Born in 1880, Sydney’s childhood was, as her daughters were apt to say, pathos personified. Her mother, Jessica, died after an ill-advised medical abortion, and at the age of eight, Sydney was left in the care of her eccentric father, Thomas Gibson Bowles, known as Tap. A keen sailor, Tap kept his two daughters with him whilst his two sons attended school. There was an eight-month voyage to the Middle East on his 150-ton sailing schooner Nereid, where the motherless children weathered terrifying storms and were left to their own devices after their governess, Rita Shell, known as Tello, became incapacitated with seasickness. On their homeward journey, the schooner was almost wrecked in a hurricane off the coast of Syria when, against the advice of the port authorities in Alexandria, Tap set sail after he learned Tello was having an affair with a young naval officer. Returning to England in time for the election campaigns, Tap, a Conservative back-bench MP, bought a second yacht, the Hoyden, and made it his temporary home and campaign headquarters. During the parliamentary recess, the children joined their father for a sailing holiday to France. Aside from their sailing trips, Tap took his children on holidays to a rented house on Deeside, where he set up a Turkish bath in an empty dog kennel.
Tello did not accompany the children on their latter voyages, and for some years she disappeared from their lives. One day, Sydney spied Tello, accompanied by four young boys, walking down Sloane Street. It occurred to her that the eldest boy was the product of the affair in Alexandria, and she learned the other three were Tap’s children. He had set her up in a house and made her editor of The Lady, the magazine Tap bought after the death of his wife. Sydney wondered why Tap never married Tello, and concluded it must have been because the eldest boy was not his.
Tap’s unique ideas on parenting were the norm for Sydney and her siblings. The nursery rules would influence the way she raised her own seven children; they were to adhere to a strict mosaic diet, they were not to be forced to eat anything they disliked, windows were to be left open six inches all year round, and after their bath they were to be rinsed with clean water. He did not believe in spoiling the children and they were not given Christmas or birthday presents; he reminded them that he ‘housed, fed, watered, clothed and educated them and that was enough’. Unlike men of his generation, he was an attentive father, and when in London, he and Sydney rode everyday in Rotten Row. He sent the girls to skating lessons at the Prince’s Club, the ice-rink at Montpelier Square, where Sydney fell in love with her instructor, Henning Grenander, a Swedish champion figure-skater. ‘I would do almost anything he asked me,’ she wrote in her diary. ‘I would let him call me Sydney, I would even let him kiss me….’
At the age of fourteen, Tap appointed Sydney as housekeeper of his London townhouse at 25 Lowndes Square, whereupon she developed a lifelong mistrust of male servants; she found them drunken and unreliable. The butlers and footmen were amused by this tall, angular young girl dressed in a thick serge sailor suit. The sailor suit was worn everyday, and Tap thought it appropriate for all occasions, until a lady friend suggested he should buy his eighteen-year-old daughter some decent clothes befitting her age and her social standing.
In 1894, still aged fourteen, Sydney accompanied her father to visit his good friend, Lord Redesdale, Algernon Bertram ‘Bertie’ Mitford, at his country house, Batsford. It was at Batsford that she first met Lord Redesdale’s son, David Freeman-Mitford, who, at the age of seventeen, was classically handsome with bright blue eyes, blonde hair and a tanned complexion. Dressed smartly in an old brown velveteen keeper’s jacket, he stood in the vast library with his back to the fire, and one foot casually resting on the fender. At that moment, Sydney wrote in an unpublished memoir, she lost her heart.
The infatuation with David was short-lived, for he went off to Ceylon hoping to earn a fortune as a tea-planter. Sydney herself was busy growing up, and four years later she came out as a debutante. Highly intelligent and possessing domestic capabilities, rare for a woman of her standing, there was talk of sending her to Girton, the women’s college at Cambridge. However, for an unknown reason, the idea was not pursued. There were romantic relationships too, the first ending in tragedy when the young man was killed in the Boer War.
David’s tea-planting adventure was unsuccessful, and having spent less than four years in India, he returned home and enlisted in the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers to fight in the Boer War. In 1902, he was badly injured in his chest and lost a lung. Nursed for four days in a field hospital, he dictated a love letter, to be given to Sydney in the event of his death. When it was evident he would live, he was carried back to camp in a bullock cart, his wound swarming with maggots.
Having lost a boyfriend in the war, Sydney was sympathetic to David, whom she had sporadic contact with throughout the years. After he was invalided home, their meetings became more frequent, and David fell in love with her. However, Sydney was involved with another young man, Edward ‘Jimmy’ Meade, whose proposal she almost accepted, but the relationship ended in 1903 when she discovered he was a womaniser.
There were whispers in society that Sydney accepted David’s proposal on the rebound from Jimmy Meade. They were married in 1904, ten years after Sydney first saw him at Batsford. And, as they say, the rest is history…