In October, I took part in a 1930s set drama-documentary, Produced/Directed by Sam Supple, for BBC Inside Out (South East). Filmed on location in and around the attractive seaside town of Herne Bay, Kent which included Edwardian architectural gem, The Kings Hall. The programme explored the ill-fated relationship between Kent showgirl, Lydia Cecily/Cecilia ‘Cissie’ Hill (1913-1940) and the Sultan of Johor (Ibrahim I) (1873-1959). Below is the full documentary as it is no longer available on BBC iPlayer.
For an excellent short-read about Cissie and the Sultan, check-out BBC article on the couple’s backstory, ‘The sultan and the showgirl: A tragic tale of star-crossed love’ (BBC 31.10.2015).
Cissie’s Early Life in Kent
Lydia Cecily ‘Cissie’ Hill was born at 2 Kitchener Terrace, Canterbury, Kent on 20th July, 1913 but moved with her family to Herne Bay in 1917. Cissie’s father, George Hill (b. 1882), served in the Royal Navy rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander and retiring in 1932 (although he was called up from the Retired List in 1935 and served again until 1946). Cissie’s mother was Florence Cecilia Hill née Benge (b. 1889) who married George Hill on 20th December, 1910 at St. Gregory’s Church, Canterbury.
Until 1927, Cissie lived with her family at 4, Kingsbury Villas in Kings Road, Herne Bay, moving to Hyacinth, Queensbury Drive where they stayed until 1934. She attended Kings Road School, Herne Bay until Summer 1927 when she reached the age of 14 which, at that time, was the national school leaving age.
- Holidaymakers at Herne Bay, 1st January, 1890. A view looking out to sea from The Downs in Herne Bay. People are sitting on the hill listening to a band play in an open bandstand. A shelter stands to the right for protection against the harsher weather.
Herne Bay – A Popular Victorian and Edwardian Seaside Resort
- August 1921, Herne Bay, three young women in bathing suits enjoying themselves in the sea.
Herne Bay has been a thriving seaside resort since the 1830s with its pier being a particularly popular attraction and destination for tourists visiting the town. Building began on Herne Bay’s first pier, 4th July, 1831, opening in 1832. The pier was originally built to accommodate paddle steamers travelling between London, Margate and Ramsgate.
Unfortunately, the pier’s structure succumbed to storm and worm damage eventually being sold for scrap in 1871. A new wood and iron pier opened on August 27th, 1873, a theatre added in 1884 followed by extensive rebuilding work (completed in 1899) which created the town’s third pier complete with an electric tramway.
- Pier Pavilion, Herne Bay, Kent. This view, looking out to sea, shows the Pier Pavilion which was constructed in 1910 after a design competition was launched.
The local Council purchased the pier in 1909 and a Grand Pavilion opened in 1910. Unfortunately, the theatre which had been part of the second pier, was destroyed by fire in 1928 and the Grand Pavilion burned down in 1970. A new sports pavilion (unusual for a pier) opened in 1976. In 1978, storms destroyed the main neck. The pier-head still remains isolated out at sea and is visible from the front entrance of King’s Hall.
- Herne Bay Pier today, view at sunset.
Herne Bay – 1920s and 1930s
In the late 1920s, early 1930s, Herne Bay had limited industry except for health tourism. In the late 1920s, Herne Bay Council created the slogan, ‘our only industry is health-making’. It was also around this time that the Council managed to acquire bathing rights from Hampton Pier in the west to Beltinge in the east. This added to Herne Bay’s kudos as an established seaside resort. By 1931, Herne Bay’s resident population was approximately 14,533.
- Poster produced for South Eastern & Chatham Railway in conjunction with Chemins de Fer du Nord (French railways) to advertise Herne Bay as a healthy holiday destination to French tourists. January, 1925.
Out of season, Herne Bay must have seemed a very quiet place for an out-going teenage girl like Cissie. She was an attractive young woman with a talent for performing and trained at a local dance school, perhaps taught by Miss Myrtle Fox? (see photograph below from 1931) Cissie appeared in numerous dancing displays at the old Pier Theatre and elsewhere in Herne Bay. If she wished to further her career as a professional dancer, London would have been her only choice of destination.Embed from Getty Images
Miss Myrtle Fox, a dance instructor at a Herne Bay school practises one of her energetic ballet routines on the beach. February 16th, 1933.
