Timeline 1900 – 2017

Helen Bartholomew and the Sultan of Johore

Helen Bartholomew (1889-1978) became known as Sultanah Helen Ibrahim when she became the third wife of Sultan Sir Ibrahim Iskandar Al-Masyhur ibni Almarhum Sultan Sir Abu Bakar, the 22nd Sultan of Johore in Malaysia.

Born in Glasgow in September 1889, she was the daughter of a master saw-maker from Stirlingshire. Her first marriage was to William Brockie Wilson, a Malayan-born Scot and a physician by training. Bartholomew first met Sultan Ibrahim when Wilson became the Sultan’s physician, Helen following her husband from Scotland to British Malaya. Sultan Ibrahim and Bartholomew were married in a London register office and Surrey mosque in October 1930 and Bartholomew then became known as Her Highness Sultanah Helen Ibrahim. In 1935, her picture with Sultan Ibrahim was put on a Johor postage stamp as a gift to her from the Sultan on their fifth wedding anniversary and he also presented her with a sumptuous country house in Singapore on the 40th anniversary of his reign that same year.  The couple were sufficiently prestigious to be invited to the coronation of King George VI in 1937; they amicably divorced the following year.

The marriages between white English women and members of overseas ruling families rarely attracted criticism, unlike those who were not privileged by class. There was none in the reports of this marriage in The Times, Daily Mirror, and Daily Express. Instead these reports focused on the Sultan’s wealth, his connection with Royalty in Britain, and (on Helen Ibrahim’s crowning in Malaya), the splendour of the event. There were, indeed, a number of middle class women who married Indian Maharajahs and other royalty from Britain’s Empire throughout the early 20th century, including that of Mollie Elsip to Prince Ali Khan of Jaora in 1930 at Woking mosque (which hosted a number of interracial marriages at this time) and that between Elizabeth Louise MacKenzie and ‘Pathan chieftain’ Syed Abduallah.