An unlikely royal
Sheila Chisholm portrait by Cecil Beaton. National Portrait Gallery, London, courtesy of Rosslyn Family Estate. Photo: Courtesy of Allen & Unwin
A century ago next month, the social pages of The Sydney Morning Herald devoted a half-dozen paragraphs to a small gathering at the city's grandest hotel. It read in part: "On the balcony of the Hotel Australia on Tuesday afternoon a farewell tea was given by Miss Sheila Chisholm who with Mrs Harry Chisholm left by the Mongolia for Europe on Wednesday."
It went on to list a few dozen guests who chose to chat and drink tea outside, above the bustle of Castlereagh Street, rather than sit in the building's luxurious, marbled interiors.
Curtsey to the ground, call them sir and treat them like dirt.
In many respects, the guest of honour embodied the youth and promise of Australia's burgeoning independence. Sheila Chisholm was almost 19, and not only was she beautiful, she bore all the capabilities nurtured by an upbringing on a sheep station called Wollogorang in the rolling purple hills beyond Goulburn, NSW. She was an accomplished rider and could kill a snake as easily as skin a rabbit, when she wasn't busy roaming the stockyards to scrape tar onto the backs of sheep nicked during shearing.
She was also a rebellious soul, unafraid to test authority by making life difficult for the governess assigned by her mother. She once drank a bottle of Worcestershire sauce to prove she was as tough as any boy, and would routinely dare anyone who'd listen to swim as far as she could beyond the breakers at Bondi.
But Sheila was a more complex animal than a mere country tomboy. Her spirit of adventure had been ignited by tales of heroes told to her at bedtime by her father, and by the books bought for her by her mother, which included the poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and romantic, windswept stories such as Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. As she would write many years later, "I was sensitive and imaginative with large, hazel eyes and a pale, heart-shaped face and short hair. I hated being a girl and used to pray that God would turn me into a boy overnight."
Now she was leaving for Europe and London, to finish her education and earn her place in society, the wish of her mother that would lead to one of the most remarkable adventures of a woman of her generation. The journey was supposed to last six months, but it would be six years before Sheila returned to Sydney, the first of only three visits home for the next 50 years.
Margaret Sheila Mackellar Chisholm was born in September 1895 in the stone homestead of a property established by her great-grandfather, a former soldier named James Chisholm who was among the first farmers to venture south from Sydney. She was the only daughter of Harry "Chissie" Chisholm, who was about to create Australia's biggest bloodstock agency and launch a business that would dominate thoroughbred sales at Randwick.
Sheila doted on her mother, also named Margaret, whom she referred to as "Ag": "She was an extremely intelligent woman, 20 years ahead of her generation and a suffragette at heart," Sheila wrote. "Had we lived in England, I can easily imagine her doing violent things and being under the influence of Mrs Pankhurst."
But the Chisholms' time in Europe, which was to comprise a few weeks in Paris with side trips to Germany and Italy, had to be abandoned because of the growing threat of war. Instead, mother and daughter settled in London in June 1914 where the "Season", with its rounds of parties and presentations, was in full swing. Their journey back to Australia, scheduled for the northern autumn, was postponed indefinitely when war was declared in August 1914.
Rather than sit idle in their newly rented flat in St James's Court, the pair headed for Egypt. Sheila's oldest brother, Jack, had volunteered immediately and his mother and sister decided it was better to be useful and serve as community volunteers at the Australian base in Cairo. They arrived before Jack, just as the city was being transformed, its grand hotels and nightclubs turned into hospital wards in preparation for the expected carnage.
By the northern spring of 1915, the reality was proving far grimmer than initial expectations, with casualties from the Gallipoli landing arriving in their thousands. Sheila nursed while Ag ran the officers' club and organised blanket appeals. The city quickly filled with the sick, injured and dying; when Jack was hospitalised with a severe stomach disorder, their mission became personal.
One day while visiting her brother, Sheila was introduced to the man convalescing in the next bed. Francis Edward Scudamore St Clair-Erskine, formally known as Lord Loughborough, was a British officer and eldest son of a Scottish earl who'd taken a bullet in the shoulder from a Turkish sniper. Although tired of the almost constant male attention from soldiers around Cairo, Sheila was immediately struck by "Loughie's" cheerful demeanour. When, after being released from hospital, he later sat with her overnight while she nursed a sick dog, Sheila fell in love.
They were secretly engaged a month later and, ignoring the warnings of her mother that she was too young and the decision was an overhasty one coloured by war, Sheila and Loughie were married on December 27, 1915, in Cairo. The wedding of the British peer, heir to the Scottish estate of Rosslyn, to an Australian commoner, albeit a "superb horsewoman who excels as vocalist", was reported fully in London newspapers.