1930s London Nightlife
- ‘London’s Famous Clubs And Cabarets – “Playtime At The Piccadilly” Aka Picadilly Revels’ (1933). British Pathé film. Uploaded to You Tube, 13.4.2014.
1930’s London nightlife was void of gambling clubs, strip joints or nude shows. Except for the Windmill Theatre which did provide variety nude shows and famously never closed, even during World War Two, opening in 1931, closing in 1964. London did, however, have a thriving cabaret scene. Charles B. Cochran (1872-1951), a Sussex born theatrical manager and impresario, ran one of the most famous cabarets, at the Trocadero restaurant.
- British Pathé film ‘Magic Nights’ (1932), filmed during an actual performance of Charles B. Cochran’s Cabaret Show at the Trocadero, London. Uploaded to You Tube 13.4.2014.
Cochran, the Cameron Mackintosh of his day, was responsible for discovering many new talents and making stars out of them. Some of his high-profile discoveries were Eleanora Duse, Anna Neagle, Gertude Lawrence, Noel Coward, Jessie Matthews and the fame-hungry Dolly Sisters (who notoriously helped Harry Gordon Selfridge (1858-1947) to squandered most of his fortune in the 1920s).
- Hungarian born dancers The Dolly Sisters, Jenny and Rosie famous for performing in revues on the twenties. They were discovered by theatre impresario, Charles B. Cochran. Image date, 1st January, 1923.
- British Pathé film ‘Playtime At The Piccadilly Hotel’ (1932). Uploaded to You Tube 13.4.2014.
Other London venues that had popular in-house cabarets included, The Casa Nuova Restaurant, Casani’s Club, The Cosmo Club, The Piccadilly Hotel and the Grosvenor House Hotel. In the early 1930s, Cissie began work as a professional dancer at Grosvenor House’s cabaret, although exact dates of her employment there are unknown.
- A line of chorus girls in the cabaret at the Piccadilly Hotel, London. January 1st, 1930.
- Follies girls who are appearing in the Grosvenor House cabaret walk their matching Follies dogs in a London park on 19th April 1935.
It wasn’t until the Summer of 1934 that Cissie met the Sultan of Johor whilst he was staying at the Grosvenor House Hotel. The hotel, on Park Lane, opened on 14th May, 1929 following extensive refurbishment. It was particularly popular with aristocrats, foreign dignitaries, entertainment stars and any wealthy individual who could afford the hefty room tariff. Everyone important in 1930’s society, stayed at the hotel.Embed from Getty Images
- From left to right, Lady Milbank, famous actor Charles Chaplin, Prince of Wales and Duchess of Sutherland attend the Charity ball for the benefit of British hospitals at Grosvenor House on November 19th, 1931.
The Grosvenor House Hotel was designed in a quintessential British style aimed predominantly at the American market. There were 472 bedrooms and it was the first hotel in London to have a bathroom in every bedroom and the first in Europe to have iced running water in every bathroom.
A six guinea suite at the Savoy Hotel in London. March 1st, 1939.
Other luxury London hotels also competing for wealthy guests at this time included: Claridges (1927, interior design by Basil Ionides (1884-1950)); the Savoy Hotel and Theatre (1929, Basil Ionides) and Strand Palace Hotel (1930, architect Oliver Bernard (1881-1939)).
The Sultan of Johor delighted in the comforts of London society. He liked high-living and loved the bright lights of both Paris and London. When in London, he would often lavish his vast income on dancing girls. However, Cissie was not the only theatrical to catch the Sultan’s eye. In the early 1900s, he fell in love with a former Gaiety girl called Nellie. In 1906, he brought Nellie £30,000 worth of jewels as well as a lease on a mansion at 34 Park Lane.
