20 May 2014

Royal and noble affairs for an Australian country girl - Sheila Chisholm

In preparing for the book Sheila: The Australian Beauty Who Bewitched British Society by Robert Wainwright (2013), I had to ask myself if I wanted to read about cashed up young women from the colonies who moved to Britain to meet eligible but impoverished young noblemen. Examination of some of my own earlier posts suggested that the answer was "yes" eg Husband hunting in British India, and When American money married British aristocracy.

Sheila Chisholm (1895-1969) grew up in rural NSW, youngest of three children of Harry and Margaret Chisholm. Dad was a grazier and successful bloodstock agent, so they could afford to educate their daughter at home - book learning of course but also horse riding and sheep droving. The suffragettes were seen as heroines in the Chisholm household.

Already overseas when WWI broke out, Sheila went with her mother to Egypt in 1915, planning to nurse soldiers and to see her brother John who was serving with the Australian Imperial Force. Still a teenager, Sheila was seen as tallish (168 cm), a good face and a nice figure for dancing. This was a promising start for a future high society beauty.

While serving as community volunteer at the Australian base in Cairo, Sheila met the handsome, well spoken Francis, Lord Loughborough who was being treated for wounds received at Gallipoli in May 1915. Sheila married him at the British Consulate in Cairo in December 1915.

They went to England in the new year and, despite Francis’ boozing, had two lovely sons, Anthony and Peter. The marriage suffered financial hardship from Lough­bor­ough's gambling, inherited from his inveterate gambler of a father, the 5th Earl of Rosslyn. Fortunately throughout her marital problems, Sheila sustained a warm connection with her friend and confidante Freda Dudley Ward.

Freda was the mistress of the Prince of Wales and soon Sheila and the Prince’s brother Albert Duke of York (Bertie) rounded out the foursome – the 4 Dos. The affair between Sheila and Bertie, who later took the throne when Edward abdicated, is an important part of the book. Bertie was shy, single and lonely; Sheila was married and miserable. Their close liaison ended in April 1920 when Bertie’s father, King George V, demanded that Bertie leave the married colonial and that Bertie marry someone suitable.. immediately!!

But one thing is puzzling. Wainwright found incriminating letters sent to Sheila by the Prince Bertie AND Prince Edward. Were both men in love with her?

The Four Dos. From left, Prince Edward and Freda Dudley Ward, Prince Albert and Sheila Chisholm. Photo credit: Sydney Morning Herald.

The Loughboroughs lived in Sydney in the early 1920s but she must have spent plenty of time in Europe. Sheila certainly enjoyed a lengthy affair with the glamorous Prince Serge Obolensky, and a less torrid affair with Rudolph Valentino, both of whom would have been very interesting, well-connected characters for our Sheila. Valentino died in 1926 at a tragically young age, but I would love to have known more about the prince - lots more!

Needless to say, the Loughboroughs were divorced in Edinburgh in 1926. Back in London permanently, Sheila frequented the Embassy Club and was a member of the Prince of Wales' set, also known as The Dar­l­ings.

In 1928 she married 26-year-old Baronet Sir John Milbanke (1902-47). Milbanke’s aristocratic cronies were impressed with the lovely Aust­ralian – her fashions and manners as well as her face. She may have been a bit older than Milbanke, but she fitted right into their social scene. But even then, tragedy struck. One of her sons, Peter, was tragically killed on active service with the Royal Air Force in 1939.

After the war, Sheila spent a little time with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother. But she spent a great deal of time with Edward and Wallis Simpson. I would like to know more about this strange relationship as well.

After John Milbanke died in 1947, Sheila successfully ran Milbanke Travel Ltd from Fortnum & Mason Ltd in Piccadilly. This time it took her a while to regroup and remarry, but remarry she did. In October 1954 she married Dimitri Alexandrovitch Romanoff, a Russian prince and a nephew of the last tsar. They lived in London, a relatively quiet and happy married life. In 1967 they flew to Aust­ralia to catch up with the family, her first visit home for decades.

Lord John Buffles Milbanke and Lady Sheila at Ascot
Photo credit: Sydney Morning Herald.

Sheila had been born to an ordinary family, with no noble connections and not a huge amount of money. What a long way she travelled in 74 years!! Her first hus­band, Lord Loughborough, was King Edward VII's godson. Her second husband, Baronet Sir John Milbanke, inherited the Halnaby Hall estates in Yorkshire. Her third hus­band, Prince Dimitri, was a nephew of the last Tsar.

