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A Life by Design: The Art & Lives of Florence Broadhurst

A book extract from A Life By Design: The Art & Lives of Florence Broadhurst by Siobhan O’Brien, (Allen & Unwin). Following is the first chapter from A Life By Design, a book I penned in 2004. One of the reasons I adore Florence Broadhurst so much is that she had such a flair for fashion and in some ways reminds me of my very stylish mother. In fact, I dedicated the book to my mum, the original style queen. This extract might whet your appetite for more. It’s a pretty captivating/compelling story, no matter who wrote it! If you want a copy click here.

MURDER > 1977
“My success is the fact that my wallpapers have now become a status symbol,” Florence Broadhurst, Personalisation Pays Off, speech 1976.

It was just after the close of business, on Saturday, October 15, 1977, when Florence Maud Broadhurst cast an eye over her studio-factory on Royalston Street in Sydney’s Paddington. Since arriving at around 8:45am that morning, the studio had been a hive of activity: employees washing print-screens; mixing paint, checking colours; and drawing designs before printing them on 14-metre long tables that filled the lower level of the factory; the telephone had not stopped ringing and a constant stream of clients added to the chaos – three of them were still upstairs rifling through the shelves bursting with 6,000 designs in her upstairs office. Most of her employees had left for the day, but her head printer David Bond and Albert Roberts, a cleaner and silk-screen printer – cleaned the shelves and swept the kaleidoscope coloured floor. From nearby Trumper Park, the sound of children could be heard, as they kicked a football from end to end.

It had been a savvy business decision to move to the fashionable suburb of Paddington in 1969, from the more industrial Crows Nest. She could have done it sooner. Paddington was a cosmopolitan suburb where Florence felt more in touch with ‘her people’ as she liked to call her clients, friends and acquaintances that were attracted to the heady world of art, design and fashion. Since the early sixties, Paddington – that was more Jazz than Rock and Roll – had morphed into a cheek-by-jowl hot spot for middle class Bohemia and left wing idealists. It was multi cultural, full of suburban escapees, with streets lined with boutiques, showrooms, galleries, wine bars and delicatessens run by Greeks and Italians that were still doing brisk business late into the evening. Artists such as Margaret Olley, Donald Friend and Jeffrey Smart were also attracted to the buzz and culture of the area; while The Hungry Horse Gallery and Restaurant provided a platform for Brett Whiteley, Robert Hughes, John Olsen, Robert Klippel, Clement Meadmore and the like. Writers such as Mungo MacCallum, Cyril Pearl and Annette Macarthur-Onslow were also working behind the doors of smart 1930s terraces, where fancy dress parties and partner swapping was the norm.

The façade of Florence’s studio-factory didn’t look much from the street. All that differentiated it from the brick terraces and factory buildings that surrounded it, was a colourful awning with a scalloped edge that sat like a hood above the main front door. The design on the awning, that was printed by Nerissa Greenwood, an employee of Florence’s between 1967 and 1970, featured large, bold flowers on a plain, white background. On either side of the front door, large black plaques read: ‘Florence Broadhurst. London – New York – Hawaii.’ Underneath each of these of these plaques camellias stood in large white pots that matched the colour of the building. Other than these minor embellishments to the façade, the studio-factory was just a two-storey cement block building with a saw-toothed roof. Inside it was something else altogether.

Florence had come a long way in the twenty years since she set up her wallpaper business in 1959. Little did she know back then that designing, printing and producing custom designed wallpaper could be so profitable and so fun. Not only was she well established socially and financially, she had a loyal and influential clientele and exported her wallpapers to London, New York, Hawaii, Paris, Kuwait, Madrid and Oslo. Her international commissions included designs for Qantas, a chain of hotels in Saudi Arabia and wallpaper for Estee Lauder cosmetics. According to Maggie Tabberer “anyone who was anyone decorated their homes with one of her designs.”

