Glasgow girl and the Sultan of Johore

NO SCOT could match Helen Bartholomew's pathway to a postage stamp. In 1935 she was put on one as a present on her fifth wedding anniversary. Her husband could do this because he was Sultan Ibrahim, the Sultan of Johore (now Johor) and one of the richest men in the world.

The daughter of a master saw-maker from Stirlingshire, Nellie, as she was known to the family, was born in Glasgow in September 1889. Her first husband, William Brockie Wilson, a Malay-born Scot, was the personal physician to the Sultan of Johore and Bartholomew travelled with him to the Far East. When her husband died, she returned to Britain but was soon to meet the Sultan once more.

The Sultan was incredibly rich and had a reputation as a wild international playboy. His exploits ranged from changing the colour of his racing horse to present it as an unknown – with better odds of course – to less savoury behaviour in the red-light area of Vienna. To be fair, he spread his wealth around, giving a magnificent pair of Malay tigers to Edinburgh Zoo on the one hand and, on the other, sending a huge cash present to George V on his Jubilee.

He was very much an Anglophile, and in 1914 appointed a British advisor to help him rule his country. Even then, the Sultan spent much of his life away from Johor, prefering the more liberal delights of Europe.

When the Sultan sent his sons, by his Malay wives, to be educated in Britain, he renewed his acquaintance with the widow and asked her to keep an eye on his boys. He visited them from time to time and Bartholomew's relationship with the boys moved from motherly to step-motherly. They were married in a Surrey mosque in 1930 and Bartholomew became known as Her Highness Sultana Helen Ibrahim.

The marriage lasted nearly ten years and when it ended, it did so amicably. The Sultan continued to add to his ex-wife's spectacular jewel collection, reputedly giving her an emerald on her birthday and a diamond on their wedding anniversary, even after the divorce. It is little wonder that her jewellery collection was held to be the finest in the world.

Wilson returned briefly to her family in Scotland, then living in Cambuslang, but went south to spend the rest of her days in London. Apart from a sighting by one sister as she stepped from a grand Rolls Royce in Sauchiehall Street in the 1960s, she disappeared from Scotland's radar.

Attempts by a Glasgow newspaper in the 1980s to find Bartholomew failed to shed any light on her final years, but did produce some faded school photographs which underlined the huge gap between her early working-class years in Glasgow and her later life in Johore and on the international circuit. However, more recent investigations revealed she died in a Surrey nursing home on 13 August 1977. It is not known whether her collection of precious stones were found too.

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