JOHN McNAMEE reports
YOU’D think that after your father had been involved in the development of the world’s first computer in post-war Britain, you’d follow the same technological path.
But Karen Hickmott decided to follow her own destiny, vastly different to that of her brilliant pioneering parent.
There’s no doubt, Karen, 54, is a high achiever herself…she’s a multi-talented and versatile musician who has become a popular and much sought-after harpist in NSW.
Her father, Gordon “Tommy” Thomas completed his PhD at the UK’s Manchester University just after World War II and became part of the team which designed the Ferranti Mk1 and Mercury computers, nicknamed the “Baby” project, the world’s first commercial programmable computers.
“Dad’s now 93 and living in a care facility on the NSW Central Coast as is my Mum Polly. Dad was one of the pioneers of computer science and electrical engineering back in those early days and is still as sharp as a tack,” Karen says.
“My parents and I emigrated to Australia from Scotland in 1985 after Dad took up the post of foundation chief at the new CSIRO Division of Information Technology.”
When the family settled in Sydney, Karen, who has two older brothers, completed her business education, gaining a Bachelor of Commerce majoring in accounting at NSW University in 1990, qualified as a chartered accountant and earned a Graduate Diploma in Applied Finance and investment at the Securities Institute of Australia in 1995.
During her professional life, she forged a highly successful business career with such high-powered firms as Coopers & Lybrand where she met her husband, Peter, and at Bankers Trust.
They have two children, Ben, 20, and Claudia, 17, both of whom have significant special needs.
Apart from her busy family commitments, Karen, who is also a classically trained singer, plays flute and piano, and is now concentrating on her blossoming musical career. She’s also an award-winning active surf lifesaver doing regular patrols on her local beach and running an innovative Nippers program for children with additional needs.
“I started off thinking that I wanted to be an opera singer but continued my work as an accountant while I waited for my voice to mature. It meant I had something to fall back on as accounting was easy and the money was better.”
Later on, while on maternity leave from Bankers Trust, she was able to negotiate a retrenchment which allowed her to spend more time at home with the children.
“Over the years, I had played harp at all my friend’s and colleague’s weddings while also teaching harp so that kept me pretty busy,” Karen says.
Born in Scotland, she first started playing the clarsach – the Gaelic name for the celtic harp — as a nine-year-old in her native Edinburgh. Her formal education included six years at the famous 17th century George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh, a stately pile which became J.K. Rowling’s inspiration for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter chronicles.
These days she’s very much in demand, commuting from her Central Coast home playing her various highly valuable harps at weddings, funerals, milestone birthdays, commemorative services and various corporate occasions throughout NSW.
She’s also performed in a huge variety of venues from intimate lounge room gatherings to concert halls, for Christmas crowds in the city and also on the steps of the Sydney Opera House for an Australian Idol TV segment and even for royalty!
“It was in April 2014 when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were visiting Australia for the first time with their young son George and I was playing the harp at a special Easter service at Sydney’s St Andrew’s Cathedral,” Karen says.
“There I was with my harp in the middle of the cathedral playing the beautiful Te Deum with an ensemble of male choir, brass and organ, and there in the front pews were William and Kate. It was a pretty awesome occasion,” she laughs.
In recent years Karen has formed a duo called Harpe Diem with Sydney lyric soprano Cinzia Montresor and they are currently on a promotional schedule which includes making YouTube recordings in such stunning locations as the Clovelly Surf Lifesaving club and the historic Waverley Cemetery in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
“I’ve certainly helped celebrate all manner of life’s milestones from baby showers to 100th birthdays and pretty much everything in between,” she laughs.
“There have been many special weddings for example where the ring bearers have been a Clydesdale horse, various dogs and recently even some bunny rabbits in a carriage!
“There have also been some hairy moments, mercifully few, where I’ve had a string break, TWANG!, and I’ve had to wangle the broken one off and put a new one in between sets.”
She has four beautifully crafted harps, one richly curved in polished ivory wood and a 100-year-old iconic Lyon and Healy style 23 Gold (pictured on our front cover).
“I shouted it for myself for my 50th birthday and it’s certainly paid its way as it is very popular among brides who love its spectacular appearance,” Karen says.
When Karen and Peter decided to leave Sydney, they sold their Pymble home and bought a home at Toowoon Bay, a short walk to the beach.
“We heard there was a Nippers program at the local surf club and when I rang them and told them I had two children with special needs and could they join, they told me they were hoping to start a specific Nippers program for kids with intellectual disabilities and did I want to be involved,” Karen explains.
“Well, being the perennial volunteer, I agreed immediately and pretty soon we had Ben doing his Surf Rescue Certificate, and loving every minute of it, took to it like a duck to water so to speak and was soon taken under the wing of the other kids and some very special instructors.
“Anyway, next thing I know, in 2016, I’m doing my Bronze Medallion, then the Advanced Resuscitation Certificate, Spinal Management and Silver Medallion Beach Management courses and became an enthusiastic active patrol member,” she says.
On the day Karen achieved her Bronze Medallion, she volunteered to coordinate the special Nippers program and five years ago set up the now extremely popular Toowoon Bay Stingrays Nippers where the kids learn surf safety, water skills and get involved in beach activities such as sprints, relays and flags helped by a dedicated army of volunteers.
Last season some of the older Stingrays were invited to take part in an Inclusive Nippers Carnival at Avoca Beach and they came away with a string of medals from the water and beach events.
“That was a pretty proud moment for all of us and a tribute to all the volunteers who help out in all sorts of weather to get these kids motivated,” Karen says.
Karen is a vital member of the Toowoon Bay SLSC, is currently also the Director of Finance, was awarded Overall Club Person of the Year in 2018 and 2020 and Club Captain’s Award in 2019.
She was also awarded Administrator of the Year for Surf Lifesaving Central Coast last year and was a finalist in the Rotary Inspirational Women’s Awards in 2019 and Rotary Emergency Services Community Awards in 2020.
Karen says her mum and dad used to often come down to the surf club and sit with the locals at what has famously known down the beach as The Table of Knowledge.
Knowing her rather brilliant family background, it would be hard to dispute that title!!!
- To check Karen’s repertoire and for bookings for both herself and Harpe Diem, her email is firstname.lastname@example.org