Sheila Chisholm: An ingenue’s introduction to high society.
Words by Lyndsy Spence
In a distant corner of the Empire, in the “Land of the Wattle and the Gum”, Sheila Chisholm, a sensitive and imaginative girl with large hazel eyes and a pale, heart-shaped face would take London society by storm. But that would have to wait for two decades; in the meantime she was busy growing up on Wollogoron, the family’s sheep farm where she was enthralled and horrified by the birth of lambs and the bloody reality of the slaughter-house. It was this combination of her tomboy spirit and the conflict of longing to belong in a male-dominated world that would leave its mark on her life.
To display her bravery, Sheila downed an entire bottle of Worcestershire sauce and then challenged her two brothers to do the same. She was a reckless horsewoman, riding her black mare Mariana with deliberate abandon, and laughing at the grooms who warned her she would “break her bloody neck”. Their prediction almost came true when she was thrown and nearly killed after a motor-car – a rare sight on country roads – spooked the horse. “It did not teach me a lesson,” Sheila recalled. “Nothing ever does.”
A favourite expression was, “I will put you on your mettle,” which roughly translated meant, “I double dare you.” The dares were, at times dangerous, particularly at Bondi Beach where, along with her best-friend, she enjoyed body surfing and swimming out further than the restricted line. This cavalier attitude lasted until one day, while defying the rules, the water turned crimson when a nearby swimmer lost his leg to a shark. As Sheila put it: “This episode dampened our enthusiasm for showing off.”
Sheila received a private education at Kambala Anglican School for Girls in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. It was one of the first private schools for girls established in Sydney as debate raged about the ability of young women to handle a male education curriculum. But there was nothing in Sheila’s future that suggested she would put her scholarly training into practice. Her mother, Margaret, warned her that a life of marriage and children beckoned – “Chase and chaste,” she told her.
Before this milestone could be achieved, Sheila’s parents agreed to send her off to Paris and Munich to be “finished”. They even spoke of the possibility of being presented as a debutante at Buckingham Palace. It became clear to Sheila that the sort of marriage her mother spoke of would be one that required social mobility. This outlook had been inspired by Margaret’s visit to a famous Chinese astrologer who predicted that Sheila’s stars belonged in the northern hemisphere. Her father declared it “hokum”, and from there-on-in, they referred to their daughter as “the child of fate”.
This fate had gotten off to an uncertain start when, in the summer of 1914, having spent too much time in Paris, Sheila and Margaret missed all three of the presentations at Court. Undeterred, Margaret rented a flat at St. James’s Court, and a whirl of garden parties and summer balls ensued. There was another opportunity to be presented at Buckingham Palace, but in a crowd of famous society hostesses and young aristocrats, it was difficult for Sheila to stand out.
The declaration of war blighted any hopes for a successful season, and with both of her brothers headed for Cairo, Sheila and her mother made the decision to go there, too. Sheila volunteered as a Red Cross nurse, and she found herself as one of the few women among thousands of men, which included aristocrats. Away from her training, there were cruises on the Nile, night-time drives to see the Sphinx by moonlight, and she rode Arab stallions out to the desert to watch the sunset, or at dawn to watch the sunrise. This air of normality gave an illusion of false security, and lively bars and restaurants provided a distraction to the sprawling hospital campus that Cairo had become.
It was in a Cairo hospital where Sheila met her future husband, Francis Edward Scudamore St. Clair Erskine, Lord Loughborough, known as “Loughie”. She summed him up on their second encounter:
“Loughie came to tea the next day. He was tall and slim, with thick brown hair and hazel eyes. He was witty and most attractive. I soon began enjoying his company. We read the Brownings. He pursued me relentlessly and I was flattered by his attention. He told me that he had fallen in love with me at first sight. He constantly said: ‘I love you and you are going to marry me, you will like England and all my friends will adore you.'”
Admitting he was “wild”, Loughie assured Sheila that with her love “I will be different. I could do great things”. She believed him and was fascinated by him, and seeing how happy they were she thought it must be love. Against her parents disapproval – they feared Loughie’s wayward reputation to be true – Sheila agreed to marry him, telling her mother that she could not “wait six months, wait a year, wait while he goes back and probably gets killed”. And, winning the argument by assuring Margaret her future husband was “sweet” and “fond of animals”, the two were married in Cairo on the 27th of December 1915.
