By Sharon O’Connor

The Dulwich Society local history group receives many enquiries for information, often prompted by articles reprinted from the Journal on its website. The following enquiry produced surprising results.

My mother was born in 1918 and grew up in Dulwich (I may have the address somewhere)

She used to tell the story of having gone to a party as a young girl where there was another girl in a very fine dress who she was told was a Russian princess.

She had no more detail than that and is no longer with us.

Can you throw any light on who this might have been?

He was a Russian prince and has been represented on TV recently, not in War and Peace but in Mr Selfridge. He claimed to be the fifth man ever to fly a powered aircraft. He lived in Dulwich but spent a fair amount of his time in court. He was Prince Serge Vincent Constantinovitch de Bolotoff, born in 1889 in St Petersburg, the son of Princess Marie Wiasemsky and Constantine de Bolotoff. In 1908 Serge took a sub-lease of Kingswood House in Dulwich and moved in with his mother, sister and two brothers together with seven live-in servants (including three ‘hospital nurses’), an unspecified number of outdoor servants and two gardeners who lived at the lodge.

The move into Kingswood House had a whiff of scandal about it. The de Bolotoffs sub-leased the house from the estate of John Lawson Johnston, the inventor of Bovril, but a lawsuit was brought in connection with the transaction by William Thomas Stead, a good friend of the de Bolotoffs and the newspaper editor said by Roy Jenkins to be the most sensational figure in 19th century journalism. As a journalist, Stead crusaded against child prostitution, famously ‘buying’ 13-year-old Eliza Armstrong to expose child trafficking and leading to the raising of the age of consent from 13 to 16. His articles about child poverty in London led George Bernard Shaw to write Pygmalion (naming his heroine ‘Eliza’). As a pacifist, Stead was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and was rumoured to have been a contender for it when he drowned on the Titanic in 1912. As a spiritualist, Stead and his friend Arthur Conan Doyle were duped into believing various psychics who were later found to be frauds. Stead himself was alleged to have contacted his daughter ten years after he drowned on the Titanic.

In 1911 Stead took Arthur Parks, a Brighton butcher, to court. Stead claimed the Dowager Empress of Russia had asked him to take an interest in Princess Marie Wiasemsky. His interest extended to lending her approximately £7,000. Parks and his father had already lent her around £10,000. Either Parks or Stead had lent her £500 as the deposit for Kingswood House but on the day of completion the Princess was not able to pay the £1,100 balance. Through various bills of accommodation and other financial instruments the money was produced and the transaction went through. Kingswood House then seems to have belonged to Prince Serge though his name never appears on any of the leases or sub-leases on Kingswood granted by the Dulwich Estate. Stead and Parks both claimed the other had agreed to pay the completion balance of £1,100 and Stead sued Parks to recover it. At no stage does anyone seem to think that either Princess Marie or Prince Serge should contribute to the house purchase. The judge said that the Princess was ‘a lady with great powers of inducement’ and found for Mr Parks.

Princess Marie appeared regularly in the law reports for recovery of debt as did Prince Serge, except that each time someone sued him he claimed he had borrowed the money on his mother’s behalf and that it should be recovered from her. When his solicitor tried to recover his fees de Bolotoff denied liability, saying the solicitor had agreed to be paid once some property in St Petersburg was realised. The St Petersburg property was mortgaged ‘for a very large sum’ (£300,000) but was actually ‘a piece of vacant ground’. Yes, said de Bolotoff’s KC, but if properly developed it could be worth £800,000. The judge intervened: ‘The son was keeping the mother and the mother was keeping the son’? Yes. ‘But the son had an aeroplane?’ ‘Yes, but that was a company’. The judge found for the solicitor saying it was unlikely anyone would agree to terms whereby it was highly improbable they would ever be paid.

Princess Marie owed astronomical amounts: at least £60,000 in the UK and mortgages of £300,000 on her properties in Russia, which may in any case have belonged to a family trust. One court case claimed she had seventeen servants and four cars at Kingswood, another that she owed the Tsar £100,000. Another court found that Prince Serge’s affairs ‘were as embarrassing as his mother’s.