In May 1916, after being wounded a second time, Loughie was granted permission to transfer his commission from the naval unit under which he had arrived in Turkey to the King's Rifles. The new Lady Loughborough left Egypt bound not for Australia, but her new home in London.
Margaret Chisholm's concerns about her headstrong daughter weren't just about a precipitate attachment. Loughie had a reputation as a gambler and had already been convicted before the war of passing a bad cheque. On the morning after their wedding, he insisted on attending a race meeting in Cairo where he lost not only a month's pay, but all the money given to the couple as wedding presents. "He apologised and promised never to the do it again," Sheila reflected hopefully in her later, private, memoir.
The young lord's problems weren't surprising given that his father, the Earl of Rosslyn, whose lands included rich coal mining activities and the famous Rosslyn Chapel outside Edinburgh, was one of Britain's most colourful aristocratic wastrels. Having squandered most of the family fortune on horses, he had embarked instead on an acting career. He'd had as many wives as bankruptcies, but somehow still retained enough land and position to be a man of influence.
Sheila was immediately accepted into society, helped by her unusual, languorous beauty and colonial heritage. The latter seemed to be regarded as exotic and a welcome change to the string of American heiresses, including Winston Churchill's mother, who had married into British society.
Family connections helped, of course, as introductions were made by Loughie's cousins, the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland. The Duchess, Eileen, was Mistress of the Robes to Queen Mary, responsible for the Queen's clothes and jewellery, and the pair became lifelong friends. There were others, too, like the society beauty and silent movie star Lady Diana Cooper. Cooper's friendship immediately identified Sheila as a woman of style and beauty and someone to be noticed by the newspapers, whose interest in society, its excesses and scandals, was beginning to blossom into almost daily coverage. Then there were the wives of senior politicians, who were not always aristocrats but wielded enormous social power. One was Freda Dudley Ward, whose husband, William, was a senior government whip in the House of Commons.
Now, instead of tending wounded soldiers in makeshift hospitals, Sheila was waited upon in vast drawing rooms and attended dinner parties and balls in the mansions of Belgravia. Society saw in Sheila a beautiful, confident addition to the set, admiring her for her take-no-prisoners, frontier spirit. Privately, though, she was far from happy. Her marriage was already in trouble as Loughie disappeared, night after night, into the elite and male-only gambling clubs of St James and the less-salubrious dens of Soho.
He continued to make apologies for his gambling, but made little effort to curb his activities, which, Sheila suspected, included the taking of lovers, a practice considered acceptable in many upper-class households - provided the liaisons were discreet. She remained silent, hoping her loyalty would be rewarded at some point by redemption and change. Besides, she was already pregnant.
Anthony Hugh Francis Harry St Clair-Erskine - or Tony, as he came to be known - was born in May, 1917. Sheila, the young mother, disappeared for a while from the social pages as she returned to a growing involvement in charity work, driven by the energetic sisters of her father-in-law who, unlike the amiable but wayward earl, were all devoted to playing a wartime role. Apart from her theatrical contributions, Sheila was determined to help Belgian and French children who'd been orphaned by the war and organised, with her St Clair-Erskine in-laws, a society to care for and educate them.
But it wasn't enough. Single parenthood was a lonely business and she found herself increasingly turning to her society friends to provide companionship - to Freda Dudley Ward, in particular, whose own marriage had also begun to founder as her husband moved in the same night-time fleshpots as Loughie.
In February 1918, at a private dance in Belgravia where she sought refuge during a bombing raid by German Zeppelins, Freda met the country's most eligible bachelor, Edward, Prince of Wales. "David", as he was known by his inner circle, was instantly captivated. The very next day, Edward began writing to Freda. Their affair would endure for 15 years, ending only after he'd met the American socialite, Mrs Wallis Simpson, for whom, in 1936 as King Edward VIII, he would abdicate from the English throne.
Shortly after meeting Freda, the prince agreed to attend a ball that his new love would be attending. He brought his brother, the shy Prince Albert. Freda also brought her friend, Sheila Loughborough, who, as she was about to meet the royal brothers, whispered to Lady Rosemary Leveson-Gower how she should react. "Curtsey to the ground, call them sir and treat them like dirt," the latter replied under her breath.
Sheila danced with the two brothers that night, both of whom would be entranced by the young woman who made no secret of her heritage. "It was an enjoyable evening and I told them my grandmother was a kangaroo," she later recalled.
The meeting was followed quickly by several more before Sheila withdrew once again from society to give birth to her second child. Peter George Alexander St Clair-Erskine - or Peter - arrived in October, 1918, a few days before the armistice. She listened to the celebratory guns booming across the city from her room in the Ritz Hotel: "London had gone mad," she would write. "What a happy madness!"
