The Kindergarten Union of New South Wales “was born into an unsympathetic world” in July 1895. At this time, education for very young children in Australia is virtually non-existent. A few kindergartens operate in private schools but these are out of the reach of most families. Though many children under six years of age attend public schools, dominant educational practices, such as rote learning, are ill-suited to their needs.

A small group of educational reformers advocate for Fröebelian kindergarten methods for public schools, largely unsuccessfully. In mid 1895, one of these advocates – Maybanke Wolstenholme (later Anderson) receives a copy of an annual report of the Golden Gate Kindergarten Association in San Francisco. Inspired, she and a small group of like-minded enthusiasts “determined to launch a little venture” to establish Free Kindergartens for Sydney’s poorest children and advocate for kindergarten methods.

The provisional committee of the Kindergarten Union of NSW holds its first meeting in July 1895, in the drawing room of one of the advocate’s homes. The small group of attendees include suffragettes, social and educational reformers, along with teachers drawing on a variety of backgrounds and experience in kindergarten thought and teaching.

At the Committee’s second meeting (August 23 1895) in Quong Tart’s tea rooms in King Street, Sydney, Mrs Davenport is elected Secretary, Mrs Rich, Treasurer and Mrs Wolstenholme, Vice-President. The wife of the NSW Governor, Lady Hampden is invited to become President – and so begins a strong association between the Kindergarten Union of NSW and the wives of successive NSW Governors.

With only £50 in its coffers, the Kindergarten Union opens the first Free Kindergarten in Australia in Sussex Street Mission Hall on January 6 1896 – with 3 children attending. The conditions of the property are so poor that the Union closes the Kindergarten very shortly after and on February 10 1896 it moves to Charles Street, Woolloomooloo, under the Directorship of Fraulien Scheer (a kindergarten teacher trained in Hamburg), with the voluntary assistance of Mrs Dane.

The kindergarten initially opens for two sessions a day (9.30am – 1pm and 2 – 3.30pm). After only a few months, attendance surges from 13 to 76. The rooms are small and bare and there is precious little learning material – all of which is donated. Nevertheless, the resourceful teachers make use of ‘found’ materials such as sticks, clay, straw and wool to support the curriculum.

In 1897, Scheer resigns and Miss Ridie Lee Buckey becomes Director. She is the first of four American women to contribute significantly to the establishment of the Kindergarten Union. Buckey’s appointment lays “a very sure and lasting foundation of the movement.”

To bring their work to the public’s attention and attract donations, Kindergarten Union members write articles for and letters to newspapers and women’s magazines; compose and distribute information and fundraising pamphlets; and give speeches and demonstrations of kindergarten work. A 1912 demonstration of kindergarten methods at Sydney Town Hall involves 600 children! The Union appeals to successive State Ministers of Education for funding, which initially falls on deaf ears, but results in modest Government financial assistance from 1899.

This band of determined (mostly) women, establishes several Free Kindergartens in a relatively short timeframe, including the first model Kindergarten in the Southern Hemisphere at Newtown in 1907, on land bought, and plans drawn-up, by the Kindergarten Union. The management of each kindergarten is devolved to a local committee on the principle that the ‘rich’ in the neighbourhood should ‘help the poor’. The Union supports the establishment of the Newcastle Kindergarten Society (1901) and the establishment of kindergarten associations in South Australia (1905) and Queensland (1906) and becomes the germinating ground for the Sydney Day Nursery Association.

By 1911, there are eight Free Kindergartens across Sydney.