Even though the “indefatigable Churchillian dynamo” as her ex-husband Leonard Lloyd Lewis called her, was 78 years old, she still walked to work every morning from her nearby home at Belgravia Gardens, Darling Point. And when she wasn’t walking, she was catching taxis to a relentless round of charity and social functions. Leslie Walford, an interior designer who knew Florence for twenty years remembers her as “…as a dynamic, determined character who worked very, very hard.” According to Florence, “There is no substitute for hard work, whether you are an artist or in business…you must get down to an exacting schedule and fulfil your obligations. You have to work hard to be successful.” (Thompson, 1971) As she noted in her diary while living in London in the 1930s: “The difference between stepping-stones and stumbling blocks is how you use them.”

Florence retained the bird-like beauty of her youth. According to ex-husband Leonard, “People disbelieved her age. She hoodwinked them for years. Most felt she was around 18 years younger. Few really knew she was 78.” But the vigour and healthy appearance was a mask for her failing health. She was hard of hearing and nearly blind from cataracts creeping over her eyes. It is even probable that her inability to see well contributed to her passion for exaggerated colours – lime green, hot pink, bright sapphire blue, fluorescent yellow, gold, bronze and copper.

In the preceding ten years, her glamorous good looks had been replaced with glitzy artifice. She now donned wigs, had facelifts, fluttered false eyelashes, pancaked her makeup, and wore large gold earrings combined with strategically placed red hair, hid hearing aids. Ex-employee Nerida Greenwood, claims Florence often called on her workers to ‘run repairs’ which meant to stick her eyelashes back on if they had come adrift or to rouge her cheeks where the makeup had rubbed off. Or as Florence’s sister Priscilla once remarked: “If she has another facelift she won’t have any eyebrows left.”

On the morning of her murder, Saturday, October 15, 1977, Florence walked to work along her usual route – past cafés, corner stores and newspaper stands as cars, buses and trams rattled past. She had entertained clientele in her showroom the previous evening – one of her many fun, spontaneous parties that were favourably reported in the press. When she arrived at the studio-factory, Florence (who wore a pant-suit and an unusually sedate cream blouse and black cardigan) had a chat with David Bond and Albert Roberts who were busy printing wallpaper on the lower level. About an hour later, Florence retreated to the upstairs showroom where she cleaned up a bit, did some bookwork, made a few phone calls and waited for a barrage of clients.

At 6:20am that morning, David Bond and Albert Roberts had arrived at work accompanied by ex-employee Richard Gill. According to David, Richard Gill lingered in the studio-factory for a short time before he left. At midday David joined Richard at the nearby Four in Hand pub where the two friends had lunch and it was shortly after 1pm when David returned to work. At 2pm Florence asked David to prepare a sample for clients who he described in his statement to police as ‘a middle-aged Jewish couple with a bluey-silver coloured poodle’.

When David finished preparing the sample, he took it upstairs where Florence waited with her clients. Florence allegedly mumbled that she did not want to waste time with Jewish couple as she was hoping to ‘get a good sale’ from the other clients who were also waiting nearby.

At 2:35pm, David Bond and Albert Roberts changed out of their paint bespattered overalls and into some casual attire before they walked upstairs to collect their pay. According to David, it was customary for employees at Florence

Broadhurst Wallpapers to get paid a weekly wage on Friday afternoon and ‘any employee who is required to work on a Saturday gets paid in cash by Miss Broadhurst.’ As the two weary workers waited for Florence at the entrance of the showroom, three customers rifled through samples of wallpaper: a solid 5’10’ man who wore a green short sleeved shirt, his female companion, a brunette who wore her hair closely cropped, and a woman in her late forties who wore a fashionable one piece pant suit. When Florence spotted David, she allegedly said, ‘this is my head printer, you’ll have to excuse me as I have to pay him.’

Florence then walked to her desk, produced a beige wallet from the depths of a large black handbag and handed the men their money. ‘I know what I’m printing on Monday, so I have no worries,’ David said as he turned to leave. To which Florence replied, ‘you know what you’re doing David.’