By 1919, Sheila's relationship with the princes was a close one as she embarked on an affair with "Bertie". With Edward and Freda, they made an inseparable foursome, referring to themselves as the "Four Do's". In one of her few comments about the affair, Sheila wrote: "We danced with them a great deal at all the balls, which annoyed some of the dowagers. However, we didn't care. We knew no party was complete without us - and them."
They often risked discovery at dinner parties and dances and the princes frequently appeared at Freda and Sheila's houses, sometimes when their husbands were at home. Edward wrote often to Freda, mentioning the affair between his younger brother and "Sheilie", although he never regarded it as a serious liaison, aware that the Australian was fielding a number of other suitors as her marriage continued to deteriorate.
Chief among them was a married Russian prince named Serge Obolensky, who appeared in London among dozens of aristocratic families after escaping the Russian Revolution. Tall and handsome, he oozed the charm and confidence that Bertie lacked, and Sheila found herself conflicted, aware both were dalliances with little future given she must appear to be loyal to her husband. She knew she would lose her sons in a divorce and "no man on earth was worth leaving one's children".
Loughie's addiction had worsened, his debts spiralling out of control to a point where he sat on their bed one night waving a loaded revolver and threatening to shoot them all. She got hold of the revolver and calmed him down. But instead of leaving him, she appealed to her father-in-law to save his son and the marriage by finding a way out of the financial mess. The solution was two-fold: pay off Loughie's debts, which amounted to the modern equivalent of $1.5 million, and get him away from London's bookmakers - perhaps an overseas trip for a year or so.
As Sheila tried to cool the ardour of Prince Obolensky, the affair with Bertie was also about to come to an abrupt end. It was inevitable that King George V would hear of the activities of his oldest sons, and he demanded they cease their affairs with married women. Edward, away on a tour of Australia, refused, but Bertie, promised a dukedom in exchange for giving up Sheila, relented.
In late September 1920, Sheila boarded a ship and set sail for Australia - a journey designed to save her marriage. Sheila had finally told Serge, sadly but firmly, that she was putting her marriage first and had said goodbye.
But Loughie failed to reward Sheila's loyalty, disappearing yet again soon after his arrival in Sydney, this time to Queensland. In his absence, Sheila fielded a number of letters from a heartbroken Prince Albert, who was lamenting her departure and, possibly, his decision to end their attachment. He wrote: "Whenever I go into a ballroom I always look around the room hoping to see you, as I know there is somebody missing, and it is so sad not seeing you, and I do miss you."
Finally, in February 1923 - with no improvement in Loughie's nocturnal habits in sight - Sheila gave in to Loughie's demands and agreed to return to London permanently, arriving a few weeks after Bertie married Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon - later to become the Queen Mother.
Although she had lost two admirers for the sake of remaining with an errant husband, Sheila didn't have to wait long to attract the eye of another man, this time an English baronet and prominent amateur boxer named Sir John Milbanke, who carried the ludicrous nickname of Buffles. Sheila, among the first women to dare go out without a chaperone, didn't discourage his attentions, particularly after finally leaving Loughie in 1924 when it became obvious to everyone that there was no hope for them.
She liked this dashing sportsman, but was determined to keep him at bay. She was still not divorced and there were others jostling for her attention, among them the silent screen star Rudolph Valentino, whom she squired around London in 1925 and then visited in Hollywood in 1926 where he gave her a gold bracelet. He died just six months later, aged 31, of peritonitis.
Even after her divorce from Loughie was granted in 1926, she made Buffles wait another two torturous years before agreeing to become Lady Milbanke. During a service held in late 1928, in the 400-year-old Queen's Chapel of the Savoy, which attracted hundreds of onlookers and a traffic jam on The Strand, "Lady Loughborough," wrote the Daily Mail, "wore a sleeveless coat over her beige lace dress and did not carry a formal bridal bouquet ... very simple and unassuming."
A new husband of lesser social stature did nothing to halt Sheila's advancement in society. She was now regularly in attendance in London's nightclubs and theatres, often seen in the company of Prince Edward or other stars of the day, including a young Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele. She hosted parties at which Edward learned the Charleston and was co-opted to chair the largest charity ball ever held in London. It was the first of 13 balls she'd chair, raising millions for the city's largest but poorest hospital, The Great Northern.
Then, in August 1929, came the news that Loughie, unhappy and confused one night after an evening spent in the company of friends in a house in Holland Park, had fallen 10 metres onto stone from his bedroom window, dying several hours later of his injuries. Sheila had never really stopped loving the father of her two sons and refused to believe the coroner's findings of suicide caused by "temporary unsound mind".