Sheila died in 1969 in London and was buried in Edinburgh. Her elder son succeeded as 6th Earl of Rosslyn.

Did The Express overstate the impact of Our Sheila on the British royal family? “It was a royal affair that shook Buckingham Palace to its very foundations. So much so that the liaison between a married society beauty and a future monarch was ended on the orders of a king”. I would say that royal princes had had affairs since time immemorial, certainly before they were married and sometimes even after. Buck­ingham Palace’s foundations still look solid to me.

In any case, as The Mail noted, it was a different group of people who were making the glamorous headlines between the wars - Edward VIII, the Mitford sisters, Lady Diana Cooper, Evelyn Waugh, Cecil Beaton, Noel Coward and Emerald Cunard. Not Sheila Chisholm.

**

At the same time that the Robert Wainwright book was published, An Exuberant Catalogue of Dreams was written by Clive Aslet and published by Aurum Press (Nov 2013).  Starting in the late Victorian era and finishing at the end of WW2,  Britain’s country houses saw a new type of heiress come across the Atlantic to marry the impoverished landed gentry and nobility. And some staggeringly wealthy American industrialists men like William Waldorf Astor and newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst also arrived!

Exuberant Catalogue of Dreams examines the impact of the American dollar princesses on the architecture, gardens and art collections of cash-strapped British noble men. St Donat’s Castle in Glamorgan, Hever Castle in Kent and Cliveden in Buckinghamshire started to look very flash indeed. Even Blenheim, which was looking very shabby, was brought back to modern life.

Although there was no link whatsoever between Aslet's dollar princesses from America and Our Sheila, I was interested to read what one newspaper columnist noted at Sheila's first wedding in 1915: "It is refreshing to hear that an Australian girl, after a pretty little war romance, has married into the peerage. With some of Britain's lordlings it has been a not too infrequent habit either to marry a charmer off the music halls or else wed an American heiress. Now it appears they are marrying on the keep-it-in-the-Empire principle—at least Lord Loughborough has set a new and patriotic fashion in that direction."








10 comments:

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels:

A fascinating account of a woman who largely has disappeared from the annals of history or at least where her connections with the British Royal Family are concerned.

Certainly Sheila Chisholm can be said to have married well, and to have done so three times. An achievement in itself!!

Mandy Southgate said...

What a fascinating post and I do love that photo of Shiela with Lord Milbanke. She really was quite beautiful. I think as long as class is upheld, these affairs do continue to today.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I wonder if Sheila Chisholm had any admirable interests or attainments other than those you outline, or used her position for anything else other than locating the next husband.

Incidentally, although they probably are not related, Chisholm is also a name important in Cleveland, Ohio history, especially with regard to the early establishment of the steel industry there.
--Jim

Deb said...

If Sheila was serving as community volunteer at the Australian base in Cairo, she did it to support her wounded brother. Or to Do Her Bit for the war effort. She wasn't trying to grab a title, at least when she went to Europe as a single woman.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance,

as soon as young people graduate in Australia, they tend to go overseas for a year or 2 or 5. It is a rite of passage, before settling down to mortgages and dirty nappies. So she was just following a well trodden path.

But Sheila moved fast. _Within 1915_, she left Australia, worked in Cairo, married a wounded soldier, moved to the UK and took up her role as the Lady of the family estate.

Hels said...

Mandy

affairs and marriages. yes indeed.

Hels said...

Parnassus

what did you have in mind :)

She had everything a country estate owner could want - good outdoorsy looks, great horse-woman, excellent musical skills etc. Oh and a pushy mother.

Hels said...

Deb

Lots of young women were excited to do their bit in WW1. Sheila may well have felt trapped in the family house in rural NSW and didn't see a future for herself. Going to Cairo opened up new possibilities where she could contribute to Our Boys, meet people, see new places.

Martin Williams said...

Lord Loughborough might have been a chronic gambler and poor husband, but the marriage did provide the vivacious and strikingly beautiful Sheila with an entree into the international beau monde at the highest level.

Hels said...

Martin

yes! He did offer an entree into the international beau monde at the highest level. I suppose the question is: when Sheila saw the handsome Lord Loughborough in his miserable hospital bed, was she thinking about her future in the British aristocracy? Whatever she was thinking, she decided VERY quickly.