The Sultan was a regular guest at the Grosvenor Park Hotel, spending long periods of time there where he had his own hotel suite. The Sultan also spent his final years at the hotel, watching television in his suite. He died there on 18th May, 1959. In fact the Sultan’s father, Abu Baker (1833-1895), also died in a London hotel, Bailey’s in Kensington.
The Sultan of Johor (1873-1959)
Sultan Ibrahim was born on 17th September, 1873. His mother, Zubaida binti Abdullah (née Cecilia Catharina Lange 1849-1936) was of Danish Eurasion descent and the 2nd wife (m. 1870) of Abu Baker. Abu ruled Johor from 1862, as Maharaja from 1868 and as Sultan from 1886 until his death in 1895.
Sultan Ibrahim’s father, Abu Baker, was a self-confessed Anglophile who modelled his tastes and habits on that of a typical English gentleman. He was a well-known figure in diplomatic circles as well as London society and fostered close friendships with European aristocracy, including Queen Victoria (1819-1901).
Sultan Ibrahim’s father, Abu Baker as depicted in Vanity Fair, January 1st, 1891.
Abu had an allegiance to the British government and Crown but later in his life many civil servants considered him to be ‘pretentious’ and ‘an unreliable potentate.’ Some of this friction may have been caused by his long absences on overseas jaunts and often unfavourable attention he attracted from the foreign press about his private life.
Abu Baker enjoyed the company of women, particularly European women (a trait Ibrahim went on to inherit from his father). On one particular occasion in 1893/4, Abu was sued by Jenny Mighell from Brighton for breach of promise to marry. Abu had courted Miss Mighell under the name ‘Albert Baker’ but during the relationship she discovered ‘Albert Baker’s’ true identity.
Miss Mighell subsequently lodged papers with the British Court in which she declared that Abu/Albert had failed to make good on his promise of marriage. Her claims were dismissed on the grounds that Abu was not subject to British jurisdiction therefore could not be sued under its laws for breach of contract. All this negative publicity proved rather unsavoury for both Abu and the British government.
Sultan Ibrahim was educated privately in Britain and went on to inherit the sultanate in November 1895, aged 22. Like his father, Ibrahim enjoyed the company of women and loved British culture, excelling at cricket, tennis, horse riding and game hunting. Indeed, he even presented pairs of tigers to London Zoo and was a Fellow of Scotland’s Zoological Society.
In Malaya he kept kennels, stables and planted a garden of English roses. He was a bit of a ‘petrolhead’, pioneering motoring in his homeland and where he could often be seen whizzing along the road like Toad of Toad Hall!
Sultan Ibrahim remained faithful to Britain throughout his life and in 1935, on King George V’s (1865-1936) Silver Jubilee, he donated £500,000 towards British defence (nearly £32million in today’s money!). In his palace at Woodneuk in Malaya, he kept a life-size portrait of Queen Victoria (inherited from his father) as well as paintings of other members of the British royal family.
Although he resisted many aspects of British officialdom, he was a strong supporter of British relations. The British establishment also awarded him several honours including, an honorary GSMG (1916), an honorary GBE (1935) and in 1947 was made an honorary major-general in the British Army.
- Sultan Ibrahim of Johor, 15th October, 1930.
Ibrahim was an imposing figure, a large athletic man with features inherited from his Scandinavian grandfather and Malay and Bugis ancestors. As was common amongst Malayan men, the Sultan had gold teeth inset with small diamonds. The popular press often referred to the Sultan as the ‘Playboy of the East’. He loved life, lavish parties and world travel.
In 1938, Time magazine described Sultan Ibrahim as:
Wealthy, virile, tiger-hunting Sultan of Johor, who was an oriental potentate, is entitled to have at least one attractive British woman staying at his palace on approval. His Highness, while making a round-the-world tour in 1934, was photographed in Hollywood with Mae West, and was the guest in Washing of Mr and Mrs Franklin D. Roosevelt
(Time magazine, 8.8.1938)
Despite his playboy ways, the Sultan possessed an astute political brain, like his father. Like his father, he was prone to bouts of self-indulgence, unpredictability, arguing a lot with his sons. He had 4 sons (1 died in infancy) and one daughter.
