In terms of Sydney mysteries, the death and life of Florence Broadhurst would be up there with the best of them.
Today, Florence is remembered as a flamboyant Sydney designer and socialite, creator of beautiful wallpaper designs that defined style in 1960s and 1970s Sydney. Sadly she is also remembered for her untimely and brutal death-murdered in her studio in Paddington in 1977.
What is maybe not so well known are the many guises she took on over her life, changing styles, names and countries as she pursued her goals.
Florence was actually born in south-east Queensland on a cattle station, growing up in the small cottage allocated her father who was manager. Learning to sew, play tennis and sing, Florence took her first steps into public life in 1918 as a 19 year old singer at a fundraiser for soldiers in Bundaberg.
In 1922 she left Australia with the musical group the Globe Trotters, touring Asia under the name Bobby Broadhurst, a nickname the troupe had given her. The tour through colonial Asia lasted 15 months, visiting Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Calcutta, Delhi, Karachi, Shanghai, Tientsin and Peking. The tour let Florence leave south east Queensland far behind. The beautiful young dancer, with short bobbed hair and flapper style was rumoured to have been romantic with an Anglo-Indian raj, amongst other things.
Florence stayed in Asia until 1927, first playing in Shanghai’s hottest clubs and later opening a dance and music school, teaching the rich party scene all the new dances coming out of Europe and America. She was particularly known for her Charleston lessons. But by early 1927, the Shanghai scene was on the way down, and after a brief return to Australia, she headed to London.
In London Broadhurst, after marrying and working in upper class fashion houses, set herself up as a French couturier, Madame Pellier designing and selling the latest in European fashions. Claiming to be dressmakers to the royal court, Broadhurst built a strong business dressing London’s theatre and musical scene. She stayed in London through the war, returning to Australia with her husband and young son in 1949, moving to Manly where she established herself as a landscape artist. She had taken a 3 month painting trip, heading back to her father’s Queensland property (he had moved up in the grazier world) for inspiration.
Broadhurst painted and exhibited in Sydney, at the same time filling in her European backstory claiming to be English and a former concert singer in London and Paris. Her artistic career didn’t last, she wasn’t that good. Instead she moved on to public speaking and being a socialite. Meeting the Queen Mother in 1958, Broadhurst allowed the story of her English background to grow and claimed to have met the Queen Mother on a number of occasions.
In the late 1950s, in a complete change of direction, Broadhurst and her now ex-husband went into business together running a trucking company. Starting with eight lorries, they built up a large transport venture. With the money from the business, Florence established a wallpaper factory in 1959, called Australian (Hand Printed) Wallpapers.
It was the wallpaper that made her name in Sydney more than anything else. Initially the business was run out of a shed at the rear of her trucking business, a business that did not fit easily with her socialite personality. She started it with John Lang, a 18 year old artist who rented the shed, and hit the market just as wallpaper was becoming the next big thing. Thousands of new houses needed covering, and cheap, bright designs caught the imagination. Broadhurst poured her imagination and world experience into her designs. Her years in Asia shone through.
In 1969 she opened a new factory and studio in Paddington, operating as Florence Broadhurst Wallpapers. By now her designs were highly prized and her flaming red hair and wild personal style set her apart in the otherwise conservative Sydney scene. Her papers donned the walls of the State Theatre, Grace Brothers, David Jones and later the Centrepoint Tower. Her business had also gone international, with wallpaper in the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, as well as selling in London, New York and the Middle East. By 1972 she claimed to have over 800 designs. Although, as her eyesight was failing it is not absolutely certain she designed everything she claimed.
It was all going so well.
Then in October 1977, on a Saturday, someone came into the factory after the workers had left. Florence was eating a snack upstairs in her studio, where she was later found brutally murdered by person unknown. Two of her diamond rings were stolen, but not much else.
Her death broke the business and her designs faded from memory until almost 20 years later. A retro revival saw her prints resurrected through a new company, Signature Prints. Once again Florence’s designs went international and jumped off the wall into fabrics, clothes, linen, carpets and even furniture.
And so she lives on.
PS: It is her birthday tomorrow, 28 July. Happy Birthday Florence.