Meet the Locals – Florence Ethel Scapens

Introducing Little Florrie - Christchurch's child violinist

A gem from the church registers is the baptism entry for Florence Ethel Scapens who found fame as a musical child prodigy. Florence was baptised at St Matthew's St Albans in August 1895, her parents were Bristol-born John (Jack) Scapens and London-born Kate Sharp. 

Jack and Kate married in Victoria in 1894 before coming to Christchurch. A son, Francis John, was born in 1897.

Kate, an accomplished pianoforte teacher, advertised for pupils in 1897, "visited or received", for a fee of 15s quarterly. With a musical mother, Florence probably had to take up an instrument, and so she learnt the violin. In 1901, aged just 5, she appeared with Philip Newbury and Madam Spada at the Choral Hall, opens a new window and performed a violin solo.

The Scapens family briefly moved back to Melbourne in 1901, opens a new window, but by January 1902 Florrie was touring Taranaki, opens a new window. Described in the Wanganui Chronicle, opens a new window as "An infant genius" Florrie's repertoire included Il Trovatore and Chanson Polonaise. Studying under Freda Marsden, opens a new window, Florence by age 12 was ready to spread her wings. A fundraising concert at The Alexandra Hall was arranged in October 1907, opens a new window to raise money for Florence to study in Europe.

Florence, her brother and parents were living in Whetstone, North London in 1911 but returned to New Zealand with the outbreak of war in 1914. During this period Florence studied with Signor di Grassi and Marcel Bonnemain., opens a new window

In 1915 Florrie ditched the decidedly less than artistic surname of Scapens and adopted the infinitely more exotic Scapini. She performed in Melbourne the same year to glowing reviews., opens a new window

Back in Christchurch the good reviews continued, described as "winsome and dainty", opens a new window and "very charming to look upon, opens a new window" (sexist much?), thankfully the Press music critic also noted " her execution is well advanced, effortless and clean" and the Canterbury Times stated that "her staccato work was light and dainty". Among Florence's local performances was a turn leading the orchestra at the opening of the Liberty Theatre (later renamed the Savoy) in Cathedral Square.

In 1918 Florence travelled to Los Angeles via Vancouver to study under Gregor Cherniavsky, opens a new window, a brother of the Cherniavsky Trio, opens a new window who found some fame touring New Zealand during the early 1900s. She had plans to continue study in New York under the celebrated Professor Leopold Auer, opens a new window.

Florence remained in the United States for several years returning briefly in 1925 and again in 1933. Interviewed about her experiences in America, opens a new window, Florence spoke of the greater money-making opportunities in the US for musicians. She observed that " Americans are really very fond of music, as is shown by the support given to the big orchestras in the cities", she also praised the radio stations and the live music they produced.

Florence's father, Jack, died in London in 1927. Her brother, Francis, had meanwhile settled back in Christchurch, and he married Pearl Muriel Waldron in 1926 and started a family. As a young man he was a keen rower and later a cricketer. 

Florence settled back in New Zealand in the early 1940s, and lived with her mother at 78 Huxley Street, Sydenham.

Florence too married, although not much is known about the mysterious Mr Jensen. She continued to use both the surname Scapens and Scapini but was referred to as Mrs Florence Jensen on her death certificate, burial, and will and also in her mother's will. Kate Scapens had died in 1940 aged 80 and made her son, Francis, the executor of her will, and rather worryingly only made money available to Florence if she was judged to be of "sufficient mental strength and to have sufficient control of her faculties and powers to be able to manage and control her estate". Clearly all was not well with Florence.

Florence died at Christchurch Hospital on 30 October 1945, leaving only £230 in savings and a violin and piano valued at £120. She is buried in Ruru Lawn cemetery.