Sylvia – Queen of the Headhunters (Part one)

Sylvia in 1917 via the National Portrait Gallery

Sylvia Brett was born 25 February 1885 as the daughter of Reginald Baliol Brett, the 2nd Viscount Esher and Eleanor van de Weyer at the Bretts’ townhouse in Mayfair. She had an elder brother named Oliver, a younger brother named Maurice and a younger sister named Dorothy. She was not particularly close to her father, who found girls “tiresome things until they are grown up.” Her mother also couldn’t give her the love she needed and young Sylvia became close to her grandfather, the first Viscount Esher. Over the years, British royals like Queen Victoria and her son Edward VII visited her home, but Sylvia did not fit in. Sylvia recalled it as “a curious life for children.” It was the life of aristocrats – the children were brought down for an hour after tea to see their father. She was cruelly informed upon the death of her beloved grandfather that he had only sent a blessing to her brothers and she was not allowed to attend the funeral. She was now more lonely than ever. By her own account, she tried to commit suicide three times during her adolescence.

Books became Sylvia’s friends, and where she once felt dumb in the company of the likes of royals, she now resolved to work harder than ever. She later wrote, “I gained confidence, and this reading was like a strong tonic to me.” At the age of 14, she developed her first crush on George Binning, the eldest son of the 11th Earl of Haddington but her love went unrequited, perhaps for the better. She was presented at court in 1903 with her sister Dorothy and attended various events over the season. Sylvia and Dorothy first came in contact with Sylvia’s future mother-in-law Margaret de Windt, also known as Ranee Margaret of Sarawak, when they came to rehearse for a charity performance. The Kingdom of Sarawak was a British protectorate located in the northwestern part of the island of Borneo. Their rulers were called the White Rajah, the first being an Englishman named James Brooke. While the girls rehearsed several times a week, they were often invited for tea with the Ranee, who then told them of her life in Sarawak. She told the girls her marriage was over after her husband killed her pet doves and served them in a pie for dinner. The rehearsals became an excellent source for the Ranee to find wives for her sons. Of her seven children, three sons had survived to adulthood. One child was stillborn, and tragically, her eldest three children died of cholera while at sea and were thus buried at sea. Her three sons were Vyner, Bertram and Harry. Bertram was the first to marry; he married Gladys Palmer – an heiress. Six years later, Harry married Gladys’s cousin, Dorothy Craig. This left Vyner, the heir.

One day, Vyner came to watch the rehearsals, and she was struck by his blue eyes. Her father considered him to be a joke and promptly shipped Sylvia off to the Roman Camp. Sylvia later wrote, “Much as my parents wanted to see me respectably married, they considered that this stranger from the Far East, the son of the woman my father so bitterly disliked, was not a suitable husband for me. They imagined me, shrivelled and hideously tanned, returning to them at intervals of three to five years – or else headless and buried in the barren soil of the north-west coast of Borneo.” Meanwhile, Vyner was going back to Sarawak but not before promising he would wait for her, “centuries if need be.” He returned in 1906, but it appeared he had transferred his affections to her sister. Her father was more likely to agree to this match as he did not believe another husband would be found for Dorothy. However, he never proposed to Dorothy and instead worked out a way to see Sylvia. They even planned to elope. Their engagement was finally announced in the early days of 1911. On 21 February 1911, Sylvia and Vyner married at St Peter’s Church, Cranbourne.  After the wedding night, her husband muttered, “Well, that’s that then.” Later that year, he was granted the personal style of His Highness by command of King George V, and so the daughter of a Viscount suddenly found herself a “Highness.” Sylvia also found herself pregnant.

On 18 November 1911, she gave birth to a baby girl after three days of labour. The baby had nearly died and was hastily christened Leonora Margaret. However, the girl could not be an heir to the throne. When her sister-in-law Gladys gave birth to a son named Anthony a year later, a 21-gun-salute was fired from the fort at Kuching. When Leonora was six months old, Vyner and Sylvia set out for Sarawak. While on the sea, they were informed that the Titanic had sunk, though icebergs were not something to worry about in the Indian Ocean. In the middle of May, they finally woke to the sight of the mountains of Borneo. They were warmly welcomed by the people but Vyner’s father was still in England, and he did not return there until June 1912. They were also joined in Sarawak by Vyner’s younger brother Bertram and his wife, Gladys. Once back in England, Sylvia announced that her next child was due in September 1913. It was not the longed-for son but another daughter named Elizabeth. In March 1914 Vyner departed England and would not be back for eight months. Sylvia longed to be with him and resented the “captivity of motherhood.”1

Read part two here.

  1. Philip Eade, Sylvia, Queen Of The Headhunters: An Outrageous Englishwoman And Her Lost Kingdom (US & UK)

About Moniek 1802 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

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