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Sulman, Florence (1876–1965)

by Margaret Henry

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Florence Sulman (1876-1965), author and benefactor, was born on 13 January 1876 at Bromley, Kent, England, eldest child of (Sir) John Sulman, architect, and his first wife Sarah Clark (d.1888), née Redgate. Florence attended Miss Wheeler's school at Bromley and in 1886, with her sister, joined her parents and brother in New South Wales where she was educated in the Blue Mountains and at Abbotsleigh, a 'good girls' school conducted by Miss Clarke' at Parramatta. Florence shared an intellectually stimulating and happy family life with her siblings at Ingleholme, Turramurra, and spent summer holidays with them in the Blue Mountains and at Mittagong where they went bushwalking with their father.

A woman of diverse talents and enormous energy, she was an active member of the Society of Arts and Crafts of New South Wales from 1910 and a lifelong supporter of Australian design. In 1916 she accompanied her brother Geoffrey to England and cared for him until his death in an aircraft accident in 1917. While there she taught craft to convalescing soldiers. Returning to Sydney in 1917, Florence took up her pre-war activities, serving as president (1928-36) of the Arts and Crafts Society. In 1933 she described crafts as a 'bulwark of national sanity and an antidote for unemployment'. A frequent traveller to Europe, she lectured on new trends and in 1936-37 sent home samples from the Englishwoman Exhibition of Arts and Handicrafts: some were purchased by the Technological Museum, Sydney.

Throughout her life Florence encouraged the study, appreciation and preservation of native plants. Her Popular Guide to the Wild Flowers of New South Wales (2 vols, 1914), illustrated by Eirene Mort, revealed the depth and detail of her knowledge. They continued their partnership over many years, producing a painting book, postcards and other material aimed at educating children.

Miss Sulman had begun her long association with the Kindergarten Union of New South Wales in 1914 and was vice-president of the Surry Hills Free Kindergarten which was to be named after her. As president of the Kindergarten Union, she was a generous benefactor, equipping a tea-room, establishing Playways Kindergarten Toy Shop, lecturing on overseas developments in pre-school education and donating the proceeds of her painting book of wildflowers. She created jobs for unemployed kindergarten teachers during the Depression and established a bursary at Sydney Kindergarten and Preparatory Teachers' College. Elected an honorary life-member in 1952, she was appointed M.B.E. in 1958 for her services to child welfare. She also found time to work with her stepmother for the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children and for the State branch of the Australian Red Cross Society.

Her letters written from England in 1916-17 reveal her as intelligent, good-humoured, enterprising and affectionate. Friends paid tribute to her courage and to her 'concern for everybody's needs but her own'. She did not marry. Florence Sulman died on 15 June 1965 at Mona Vale and was cremated with Anglican rites. Her will shows the breadth of her interests and the generosity of her spirit.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 July 1929, 29 Jan 1931, 26 Oct 1933, 7 Nov 1950, 12 June 1958, 1 July 1965
  • Annual Reports, 1895-1971, Kindergarten Union of New South Wales, Sydney
  • letters from England and France by Florence and Geoffrey Sulman during wartime, 1916-1917 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Sulman papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Historical Sketch of the Society of Arts and Crafts of New South Wales, 1906-56 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Margaret Henry, 'Sulman, Florence (1876–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sulman-florence-8713/text15251, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 3 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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