‘Triumph to tragedy’: The story of the first Australian-born queen

The first Australian-born queen may not be the one about to sit on the Danish throne.

The first Australian-born queen may not be the one about to sit on the Danish throne. Photo: Chris Kunz

The imminent crowning of Tasmanian-born Princess Mary as the Queen of Denmark is the talk of Australia. But did you know she’s not the first royal our country has produced?

At least nine Australian women have married into royal families over the years, with links to dynasties in countries such as Albania and Russia.

And the title of the first Australian-born queen could belong to Elsie Thompson.

Born in 1883, the Australian actor and comedian married India’s Maharaja of Tikari, Kumar Gopal Saran Narain Singh, in 1909; a maharajah is considered the equivalent of either a prince or king.

After the marriage, Thompson was given the title of ‘maharani’, the female equivalent to a maharajah.

The marriage between Elsie and the Maharaja of Tikari was the second for both of them. Photo: Chris Kunz 

Her great-nephew, New South Wales-based author and poet Chris Kunz, said he wanted to make sure Thompson’s story was not forgotten amidst all of the hubbub over the soon-to-be Queen Mary.

“When Princess Mary’s situation emerged, and [everyone started] saying Mary will be the first Australian-born queen, I thought … ‘[Elsie is] going to be buried again without a trace’,” he said.

Kunz dedicated years to researching his great-aunt’s extraordinary life, and has published a book containing his findings, Maharani: The First Australian Princess.

Despite the book’s title, Kunz is adamant Thompson was considered a queen, thanks to her marriage to the maharaja.

“It may not fit the Anglo-European view of the world, but technically, Elsie was the first Australian-born queen.”

From actress to queen

Her path to becoming a maharani in India was unconventional.

Thompson, also going by the stage name Elsie Forrest, married a 29-year-old American-born magician when she was 19 so her mother had no reason to chaperone her as she worked as an actor in Cape Town.

Kunz said Thompson later took off with German bodybuilder and showman Eugen Sandow – whose likeness was immortalised as a trophy for the Mr Olympia competition – and subsequently performed as part of his show in Kolkata, India, in 1904.

Elsie, pictured in 1901, led an exciting life travelling the world throughout her youth. Photo: Chris Kunz

It was there Thompson caught the eye of the Maharaja of Tikari; after Thompson finally divorced her first husband, the pair married a few years later, and she became the maharajah’s second wife.

“She was the sort of person, and this has been written about her, [that] when she walked into a room, she just captivated the whole room instantly.”

Kunz believes she was well-liked as a maharani, especially as she made sure to learn Hindustani – similar to how Crown Princess Mary learned Danish to ease her assimilation into her new home of Denmark.

But her life turned out to be far from a fairytale, with the couple splitting years later due to what Kunz thinks was interference from the manager of the maharajah’s estate, who was likely interested in the money that had been allocated to Thompson and her heirs in yearly annuities.

When the maharaja cut her off around 1921, Thompson took him to court and eventually won her case, but the maharajah never ended up paying the annuities he owed her.

Fairytale turned tragedy

Returning to Australia with a new lover around 1926 – despite never officially divorcing the maharajah, according to Kunz – Thompson’s life quickly went downhill.

A few years after her lover’s 1932 death, she was committed to a mental asylum, where she was subjected to electric shock treatments.

Thompson died in 1967 while still institutionalised.

She was buried in an unmarked grave until one of her nieces arranged for a plaque years later.

Kunz believes Thompson did not suffer mental health problems that were severe enough for her to be committed.

Instead, there were many people who could have benefitted from her being locked away for the last 18 years of her life, including the maharajah, her dead lover’s family who may have wanted to protect his inheritance, and others in Melbourne’s high society.

During her time as maharani, Elsie apparently did her best to fit in, from dressing the part to learning the local language. Photo: Chris Kunz

If true, this part of her story would not be unique; many sane women were sent to mental asylums without any evidence of insanity around the time.

Thompson’s parents and siblings did not fight for her release.

“Basically, [her family] threw their hands up and walked away, and I can’t really excuse them for doing that,” Kunz said.

“In those early days, you just didn’t live with somebody … in sin, and she returned to Australia to live with someone who she hadn’t married … things turned and … the poor woman was deserted by just about everybody but [two of her close friends].”

“It’s a very remarkable story from absolute triumph to tragedy.”

While her case might be extreme, Thompson is not alone in suffering after marrying into royalty, with several other Australian women also having difficulties.

Most notably, the 1915 marriage of Australian socialite Molly Fink to Raja Martanda Bhairav Tondaiman, then-ruler of the Indian princely-state of Pudukkottai, resulted in her being poisoned within the first few months of their marriage.

The near-death experience led the couple to depart India for Australia in 1916. Later, they lived in London, then Cannes; Raja Martanda gave up his claim to the throne and nominated his brother for the position in 1921.

Crown Princess Mary is likely the only living Australian-born royal, and her popularity in Denmark should ensure a happier reign than other  Australian women before her.

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