Cissie Hill and The Sultan of Johor – Star-Crossed Lovers
Cissie met Sultan Ibrahim in the Summer of 1934 (although it may have been in September 1935, exact meeting dates are disputed) at the Grosvenor House Hotel whilst he was still married to his 5th wife, Sultana Helen Ibrahim.
Cissie was a striking young woman with platinum blonde hair. He brought Cissie expensive jewellery, built her houses and provided her with an income. The British establishment did not approve of Ibrahim’s relationship with the glamorous showgirl and tried to dissuade him from marrying her.
The couple managed to keep their relationship/affair relatively low-key until 1937, when the house in Herne Bay (Mayfair Court) that Sultan Ibrahim had brought Cissie, was broken into. Burglars stole a safe and £5,000 worth of jewels from the property, 2 pieces missing were inscribed “with all my love S.I. “[S.I. = Sultan Ibrahim].
Speculation began to mount that these valuables were possibly part of Cissie’s wedding jewellery. Amongst the stolen items were a Sunray tiara, ropes of exquisite pearls, collars of diamonds and emeralds, wide diamond bracelets of the highest quality.
The burglary hastened the end of Ibrahim’s marriage to Helen, newspapers around the world had a field-day! Finally, on 31st December, 1937 he was finally granted a divorce. Following his divorce from Helen he went to Ceylon and reacquainted with Cissie who was on holiday there with her mother. All 3 of them toured Sumatra and then flew to Singapore on 27th May, 1938, en-route to Johor.
Divorce in 1930s Britain
In 1930’s Britain, it was possible to divorce your spouse, however, the process was by no means easy. English law did not allow for divorce by mutual consent, but rather required proof of adultery, or violence by one party. If either parties ‘colluded’ in order to obtain their divorce, the couple would both be refused a divorce as punishment. Collusion was strictly prohibited and perjury a criminal offence.
However, couples desperate to go their separate ways did find a way around these strict regulations. Either one of the couple (usually but not always the man), pretended to commit adultery. The ‘adulterer’ would travel to a seaside resort for a ‘dirty weekend’. His/her companion would be either a friend or unattached individual, also in on the act.
Once the ‘couple’ arrived at their hotel they would make sure that they were seen by as many people as possible, particularly the hotel’s chambermaid when she brought to their room bed! This type of charade was known as gathering ‘hotel evidence’ and witnesses who had seen the couple together would be called to give evidence in court at the divorce trial.
Ibrahim did have to resort to such measures as this, his position as a high-ranking foreign dignitary meant he could set his own rules. The Sultan was able to divorce Helen in 1937 after first having passed a Special Marriage Dissolution Act by the Johor State Council in order to make the end of the marriage legal.
Mayfair Court, Herne Bay – A Deco Moderne treasure
- BBC Inside Out South East, ‘Sultan and The Showgirl’ documentary. Mayfair Court is featured 2 minutes 20 seconds in.
Sultan Ibrahim commissioned a stunning Deco Moderne house for Cissie and her parents at number 2 Clifftown Gardens, Westcliff, Herne Bay. Completed in 1935, ‘Mayfair Court’ still survives today (see documentary) with its blue and white colour scheme.
Cissie was executive owner of Mayfair Court and the two Deco houses at 139 and 141 Grand Drive. She also purchased a number of wide plots in Clifftown Gardens and Grand Drive. When it was first built, Mayfair Court also had a greenhouse (south-western corner) and a concrete tube air-raid shelter, possibly a Stanton shelter.
In 1937, steps and a bedroom were added over the garage to the south end of the property. Cissie lived at Mayfair Court, with her mother, until she died in 1940. Her father, George Hill, also lived there between 1935 and 1937.
1930s British Seaside Architecture
1930’s Britain was an exciting place to be if you were an architect. The pre-war housing boom was in full-swing and Mayfair Court was one of the new style of modern houses being built in Herne Bay. The south coast region of Britain had pockets of similar style, gleaming white villas.
