmond Gibbs

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Margaret Jane Ruth (Greta) Lyttle (1875-1944), educationist, was born on 1 July 1875 at Hinton, New South Wales, sixth of nine children of Sydney-born parents John Thomas Lyttle, a Baptist minister of Northern Irish descent, and his wife Margaret Purves, née McNeilly. Greta was educated in state schools. Commencing her career in 1891 as a pupil-teacher at Prahran, Melbourne, she worked in various government primary schools, mostly as infant mistress, and used 'modern methods'. She was praised by school inspectors and by Emmeline Pye of the Melbourne Training College. Lyttle supported Mary Lush in her work at Melbourne's first free kindergarten at Carlton.

In 1914 Lyttle moved to nearby Queensberry Street State School, where she managed the Montessori room. She resigned in 1917 to set up a Montessorian school, the School of the Pathfinder, at South Yarra, with the help of the progressive educationist and social reformer Rev. John Thomas Lawton. She continued to collaborate with Lawton as directress of the junior school of St Andrew's College, Kew, which he founded in 1921. Following several years of financial insecurity and excessive hard work—which included bringing up her three nieces and a nephew—her health declined and she left in 1929, somewhat disillusioned with the way the school was run. For extra income she took in student boarders. Preshil began when several St Andrew's parents persuaded her to teach their children in her own home at Kew.

Named after Priesthill farm on the Scottish moors where a family ancestor, John Brown the Covenanter, was executed for his religious beliefs in the reign of Charles I, Preshil adopted a golden eagle as its symbol and 'courage' as its motto. Lyttle was strongly influenced by the writings of Friedrich Froebel and Maria Montessori, and by the work of the New Education Fellowship in Australia. She was a brilliant teacher of 'instinctive genius' who went back to first principles: her aim was to develop the child's feelings, sense of independence, security and self-confidence. Believing that the best learning took place through self-directed activity, she produced a prospectus which stated: 'Preshil aims at being a school which fits itself to the needs of the child'. Like Constance Tisdall and Dorothy Ross, she was a pioneer of the 'progressive movement'.

With little financial backing and approaching the age of 58, Lyttle pushed ahead with her new venture. Preshil Preparatory School was registered in 1933, with twenty students between 6 and 10 years old. The fees covered only the basic running expenses, and there were constant money worries and personal sacrifice. By 1937, however, Preshil had outgrown its premises and Lyttle secured a loan to move to Arlington, Kew, one of the school's four present campuses.

To some, Lyttle was formidable and outspoken; to others, she was kind and reassuring. She was decidedly eccentric in manner and in dress and was, according to one relation, attractive and feminine with 'a soft warm face' and dimples. In her last years she suffered poor health and did little teaching. She died of chronic nephritis on 2 August 1944 at Kew and was cremated. From 1946 to 1994 her niece Margaret Lyttle was headmistress of Preshil, which added to its title 'the Margaret Lyttle Memorial School'.

Select Bibliography

  • N. R. White, School Matters (Melb, 1995)
  • Australian Journal of Education, vol 14, no 1, Mar 1970
  • R. C. Petersen, Experimental Schools and Educational Experiments in Australia, 1906-1948 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Sydney, 1968)
  • D. R. Gibbs, John Thomas Lawton (1878-1944)
  • Biography of an Educational and Social Reformer (M.Ed. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1978)
  • taped interviews with Miss M. Lyttle and others, May 1976 (held by author)
  • family and school papers (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Desmond Gibbs, 'Lyttle, Margaret Jane (Greta) (1875–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 12 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


1 July, 1875
Hinton, New South Wales, Australia


2 August, 1944 (aged 69)
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

kidney disease

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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.