Florence Sulman and her ties to Abbotsleigh

By Julie Daly Abbotsleigh Archivist (2001-2022) May 23, 2023

Abbotsleigh has had a lovely and early association with the celebrated Sulman family. Florence Sulman and her brother Arthur attended Abbotsleigh in our earliest years. Born in England in 1876, Florence arrived in Australia in 1886 and completed her schooling at Abbotsleigh when it was located at Parramatta.



Florence’s brother, Arthur, holds an interesting position in Abbotsleigh’s history. One of the 12 boys we have listed in our student database as having attended Abbotsleigh in our earliest years, he also features in one of our iconic photographs, the Kindergarten photograph taken in front of our Parramatta building in 1891.

In this photograph (above) Marian Clarke is seated at the back with Arthur Sulman directly in front of her. The little girl wearing the hat and standing next to Miss Clarke is Githa Shepherd Smith – her father, Shepherd Smith, was the General Manager of the Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac), of which John Sulman was the architect of many of their branches.

Father of Florence, Sir John Sulman, was knighted in 1924 for his role as Chairman of the Federal Capital Advisory Committee.  His name is also aligned with artistic endeavours through the Sulman Prize, established in 1936 and awarded for the best subject painting, genre painting or mural project by an Australian artist. This Prize was established with an endowment from Arthur and Florence Sulman following their father’s death.

Florence’s links to Abbotsleigh extend in several ways. In 1914 she wrote two volumes entitled A Popular Guide to the Wild Flowers of New South Wales. Florence’s love of wildflowers was likely inspired by her stepmother Annie (née Masefield) who was a keen photographer who published her own collections of Australian wildflower studies.

Florence’s books on wildflowers were illustrated by Eirene Mort, who was an art teacher at Abbotsleigh. Eirene was a founder-member of the Society of Arts and Crafts of NSW and a founder of the Australian Guild of Handicrafts. Florence was an active member of these organisations and a lifelong supporter of Australian design.

World War I saw Florence travel to England, where she found work teaching wounded men embroidery – the men would embroider replicas of their regimental badges and decorate cross-stitch belts. This then turned into Florence designing over 250 patterns for use in over a dozen British convalescent hospitals. Marian Clarke (Florence’s old Headmistress) and her sister Emily (who had taught French at Abbotsleigh) also volunteered in hospitals in Britain and used the designs created by Florence.

Upon her return to Australia in 1917, Florence became heavily involved in art and design again, becoming the President of the Arts and Crafts Society, and reignited an early passion for children’s welfare. She devoted herself to the establishment and development of the Kindergarten Union, the aim of which was to create free kindergartens in Sydney’s inner-city. This program was greatly supported by the Abbotsleigh Old Girls’ Union (of which Florence was an early member).

In 1958 Florence was awarded an MBE for her services to child welfare. Florence died in 1965 having never married; Arthur Sulman died in 1971, his only son having been killed in action in Malaya during World War II.