From Ukraine to Wishing Well shelter at sandy beach of Manly

Have you ever been to Manly and walked along the Promenade?  And if you did, I am sure you have not paid an attention to the little house in the middle of the beach (Wishing Well shelter).  It has an Ukrainian connection dating back to 1920s.

The amazing and inspirational story of Ivan Ivanovich Suhomlin (incorrectly spelt Suchomlin) started on 20th January 1886 in a small village Kozeevka in Kharkovskaya gubernia, Imperial Russia.  His parents were Ivan Suhomlin and Matryona Bolotnenko and he had at least one older brother Stepan.   His brother was born in 1877 in village Bogoduhov Kharkov gubernia which is 22 verst from Kozeevka.

John Suchomlin. Courtesy Manly Library
John Suchomlin. Courtesy Manly Library

Was he from a peasant family or had some merchant roots it is hard to say.  Australian newspapers give some clues to his early life in Russia.  One article claims that he finished his education early but by the time of the First Revolution in 1905 he was politically involved and had to flee Russia for safety.  He was 19 at that time.

The fate took him to Germany where he worked at leather works and studied art in his free time.

He escaped to Germany, and over the next few years Suchomlin worked as a seaman on trips to Argentina and Africa, then in a leather work factory in Germany whilst undertaking art studies. Then the Russian authorities detained him and he served two years on a Russian Navy warship. He stowed away again, and returned to Germany. Eventually he worked his passage as a seaman on a German ship bound for Australia, arriving in Adelaide in 1911.

Ivan’s own recollection of this time is described in The Mirror article dated March 1928:

”He served in the Russian Navy, and becoming associated with the revolutionary movement, was obliged to fly into France”.

Ivan arrived to Adelaide, South Australia, on SS Solinger in 1911 and jumped the ship.  His Naturalisation record states that he was at sea for 7 years, more likely hiding from Russian authorities.

This might be also a reason why he did not became an Anzac.  He does not appear in Russian ANZACs database.  However, he showed the support.  His name appears in the list of members of the Public Service departments who subscribed to the South Australian Soldiers Fund in 1915.

First few years Ivan could not find himself in Australia.  He worked few months at Hope Valley and Port Pirie smelters and at Waterworks department in Adelaide.

By early 1920s he is known as John Suchomlin and is married to Elsie Daisy Mattingley, a daughter of Norwood Council Mayor, and has two sons, born 1920 and 1923.

“‘Early in his life, he says he felt the call of art. …..He went to Germany, and there studied as best he could, earning: the money for his tuition in any employment that offered. He studied clay modelling and portrait painting”, The Mirror 17 March 1928

John resumes his art studies and subsequently opens his own studio in Adelaide.  His first attempt in showing of his art in Australia was in November 1922 in Annual Federal Art Exhibition in SA with a painting of the girl sitting in a chair.

Sand modeling

suchomlin 3John’s obsession with sand sculptures started in 1925 while playing in sand with his child at Brighton beach in Melbourne.  His first models were done at Coogee and Bondi beaches but “they say no need'” to pay the fees to do sculptures in Manly and John relocated to Manly where he molded the themes from the Old and New Testaments, bathing beauties, mermaids and famous visitors to Manly by using sand, water, paint and the kalsomine color wash to add hardness to the sculptures.  He charged a small admission fee to view the works and sold photographic postcards but this was not enough to support the family of four during the Depression times.

So during the Australian winter of 1929 John successfully visited USA and then in July 1931 London where he did sand modeling at the Bournemouth beach.  In 1937/38 John took an extended 18 months travel overseas to New York.  Thousands of people came to see his extraordinary art.

”Exceptional skill is shown in the life-size figures and the detail work. ….The attitude of his life size figures, the features, the folds, and the stitches in the clothing, the hands and feet, the light and shade exhibit refinement in art. He has no copy, not even a rough sketch….. It must be in the mental make-up that can visualise form, and estimate the subject treatment before starting the work.”, The Mail 16 February 1929. 

The Wishing Well shelter

wishing well shelterEach sculpture done by John would take on average 2 weeks to make.  The most ambitious and famous – The Pinch of Poverty – took him 6 weeks to make.  And no wonder that a special care was required in safe guarding these sculptures.  At night John would enclose the sculptures by wire but how can you compete with whether and larrikin, who would damage the sculptures at night.

Thus in 1929 at Suchomlin’s request Manly Council erected a shelter.  It became known as Wishing Well shelter and was used by John for several years as a sand sculpture ‘gallery’.  Today the refurbished shelter shows of the productions of some of Suchomlin’s works.

Never too late to study

In the 1950s John sand modeled near Brisbane and, in the early 1960s near Coffs Harbour.  But he was getting older. The age did not stop him enjoying life.  There is a saying that it is never too late to start something new.  John did exactly that in early 1950s.  He became a meteorologist.

‘”A Russian – born, 60 year-old student of meteorology, Mr. Suchomlin claims he can, with his unique meteorological instruments,  forecast and pinpoint the clash of electromagnetic rays above the earth and the size of the collision. “, Truth 28 November 1954

 John retired in early 1970s to Queensland where he suffered a stroke in 1973, and died in 1974.

Search in Russian archives

Since we know the exact and day of birth for John and his brother the request to Kharkov archives is a must.  There is no guarantee that any metrical records and especially for the years we need survived.  The archive is in the best position to advise the information they have.

Using the fact that brothers were politically involved ( Stepan was also under Australian police investigation) I checked the electronic database maintained by the State Archive of Russian Federation.  This archive has the Police records of Imperial Russia.  To my surprise I have located the file for Stepan Suhomlin in Fund 102 (Department of Police of Ministry of Internal Affairs), inventory 203, Year 1906.  This might shed some light into the family history.


Collection of 59 photographs of sculptures –

Naturalisation record in National archives of Australia – John Suchomlin Naturalization, NAA: A1, 1913/17135

See Morcombe, John “John Suchomlin, Sand Sculptor” in New South Wales Postcard Collectors’ Society Bulletin, no. 74, September 1997, and no 75, December 1997.


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