In a lengthy interview in 1899, the famous Tasmanian soprano Amy Sherwin spoke of how the family’s precious piano escaped a bush fire during her childhood.
‘…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 home. Even in that position it did not escape, and the charred old instrument is still treasured in my Tasmanian home as an instance of our devotion to the divine art.’ (Referee, March 22 1899).
The piano had been brought out from England by Amy’s maternal grandfather, William Dean and then passed to her mother Elisabeth, William’s eldest daughter, who married George Sherwin.
By 1934 an aging Amy Sherwin was in severely reduced circumstances. There were several contributing factors; the Great Depression, her self-confessed ‘bad management’ of her affairs, and the serious illness of both herself and her beloved daughter Jeanette (Bobbie). Bobbie was dying from tuberculosis.
When word of the situation reached Tasmania, a fund was established to assist. The old piano was borrowed from the family and exhibited at a money raising concert held at the Town Hall. Visiting English pianist and composer Mr Yelland Richards gave it a try-out.
As a piece in The Mercury explained, the fire damage was still vey much in evidence.
‘Two of its legs still bear the scars of this experience, and one end of the underneath portion is also charred and marked.’
Amy was so appreciative of the help she received. It provided peace of mind in her last days. She died on September 20 1935, and her daughter just twelve months later.
TRACKING THE PIANO
When Amy left for England to pursue her singing career the piano was passed on to her uncle, Mr Johnson Dean. His daughter Lucy learned to play on it, and subsequently it moved to Lucy’s own home when she married Samuel Watson. The Watson’s had one child, a daughter they named Dean Elizabeth. Dean Watson never married, and lived in the family home at 110 Burnett Street, North Hobart (now Mary Street) until she died in 2005, aged 93.
It’s at this point that we lose track of the ‘Amy Sherwin’ piano. Dean Watson left her considerable estate to charity, but the fate of the household furniture is unknown. Pianos have lost their appeal, and even those in good condition are now almost impossible to sell. If those administering the estate were unaware of the instrument’s significance it may well have been discarded.
Let’s be positive, and hope that this piece of Tasmanian social history is still intact and cherished by someone.