The 1930s brought enormous change, socially and economically, but Sheila's life with Buffles was settled. There was little that "Australian beauty" Lady Sheila Milbanke could do or wear that didn't make an impact in the gossip columns. She was one of the first to sport the new shingle haircut - a bob cut sharply upwards on the nape of the neck - wear a tan and go bare-legged in public. She made headlines when she appeared at a West End dance club wearing a wig of golden-coloured silk.
Most people, Sheila included, believed another war was inevitable, but few were prepared for its impact when it came. With two sons and a husband going to war, Sheila rolled up her sleeves to become a volunteer nurse again, helping her friends Euan and Barbara Wallace to convert their grand Sussex manor house, Lavington Park, into a temporary maternity facility. She lived in a dormitory with six other woman and worked 11-hour days assisting medical staff.
She was here in September, 1939, nursing a newborn baby whom her mother had named Sheila, when a telephone call came through for her from Buffles. Her youngest son, Peter, had been killed - not in combat, but flying a Hurricane above the fields of England in a night-time accident. It was Sheila's 44th birthday.
Six months later, she would receive a cable from her brother in Australia, telling her that her beloved Ag had died suddenly. "I felt I couldn't bear it," she wrote later, "but, of course, one can." She spent the remaining war years drifting from friend to friend as her London home, peppered and then bombed, was closed and then sold.
Even as the end of the war approached, Sheila found it difficult to celebrate until Tony and Buffles had both returned from Europe, where they were helping to liberate survivors from Nazi concentration camps. When he did finally return, though, Buffles was a changed man, distracted and struggling with alcohol. Sheila, tired and heartsick, drifted towards an America that was largely unaffected by the longevity of conflict.
In 1946, a few weeks after her 51st birthday, she wandered the streets of New York, marvelling at the shop windows filled with food: "It was almost obscene with the rest of the world starving," she would write. "After a few days I almost began to forget ... I had been living a nightmare for seven long years."
But it wasn't over. When she came home, Buffles, contrite, admitted he was having an affair, but was determined to give up the woman in question. He would take a trip to Europe, he said, to clear his head and rethink his priorities. She returned to the US to give him space, finding solace with her friends in Hollywood and reconnecting with old flame Serge Obolensky. On May 28, 1947, she boarded the SS America, which would take her back to a new life with a husband who'd pledged his fidelity once more. He'd sent her a cable to say that he had ended the affair and would be at Southampton to meet her.
Three days later, she was told to go to the radio room, where there was an urgent telephone call from her son in London. Buffles had been a passenger in a taxi driving through Ghent in Belgium when it collided with a tram. He was dead of severe head injuries at the age of 45.
At the end of 1948, Sheila stood alone on the deck of the Queen Mary. She was once again homeward bound after her third trip to the US in three years. "I watched the fantastic skyline disappear into the rosy mist of dawn," she wrote later. "I wondered, does life begin at 50?" By the time she reached Southampton one week later, she had decided that it did. At age 54, she launched a business, Milbanke Travel, with a friend at the famous Fortnum & Mason department store in Piccadilly. Given her name and the size and calibre of her contacts book, it expanded quickly. By the time she returned to Australia in 1967, she was a successful businesswoman with a staff of 200 and a turnover of $5 million a year.
She had also married for a third time, this time in 1954 to a cousin of her old flame Serge Obolensky. Prince Dimitri Romanoff was a nephew of the last tsar of Russia and one of the few family members to escape capture and execution. He had moved to London after World War I and, although he and Sheila had moved in the same circles, he had always been in the shadow of more flamboyant suitors, such as Obolensky. Now, meeting again almost four decades later and both in their 60s, Dimitri and Sheila found an easy companionship in each other. Their matchmaker had been none other than Wallis Simpson, now the Duchess of Windsor, who lived quietly with "David" in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris.
Princess Dimitri Romanoff and her husband bought a house in Wilton Street, barely 100 metres from the backyard walls of Buckingham Palace and near the house where Freda Dudley Ward had had her assignations with the Prince of Wales all those years before. The couple spent their final years travelling.
Sheila died in October 1969, aged 74, from a combination of heart failure and lung cancer, two years after "going home" for the last time. "I married all my husbands for love," she told the media throng waiting at Sydney Airport in 1967. "I certainly didn't care about titles, and none of them had any money." Of Australia, Sheila said: "I've missed Australia very much. I dream about it, you know, and I can smell it quite clearly with the wattle and the gum trees."
She was cremated and her ashes scattered in the grounds of Rosslyn Chapel, where her oldest son, who had become the Earl of Rosslyn, commissioned a stained-glass window. In its bottom corner is a kangaroo.
Sheila: The Australian Beauty Who Bewitched British Society, by Robert Wainwright, is published by Allen & Unwin next week.
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