Bertie Sheldrake was an East Dulwich pickle manufacturer who converted to Islam and became king of a far-flung Islamic republic before returning to London and settling back into obscurity.

Bertie William Sheldrake was born in 1888, the grandson of Gosling Mullander Sheldrake who had started a pickle business, his factory was behind his house in Albany Road, Walworth. Bertie’s father, William, worked for the firm as a commercial traveller and with his wife, May, brought up their son and three daughters in various houses in the area, always close to the factory (which later moved to Cobourg Road), sometimes sharing with another family, as was common then.

Bertie was baptised at St Luke’s, Peckham and brought up ‘in strict conformity’ to the Church of England, he was a child chorister for seven years. However, the challenges of two friends, an agnostic and a Catholic, led him to question his faith. Reading the works of free thinkers like Charles Bradlaugh and studying eastern religions gradually brought him to Islam, before he had ever met a ‘Musselman’ as he once called Muslims. In 1904, aged 16, he was accepted into the Islamic faith by Abdullah Suhrawardy, taking the name Khalid. He was an active Muslim networker from the start, founding the Young England Islamic Society in 1906 aged just 18. His faith caused friction in his wider family, in 1912 he said that he was ‘at variance with my nearest and dearest’.

Khalid began work as a commercial traveller in the family business but it wasn’t long before he became a journalist, writing enormous numbers of articles on Islam and serving as editor of The Minaret. He was a provocative writer: his suggestion that Napoleon had flirted with conversion to Islam caused uproar in both England and France. He began using his family fortune to promote his new faith, helping to launch the journals ‘Britain and India’ and the ‘Muslim News Journal’.

World War One

In WW1 Sheldrake enlisted with friends and fellow converts Omar Richardson and Frank Mohammed Crabtree. Khalid was 5ft 9½in, tall at a time when the average soldier was 5ft 6in and was described as a good physical specimen. Although he had served as a territorial before the war he was not sent overseas: the converts were not trusted and were carefully watched by the authorities, with Crabtree in particular being singled out for a range of slurs including that his conversion made him ‘morally and politically undesirable’ and ‘an English Muhammadan crank’.

In 1917, aged 29, Khalid married the 20- year-old Victoria Catherine Sybil Gilbert. She also converted to Islam, and took the name Ghazia.. They lived in Tarbert Road and Melbourne Grove before moving to Fenwick Road in 1920 where they lived until the early 1930s and it was here that they became parents. In 1922, when their son Rashid was born, two Muslim clerics visited Mrs Sheldrake in East Dulwich, ‘their turbans provided some interest in the neighbourhood’. They whispered the Muslim call to prayer into the baby’s ear after which the proud father was taken off to dinner at the Afghan embassy. Their other son, Kemal, was born in 1926. Around this time Khalid was awarded an honorary Doctor of Literature, possibly from Ecuador, and was henceforth referred to as Dr Sheldrake.

Sheldrake became one of the foremost English Muslims, among whom there were often arguments and schisms. He supported the Woking Muslim Mission but then broke away from it to found the Western Islamic Association. He was fluent in Esperanto, a language he believed had the capacity to ‘break down the barriers of colour, creed and caste’ and translated the Koran into it. He helped finance a mosque in Southfields and also converted part of his house in Fenwick Road into a mosque, called Masjid-el-Dulwich. In 1928 he conducted the funeral service of Sayaid Ali, an elephant keeper at London Zoo who had been murdered in his bed by a rival elephant keeper. Dr Sheldrake took the service at Waterloo station, after which the coffin was taken on the Necropolis Railway to the Muslim section of Brookwood Cemetery.

We do not know exactly why Khalid converted though that didn’t stop press speculation which became the source of many enduring inaccuracies about him. He was supposed to have been an Irish-French nobleman called Count de la Force. He wasn’t; his family came from Suffolk and his grandfather was a self-made man. He was called the ‘Sheik of British Muslims’ though no such title existed. He was supposed to have converted to gain several wives, again untrue, Ghazia was his only wife until his dying day. At the time there was a widespread aesthetic appreciation for ‘Arabia’ that gave rise to Orientalism and to some highly publicised conversions but Sheldrake was a relatively early convert, before most of these, and it could simply have been that he chose Islam as the religion that suited him best.

