Woman a'Beckett, Ada Mary

Community Worker, Educationist and Scientist

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Ada a'Beckett was born in Norwood, South Australian in 1872, the elder daughter of clergyman, Henry Lambert and his wife, Helen. After completing her secondary education in Adelaide she enrolled at the University of Melbourne, graduating with a Master of Science in 1897. During and after her course she taught at various schools before returning to the University, initially as a demonstrator, and, from 1901 as an assistant lecturer, the first woman to attain this rank. She resigned her position after her marriage to solicitor, Thomas a'Beckett, in 1903. Her marriage secured her a position in Melbourne's social elite. With access to help in the home, she chose to return to teaching in 1912, two years after the birth of her third son, and continued in paid employment until her retirement in 1937.

Alongside her employment, a'Beckett played an active role in the life of her community, fitting her 'philanthropic activities ... [into] the leisure moments of a busy professional life (Argus, 12 February 1927), fulfilling the adage that it was 'the busiest women who can always find time to do a little more' (Argus, 18 February 1927). To Melbourne journalist, 'Vesta' she was an example of the contribution which educated women could make to philanthropic work (Argus, 23 January 1935). She was a founder of the Victorian Women Graduates Association, took leadership roles in both the Janet Clarke Hall Committee and the Lyceum Club, and was also a member of the National Council of Women and the Victoria League. However, her most important contribution was through the Free Kindergarten Union, of which she was the foundation vice-president, president from 1919-39 and life president from then until her death. She was one of the founders, and later a lecturer at the Kindergarten Teaching College and founder of the Australian Association for Pre-School Child Development which was responsible for the establishment of the Lady Gowrie model centres across Australia. Kindergartens, she believed, had the potential to 'eradicate the weaknesses of human nature and strengthen the good points' and might in time 'do away altogether with gaols and asylums' (Argus, 19 August 1944).

a'Beckett was more liberal minded than most of the women who occupied leadership positions in charitable and community organisations. In 1935, for example, she was the only female signatory of a letter requesting the Commonwealth Government to relax its book censorship powers (Argus, 3 September 1935). She was also co-founder of the Society for the Teaching of Sex Education and a regular lecturer on the subject (Argus, 3 June 1935). a'Beckett emphasised the importance of drawing on 'modern thought and research' in planning for social change (Cairns Post, 7 November 1945). Always confident in her right to speak, she argued for the need to build community rather than relieve problems as they occurred. When the Victorian Housing Commission was developing an estate at Port Melbourne she wrote to 'almost every member of parliament' and approached 'the Premier and the Port Melbourne council ... [the] playgrounds committee, boys and girls clubs, baby health centres and the National Fitness Council' to ensure that property was set aside to provide a community centre which could be shared by all (Argus, 4 September 1941).

Described as both 'a rare bird' and a 'born organiser' (Daily News, 23 July 1930), a'Beckett was awarded the CBE in 1935 (Argus, 3 June 1935). She died in 1948. A kindergarten in Port Melbourne and a scholarship for kindergarten teachers are named in her honour.

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