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This blog post was first published on May 29 2011, and almost completely rewritten on May 28 2015.
Autumn is the traditional time of year for farm produce fairs, and on the last Sunday in May is held the Goomeri Pumpkin Festival. Goomeri is a small country town in southern Queensland; quiet and pleasant, it is known for its gourmet food industries.
The highlight of the Goomeri calendar is its Pumpkin Festival, in which they do almost everything to pumpkins, including eat them. There is the pumpkin shot-put, a pumpkin beer brewing competition, pumpkin judging contests, and the Great Australian Pumpkin Roll, in which up to 1000 pumpkins are rolled down Policeman’s Hill. There will of course be cooking demonstrations, food stalls, and all kinds of pumpkin-related culinary delights, including that old favourite, pumpkin scones.
When you see “pumpkin scones” and “Queensland” in the same paragraph, the name of only one person can come to mind – Florence Bjelke-Petersen. The widow of Queensland’s longest-serving Premier, Lady Florence Bjelke-Petersen has been a force in conservative politics, a part of Queensland history, and an Australian icon.
Florence was the wife of peanut farmer and Country Party member Johannes “Joh” Bjelke-Petersen, and after Joh became Premier of Queensland in 1968, Florence began to take on a bigger public role. The Queensland National Party increasingly promoted a Bjelke-Petersen “personality cult”, and Florence was a vital part of that.
Her down-to-earth sayings and common-sense attitudes became widely quoted by the media, and she published a cookbook which contained a recipe for her famous pumpkin scones. She was a Senator from 1981-1993; she worked for issues that affected Queensland and was popular with both sides of politics. When Joh Bjelke-Petersen was knighted in 1984, she became Lady Bjelke-Petersen – affectionately known as Lady Flo.
Lady Bjelke-Petersen is now in her nineties and still going strong. Although she no longer makes pumpkin scones, she reads the newspapers every day and has strong opinions on politics, as well as attending church every Sunday, and playing the organ each week for a local nursing home. In her youth, she always vowed she would be known by her full name, Florence, as she hated the short name Flo, but history intervened, and as often happens, she didn’t get much say in it.
Florence began as the medieval English form of the Latin name Florentius, from florens, “flowering, flourishing, prospering”. There are several saints named Florentius, with the earliest being a 3rd century Roman soldier who was martyred in Italy. Florence could also be used as a French form of the female name Florentia; St Florentia was a 4th century hermit who was martyred in France.
In the Middle Ages, Florence was used as a name for both males and females, but by the 16th century had become overwhelmingly feminine in usage. Its connection with “flowering”, and similarity to the female name Flora were probably responsible.
Although the name Florence was already in reasonable use, it received a huge boost in the mid nineteenth century because of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. Florence Nightingale came to prominence during the Crimean War of 1853-56, when she was hailed as a ministering angel, and called The Lady with the Lamp. It is notable that during the 1850s, the name Florence, which was steadily increasing in popularity at the time, suddenly skyrocketed, and continued rising for the rest of the century.
Florence Nightingale was born in the city of Florence, in Italy, and named after her birthplace. It was something of a family pattern, because her older sister, Frances Parthenope, was similarly named after the place of her birth, Parthenopolis, now part of Naples.
The city of Florence was established by the Romans, and originally namedFluentia, meaning “flowing” in Latin, because it was situated between two rivers – the Arno and the Greve. Later its name was corrupted to Florentia, meaning, as we already know, “flowering, flourishing”. Its new name suited it, because the city did indeed flourish and prosper, and by the 15th century was one of the largest and wealthiest cities of Europe. It is considered to be the birthplace of the Renaissance, and called “The Athens of the Middle Ages”; a beautiful city rich in history and culture, famous for its Renaissance art and architecture.
The name Florence was #5 in the 1900s, and fell until it left the Top 100 in the 1940s. It disappeared from the charts in the 1960s, making a minor comeback in the 1990s at #800, before dropping off the charts again in the early 2000s. In the late 2000s, Florence returned at #528 – this was the time that British indie band Florence + the Machine began its career, headed by flame-haired lead vocalist Florence Welch (Florence’s mother is a Professor of Renaissance Studies, so perhaps she was named with the Italian city in mind).
Since then, Florence has continued to rise, and is now in the 100s, almost certainly headed for the Top 100; it joined the New Zealand Top 100 in 2013. In the UK, Florence is even more popular, rising steadily through the 1990s to join the Top 100 in 2008, and is currently #29 and still rising. In the US, Florence hasn’t charted since the early 1980s; however the name is steadily rising, and last year 182 baby girls were given the name Florence.
Fashionable Florence is rising under the influence of British trends, and making friends everywhere – even people who profess to detest place names on people will forgivingly make an exception for Florence. As lovely as a Renaissance statue and as wholesome as pumpkin scones fresh from the oven, this retro name makes a stylish choice, and little wonder parents are eagerly snapping it up while it’s still hot.
(Photo of pumpkin scones from The Daily Telegraph)