Martha Helena Cillié was born on 22 April 1866 in Wellington (SA). She was the daughter of Charl Daniel Cillié and his wife, Martha Helena Marais. She came from an illustrious family. Her father, one of the ten children in the family, became the first rector of the University of Stellenbosch, while another member, P.J. Cillié, made a valuable contribution to the development of fruit cultivation in South Africa.
Cillié grew up on the farm Rhebokskloof and initially attended M.J. Stucki's school at Blauwvallei. She subsequently attended the Wellington Huguenot Ladies' Seminary, where she later also completed her training as a teacher. Her teaching career began at Blauwvallei in 1888, when she temporarily stood in for someone else; in 1890 she held a similar post at this school. In 1891 she was appointed to teach Latin and Dutch at the Paarl Huguenot Ladies' Seminary, a sister school of the Wellington Huguenot Ladies' Seminary, which had been established on 25 February of the previous year with Miss V.L. Pride as its first headmistress.
During Miss Pride's leave of absence in 1894, Cillié was appointed acting head. When Miss Pride returned Cillié became vice-headmistress of the school. On 1 April 1899 she became the school's first Afrikaans-speaking headmistress. Meanwhile consideration was being given to the possibility of placing the school under the administration of a board of trustees. However, since Cillié objected to the fact that the name of the school would be changed, this matter was not resolved until 1912, when the school property was transferred to a Paarl board of trustees on which Cillié also had a seat. At the same time she forwarded a proposal that the school be renamed the La Rochelle Girls' High School. In September 1921 she retired from her position as headmistress, but continued to serve the school as head of the hostel until the end of 1923.
Cillie's greatest achievement was her contribution to the education of girls and to teacher training over a period of more than 30 years. In her charge the La Rochelle Girls' High School became one of the most reputable schools for girls in South Africa. It was also during her period of service as headmistress of this school that the training of teachers at Paarl became a reality. This training was initially provided separately at Paarl Girls' High School and La Rochelle Girls' High School in accordance with the pupil-teacher system until the Central Training School was established in 1913, mainly as a result of Cillie's enthusiasm and foresight. She was one of the first committee members of the school””a position which she held for many years””and served on the local school board from the time of its inception in 1906 until her retirement. She also served her community in other spheres and was chairperson of the Noorder-Paarl branch of the Afrikaanse Christelike Vrouevereniging (Afrikaans Christian women's society) for many years.
Cillié spent her retirement at Stille Waters, Somerset West. She died shortly before her hundredth birthday on16 March 1966 in Somerset West. On her retirement in 1921 the school was presented with a painting of her, done in oils by George Crosland Robinson. The school library, which she opened on her ninetieth birthday, bears her name.
E.J. Verwey (ed), New dictionary of South African biography. Pretoria, 1995, pp 45-46