Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Florance, Sheila Mary (1916–1991)

by Mimi Colligan

This article was published online in 2014

Sheila Mary Florance (1916-1991), actress, was born on 24 July 1916 at East St Kilda, Melbourne, elder child of Victorian-born parents James Horn Florance, schoolteacher, and his wife Frances Josephine, née Lalor, costumier. Sheila was educated at Presentation Convent, Windsor. After leaving school aged fifteen she became interested in the theatre, appearing with Old Caulfield Grammarians (her father taught at Caulfield Grammar School). She also attended some classes at the National Gallery Art School where her unusual beauty led to employment as a model. Trying to further her theatrical ambitions, she took on small parts with Brett Randall’s Little Theatre at St Chad’s in South Yarra.

On 19 April 1934 at the Holy Angels Catholic Church, Balaclava, Florance married a visiting Englishman, Roger Lightfoot Oyston. The following year the couple took their infant daughter, Susan, to England, where they stayed briefly with Roger’s parents at Scarborough, Yorkshire, before moving into a house at nearby Bridlington. Sheila found time to perform in local theatricals and to attend the theatre in London. A son, Peter, was born in 1938.

At the outbreak of World War II, with her husband in the British Army, Florance joined the Women’s Land Army and worked as a farm hand at Mill Park, near Bempton. She later claimed to have had a baby daughter, Bridget, blown out of her arms during a bombing raid at Temple Meads Station, Bristol, and to needing psychiatric care. No record of Bridget’s birth or death has been found, but Temple Meads Station was bombed in January 1941 and Bridget is listed on Sheila’s death certificate. In 1942 Susan and Peter were sent to boarding schools, but later returned to Mill Farm. Sheila’s husband died on active service during the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944. Their younger son, Philip, was born posthumously. On 3 September 1946 at the Church of the Holy Cross, Hucknall, Nottingham, Florance married John (Jan) Adam Balawaider (d. 1983), a Polish former airman.

Florance returned to Melbourne in 1948 with Balawaider and her three children. The family rented a cottage at Windsor, later to be a centre of Sheila’s generous hospitality to fellow actors and artists. She struggled to achieve her stage ambitions but by 1951 she was again acting with the Little Theatre Movement. At Frank Thring junior’s Arrow theatre at Middle Park, she was stage manager before taking the role of Jocasta opposite Thring in Oedipus Rex in 1953. Tragedy struck in 1954 when Susan died in a fall from a city building. The coroner returned an open finding. Florance later told New Idea that Susan had died in a car accident, but shortly before her own death she spoke of the tragedy as suicide. In 2012 the Victoria Police cold case squad investigated allegations that in 2005 a dying man had confessed to murdering three women, including Susan. He allegedly claimed to have been fearful Susan would expose one of his earlier murders.

Florance was increasingly offered character parts with John Sumner’s newly formed Union Theatre Repertory Company, although in 1962 she was to play the leading role of Lady Macbeth, once again opposite Thring. A highlight in 1956 was the part of Cassandra in Giraudoux’s Tiger at the Gates, directed by Irene Mitchell, at the opening of St Martins Theatre, South Yarra. In 1957 she played Anne Frank’s mother in a commercial production of The Diary of Anne Frank in Melbourne and Sydney. With the Little Theatre she won an ERIK award for best actress (1959) for her role in Shadow of Heroes, a play about the Hungarian Revolution. She supplemented her income working as a television floor manager for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. In 1969 she and Jan moved to a flat at St Kilda.

Film and television gradually became Florance’s main work and in 1979 she created the role for which she is chiefly remembered: Lizzie Birdsworth in the television series Prisoner. Playing the part until 1984, she was a worldwide cult figure many years after she had retired from the show. Florance herself was said not to like this enormously popular character, although she won Sammy (1981) and Logie (1981, 1983) awards for the part. Her personal life was filled with caring for her disabled husband, raising her grandson, gardening, entertaining, and urging the St Kilda municipal council to clean up drugs and prostitution on the streets of the raffish suburb.

Sheila’s film career continued into the last decade of her life including roles in The Tale of Ruby Rose and Paul Cox’s Cactus. Her courage was shown in her willingness to play a dying woman in Cox’s A Woman’s Tale (1991) when she herself was dying from cancer. For this role she received the Australian Film Institute award for best actress only one week before her death. Survived by her two sons, Florance died on 12 October 1991 at Malvern, and was buried with Catholic rites in Brighton cemetery. A complex character, she was a versatile actor and loyal friend but sometimes dramatised aspects of an already interesting and tragic life.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne). ‘TV Veteran “Lizzie” Dies.’ 13 October 1991, 1
  • Argus (Melbourne). ‘Smiling Girl Crashed to Her Death.’ 8 July 1954, 6
  • Australian Film Institute Newsletter. ‘Sheila Florance–A Woman’s Tale.’ December 1991, 10
  • Martineau, Helen. On the Inside: An Intimate Portrait of Sheila Florance. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2005
  • New Idea (Melbourne). ‘The Tragic Private World of Sheila Florance.’ 7 February 1981, 10-11
  • Performing Arts Collection, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne. Sheila Florance Collection
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Veteran Not Afraid to Die.’ 14 October 1991, 8.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Mimi Colligan, 'Florance, Sheila Mary (1916–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/florance-sheila-mary-14654/text25789, published online 2014, accessed online 23 July 2018.

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