These concrete and steel properties featured radius bay windows, glamorous balconies, nautical flourishes, Crittall window design, stepped stucco door/window surrounds, plenty of glass brick to encourage the sun and light to stream through and illuminated the interior. Some fine examples of this type of architecture exist in Kent (Cliftonville, Margate – Walpole Bay Hotel), Sussex (Grand Ocean Hotel, De La Warr Pavillion), Hampshire (Saltdean Lido and Hilsea Lido).
- Bathers at Saltdean Lido, East Sussex, c.1940.
- Dolores Del Rio (1905 – 1983) Hollywood film star and wife of MGM’s Art Director Cedric Gibbons (1893 – 1960). An interior view of their Deco Moderne house, 1935.
Wealthy, upper middle-class, aristocrats and upwardly mobile Britons, favoured Deco Moderne, over Art Deco or Modernist architecture. Art Deco, by the 1930s, had taken on so many variations it was almost unrecognisable from its original 1920s form. Early Art Deco commercial and domestic architecture was, for many traditionalists/fashionable sorts, a tad vulgar with its busy, geometrical shapes and bright colours. An excellent example of early 1930s commercial Art Deco architecture is The Hoover Building, Ealing, London.
It is no surprise that the Sultan should commission Mayfair Court to be designed in the stylish and glamorous Deco Moderne style. The overall effect is a convergence of both masculinity (polished interior surfaces, wooden finishes, monochromatic colour schemes) and femininity (sensuous curves both inside and out as well as elegance of form). Moderne was not as elitist or conservative as Modernism or the Modern style.
The Moderne managed to bridge the hiatus between masculine and feminine cultures. It was a style less purist and less radical but nonetheless fashionable and fun to live in. Many Deco Moderne villas built along the British coastline were commissioned as weekend or holiday homes. Further examples can be found in Essex (Silver End, 1927-8), Holland-on-Sea, Frinton-on-Sea, Hadleigh and Westcliff-on-Sea. Sandbooks in Poole also has some stunning examples of this style of architecture.
NB Mayfair Court is a private residence. Should you decide to visit the property, please remember to respect the owner’s privacy.
Cissie’s Tragic Death in 1940
Miss Hill brought an influence into my life which can never be replaced and which I never wish to forget.
(Sultan Ibrahim quoted in the Sunday Mirror, 10.11.1940)
The Battle of Britain began on 10th July, 1940 and lasted until 31st October, 1940. On the morning of Friday 11th October, 1940, Cissie drove to Canterbury to buy a wedding present for a friend. She first called to pick-up her friend, Miss Margaret (Peggy) K. Clark, at 10.15am.
Upon arrival in Canterbury the pair visited a shop in Burgate Street, Cissie then went to a furrier’s and her friend went on to another store. During an Air Raid, the furrier’s took a direct hit, whilst Cissie was looking at a rug, she was killed instantly. According to local newspaper reports on the bombings in Canterbury that day:
It landed on a well-known furrier’s store, the owner of which together with assistants and customers, were killed. In the bookshop next door, one of the lady partners lost her life. She and another woman were blown clean through into the next shop, that of a tailor, who with an assistant, saved themselves by crouching in a cupboard. The tailor was cut by flying glass. His daughter’s fate was for some time in doubt, but cries for help led rescuers to the cellar into which she had been trapped. She was extricated unhurt through the pavement grating.
(The Kentish Gazette, 19.10.1940)
The Sultan and Cissie’s mother identified her body which had been so badly injured that a positive identification was only able to be made because Cissie was wearing jewellery that the Sultan had given her.
Cissie’s funeral took place at St. John’s Church, Brunswick Square, prior to the interment at the Cemetery, Eddington. The Sultan did not attend the funeral but sent a beautiful floral tribute wreath which was laid in the grave with the coffin.
Good-natured, she [Cissie] gave support to charitable objects and other causes, and she was the means of bringing happiness to people in straitened circumstances.
(Herne Bay Press, 19.10.1940)
Had Cissie married the Sultan, she would have been his 6th wife and known as ‘Her Highness Lady Lydia Ibrahim, Sultanah of Johor’. Such was his grief, the Sultan rarely spoke of Cissie ever again. He moved on in his personal life extremely quickly (much to the distress of Cissie’s family!), marrying his 6th wife, Marcella Mendl, (1915-1982), a young Romanian Red Cross flag seller, before the end of 1940 following a whirlwind romance.