A mid-air conversion

Dr Sheldrake himself performed many high-profile conversions, such as that of Gladys Milton Palmer. Gladys was the Quaker daughter of Sir Walter Palmer of the Huntley & Palmer biscuit empire, and the wife of Bertram Brooke, the (Protestant) son of the ‘White Rajah’ of Sarawak. Gladys, who had previously converted to Catholicism and Christian Science, had firm ideas about how her conversion to Islam should go. She wanted it performed ‘on no earthly territory’ so in 1932 she chartered a 42-seat airliner to fly from Croydon Airport to Paris; Khalid performed the ceremony over the English Channel. Gladys wore a fur coat and carried a gold copy of the Koran, Khalid wore his customary red fez. Gladys took the name Khair ul Nissa. Lord Headley, President of the British Muslim Society, commented: ‘When a woman of such importance selects an aeroplane for so serious a ceremony it is, to say the least, unfortunate’.

Sheldrake toured the country talking about Islam and supporting Muslims, even visiting Yemeni seamen who had settled in South Shields and Hull since the 1860s, later taking their case to the Home Office and the House of Commons. He also travelled abroad, with lecture tours of Morocco and India boosting his reputation further afield.

By 1928 there were three mosques in London: in Woking, Southfields and East Dulwich and in the same year Sheldrake expressed disappointment at the slow progress of British Islam since his own conversion. He said that in 1906 there were 300 adherents but that this had only increased to 600 by 1928. He blamed sectarianism among British Muslims (division to which he contributed) and thought it had caused such inertia that the London Central Mosque, first announced in 1906, was unlikely to be completed before the year 2000 (it was finished in 1977). Still, he concluded, there were some positives: ‘We do not conduct our campaigns on the lines of the Mormons’.

The English Emir of Kashgar

Sheldrake’s fame was growing beyond these shores when, in what is now Xinjiang, the Uygur people were looking for independence from their Chinese masters. In 1933 the Islamic Republic of East Turkestan (known as ETR) was announced, with Kashgar its capital and a population of about 2 million. When China and Russia ignored the fledgling Islamist republic a deputation to Gaynesford Road in Forest Hill, where the Sheldrakes now lived, fell on more fertile ground. The men from Kashgar took tea, admired Mrs Sheldrake’s marigolds and dahlias and asked: would Dr Sheldrake become king of the Islamic kingdom, his wife queen, and would they run ETR? Sheldrake said they would. He set off east almost immediately, giving lectures on Islam along the way in the Philippines, Borneo, Singapore and Hong Kong and telling a few people of his impending kingship but swearing them to secrecy. By 1934 he had reached Peking where he was closely watched by the Chinese authorities. He officially accepted the throne and the title His Majesty King Khalid of Islamestan, later saying, ‘I had the choice of becoming a monarch or refusing these earnest and poor people, who might lose heart and become desperate, or fall the prey of some political adventurer’. Ghazia went out to join him, having had her royal robes made by a Sydenham dressmaker. Together they travelled the 4,000km to Kashgar by camel train, accompanied by two metal bathtubs Ghazia had bought in Croydon.

The press had a field day: calling him ‘The Pickle King of Tartary’, saying ‘Dr Sheldrake is heading into 57 varieties of trouble’ and that he had ‘deserted the ancestral pickle vats of 295 Albany Road’. None of the area’s geopolitical complexities were reported, or that the previous ruler had been beheaded, or that there were other contenders for the throne, some of them warlords backed by China or Russia. The story was treated as a jolly jape and many newspapers didn’t even use a photo of Sheldrake, an unknown Muslim in a fez was used instead.

In June 1934 the Sheldrakes arrived in their kingdom to find that events had overtaken them and the Russians, fearful of a potential British annexation of land so close to India, had toppled the fledgling republic. King Khalid and Queen Ghazia headed straight to Hyderabad where Sheldrake announced, ‘I am not ready to be the pawn of any political game … I prefer to be an absentee king. I am awaiting events before actually proceeding to my kingdom’.

The Sheldrakes never did proceed to their kingdom. They returned to Forest Hill and later moved to Harrow where Khalid died in 1947; Ghazia in 1978. There were no obituaries, no mention in the press. The name of Khalid Sheldrake appears to have been forgotten until recently, when scholars have given him his rightful place in the history of 20th century British Islam.