In 1911 the de Bolotoffs were being sued by, amongst others, a Mr Paterson. Paterson had first sued Princess Marie the previous year for debt recovery, claiming she was living in ‘wealthy circumstances at a house called Kingswood at Dulwich and was entitled to considerable property in Russia’. An order was made for payment of the debt in monthly instalments of £750 which was ignored so Paterson took the case back to court. Before it could be heard her family declared the Princess insane, moved her to a private asylum and put her affairs into the hands of the receiver of the Master in Lunacy. The family said Kingswood was not actually hers, there was no income from Russia and that creditors should apply to the receiver for payment ‘in the usual way’. Paterson told the court he was ‘doubtful about the matter’ and held signed affidavits from her servants that she was ‘simply acting and pretending’ and was deceiving the doctors in order to avoid paying her debts and on top of all that she was ‘addicted to drink’. In addition, he claimed that Kingswood did belong to her and not to her son and that ‘money was being received from Russia and elsewhere by her son which really belonged to her’. The judge made a committal order (i.e. an order to send the Princess to prison) but let it lie so long as she was detained as insane. If and when she was discharged from the asylum the order would be issued.

When William Dederich, a wealthy City businessman acquired the Kingswood lease, he first had to arrange for de Bolotoff and his retinue to be evicted. Dederich’s grand-daughter, Peggy Gunst, recalled her mother telling her there was an airplane in the grounds when the de Bolotoffs lived there.

After leaving Kingswood House the de Bolotoff entourage moved across the road to ‘Eversleigh’, and then moved around a lot, living in Brighton, Sevenoaks and Wimbledon, amongst others. In 1914 when they lived in Kippington Court, a grand house set in 8 acres in Sevenoaks, the Sheriff ordered a sale of all furniture and effects. The sale was later postponed, presumably the de Bolotoffs had cleared the debt which had prompted the bailiffs.

Serge’s great passion was aeronautics, then in its infancy. His first airplane was a triplane built to his specification by the Voisin Brothers of Paris, where he had lived before coming to England. Despite being an entrant in the Daily Mail’s competition to be the first to fly the English Channel, the plane never flew and he withdrew from the race.

During WW1 Serge established an aeronautical company at Combe Bank near Sevenoaks funded by the industrialist, Robert Mond, whose firm later became ICI. At Combe Bank, de Bolotoff allegedly built planes similar to the one the Voisin brothers built for him, though records are sketchy and none of them seems to have flown. With his younger brother, George, he was also involved in manufacturing and selling munitions to the Russian government, but after the war the business closed down. George held onto much of the stock however and in 1922 was heavily fined for possessing a large number of weapons, including machine guns, and over 4,000 rounds of ammunition at the de Bolotoff home in Wimbledon; George went bankrupt two years later. Serge turned his attention from triplanes to biplanes, still funded by Mond, and built the de Bolotoff SDEB 14 at Combe Bank. It too didn’t fly and the de Bolotoff company collapsed with heavy debts.

Serge’s fortunes should have improved with his marriage in August 1918 to Rosalie Selfridge, daughter of the American-born department-store owner Harry Selfridge. Rosalie’s mother had died a few months before so according to the Times the wedding was celebrated quietly but other newspapers reported the priests in golden vestments, the quartet of beautiful male voices and the golden crowns held above the couple’s heads which were so heavy they required relays of men to support them. The wedding, all in Russian, was held in the chapel of the Russian Embassy, though they also had a civil ceremony at Marylebone Register Office. We know the de Bolotoffs were in society as Princess Marie’s name appears in the court circular but they must also have been on good terms with the Russian government to hold the wedding at the embassy. The de Bolotoffs honeymooned in the South of France and returned to London planning to divide their time between London and the US, though this may have been curtailed by finances. A few years later Selfridge was himself reduced to living with his daughter “and her fake Russian prince”, as an acquaintance described de Bolotoff. It is not clear whether he was a fake Russian, a fake prince, or just a fake. The three of them lived together in a “cheap rented apartment” and when Selfridge died he left £1,544 to Rosalie which seems to have been his whole estate.

De Bolotoff continued his aviation exploits including starting an aircraft business which made only one plane before failing. He tried to fly from Moscow to New York as a co-pilot in Land of the Soviets but the plane crash-landed near Riga.

In 1939 Princess Wiasemsky died when the de Bolotoff siblings, (though not Serge and Rosalie) were living in Wimbledon Park House with Barbara Perglova, their housekeeper. This was a grand villa, later shorn of 1,200 of its acres to make Wimbledon Park. Their friend William Thomas Stead lived in the same road. During WW2 Nicholas was an aero engine inspector and George was an engineer at the Air Ministry. Marie was described as ‘incapacitated’, though there were no live-in nurses as there had been at Kingswood. Serge de Bolotoff died in 1955 aged 66 and Rosalie in 1977; they are buried together in Putney Vale cemetery. George de Bolotoff died in Yeovil 1944, Marie in Surrey in 1971 and Nicholas in 1982 in Plymouth.