After a long day at work, the two men sauntered over to the Whitehall Hotel on New South Head Road for a couple of beers. David claims he left the studio-factory directly after he received his pay check, but his fellow employee allegedly returned to lock the two rear double doors. Albert later joined David at
the hotel.

When the last of her clients left at approximately 3.30pm, Florence adjourned to the staff lunchroom, which was thinly veiled from the office and showroom by a curtain. It was a small space with a stainless steel sink, electric stove, built-in floor cupboards, separate shower recess and two toilets with hand basins. She opened the fridge and selected a carton of yoghurt, before swallowing a few spoonfuls and nibbling on some segments of an orange. She left the uneaten portions on the sink. About ten minutes later, her neighbour
Wendy Soan who lived at 27 Royalston Street, noticed Florence on the first floor, closing a window and pulling down the blinds. According to Wendy, “I knew that it was Miss Broadhurst because I could see her bright red hair, and she was wearing a black jumper with long sleeves. It also led me to believe it was Miss
Broadhurst as it was her usual duty or practice to close all the windows and blinds before she leaves.”

Even though Florence wore hearing aids, she was still hard of hearing. So, as she cleaned up after the remnants of her afternoon tea, she had no idea that an intruder had snuck in under the awning and through the front door downstairs. As he walked past the fourteen metre long printing tables that were a tangle of screens and paint pots, he picked up a piece of timber that was allegedly used to stir the pot of vinyl coating that Florence applied to her wallpapers. The piece of timber was freshly sawn at one end. He climbed the stairs that led to her office and confronted Florence in the kitchenette. The fight was vicious. As her ex-husband Leonard explained in an interview that he gave to the Australian Women’s Weekly shortly after he death, ‘she was not one to be intimidated, and confronted by an intruder it would not be Florence’s nature to be meek, but rather the opposite. Her determination may have contributed to her death.’ Interior designer Leslie Walford agrees with this sentiment, ‘Her killer would have had a hard time, because Florence would’ve attacked them, verbally at least.’

But, even though her spirit was strong, Florence was overpowered in the struggle. She dropped a tea towel, lost her dentures, both her hearing aids and a gold earring. The intruder chased her to the washroom, then to the kitchenette and finally back to the toilet that was connected to the washroom. He bludgeoned her face repeatedly with the piece of timber, before he struck her hard on the back of the head. Next, he grabbed her by the neck, smashed her face into the wall and then lifted her entire body off the floor and rammed her against the wall two metres above the toilet. He broke her sternum, her nose, the thyroid bone in her throat and her right eye socket, pushed her clothes into the toilet bowl to act as a plug, shoved her head in and pulled the chain. Fragments of blood stained wood lay scattered on the saturated carpet. Bloodstains were sprayed across the toilet wall and behind the door. Florence lay lifeless on the toilet’s rim. Her killer knew his way around well enough to escape by the rear doors (which he unlocked before he placed bricks against them to ensure they could not be pushed opened) and, with a key kept on a nail by the door jam, he unlocked a padlock holding a chain on the rear gate of the factory. He locked the padlock from the outside and took the key with him.

At 4:15pm Sue Christine McCarthy, and her mother and sister, pulled up in a red Fiat out the front of Florence Broadhurst Wallpapers on Royalston Street. They wanted to purchase wallpaper. The three women walked in through the front door that had been left ajar and climbed the stairs to the first floor. They waited for a few minutes and went downstairs to the lower level. They called out several times. There was no answer, so they returned to the first floor where they called out again. Sue walked into the kitchenette. The door to the washroom was closed. She knocked on the door, but everything was still and silent. She did not see the hearing aid on the floor nearby. At 4:30pm, Sue and her family left. It is probable that since Wendy Soan had seen Florence pull down the blinds at 3:40pm and it was now just over half and hour later, that the killer was hiding somewhere on the premises.

It was a murder that shocked Sydney’s society set. As Maggie Tabberer explains: “…Sydney felt like it had been run over by a steam train the morning we opened the papers and saw that Florence had died…”