Frances Amy Sherwin (1855-1935) was one of five children, born and raised in Tasmania’s Huon Valley. Even as a child she had a lovely voice, and dreamed of becoming a famous singer. This seemed highly unlikely, as the family struggled to make a living on a remote farm. Amy, as she was known, would wander down to the paddock closest to the road and sing her heart out. She later confessed that she hoped a passerby would hear, and carry her off to stardom. In an autobiographical piece she wrote;
‘It was not until my tenth year that I had any lessons, except in the way of home teaching. Then a great treat came into my life in the person of Mr Russell, a dear old music teacher……..In order to take these lessons I had to get up at four in the morning and ride or drive along a difficult bush track for eight miles.’
However, the Sherwins did possess a treasured piano;
‘The care we lavished on our piano was in the eyes of our neighbours in the bush, only another instance of the quips and cracks of the ‘Mad Sherwins’. I well remember one scorching summer day, when our homestead and all the country round was suddenly enveloped in a fierce bush fire. It was washing-day, and I have heard my mother say that the tubs were charred to a cinder and crumbled at a touch, but that the damp clothes inside remained in intact, white heaps. But it was to the piano we devoted all our energies at this domestic crisis. It was covered with wet blankets and dragged to an island of shingle in the middle of the Huon River, that ran near our house. Even in that position it did not escape, and the charred old instrument is still treasured in my Tasmanian home…’
As she grew up, Amy performed locally in concerts and musicals. Amazingly, in 1878 her childhood dream came true. The story went that members of the Pompei and Cagli Italian Opera Company were picnicking near her home and were impressed when they heard her singing. Now the picnicking part sounds a little unlikely to me , but never mind. She accepted an invitation to join the company, and made her professional debut at Hobart’s Theatre Royal. That same year she married Hugh Gorlitz, a German businessman with interests in Australia.
Before long Amy was thrilling audiences in Melbourne, Ballarat and Sydney. She was dubbed The Tasmanian Nightingale. It was not all glamour, as touring could be hazardous in those days. On one occasion, when the singer and her entourage were in the middle of nowhere, the leather on the coach’s brake failed during a steep descent. When it was finally brought to a halt it was Amy who came up with a solution, which was to use her boots as replacement leather on the brake.
Amy Sherwin travelled the world, but made her home in England. The family settled in a lovely property at Hampstead, where Amy gave concerts in the vast music room. The property was once targeted by burglars, and judging by a report in The Evening News (October 24 1895), they certainly made themselves at home;
Mme. Amy Sherwin’s house has been burgled, everything of value taken, everything else broken. The family were at the seaside. The thieves cooked supper in the kitchen, and made a dark lantern of Mr. Gorlitz’s new silk hat. The candle fell over, and the hat, as a hat, is a hat no more.
In 1897/8 Amy returned to Tasmania as an international star. In Hobart, a group of admirers unharnessed the horses from her coach and drew her through the streets themselves. At a homecoming concert in the Theatre Royal the encore song was, of course, Home Sweet Home. The ‘Nightingale’ reportedly only made it through the first verse before becoming too emotional to continue. During the visit there were horrendous bush fires;
January 6 1898 – Amy Sherwin, the famous singer had a narrow escape from being seriously injured by the fire blast which came roaring down the valley from Mount Wellington. The drive had to be made through blinding smoke and almost unbearable heat to the Picnic Hotel.
The hotel was in Huonville. By this time the roads were impassable and Madame Sherwin’s party had to return to Hobart by steamer.
By 1907 Amy was living in Kent, but also kept a suite of rooms above her music studio in London’s Bond Street. She became a singing teacher. It was at this time that The Tasmanian Nightingale made her final visit to her old home. A journalist with Launceston’s Daily Telegraph attended a concert in Launceston;
Amy Sherwin has worn remarkably well. Perhaps her temperament and continual change of scene has something to do with it. The voice of today is the same old sweet one, with intense culture added. There was no straining after effect, none of those difficult trills and excursions into the attics which vocalists of the De Mursca type are so fond of. One did not make oneself known to her. Musical stars as a rule have not much time to waste talking of days that are gone. This is a moving-on age, and Amy Sherwin and the writer have to keep going.
Sadly, Amy was eventually forced to give up work completely. She spent her time caring for her actress daughter Bobbie, who was suffering from tuberculosis. Adding to her troubles, Amy and her husband separated,
Never wise at managing money, Madame Sherwin eventually fell into poverty. She moved to a small cottage in Essex, but as she was ineligible for an aged pension she struggled to cover the rent. In 1934 she became ill herself, and was unable to pay for her care.
In a charity ward at London’s Charing Cross Hospital, doctors and nurses were struck by the sound of a beautiful soprano voice. It was the almost eighty year old Amy; down on her luck, but still singing like a nightingale.
When news of Amy’s sad situation reached Tasmania a public fund was set up. Despite the difficult economic times of the 1930s, two hundred pounds was raised and forwarded to London. The singer expressed her appreciation in a letter to the Mayor of Hobart;
‘I must crave your indulgence for not having acknowledged before the last generous help sent by you on behalf of the kind friends who have so warm-heartedly aided me in my desperate plight, caused by my darling daughter’s sad state of health. As it happened, the kind donation, final instalment, sent by you, arrived on the eve of my being admitted to hospital as above for treatment, and which was too costly for me to obtain otherwise.
I hope to be out of hospital in a week or 10 days, but I cannot wait till then to thank you all for your warm-hearted practical help in my disaster, and I send off this message from my sick bed- hoping you will pass round the fact that I am most deeply touched, and would write more fully but that circumstances prohibit a longer letter.’
Those ‘circumstances’ were that she was just too frail. Amy died the following year. He daughter Jeanette only survived a further twelve months. Son Louis died in America in 1978.
Madame Sherwin is remembered by a plaque on the wall of Hobart’s historic Theatre Royal;
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