The marriage between a Lord and an Australian girl was a break from the norm of titled men marrying musical-hall charmers and American heiresses. An Australian newspaper noted: “Now it appears they are marrying on the keep-it-in-the-Empire principle.” The happiness was short-lived when, on the morning after the wedding, Loughie attended a race meeting and lost a month’s pay as well as the cheques given by guests as wedding presents. Like his father, the Earl of Rosslyn, he was hopelessly weak-willed, a gambler and an alcoholic. He became immortalised as “The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo”. Sheila’s new father-in-law told her: “My son has no idea of money, as you will no doubt realise only too soon, if you have not already done so. Has he told you how often I have paid for his debts?” She smiled and said nothing. “Head high,” she told herself. “Walk very tall.” They returned to England to wait out the war.
England was a strange place for Sheila. She found the rigid customs of the country-house cold and uninviting. The guests intimidated her, especially when at dinner Lord Birkenhead asked how many children she had.
“None,” Sheila replied.
“You should be ashamed of yourself; a young, strong, healthy, beautiful woman like you. How long have you been married?”
“Oh…er…I’m sorry. Well, when you do have a child take my tip and have a twilight sleep.”
In time, Sheila bore Loughie two sons – an heir and a spare – and having given up on trying to reform his wastrel ways, she sought solace in a glittering social life.
When Sheila befriended Freda Dudley Ward, mistress of Edward the Prince of Wales, she was introduced to the inner-circle of Royalty, and the upper-echelon of high society. She was paired off with Prince Albert (later King George VI), known to friends as “Bertie”, and the foursome nicknamed themselves “The Four Dos”. Sheila and Bertie’s clandestine affair reached the attention of King George V, and he ordered his son to end it at once. Bertie obliged and was rewarded the Dukedom of York and a plump fiancée in the shape of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.
The 1920s barged in, ushering out the sleepy social niceties of Edwardian England. The heartbreak of war and the tragic loss of young men was masked by a new era of decadence. It was an exciting time to be young, beautiful and titled, and Sheila was no exception.
Turning her attention to the popular celebrities of the day, Sheila began an affair with the most famous film star in the world, Rudolph Valentino. In London to promote his latest picture, The Eagle, crowds of women flocked to him wherever he went, but it was Sheila’s nonchalance that attracted him. She paraded Valentino around high society, giving dinner parties in his honour and introducing him to London’s nightlife. And, when he returned to Hollywood she followed him. Valentino gave Sheila his lucky gold bracelet, which she wore on her upper-arm, and when he died aged thirty-one in 1926, she believed it was because she had taken his luck.
For the last two years of their marriage, Sheila and Loughie had been estranged. After initiating divorce proceedings in 1926, she suddenly had a change of heart, and remembering how Loughie had made her laugh, she considered calling it off. The Earl of Rosslyn, anxious for the couple to remain married (if in name only), hurried to the court to order the judge to stop their appeal. Worried about this unexpected intervention, Sheila’s solicitor advised her to play the part of “the pathetic, ill-treated little wife”. She borrowed her nursery-maid’s grey coat, skirt and felt hat, and she wore no makeup. Satisfied with the outcome, she remarked: “I certainly looked pathetic.” When it came to swearing on the Bible, Sheila removed a glove and was alarmed to notice she had forgotten to remove her red nail polish. All was well, and she breathed a sigh of relief when the men in the courtroom appeared not to notice her manicured nails.
Before their estrangement, Sheila had tried to help Loughie overcome his demons. They moved to Australia in 1923, but things did not improve. “I had persuaded my husband to have a cure for drink, which he did, but when he came out of the home he was not better at all. Life for me was intolerable. Finally I asked the trustees and his father to meet, and they agreed that it was intolerable and that I should have a house for myself and the children…I have not lived with my husband as his wife since January 1924.” And reflecting on how their marriage soured after the first few months, Sheila confessed: “My husband drank and gambled and got into terrible trouble. He was horrid and abusive to me and drank terribly. It seemed to get worse each year.”
The hearing lasted twenty minutes, and a few weeks later a decree nisi was granted. “I was free – what a strange feeling. I decided that never, never again would I marry anyone, and hummed to myself ‘Wedding Bells are all Bunk’.”
Wedding bells chimed twice more for Sheila. She went on to marry the baronet Sir John “Buffles” Milbanke, known as “the boxing baronet” from whom she was widowed in 1947. Having run a successful travel business in Fortnum & Mason, she remained single until 1954. At the age of fifty-nine she married the exiled Prince Dmitri Alexandrovich of Russia. Their marriage lasted until Sheila’s death in 1969.
Sheila: The Australian ingenue who bewitched British society by Robert Wainwright was published by Allen & Unwin.