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Joan Hammond
White Hat
200 Significant Australians
Joan Hammond
White Hat
200 Significant Australians

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Dame Joan Hammond

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Dame Joan Hammond

Dame Joan Hilda Hood Hammond was born in Christchurch New Zealand on May 24, 1912.

The third born and only girl in a family of four the Hammond family moved to Sydney when Joan was six months old. She was educated at Morven Garden Primary School and Presbyterian Ladies College, Pymble, where she was a prefect and popular with both students and staff. Affectionately called ‘Ham’ and renowned for her sense of humour she excelled at all sports, particularly golf, and learnt violin and voice. She left PLC in 1928 and commenced at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music; her first subject was violin with singing second.

At age twelve Joan, feet on handlebars, had run her bicycle into a car sustaining an injury to her left arm which resulted in this arm being two inches shorter than the right. Although she pursued her first musical choice of violin, after playing for three years with the Sydney Philharmonic Orchestra, the pain in her arm finally forced her to concentrate on voice.

Joan Hammond’s ‘big break’ came when Lady Gowrie, the wife of the then Governor of New South Wales was impressed by her “peerless young voice”. Lady Gowrie was to become Dame Joan’s ‘Fairy Godmother’; this included rallying women golfers into raising money to send the young soprano to Vienna to study. In April 1936 Joan Hammond, aged almost twenty four, sailed for Europe.

On leaving Australia Joan, who had previously won the New South Wales Junior Golf Championship in 1929 and 1930, the NSW Ladies’ Golf Union title in 1932,34,35, was runner-up in the Australian Ladies’ Open in 1933, had the lowest golf handicap (2) of any women in Australia.

Through various circumstances Dame Joan was ‘marooned’ in Great Britain throughout World War two. It was then and there that Joan Hammond became known and popular. This was due to her singing to entertain the troops and others involved in the war effort, her many concert, recital and opera appearances, BBC broadcasts and the records she cut. One of the records she made Oh My Beloved Father became extremely popular earning her a Gold Record Award in 1969, the first opera record ever to do so.

Dame Joan claimed a repertoire of 40 roles from operas such as La Boheme, Aida, Madama Butterfly, Tosca and Salome to masses, oratorios and orchestral concert pieces.

Dame Joan was adventurous for her time, being the first British soprano ever invited to sing opera in Russian in Russia; as well as the British Isles, she sang in India, South Africa, Canada, USA, Cuba and other countries, often being the first opera singer to perform in that country.

She was rejected for army service due to her arm injury but was a voluntary ambulance driver in central London during the war years.

Dame Joan returned to Australia in 1946 for an ABC concert tour. She was overwhelmed with the publicity and fans. Unable to cope with the demands of this celebrity status when Lolita Marriott, a golfing friend, offered to travel with her as her Secretary/Manager Joan agreed. Thus commenced a companionship which was to last a lifetime. Lolita managed Joan’s financial and business affairs, arranged her publicity and dealt with Joan’s large fan club.

Joan continued living and singing in Britain until 1966 when, following several angina attacks, she gave up professional performing. Dame Joan sang in public for the last time at the funeral of Lady Gowrie on July 30, 1965, in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, the first women ever granted Royal permission to sing in that Chapel.

Joan and Lolita returned to Australia bringing with them Dame Joan’s Rolls Royce and her motor yacht Pankina. They built a seaside home at Aireys Inlet; fire destroyed the home in 1983 and Dame Joan lost all of her belongings and memorabilia.

Dame Joan was honoured on four occasions by the Queen with a Coronation Medal and OBE in 1953, CBE in 1963, CMG in 1972 and a Dame Commander (DBE) in 1974. The University of Western Australia awarded her an Honorary Doctorate of Music in 1979.

Dame Joan commenced teaching at the Victorian College of the Arts and, from 1976- 89, was Head of Voice and Vocal Consultant from 1990-93. She was also Artistic Director of the Victorian State Opera from 1971-76, a Board member of that organization and also the Victorian Council of the Arts.

Dame Joan’s first pupil at the VCA was well known New Zealand soprano Patricia Wright. Opera Australia and international opera singers Cheryl Barker and Peter Coleman- Wright are also past pupils of Dame Joan’s.

Estrees Walker, a long standing London friend of Dame Joan’s who had moved to Australia and lived with Joan and Lolita, died in 1992 and Lolita Marriott mid 1993.

The loss of her two great friends deeply affected Dame Joan who had developed diabetes in later years and was not able to effectively cope without them.

She moved to the Kenilworth Nursing Home in Bowral, New South Wales, where she lived until her death on November 26, 1996.

She is buried in the Bowral General Cemetery.

Opera diva, singing teacher, vocal coach, champion golfer, sailor, swimmer, sportswoman, animal lover, gardener, journalist, Dame Joan Hammond set high standards for both herself and those around her.

She was undoubtedly an outstanding woman and a great Australian.

Copyright Patricia J Armstrong-Grant 2008

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