Australia is a beautiful country with beautiful people. This is a story of three Melbourne women who became princesses and queens by virtue of matrimony. Two of them Molly Fink and Joan Falkiner were born in Melbourne whereas Sydney born Elsie Caroline Thompson spent her final years in Melbourne and is buried at New Cheltenham Cemetery.
Elsie Caroline Thompson
Born to James Thompson and Mary Anne Roffey in Sydney on 2nd Aug 1883, Elsie Caroline Thompson dreamed of becoming a stage actress. Originally a member of a Sydney amateur organization, she made her debut as a child performer in Mr. Hawtrey’s production of ‘A Message from Mars.” After touring with the company, Elsie joined Lee’s Entertainers, a visiting American vaudeville- company, and with Arthur Nelson presented a remarkably clever song and dance turn. She also played under J.C Williamson’s “The Dictator.”
In 1903, she joined a theatrical company at Cape Town connected with Eugene Sandow, the strongman, under the Name of Elsie Forrest, and married George Stillwell, a variety artist in the same company, which came to Calcutta. In 1903, Stillwell went to Sydney, but she remained behind. But destiny had different plans for her. Elsie Caroline visited India for a stage performance in 1904. When the performance company she worked for staged an opening show in Calcutta, two Maharajas at the audience proposed to her. One of them was Gopal Saran Narain Singh, the Maharajah of Tikari. Later she went to Sydney and obtained a divorce in 1906 and returned to Calcutta.
On Saturday, 31 Mar 1906, ‘’ The Newsletter: an Australian Paper for Australian People’ ’published,
Last week, Elsie Caroline Stillwell, formerly Thompson, got a divorce from George Edwin Stillwell, the handkerchief manipulator, on the grounds of his misconduct at Manilla.
Elsie tied the knot with Maharaja of Tikari as his second wife in 1909.
Her parents were against the wedding as intercontinental weddings were not usual on those days. The couple had no children as she had some issues with childbearing. She converted to Hinduism with a new name, Sita Devi and became the queen of Tikari. In 1913, the Maharaja executed a deed settling £200 a month on her for life, and in 1917, when she was in England, £1000 on a year on heirs on perpetuity.
In 1917, Maharani visited Sydney and attended a patriotic ball in Town Hall. The gorgeousness of dress and the richness of her jewels made men gasp and women envious. She was reputed to have worn £75,000 (value in 1917) worth of diamonds.
But the marriage didn’t last long due to Elsie’s infidelity, and the couple divorced in 1921.The allowance was stopped subsequently, and she bought a legal action against the king in Indian courts. In 1926, Elsie departed India with her boyfriend Ivan Jones to settle in Melbourne.
At the court, the lawyers representing Maharaja pleaded that the marriage was not lawful in accordance with Hindu Law and alleged that the bond he had executed in favor of her were executed under the influence of charms and the erroneous belief that she was his lawful wife. In April 1928, the judges have found that she is entitled to an annuity of £1100 in perpetuity and £1600 in arrears. On 20th July 1928, Maharaja appealed at the Privy council the highest court in British Empire. In November 1931, Privy Council rejected Maharaja’s appeal and upheld the High Court’s decision.
Elsie lived with Ivan at Hawthorn and few years after his death, she was admitted at Royal Park Mental asylum and later at Sunbury lunatic asylum for manic depressive insanity. On 2nd November 1962, Elsie was transferred to Kew Mental Hospital.
Elsie died on 22nd November 1967 in Melbourne, and she was buried at the Cheltenham Cemetery. Her tomb stone reads,
Maharani of Tikari
Born Elsie Caroline daughter of James and Mary Ann Thompson
1883 to 1967
Fink, Esme Mary Sorrett
Molly Fink was born to Wolfe Fink, a barrister and Shakespearean scholar and his wife Elizabeth on 15 September 1894 at Malvern in Melbourne, Australia. At the age of fifteen, Molly Fink was expelled from Lauriston Girls’ School for misbehavior which ended her studies.
Tragedy struck the family before the First World War when Wolfe Fink died of heart attack. In dire financial straits, Elizabeth rented an apartment in Hotel Majestic Mansions to which the family moved.
In March 1915, Martanda Bhairava Tondaiman, the Raja of Pudukkottai came to Australia on a visit and checked in at the Hotel Majestic Mansions where he met Molly Fink at the dining room. He was smitten by Molly Fink and subsequently accompanied them when they returned to Melbourne. Five months later, Martanda proposed to her, and she accepted. The couple got engaged on 6 August 1915 and married on 10 August 1915 at the registrar’s office in Melbourne. The newlywed couple went to San Francisco in August 1915 to see the Panama Exhibition. Martanda returned to India with his Australian bride in October 1915.
Molly spent five months in India suffering ostracism by the British officialdom and even, surviving a poisoning attempt. On 22 November 1915, Martanda presented his new Maharani to his subjects at a lavish public ceremony in Pudukkottai. However, though a warm welcome was accorded by the people of Pudukkottai state, the government of British India refused to grant her official recognition. Afflicted by a sudden, mysterious bout of vomiting and diarrhoea soon after her arrival in Pudukkottai, government medical examiner found traces of oleander, a traditional poison in her vomitus. For her safety, Martanda left India with Molly in 1916.
Their first son Martanda Sydney Tondaiman was born on 22 July 1916. To get official recognition for his wife and son, the family moved to London in 1919, but the British Government refused to recognize his wife and son. Martanda renounced his own claim to the throne and nominated his brother Rajagopala Tondaiman as the Raja of Pudukkottai, Martanda settled for an annual pension.
Martanda and Molly lived in Cannes from 1922 to 1927. Martanda died at Paris on 28 May 1928 at the age of fifty-three. Molly wanted his body to be shipped to India and cremated with full state honors, but the Government of India refused permission. Eventually, the body was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium in London as per Hindu rites.
Following Martanda’s death, Molly’s finances began to dwindle. She moved back to London where she lived with her son, Sydney. Aga Khan III proposed to her soon after Martanda’s death, but she rejected his proposal. In her later years, Molly remained aloof and began drinking heavily. She was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 1967. Molly died in Cannes on 22 November 1967 at the age of seventy-three.
Joan Falkiner was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1915, in a wealthy family engaged in breeding Merino sheep.
Joan Falkiner met Taley Muhammed Khan at Black Forest in Germany in 1937, where he was seeking treatment for a painful polo injury. Taley was the Nawab of the Palanpur State, a protectorate of the British Empire under the administration of the British Raj.
When he and Joan met, she was 19 and he was 55. The two subsequently became engaged to be married, though the relationship was objected to by Joan’s family. For her parents, Taley Muhammed Khan, though a Nawab of a princely state, was unsuitable for being a Muslim who is already married once with a 20-year-old son. Moreover, there was an age gap of 36 years.
Palanpur, over which the Nawab rules, had an area of 1766 square miles, a population of about 250,000, and a state revenue of about £82,000 a year.
In 1939 Joan eloped and traveled to India to marry Taley. She converted to Islam and was married in an Islamic ceremony. she was denied the title of Begum by the British Raj, which disapproved of marriages between Anglo women and Indian rulers. Joan was also not invited by the British to appear beside her husband during public functions.
On 15th August 1947, India became independent. On the night of 14 August 1947, the last Viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten, decided to confer a title of nobility on Joan, allowing her to claim the title of ‘Her Highness’ in British eyes. But the Princely state of Palanpur was dissolved after the independence of India.
Joan and Taley lived together until the latter died of cancer in 1957. Joan settled in Southern France after her husband’s death. She died in 2003.