On her death, Cissie left an estate of £16,970 (approximately half a million pounds in today’s money). There was no will.
The 6 Official Wives of The Sultan of Johor
Sultan Ibrahim’s private life was peppered with scandal. He had 6 official wives, 4 of whom became Sultanahs of Johor and two of his wives were of European descent:
- 1st wife = Maimuna (1876-1909) – married in Singapore 5th October, 1892, aged 19;
- 2nd wife = Ruqaiya (1880-1926) – married in 1897, aged 24;
- 3rd wife = Hasana (b. 1877);
- 4th wife = Intan (d. 1958);
- 5th wife = Helen Bartholomew Wilson (1889-1978) Scottish. Mrs Wilson’s husband had been a physician in Johor (Dr William Brockie Wilson – a Malayan born Scot). Following a divorce from her doctor husband, she married the 57 year old Sultan in a London Registry followed by a religious ceremony at a Surrey mosque, 15th October, 1930. Their wedding reception was a small affair, 6 guests attending a private dinner at Grosvenor House Hotel. The Sultan insisted that Helen be recognised as Sultanah, she was known as Her Highness Sultanah Helen Ibrahim. In 1935 (the 40th year of his reign), he had his palace, Woodneuk (originally built by his father c.1875), completely rebuilt for his new wife. In the same year, he put her picture, together with his own on a Johor postage stamp as a gift to her on their fifth wedding anniversary. Because Helen had lived in Malaya she was familiar with its culture and customs. When she married the Sultan, she fully embraced life in Malaya, speaking conversational Malay and often seen outside the home which was unusual for ordinary Malay women. The couple were sufficiently prestigious to be invited to the coronation of King George VI (1895-1952) in 1937 (he also rode in the carriage procession at Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 with his 6th wife). The couple rode in the carriage procession to Westminster Abbey and stayed at the Grosvenor House Hotel. The Sultan divorced Helen on 31st October, 1937 in London. He agreed a divorce settlement of £5,000 per annum and she was allowed to keep her jewellery (not the crown jewels) which were worth £25,000;
Marriages between white, respectable, English women and members of overseas ruling families rarely attracted much criticism in the 1930s. Examples of inter-racial marriages in this period include: Mollie Elsip and Prince Ali Khan of Jaora (1930, Woking mosque), Elizabeth Louise Mackenzie and ‘Pathan Chieftain’, Syed Abdullah.
- The Sultan with his 5th wife, Mrs Helen Wilson, during a visit to Berlin in July/August, 1931.
- The Sultan of Johor with his 5th wife, Mrs Helen Wilson (1889-1977) whom he divorced on 31st December, 1937.
- 6th wife = Marcella Mendl (1915-1982) – a young Romanian Red Cross flag seller whom he met in 1940, whilst she was sheltering at the Grosvenor House Hotel during an Air Raid. Marcella converted to Islam and was known as Lady Marcella Ibrahim (1940–1955) and Her Highness Sultana Fawzia binti ‘Abdu’llah (1955–1982). He married her in 1940, when he was 67. In 1941, when Marcella and her new husband arrived for the first-time in Johor, the Daily Mercury (20.1.1941) described her thus: ‘Lady Marcella Ibrahim wore to arrive in Johor, navy jersey crepe dress with a tucked centre panel of turquoise blue, an off the face hat with heart-shaped crown, trimmed with matching blue. Diamond necklet. Black antelope bag and gloves, black ankle-strap shoes, ash-blonde hair, 2 soft rolls above each ear and curled softly on the nape of her neck.’ Marcella spoke German, Malay, French and English. She outlived the Sultan by 23 years and they had one daughter (b. 1950);
- British Pathé silent film ‘Sultan of Johor’s Birthday Party’ (1946). Showing the Sultan and his 6th and final wife, Sultanah Marcella, enjoying the ruler’s 73rd birthday (begin 1 min 10 secs in to see the couple). Uploaded to You Tube 13.4.2014.
Sultan of Johor’s 73rd birthday (17th September, 1946).