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Samuel Henry (Harry) Ervin (1881–1977)

by Jillian Oppenheimer

This article was published:

Samuel Henry (Harry) Ervin (1881-1977), woolbroker and benefactor, was born on 21 January 1881 at Monkland, Queensland, fourth and youngest child of Samuel Ervin (d.1881), a miner from Ireland, and his German-born wife Matilda, née Ostwald. Matilda married Ernest Theodor Henry Rohde in 1883 and the family moved to Sydney. As a schoolboy, Harry used his stepfather's surname, grew up at Mosman, attended Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore) and frequented the artists' camp at Sirius Cove.

On leaving school, Ervin worked in woollen mills in Europe to gain experience of all aspects of the industry. Back in Sydney, his brother-in-law Karl Lothringer arranged for Harry to buy for the Belgian firm of Hauzeur-Gerard Fils of Verviers. During World War I Ervin took over Lothringer & Co.; he established S. H. Ervin Ltd, woolbrokers, in 1927. At the district registrar's office, Mosman, on 7 April 1926 he married 38-year-old Muriel Beatrice Gray, daughter of J. G. Appel; she had two daughters from her previous marriage. From 1929 the Ervins lived at Glanworth, Darling Point, until moving in 1946 to the Astor flats, Macquarie Street. Influenced by the artists of Sirius Cove, as early as 1905 Ervin had purchased works from Charles Conder, J. J. Hilder, Norman Lindsay, Sydney Long, H. S. Power, Tom Roberts and (Sir) Arthur Streeton. For most of his life he bought and sold paintings, antique furniture, porcelain, bronzes and other works of art.

In World War II Ervin was a senior appraiser under the United Kingdom Wool Purchase Arrangement. His firm benefited from the wool boom in the 1950s: because he worked on a commission basis, his personal income increased with the rise in wool prices. He retired shortly before H.G.F. collapsed due to its losses in the Belgian Congo.

When legislation was passed in the 1960s to allow taxation exemption for cultural gifts to the nation, Ervin became a substantial benefactor. In 1962 he gave his collection of paintings (later valued at about £200,000) to the Commonwealth of Australia to encourage the government to erect a national art gallery. He donated $50,000 to the New South Wales branch of the National Trust of Australia in 1971 to purchase Lindsay's home at Springwood. Influenced by his offer to donate $200,000 to restore two buildings at Observatory Hill as an art gallery and museum, in 1974 the State government made the former Fort Street Girls' High School available to the National Trust for headquarters. Ervin was deeply concerned about the protection and presentation of Australia's heritage; he bought works of art, donated them to the S. H. Ervin gallery and established a fund for future purchases.

A dapper little man with a charming smile, Ervin mostly dressed in a grey suit and bow tie. He was shy and reserved, and often walked by himself in the Royal Botanic Gardens. Predeceased by his wife and stepdaughters, he died on 29 October 1977 at the Astor and was cremated. He bequeathed the residue of his estate to the National Trust, bringing his total donations to about $1.25 million. A portrait of Ervin by Sir William Dargie is in the Queensland Art Gallery and one by Reginald Campbell in the S. H. Ervin Museum and Art Gallery, Observatory Hill, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • S. H. Ervin Memorial Exhibition, 18th May - 29th July 1979, exhibition catalogue (Syd, 1979?)
  • National Trust Quarterly, Oct 1992
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Dec 1962, 5 Nov 1977
  • North Shore Times, 8 Mar 1978
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 4 June 1978
  • National Trust of Australia (New South Wales) and S. H. Ervin Museum and Art Gallery Archives (Sydney)
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Jillian Oppenheimer, 'Ervin, Samuel Henry (Harry) (1881–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 28 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Rohde, Samuel

21 January, 1881
Monkland, Queensland, Australia


29 October, 1977 (aged 96)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.