Sylvia Brett

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Sylvia Leonora
Ranee of Sarawak
Sylvia Brooke.jpg
Portrait by Paul Tanqueray, 1930
Queen consort of Sarawak
Tenure 24 May 1917 – 1 July 1946
Grand Master of The Most Excellent Order of the Star of Sarawak
Tenure 1 August 1941 – 1 July 1946
Born (1885-02-25)25 February 1885
No. 1, Tilney Street, Park Lane, Central London
Died 11 November 1971(1971-11-11) (aged 86)
Spouse Vyner of Sarawak
Issue Dayang Leonora Margaret Brooke, Countess of Inchcape
Dayang Elizabeth Brooke
Dayang Nancy Valerie Brooke
Full name
Sylvia Leonora Brett
House Brooke Dynasty (by marriage)
Brett Family
Father Reginald Brett, 2nd Viscount Esher
Mother Eleanor van de Weyer

Sylvia Leonora, Lady Brooke, Ranee of Sarawak, born The Hon. Sylvia Leonora Brett, (25 February 1885 – 11 November 1971), was an English aristocrat who became the consort to Sir Charles Vyner de Windt Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak, the last of the White Rajahs.

Early life[edit]

Brett was born at No. 1, Tilney Street, Park Lane,[1] Central London, the second daughter of Reginald Baliol Brett, the 2nd Viscount Esher, KCB. Her mother Eleanor was the third daughter of the Belgian politician and revolutionary Sylvain Van de Weyer and his wife Elizabeth, who was the only child of the great financier Joshua Bates of Barings Bank. Sylvia grew up at the family home, Orchard Lea, at Cranbourne in Winkfield parish in Berkshire. Her paternal grandmother Eugenie Meyer was French, born in Lyons.[2]

Brett's early life was somewhat troubled; by the age of 12 she had made two attempts at suicide, the first by eating rotten sardines, and the second by lying naked in the snow.[3]

Ranee of Sarawak[edit]

Brett married His Highness Rajah Vyner of Sarawak at St Peter's Church, Cranbourne, Berkshire, just before her 26th birthday on 21 February 1911. They first met in 1909 when she joined an all-female choral orchestra, established by Vyner's mother.[3] She first visited Sarawak in 1912,[3] where her husband (from 1917) ruled a 40,000-square-mile (100,000 km2) jungle kingdom on the northern side of Borneo with a population of 500,000, an ethnic mix of Chinese, Malays, and the headhunting Dayak. Brett was invested with the titles of Ranee of Sarawak on 24 May 1917 and Grand Master of The Most Illustrious Order of the Star of Sarawak on 1 August 1941.[1] Rajah Vyner died in 1963.

Brett was distraught that her daughter, Leonora, under Islamic law, could not take the throne; as a result she hatched various plots to blacken the name of the heir apparent, Anthony, the Rajah Muda.[3]

Richard Halliburton, the celebrated adventurer, met her as he circumnavigated the globe in 1932 with his pilot, Moye Stephens. She became the first woman in Sarawak to fly when the pair gave her a flight in their biplane, the Flying Carpet. Halliburton narrates an account of the visit in his book of the same name.

She was described by her brother as "a female Iago", and by the Colonial Office as "a dangerous woman, full of Machiavellian schemes to alter the succession, and spectacularly vulgar in her behaviour". She died in Tuffett Cottage, Sandy Lane, St James, Barbados, in 1971.[1]

Brett was the author of eleven books, including "Sylvia of Sarawak" and "Queen of the Head-Hunters" (1970).[1][3] Fort Sylvia in Kapit is named in her honour.[4] She also contributed short stories to publications such as John O'London's Weekly, for example "The Debt Collector", in the Summer Reading Number June 29, 1929.


Brett was survived by three daughters:

  • Dayang Leonora Margaret, Countess of Inchcape, wife of Kenneth Mackay, 2nd Earl of Inchcape (by whom she had a son, Lord Tanlaw, and a daughter), and later wife of Colonel Francis Parker Tompkins (by whom she had a son).[1]
  • Dayang Elizabeth, a RADA educated[1] singer and actress, wife of firstly Harry Roy (with whom she had a son,David Roy and daughter, Roberta Simpson),[1] secondly, Richard Vidmer until her death.[5]
  • Dayang Nancy Valerie, an actress, known for The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936 film),[6] wife of firstly, Robert Gregory, an American wrestler; secondly, José Pepi Cabarro – a Spanish businessman; thirdly, Andrew Aitken Macnair (one son, Stewart, born 1952); and fourthly, Memery Whyatt. She died in Florida.[1][7]


Brett's elder sister Dorothy Brett (1883–1977), known as Brett, went to the Slade School of Art in 1910 and became friends with painters Dora Carrington (1893-1932)) and Mark Gertler (1891–1939), and then with salon hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell (1873–1938) and the Bloomsbury group, living for a while at Garsington Manor. In 1924 she went to live on a mountain ranch near Taos, New Mexico, with D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda, partially fulfilling Lawrence's dream of establishing an artists' colony.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Royal Ark; Sarawak
  2. ^ Hignett, Sean: Brett, From Bloomsbury to New Mexico, A Biography; Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1984 p.10 'Dorothy Brett... became convinced that this camp follower [their grandmother, Eugenie] was a mistress of Napoleon and that the Emperor himself may have been her great-grandfather... almost certainly a family fancy'
  3. ^ a b c d e "The girl who would be queen", The Daily Telegraph, 2/6/2007
  4. ^ Tun Jugah Foundation – Fort Sylvia Archived 22 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
  5. ^ Princess Pearl (aka Elizabeth Vyner Brooke) – IMDb
  6. ^ Princess Baba, at IMDB
  7. ^ The Peerage

Further reading[edit]

  • Maurice V. Brett (ed.), Journals and Letters of Reginald Viscount Esher, Vol I: 1870–1903, London, 1934.
  • Margaret Brooke, My Life in Sarawak, 1913.
  • Sylvia of Sarawak: an autobiography, 1936.
  • Sylvia, Lady Brooke, Queen of the Headhunters, 1970.
  • Philip Eade, Sylvia, Queen Of The Headhunters: An Outrageous Englishwoman And Her Lost Kingdom, (352 pages), Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007. Lynne Truss, reviewed Eade's book in The Sunday Times, 17 June 2007.
  • Sean Hignett, Brett: From Bloomsbury to New Mexico, A Biography, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1984.
  • R.H.W. Reece, The Name of Brooke: The End of White Rajah Rule in Sarawak, 1993.
  • S. Runciman, The White Rajahs: A History of Sarawak from 1841 to 1946, Cambridge University Press, 1960

External links[edit]

Sylvia Brett
Brooke family
Born: 25 February 1885 Died: 11 November 1971
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Ranee of Sarawak
Monarchy abolished