The concept of early childhood education and care (ECEC) as 'social justice' is contested and complex. In this article, the author calls on a historical perspective to critically reflect on social justice in ECEC. The author does this by exploring the early history of free kindergartens in Sydney, Australia. The author demonstrates, through this example, that the idea of 'social justice' has long been at the core of ECEC work in Australia. The work of the pioneers of early childhood education in Australia has tended to be minimised as little more than middle-class 'do-gooding' that perpetuated middle-class ways of knowing. Revisiting this history, the author argues that these early advocates, operating within the confines of their time, constructed free kindergartens as contributing to social justice. Understanding of present constructions of ECEC has much to gain from revisiting and critiquing this early history. A critical and respectful understanding of the history of ECEC enables contemporary advocates to place themselves within a long, hard-fought, though sometimes misguided and often controversial, tradition.